On Fictions and Doing What is Right

Part I – How Do You Know What Is Right?

The Serenity Prayer asks for “the courage to change the things you can, the serenity to accept the things you cannot, and the wisdom to know the difference”. The brilliance of this little prayer is the last line – “the wisdom to know the difference.” So often, in our lives, it feels like we are ships in a storm, being tossed around by forces beyond our control. Of course, this is true. Operating in an environment is to be operating with forces beyond our control. And operating in an environment does not excuse us from action, or from pursuing what is right. But how do we know what is right?

If we knew what was right all of the time, if things were labeled “good” and “bad” on their surface, then life would be simple. Ironically, in our world, things that are labeled good and bad are usually the most dangerous items. So we are left to fend for ourselves in a murky land.

Here is a small example, how does one choose between going to a job to provide for their families and spending time with their families? Should someone strive to meet the unrealistic obligations of their boss who is trying to meet the unrealistic obligations of their boss – and therefore miss their daughter’s soccer game? Or put family first and tell the boss they can’t meet the deadline? Or should they be modern and appear in person at the soccer game but be absent in spirit as they work from their phone or laptop?

This is a small everyday example. Life is full of these questions and that is what is so wonderful about the serenity prayer. In just a few words, it acknowledges that we are confronted with choices, we have power, but we do not control the outcome.

Part II – Role Models and Right Actions

Meditations by Marcus Aurelius begins with a list of individuals Marcus finds exceptional for some reason. He takes time, and makes those reasons explicit. Marcus is curious and trying to discover what is worth emulating. We can do the same in our lives and we are not limited to real people, we can also study the characters of history and fictional worlds. Lately, I have been reading the Kingsbridge series (Pillars of the Earth) by Ken Follett. This series is filled with characters who are confronted with challenging circumstances for which there does not seem to be a good or right answer – and yet, they persevere.

Pillars of the Earth is set in England in the 1100’s. I am not a scholar of this period, so I will have to take Ken Follett’s work as tonally accurate – which is to say violent, difficult, and brutal. Parts of the this book are truly difficult to read. Visualizing them in your mind is disturbing, but at the same time nothing feels out of the realm of possibility for every day life in that period. And it is in that time that the character of Philip the Prior is raised. (Spoilers ahead)

Philip’s parents are brutally murdered when he is a young boy and he is raised by the church. His life is given to God. But throughout the book, Philip never thinks that things are out of his hands completely. He believes he can influence things and that is his mission – that is the reason God put him on the earth. This is a very different stance from the often used, “why does God let bad things happen?” A question which might be reworded as “why do people lose sight of God and do bad things?” But each question has its merits.

The division between the self and a higher power is something I have always struggled to accept. As a framework for living, devotion to a higher calling is powerful as a life force. There is often a resolve, a fortitude, within those who feel called by God that individuals serving their own aims and goals cannot muster. But what if you do not hear the call? What does a higher calling mean?

In our modern times, it is hard to find comfort in religion, Marx’s “opiate of the masses”. The world is increasingly secularized. Popular culture does not revolve around conversations about God’s desires for us – but rather – whatever feels good or whatever you want right now. For the most part we live in a secular era for the senses.

The world was not so different in the past. People have always had the same interests, comfort and food, sex and power. Prior Philip is a character who is able to inhabit this morally challenging secular world without losing his spiritual compass. He undertakes big projects, that require business acumen and economic skill such as the ability to forecast wool prices and rights to quarries. He does not simply sit in a room meditating and humming. But how does he know what is right?

Part III – Moral Systems

How do we know what is right? Can’t we ask someone? Why would someone else know and we would not? Perhaps they have lived longer, read more, experienced more, but we all know that no one can experience enough to know the answers to the complex questions we face. Said a different way, at what age are you a sage?

Only we can answer the questions for ourselves. And in order to answer the questions for ourselves – we must reference something. Some touch stone. A center.

To paraphrase David Foster Wallace, in his famous “This is Water” speech, – there is a secret in day-to-day existence. We all worship. There is no such thing as not worshiping – and the only case for worshiping something like God, Allah, or the Wiccan mother goddess is pretty much anything else will eat you alive. If money is where you place your focus, you will never have enough. If you focus on your looks, you will die a thousand deaths before you go.

You do not need to believe in God, Allah or the Wiccan Mother Goddess to ask questions. To get outside your own head. And once you get outside your own head, temptations that can lead to terrible life changing consequences can seem small.

The people who are able to do this, who can see the bigger picture and realize that their own hunger, pain, or self-interest are not the only thing at play are the people we call heroes. They are all over the world and wear all sorts of different clothes, sometimes they look like superheroes on the big screen, sometimes they are your family members getting up before dawn to advance some project that will help put some food on the table, sometimes it is a monk who wants to rebuild a church in a fictional work. Philip’s ability to bring God into the world, to make hard things better for people, to build something beautiful where there was previously something ugly – showcases how to separate right from wrong.

#20 on the Top 20 Psychologists of the 20th Century – George A. Miller

The biggest takeaway from George A. Miller is that while we are limited in the amount of information we can take in, and limited in the duration of time that we can store that information, we can increase the overall amount of information by chunking groups of items together. This is one of the pillars of learning and a powerful tool when used consciously.

George A. Miller is number 20 on the Top Psychologists of the Twentieth Century, and while I was not familiar with the name, I was familiar with the research. I first learned about the 7 item limit of our short term memory in elementary school. But they never taught me the more important principle of chunking – or recoding. Recoding is the idea that you can nest pieces of information together in groups and hold those groups in your short term memory. So while you are still limited to seven pieces of information (plus or minus two) you have in effect hacked the system to hold much more. We are all familiar with this idea, you can hold your telephone number and your address in mind simultaneously, while each of those items is longer than 7 “bits”.

It is remarkable that given Miller’s impact on the landscape of science – and “discovering” such a powerful and practical tool as chunking – I can hardly find anything out about the man himself. It doesn’t help that he has a common name – and it is shared with the successful director of Mad Max. Miller’s books do not seem popular today, as evidenced by the most bare Amazon page I have seen.

After the notable achievement that was “The Magic Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two”, Miller went on to do important work in Psycholinguistics with Noam Chomsky. As well as co-found the Harvard Center for Cognitive Studies, which “institutionalized the revolution and launched the field of cognitive science. Today the study of the human mind is among the most exciting frontiers of science. Its practical applications include the design of software, the diagnosis of neurological disease, and the formation of public policy, and its theories have revolutionized our understanding of ancient problems such as consciousness, free will, and human nature.” 1

Over time, Miller’s interests turned away from the Markov process on which Shannon’s analysis of language was based – and he turned toward Chomsky and the Syntactic Theory. The study of linguistics which was having its own revolution. I want to do more reading around this area because, as Miller state’s, “that language must be a key element of any theory of psychology because it is a means of making private or internal psychological phenomena observable, measurable, and public.”2

The key strategic decision Miller made was to break away from the popular Behavioristic framework of the day. This led to the proposal to switch from a stimulus response view of the world to what they labeled “TOTE” (test, operate, test, exit). This reminds me of Boyd’s OODA (Observe, Orient, Decide, Act) loop. This structure is more dynamic and allows for productive interaction with the wicked world of complexity.

Miller wrote a history of the “Cognitive Revolutions”. It is elegant and to the point at just 3 pages. It is frustrating trying to get a sense of the man from my google searches. I want to know more about him – but perhaps that is just something I have been classically conditioned to expect in our story-saturated culture. He appears to have led an interesting life – attending University of Alabama in the 40s and then Harvard for his Ph.D. He served in the Army Signal Corps during WWII.

The closest I was able to get to a sense of who he was came from reading a collection of memories from former students and colleagues. Like much of Miller’s own writing, this snippet reflects the brevity with which they communicate. “George Miller taught me how to make hollandaise. In the mid-1970s, George was a professor at Rockefeller University, where I was a graduate student in philosophy. George lived in Princeton, but had an apartment in RU’s faculty and student housing building where he stayed during the week. As a graduate student, I was always hungry and looking for a meal. George invited me to dinner at his place. He served nice wine, steak, and asparagus with hollandaise.” 3