New Civilization News: Framing, Cognitive Symmetry and Enlightenment    
 Framing, Cognitive Symmetry and Enlightenment10 comments
picture 24 Sep 2004 @ 23:01, by Flemming Funch

Have you stopped beating your wife?
We all know that kind of trick question. If you accept the question at all, whatever you answer, you've admitted to something you didn't want to admit to. Doesn't have to be a question either.
Today the captain is sober
Which, however correct it might be, of course squarely plants in one's mind the idea that there probably are plenty of days when he isn't sober. Whether that is true or not, it is now stuck in our minds. The magic of framing.

Now, Seb Paquet mentioned an article, Cognitive Symmetry-Breaking by Nicholas Williams. It talks about the paradoxical thing that happens the moment we overlay any kind of model on a system. You know, any kind of labels or categories or ordering. The surprising thing is that we start losing information the moment we describe things and try to slot it into a certain expected pattern. Well, it shouldn't really be surprising, but it is somewhat counter-intuitive to the person on the street. Or to most academics, for that matter. It seems like we're wiser when we can describe a system and say what it IS. And, yes, there's a lot to say for the practicality of being able to label things, but the truth of the matter is that we inevitably are losing information by applying any kind of model to a system.

Reality, before it is described and ordered, is infinite. Everything is possible, but nothing is finite yet. As the author describes it, there's symmetry there, because nothing is determined. Everything about the system is what is is, and is equally right.

But we humans are not very comfortable with something that is infinite and undescribable. It is chaos, it is confusing and seems meaningless. So we tend to break the symmetry by describing it, and by starting to be discriminating, and pick out certain pieces of reality as being more important or interesting or known than others. And we think that the system is now more understood and ordered. Really, the system didn't change. We just (over-)simplified it in some abstract way that we could manage to fit into our limited mind. And we left out a helluva lot of information. We practiced cognitive symmetry-breaking.

Cognitive symmetry-breaking allows us to feel right about a whole bunch of things. And it also starts trapping us in all sorts of faulty thinking patterns. Black and white thinking. We start thinking the map is the territory. We start beliving our limited models to be more real than reality itself. Because we have a lot of trouble facing the real thing, so it is easier to pretend it doesn't exist.

At this point in our evolution, we can't really live without labeling things, and categorizing things, and being discriminating about what we do and what we don't do. We couldn't talk with each other if we didn't. We couldn't convey knowledge. We couldn't stay alive if we didn't know what to eat and what to do. And it seems to be our innate ability to use abstract thinking to do these things. Abstract thinking, which we think is really cool and advanced, but which really amounts to reducing an infinite universe to a cartoon format we can understand.

Nothing terribly wrong with that. It seems to be in part what we're here to do. But there's a balance to find there. Specifically, thinks start going wrong when we forget the simple fact that we're abstracting (simplifying, representing as symbols) a vast and mysterious universe into something that is at best a vaguely workable model. And when we forget that, we open the door to just about any mental illness or cognitive fallacy there is. Fundamentalism and our tendency towards hurting and killing each other for stupid abstract reasons - it all comes from the same error.

Now, because we have gotten into the habit of thinking of things that can be described as real, we're often easy prey for the type of manipulation by framing I started by mentioning. We very easily grab on to the implicit frame we're presented with, just because it seems more comfortable than the great unknown of "everything else". So if you look at CNN's website, and they present you with a multiple-choice poll like:

a. Are you satisfied with the progress of the war in Iraq?
b. Should we send more troups?

a lot of people are not going to notice that there's no place to indicate your preference for any of all the other possibilities, or for rejecting the choice, and that you get trapped in a certain mindset without necessarily noticing.

OK, so the awareness of basic things like that really ought to be something we learn in kindergarten. But the opposite is what is taking place. We get cemented into certain fixed models and perceptions, more and more thoroughly.

It can be reversed of course, but not easily. Going from comfy certainty of abstract banalities towards the scarey uncertainty of the universe as it is - that's in many ways difficult and counter-intuitive. And there's no help to get from some easy system that takes you through the steps.

It is not for nothing that the state of Enlightenment often is described exactly as the result of letting go of all these little mental and emotional falsehoods and needless categorizations we're holding on to. You know, going back to allowing the universe to be what it is, without having to have any preference as regards to what happens. Simply being keenly present with what is.

Well, there's a balance somewhere, I'm sure. Where we can harness all the advantages of abstract thinking, without getting lost in any of the insanities of its misuse. Starts with a continual awareness, I think. Of the difference between the universe and a picture in our head.


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10 comments

25 Sep 2004 @ 04:53 by qmal : Think outside without the box
This is why like your way and the NCN in general there's just something awesome to learn here everyday and I am not sure I learned by intention or if they're presented to me by reason or if they just are. So you're saying that if we define any process we've taken away from the ability to understand it and therefore in order to understand any thing we can neither abstract nor define it as it appears in and of relevance to the object. So it basically doesn't do any good to frame an understanding of any thing because that will prevent us from understanding. So then I must also apologize for framing you sir as an evolutionary triggers man and NCN as an evolutionary trigger, so sorry about that. The Cognitive Symmetry-Breaking by Nicholas Williams link was a major lesson in expandable thinking and both this log entry and that article are brilliant pieces of logic. I'll have to go back and read again, perhaps the George Lakoff article you put in a few logs back as well. Perhaps I should be framing things much differently. One of the big problems with words and thinking it out side the box. Or creating a box to think out side of. This is why I like telepathy so much as a thinking tool; there seems to be no box or limit that is not expandable or even there. It's kind of open and apparently doesn't frame the same as words. Thanks for this one.  


25 Sep 2004 @ 13:35 by Riccardo Cambiassi @213.26.168.187 : More on breaking simmetry
Hi Ming!
Helluva great post!!!
I agree, framing and looking for simplified patterns (reducing reality to the picture we have in our head), is what keeps us away from Enlightenment, and even just from a happy life ;)
About breaking cognitive-simmetry, it's the same or, better, the complementary of cognitive dissonance, maybe you'd be interested in it.
Thanks again  



25 Sep 2004 @ 16:21 by lugon @80.58.19.44 : not deframing but reframing?
Great post, Ming. Thanks.
When talking to each other we use words and concepts, and at least in many situations I currently see no way of avoiding that.

So maybe one needed trick is to at least realise that our current framing (or the framing we're being kindly offered by CNN or whoever) is but one alternative framing.

Knowing we can reframe, and knowing how to do it, is not the same as deframing, but at least it's better than accepting whatever current frame as The Frame.

Others have suggested we might not treat words as boxes, but rather as sticks on the ground: reality is somewhat closer to stick A and not as close to stick B.
This would reframe the whole reframing issue?  



25 Sep 2004 @ 18:03 by ming : Fingers
I'd say words are like a pointing finger. They point to some phenomenon. They also carry with them certain references and contexts and suggest certain filters for interpreting what we're looking at.

It is of course very useful to be able to point something out, and look at it together, and refer to it later. It would be safe to say we couldn't survive without it. Even the most enlightened human can't do without being able to distinguish certain things from other things.

So, no, it is of course not bad in itself to try to define things. Wouldn't be any point is being here talking if we couldn't.

But it is when we forget that we're merely pointing that we get in trouble. When we start thinking that the finger pointing to the moon IS the moon. Which is what we're doing a lot of the time, even if we'd tend towards denying it.

The antidote is not to stop defining things, but to always be aware of the fact that we're doing it. That we're abstracting. That we're pointing to something that is always more complex than that which we use to point with.

Always being aware of the frame is, I think, another way of putting it. And being ready to reframe at any time. Or deframe, if the frame isn't serving us.

Always knowing that the word is never the thing. The frame is never THE frame.  



25 Sep 2004 @ 18:41 by jstarrs : Burroughs described words &
language as 'a greasy currency' and 'a virus'.
Maybe clinging to concepts is due to fear of the Great Unknown, it makes our world easier but smaller...
If the way phenomena & persons appear to us are not they way they actually exist, then whether we look at a large mysterious universe or a confining concept, then we still haven't grasped it.  



27 Sep 2004 @ 06:38 by Lion Kimbro @216.254.10.144 : We need to be able to live both worlds.
We need to be able to both sign, and to see things as they are.

When we get into worlds that we can have no direct vision of, and have to rely almost entirely on sign- that's when things get really out of whack, it seems to me.  



27 Sep 2004 @ 06:52 by qmal : Well I didn't get it
Alas Ala ha ha I didn't get it first, I'm not sure I get it now, but I was out shovelling some sand from the end of the drive to the other, moving sand from one place, uphill to another and then realizing that the same sand was simply flowing back to the same place as it started from, each time it rained. So in my above comment all I did was reiterate and reframe regardless of intention. By choice of word I still stayed in the frame and thus still delivered the same message. I wrote in another blog here about names and I indeed do botch , names, labels, titles, intention, reality itself, awareness and many other things quite constantly. But there's always something to learn in just about anything that happens or more probably everything that happens. Remembering the learned and or the done at the right time is quite difficult. So how about sorry for any labels, names or other descriptions that suggested that formulation and its boundaries. Or does any reference still keep you in the frame?.... well thanks Ming, , Jstarr and others.  


27 Sep 2004 @ 07:54 by jstarrs : Well, we're bound, I guess...
..by the limitations of labels, names & other descriptions - as long as we don't take them for the real thing. Whatever that is!
"But there's always something to learn in just about anything that happens or more probably everything that happens."
Great phrase....  



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