The Path of Most Resistance
Introduction to Context-Dependencies
A recurring theme purveying across my last few essays is that much of our world and the profound experiences in life are context dependent. Opinions are only valid in certain contexts, pleasure itself is context dependent, and humor creates indigestion in the wrong context. Let’s dive deeper into our relationship with context dependencies and their impact on you and me.
Context blindness is a term used by psychologists to describe an inability to recognize the influence of context caused by Autism Disorder. I don’t think it’s fair to ascribe context blindness to our Autistic friends when we can see it in everyone who applies black and white principles to a gray world. Further, a more subtle form of context blindness exists in just about everyone: the recognition of information in one context but not another. Let’s call this similar phenomenon context tunnel vision since it’s not a complete blindness but the self-imposed blinders limit your vision nonetheless.
Context blindness is a general inability to recognize that information is only valid in certain contexts while context tunnel vision is an inability to recognize how information applies to different contexts. As the names imply, blindness is when you close your eyes to all contexts, tunnel vision is when you only see within one or two contexts.
Let’s look at some examples:
Examples of context blindness: tribalism, “violence is always wrong,” “exercise is always good”
Examples of context tunnel vision: overweight cardiologists, intellectual yet idiots, clinical psychologists addicted to painkillers
Context clarity is the antithesis of these pathologies: when you recognize where information resides within all contexts without assuming it to be true in all contexts. This might seem fundamentally contradictory, so let’s take a deeper dive into the path to context clarity.
Overcoming Context Blindness
Restoring some level of vision is the first step to context clarity, so our first step is to overcome context blindness. Any semblance of context vision stems from an understanding that the validity of information and your beliefs depend on context.
How many times have you heard a story from a Jack about how some Jill wronged them? You think Jill is rotten to the core until you hear her perspective. From Jill’s perspective, Jack was acting out. In isolation, both of their stories make sense and they are both right. It’s only after you’ve heard both opposing stories that you can piece together your opinion of the truth.
A useful heuristic could be Schrödinger’s Storyteller: Until you’ve heard two opposing stories about the same situation, both stories are right. Only after you have the full context of a situation can you make a fair assessment of the truth.
Now, this is not to say truth itself is context dependent. People frequently point to the image below to argue that truth is entirely dependent on perspective. A drip of nuance is required here. It’s not that truth is context dependent. Rather, it is our perception of the truth that is context dependent. I have no way of knowing whether there is an objective truth, nor have I thought much about it, nor have I any interest to explore it at this time. So let’s focus on how our perception of the truth is impacted by context.
Both viewers have a valid point about the 6/9 in isolation. But context clues might influence what you think. If you zoomed out and saw it between a five and a seven, the validity of Mr. Niner’s opinion might drop in your mind. If you spoke with the author of that 6/9 and he told you that he drew a six, Mr. Niner can go pound sand for all you care. The point is, as you uncover the surrounding context, it influences what opinions and information you see as valid.
There is a word for people who fail to recognize that the validity of the information they have is context dependent: naive.
Naive people stumble across information and assume it is true in every context. They apply black and white principles to a gray world. Naive adult children dip their little fingers in the small pool of information available to them and run around putting their grubby fingers all over the place, making a mess of the information they were given. In contrast, a knowledgeable person recognizes information for what it is and keeps that information in its appropriate place instead of excitedly spreading it all over.
If you stumble across information and you assume it is true in every context, you are naïve. If you see its truth in some contexts but not all, that information has become knowledge.
Knowledge is not necessarily useful though. There are many such cases of those with knowledge but suffer from context tunnel vision, particularly around its practicality.
For knowledge to be practical, its observer must adhere to a two-step process:
Experimentation in the present
Time for reflection on these experiences
A simple concept, but for knowledge to be practical, it generally stems from experiences in the real world. Even if the information is observed in a theoretical context, real world application makes it practical. This requires an observant eye and a curiosity for something new. Those that are observant and curious make great scientists for good reason: they naturally find themselves experimenting in their day-to-day lives.
Of course, an experiment is only useful if the results are evaluated, so practical knowledge comes to those that create idle time for reflection. Practical knowledge lives in a balance between complete engagement with the real world through experimentation and complete disengagement with the real world through reflection. The appropriate balance is another example of Nassim Taleb’s barbell theory: balance by living at the poles rather than the middle. The middle ground is the land of intellectual yet idiots (IYIs) - those that live in their own world of theories rather than the real world.
Psychology students that let their boyfriends manipulate them, calculus teachers that couldn’t tell you how derivatives are practically useful, and the local bar’s minimum-wage-earning trivia champs are examples of IYIs. They recognize concepts in theory but fail to recognize them in the real world - when they are most useful. Or even worse, some IYIs acquire knowledge for the sake of appearing smart, but have nowhere to apply them besides trivia night and the moment their desperate search for external validation ruins a good party.
As afore-implied, intent shapes whether the information we process contributes to theoretical knowledge or practical knowledge. The pursuit of knowledge for the sake of vanity or some metric like grade point average? This is barren soil for the growth of practical knowledge. Pursuing information out of curiosity or necessity is a little more fertile for practicality, but it requires active experimentation in the real world to carry any validity. Learning in a classroom and applying it to the real world is like learning baseball and trying to play cricket. You have a decent foundation, but extra effort is required to translate your knowledge to this new application. The serendipitous observation of information that is later carefully contemplated is ripe for a cornucopia of practical knowledge.
Generally speaking, knowledge comes from an insulated context of abstraction and over-simplicity while practical knowledge stems from the complicated context of the real world.
The Illusion of Expertise
What about experts? We turn to them when we need help understanding something. They too fall prey to the blinders of context tunnel vision. Since most experts spend the majority of their time pursuing knowledge in hyper niche fields of study, they are arguably more susceptible to context tunnel vision than your average person.
Specialized experts are great for specialized problems. The danger arises in two situations:
When the expert assumes that their specialized knowledge applies to a different field of study with a different context
When that specialized problem operates within a system beyond their domain of expertise
The Marxist economist’s opinion on capitalist business economics doesn’t carry much more validity than the average schmuck on the street. Danger lurks when the Marxist expert thinks his opinion holds validity in separate but similar niche domains; when he fails to recognize that the context is different and his expertise may not apply.
Businesses in a capitalist society operate within a much different context than the state-owned means of production. It becomes more dangerous when people conflate the two and assume he has greater agency on business economics. The Marxist economist is an expert on Marxist economics, not business economics, yet most hear economics and assume the specialized economist knows about all economics. It’s like assuming a talented writer in English is also a talented writer in Latin - they adhere to completely different grammatical rules.
The existence of specialized physicians says quite a bit about the concept of expertise in general. We see a paradox because those who become experts spend much of their life specializing in one hyper niche context, yet information always operates within a larger system. How can someone become an expert if they only understand how a topic applies to a niche context, but not how it impacts the whole system? A cardiologist can help you with specific heart problems, but what if that heart problem originated from a neurological condition? He can only help you with this heart problem if he knows enough about the overarching system outside his specialized field of study. You can’t understand or even fully appreciate a painting by inspecting it with a magnifying glass. Only if you’ve looked at the big picture first, can the magnifying glass augment your appreciation of the painting.
Perhaps expertise is a false idol that leads to an illusion of knowledge, yet a blindness to the big picture. Perhaps true expertise is impossible because context is what gives life to all concepts, knowledge, and understanding; and like the sea, context swirls about in turbulence, taking different concepts to different places in time and space. Without these eddies of context, we are stuck in a dead pool of abstraction.
Expertise is like filling a bottle with seawater and calling it the sea. All we can do in the pursuit of knowledge is marvel at what we do witness and abide by the lyrical wisdom of our contemporary Socrates - Machine Gun Kelly, “All I know is I don’t know nothing.”
Without the wisdom to understand the fundamentals of the overarching system or the ability to recognize the limits of your specialized knowledge, expertise is a farce.
Hippocrates or Hypocrites?
While we can assume we know nothing, things aren’t so bleak - we can have wisdom. The wise have general rules of thumb derived from personal experience and the fundamentals that information operates within. Knowledge aims to codify information into law, while wisdom recognizes the fluidity of truth caused by the turbulence of context.
A word may come to mind when we discuss examples of context tunnel vision like our overweight heart specialist: hypocrite. Hypocrisy is when wisdom is recognized in most contexts but not when it conflicts with your self-interest. A wise cardiologist can treat your ailments with sound judgment, but if he fails to apply any of his wisdom to himself, he is a hypocrite.
However, there is a fine line between hypocrisy and holding context-dependent beliefs. In politics, many call their political enemies hypocrites when such situations are commonly the result of operating from different personal moral contexts, hence varying the validity of different beliefs. An example of this phenomenon is the belief in bodily autonomy in the case of abortion but not in forced inoculations and vice versa.
On the contrary, weaponizing information to support an ego, worldview, or political agenda is a sign of hypocrisy and moral bankruptcy. Of course the key here is the recognition of your true beliefs versus the beliefs that serve as means to protect your ego - a rabbit hole worth exploring another day.
There is a word for those enlightened with wisdom who actively apply it to themselves: principled. The transition from wisdom to principle comes from a nebulous buzzword: self-awareness. Principles arise when you have the self-awareness to recognize how wisdom fits into your personal context. Without self-awareness, you easily slip into hypocrisy. With it, you have an operating system that drives your worldview, moral compass, and direction in life. In other words, self-awareness is the last step in restoring context vision and living a principled life.
This essay proposes a simplistic roadmap from context blindness to context clarity. Any time new information presents itself, you are left with a conundrum: integrate it into your existing belief system or adapt your beliefs to the new information. Context tunnel vision creeps into view when you continually integrate new information into your existing belief system without bending to life’s different contexts. Each branch of context tunnel vision takes the rigid approach to protect what’s already there.
In other words, our understanding of context is dependent on our egos or existing identity. We tend to oversee context when our worldview is black and white, but inject context where nuance serves our selfish desires. Context tunnel vision makes us think we are more pious than we are, it makes us think we are smarter than we are, and it validates our existing beliefs. Perhaps a better definition of context tunnel vision is the manipulation of context to protect the ego or existing identity.
Of course, this all means the road to context clarity is the path of most resistance. With all of this said, the moral of this paper is a humble case for empathy. Search for context when new information runs contrary to your ego and try to recognize an outsider’s perspective when the context is favorable to your ego.
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