Perspectives, Models, the Future

Perspectives, models, and the future. I’m thinking this evening about mental models, and how they are constantly created and curated by our most personal perspectives, and how it is these models that in the end arbitrate our futures.

I was walking along a path through the woods this evening about thirty minutes before sunset, when I happened to look up. Not just up ahead, but up directly overhead. I noted, as anyone watching surely would, that it is uncommon for us to look straight up very often. The path was clear and straight for a bit, so as I walked along I threw my head back and just gazed upwards for awhile, hoping all the time that someone didn’t come walking around the bend to see this crazy person walking, staring straight up. I was looking up some forty or fifty feet, up to the treetops leaning out over the path, touched occasionally by the lowering sun. And then something new happened as I walked along. Lower branches, maybe fifteen or twenty feet above, began sliding by in-between, contrasting, moving, accenting the vision above in a new way, thrown into action by my movement. It struck me that this perspective was so markedly different from how we usually walk. I was seeing something not often seen. I was giving my mind the opportunity to draw connections from relationships to which I was not normally exposed, but relationships which speak a truth about the world.

We almost always walk with our eyes ahead.

And for good reason. We know well that is right where we’re going. And being smart, practical creatures, we focus our attention on what is before us. Maybe we cast a hesitating glance at the edges of the path, occasionally divert to watch a bird fly by, stop sometimes to watch a particularly beautiful sunset. But we live the majority of our lives eyes-forward. We only rarely appreciate old truths from new angles.

So what? What is so important about perspective? Per spect [ive] is the vision belonging to each of us, the particular ways we look and observe the world. It is our visions that inform our mental models of the world. We have each one of us models of how the world operates—models of how things work, what things look like, how people act and react. It is these models that our minds play upon. Our minds are constantly running simulations based on the framework of these models. It is through these simulations that we have some capability to “see” into the future, if only very shallowly and rather imperfectly. But it is from these simulations and visions of potential alternate future states that our conscious selves are able to evaluate and make decisions.

We have the ability to predict the future.

And not only one future, but many possible futures, and then based on the gift of free will, to choose the best among them, at least among those things under our control. This is the foundation of every decision: choosing one from among the many simulated potential futures our minds have generated, throwing away all the other potential futures, and then taking the calculated steps to get from here to there.

That’s even what the word decide means—from the Latin de- (off) and caedere (cut). When we make a decision, we’re choosing to cut off all other possible futures.

But these simulations, these predictions, are based entirely on mental models constructed from our perspectives—what we see. If our models do not reflect the reality of the world our simulations will be skewed. If the models used to construct our internal simulations are skewed, our conclusions and thereby decisions will be hopelessly out of step with the reality of the world, the reality of how the future is likely to unfold.

We will be making decisions based on incorrect models of how the world works, or even incorrect models of our own behavior. The future depends on these models. The future depends on the perspectives with which we choose to inform our minds. Knowledge is the food of the mind—the most foundational element needed by it to survive. Viewing things from new perspectives is critical to informing ourselves as to the reality of how things are.

There is eternal truth hidden within pages yet unwritten. It is content to lie there forever, for truth is not concerned with time. But we are. And the future depends on our effort to find it.

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