Models: Gotchas

Science is about making models. But models involve inclusion and exclusion. In the process, a particular model may leave out something vitally important. Then you’re in trouble.

One interesting example of this comes from geology. A hundred years ago, geological models left out all effects from living organisms. Geologists felt that the influence of life-forms was simply too small to have any noticeable impact. The biosphere was restricted to a very small slice of the planet, from a short distance up into the atmosphere to a short distance down into the crust. Life just didn’t make much difference to deep geological processes.


We now know that life can have huge impacts on the planet. You’re probably thinking about human-made climate change, but that’s small potatoes compared to the Great Oxygenation event. 2.4 billion years ago, the rise of photosynthesizing algae completely changed the composition of Earth’s atmosphere, taking it from about 3% oxygen to our current 21%. Amongst many other effects, this oxygenation basically rusted all the iron exposed on Earth’s surface. We can tell all this from banded iron formations formed around that time. Before the event, there was plenty of raw iron in surface rocks. Afterward, you could only find iron oxides.

That’s just one example of the potential problems with models. Another example is the financial crisis that started around 2007. Economic models of the time simply ignored the possibility that banks and bank-like institutions (like hedge funds) might universally act like ass-hats: taking crazy risks and using dodgy investment vehicles to squeeze money out of the public, on the assumption that if everything blew up, world governments would bail them out.

Oops again.

It’s easy to say, “I’d be smarter than that,” but one of the basic principles of Buddhism is that we aren’t. The Buddhist claim is that we construct deluded models of ourselves. We say, “I’m this type of person,” or, “I always do this,” when the truth is that we change from moment to moment. We’re different around our parents than we are with our friends; we’re different at work than we are at home; we’re different when it’s sunny than when it’s raining. We can be furious one minute, then laughing the next. We may have general tendencies, but even those tendencies change with time and circumstance.

The Buddhist word for this is anatta: no permanent self. Whatever you think you are, you aren’t like that all the time. Any self-image you have is incomplete, and often dead wrong.

Ideally, you should give up trying to characterize your self and thinking of your self as a single unified thing. Instead, just try to be aware of what you are from moment to moment. Such awareness takes a ton of practice; it’s the reason that Buddhists meditate.

Eventually, you’ll recognize that you really don’t stay the same, not even over short periods of time. But that’s okay. Nothing stays the same. Be kind to yourself and others, and don’t try to grasp at any particular identity. It won’t work and it’ll just make you miserable.

[Picture of banded iron formation at Dales Gorge by Graeme Churchard from Bristol, UK, Uploaded by PDTillman) [CC BY 2.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons]

Sharing: June 4, 2018

I’ve been reading Austin Kleon‘s “Show Your Work” again, and have been reminded of the value of sharing. So in that spirit, I’m going to try to do more blogging to share articles, books, etc. that I’ve been enjoying recently.

Article: Buddhists in Love
An interesting article on relationships. It also includes a nice introduction to some Buddhist principles, such as the idea of “No Permanent Self” which seems to perplex many people. (If you’re interested in more on this, ask me in the Comments section.)

Graphic Novel: Batman: Rules of Engagement
The Batman comic book is currently being written by Tom King, and I love what he’s doing with the character and the title. In case you don’t pay attention to comic books, Batman and Catwoman are now engaged and scheduled to be married in July. The collection I linked to above deals with various characters’ reactions to the engagement, including Cat and Bat going on a hilarious double date with Superman and Lois. It’s just lovely: well worth reading even if you haven’t looked at comic books for a while. (The link takes you to which lets you buy digital versions of comics immediately. You can also buy hardcopy versions from online vendors like Amazon, Chapters, B & N, etc. If you’re wary of spending money on comics, go to your local library—they probably have the book too.)

By the way, the book I’ve linked to is Volume 5 in King’s run on Batman. Volume 4 is also great, and I’m looking forward to Volume 6 when it comes out at the end of July.

Podcast: Hardcore History by Dan Carlin
Hardcore History is one of my favorite podcasts. It’s like a university lecture series on various historical events. The episodes are lengthy—some are as long as six hours—and Carlin himself would be the first to say they’re idiosyncratic. But they’ve certainly taught me a ton of things I never knew. I particularly recommend the series of episodes on World War I, titled “Blueprint for Armageddon”. The series will open your eyes and give you enormous respect for your great-great-grandparents.

That’s it for today. More links soon.

Pain and Suffering

I’ve had a positive response to some references to Buddhism I’ve made on Twitter, so I’ve decided that as an occasional thing, I’ll talk about my understanding of basic Buddhist concepts.

Writing stuff like this is actually a non-Buddhist thing to do—a constant theme in Buddhism is that putting things into words tends to blind you to your actual experiences. However, Buddhist teachers grudgingly admit that words can help you get started. The usual metaphor is that talking is a raft that gets you across the first river. After that, your journey continues, but you should leave the raft behind. Trying to carry it with you would just slow you down.

So let’s start with pain and suffering. Why? Because that’s what the Buddha focused on—ending his own suffering, and helping other people end theirs.

The key insight is simple: pain and suffering are two different things.

We can have pain without suffering. My favorite example is the pain I often feel during and after a good physical workout. It may hurt, but it doesn’t bother me. As they say, it’s “good pain”. It’s pain that I chose to take on; I know it will go away, and I realize it’s a side effect of becoming stronger and healthier.

Other examples: standard nicks and bruises. Usually, I just ignore them. I’ve seen kids get obsessed about microscopic cuts that I probably wouldn’t even notice. Adults have other things to think about…and yes, maybe we’re also more skilled at repression, which is not necessarily a good thing. But most grownups don’t get upset by little wounds. We accept them and pay attention to other things.

So pain doesn’t necessarily lead to suffering. The converse is also true: suffering isn’t always due to pain.

We’ve all experienced suffering when nothing is really wrong. The first example I can think of is when I’m driving and someone else on the road cuts me off or does something that scares me. It’s often a momentary thing, come and gone in a split-second without anything actually happening…but I can brood on such incidents for hours, dwelling on what-ifs and all the angry things I want to say to that idiot.

I suffer. I fixate. I can’t get it out of my head. But literally nothing happened. Nothing went wrong except that I got upset. It’s one thing if I make some decision like, “The next time I’m in that situation, I’ll slow down and watch for trouble,” (or whatever else makes sense for safety). Learning from a situation is what the Buddha would call “skillful”. But tying yourself in knots is unskillful: a source of unproductive suffering.

Boredom is another example of suffering without pain. Boredom is suffering when nothing is really wrong. So is yearning for ice cream or some other treat, even though you aren’t really hungry and you have plenty of food on hand. So is envy of someone else when really, you’re doing okay. You’re bothered by the comparison, not by your actual life.

Et cetera, et cetera. You can have pain without suffering. You can suffer without pain.

Even when you suffer in response to pain, they can still be disproportionate. A tiny pain can cause huge suffering; I prove that every time I have a mosquito bite.

So if suffering isn’t directly caused by pain, where does suffering come from? The Buddha said, “Watch and see.” We’ll talk about that the next time I feel like pontificating.