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.

The Brain as a Sense Organ

In connection with my post on Writer’s Block, let me add a useful way to think about how your brain works.

It’s common in Buddhism to regard your brain as a sense organ, just like your eyes, ears, etc. This isn’t anything mystic; it’s simply an observation about similarities between thoughts and the five senses.

You only have partial control over your senses. For example, you only have partial control over what you hear. You can listen to specific music, you can avoid places that you expect will be noisy, and so on. Still, you can’t control everything: you hear every sound that reaches your ears. Inevitably, your ears will deliver sensations you don’t expect.

The same applies to the other four conventional senses. You see whatever is in front of your eyes, you smell whatever wafts into your nostrils, and so on. You can try to control your life’s circumstances, but you’ll always end up with surprises.

And the same applies to your brain. Your brain delivers thoughts, just like your eyes deliver visual input. You can partly control your thoughts, but only partly. Inevitably, your brain will serve up thoughts you don’t ask for, and maybe thoughts you don’t want.

We’ve all had the experience of walking down the street and suddenly remembering some embarrassment from long ago. We’ve also found ourselves having inappropriate thoughts, unkind thoughts, prejudiced thoughts, etc. At times like this, I find it useful to consider the brain as a sense organ. Just as our eyes sometimes show us sights we’d rather not see, our brain sometimes serves up thoughts we’d rather not have.

And that’s okay. We don’t have to think about such thoughts as us, any more than the things we see are us. The brain is not our complete identity; it does a lot of stuff without our input.

What matters isn’t some random thought we never asked for, but how we react to the thought. We have a great deal more control over our actions than we do over our thoughts.

Or at least that’s the goal. We sometimes have trouble controlling our actions too―we get caught up in emotion and do things we aren’t happy with. But that’s a topic for another time. (Hint: it’s related to the seven deadly sins.)