Six Degrees of Separation – The Big Picture

I wonder how far my view (objective) of the universe is from reality.

My pal Dave Nadig suggests that we are further away from any kind of recognition of the true universe than we suspect.

We chatted about this last week, and the more I thought about it, the further from reality it seemed that we really were. As best I can understand, we can all be at least six degrees1 Far from truly understanding, well, something:

1. perception: The way we see the world is through a certain sensory apparatus – one that we know is functional but flawed. There is a micro-delay in receiving input, so we are always a few milliseconds behind reality, so to speak, living in the immediate past. But our perception has evolved over time to favor survival.

2. explanation: Our perceptions have evolved to be useful but not precise (it’s too expensive). It turns out that utility is more important than accuracy (which is redundant). Hence, how we interpret inputs is based on a similar set of trade-offs.

3. pride: We are all individuals who cannot help seeing the world through our own feelings. This is our vantage point, it gives us a unique identity but it comes with lots and lots of baggage. (See also: reproduction/survival bias). Getting out of ourselves is challenging to do consistently. Our default setting assumes our vantage point is correct.

4. model: We know nothing innately but have a rich tradition of instinct and evolutionary history. And so we build our own internal models of the universe over time and at great expense. We hate to throw away this expensive inner map, even in the face of overwhelming evidence that it’s wrong. see more cognitive dissonance

5. Priors: Over time, the model we build experiences the world and begins to recognize patterns. They form the basis of experiences, beliefs, ideas and even knowledge. But our understanding is imperfect, and what we know is often wrong. Subsequent decisions based on fundamentally flawed assumptions lead to an obvious conclusion.

6. Ideology: We organize our thoughts about complex structures into a belief system (as distinct from a model). This belief system can become a lens through which we see the world. This lens is often useful, but rarely comprehensive and only accidentally accurate. This easily leads to wrong conclusions.

This is the basic concept — how input gets into our processors, how we can manipulate it, and what the end output is. It is humbling to recognize how little we really know and how easy it is to misunderstand any complex system – be it politics, markets or the world around us.

see more:
Blueprint for Global Village (This View of Life, Sep 4, 2014)

in the past:
Unconventional Knowledge (November 9, 2022)

Are partisanships driving consumer sentiment? (August 9, 2022)

Is the market intelligent – or probabilistic? (March 26, 2020)


1. Six degrees of separation is a simple concept: everyone is six (or less) social connections away from each other. First popularized in John Gower’s 1990 play Six Degrees of Separation, it became widely known for its “six degrees of Kevin Bacon” (link any actor to Kevin Bacon by six or fewer connections).

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