The beauty of a mental model (as opposed to a physical, real one) is the speed with which they can be iterated and updated. Combined with the accuracy of the results, it leads to amazing progress in a short amount of time. If we assume the power of the human brain to predict based on past events to be our primary differentiator, then this ability alone explains how our accomplishments far outshine the rest of the living world. It’s an ability that has given us an evolutionary survival advantage. However, we need not believe that this development, any more than other amazing developments in nature (for example, the wing of a bird) reflects divine intervention (other than the establishment of evolution itself…but that truly is the subject of another post). Amazing, yes. God-like, maybe. Equal to God, doubtful.

So, in acknowledging and examining this amazing ability of humans to model reality, we must also accept that there are limits…and it is at these limits where misconceptions, and from the Buddhist viewpoint, suffering exists. These limits exist because despite all the trillions of possible states and billions of cells in our brains, it cannot possibly model all of reality and all of its states. There just isn’t enough physical space between our ears to enable this. Need a more concrete example? Accept for a moment that pain is an opinion. It is merely one of our mental models that exists to protect us from doing damage to ourselves. However, as a model, it doesn’t necessarily reflect the actual reality of physical damage. I’m not saying all pain is made up; no doubt, anyone with a serious injury will attest to the severe reality of that pain. But accept that the pain you feel, is the result of your brain interpreting nerve impulses resulting in the perception of the “real” event. But how can we be sure? Pain certainly feels very real and cannot be easily ignored like most opinions. Here’s one special case that is persuasive. Amputees have phantom pains and itches in limbs that no longer exist. This is the result of a mental model that hasn’t been updated. Reality demands that something not there cannot generate a physical sensation. Widening this viewpoint, it seems reasonable to believe that other similar misconceptions arise in our other mental models, leading to misunderstandings in our mind about the reality of the world around us.

That our brains aren’t capable of modeling the entire universe isn’t a fault. In fact, it’s proven to be an amazing advantage. In the battle for survival, tiny competitive advantages make for large gains. But our ability shouldn’t assume we cannot improve upon it. The limits of our cognitive powers are just a reality that should be acknowledged so that we don’t fool ourselves into thinking we know more than we are capable of.

Unless we diligently work to update, test, and remove misconceptions, our suffering will not abate. It’s been said that the power of Science is that it keeps us from fooling ourselves. Our brains are so powerful that plausible, but impossible models can be created by it (i.e. believing that heavier objects fall faster). Our salvation is the application of reality to test and refine our mental models and the increased accuracy of those predictions leads to lessened suffering. Thus, the relentless pursuit of reality in our mental models equals the pursuit of happiness.

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