Multiple Meanings in "I don't know how I feel about that"

I noticed an unexpected form of ambiguity recently in the context of the phrase “I don’t know how I feel about that”. In common English, that sentence and its many permutations and variants have a fairly specific meaning, which is almost but not exactly the literal meaning. I was trying to specifically communicate the literal meaning, and realized I couldn’t without a bunch of explanation. This post is that explanation, for future reference.

As an example, let’s say you were offered a piece of food. We can roughly map your emotional reaction down to a simple scale from -100 (very negative; you would not eat the food under any circumstances) to 100 (very positive; you desperately want to eat the food). A score around 0 would be neutral, or ambivalent. This loses a lot of nuance of course, but that’s OK for the purposes of the example.

Given this scenario, if you say “I don’t know how I feel about that”, that’s generally taken to mean your reaction is around 0; you are roughly ambivalent. But literally taken, you do actually know how you feel: you know that you’re ambivalent. What you’re really expressing uncertainty about is which side of 0 you’ll fall on (ever so slightly positive, or ever so slightly negative), and thus whether you should eat the food.

However, in the specific case I ran into recently, I didn’t want to express “I’m close to neutral on this”. I wanted to express “I literally do not know what number I am feeling”. I could have been anywhere on the scale between -100 and 100, and I simply didn’t know. This not knowing was a very weird experience in itself, since it doesn’t seem common to be that out of touch with your own emotions. But apparently it can happen. Who knew.

An Open Critique of Common Thought

[I was going through a bunch of old files and found this gem of an essay. If the timestamp on the file is accurate it’s from February 2010, which means it’s almost exactly ten years old and predates this blog by about three years. Past me was very weird, so enjoy!]

I am writing this essay as a critique of a fundamental and unsolvable problem in philosophy today. Our greatest minds refuse to acknowledge this problem, so I have humbly taken it upon myself to explore more fully this hidden paradox.

Amongst all of the different philosophies, religions, and world-views, there is one common theme, so utterly pervasive that it has never before been questioned, yet so utterly false upon deeper inspection that it boggles the mind. It is my hope that this short essay will act as a call to arms for the oppressed masses in the field of higher thought, and prompt them to action demanding an end to this conspiracy.

The problem, ladies and gentlemen, in long and in short, is that of existence. Every thought, every idea, every concept that humankind has ever had rests on the central pillar, the core belief, that we exist. Not content, of course, with this simpler sophistry, humankind has embarked on an even more heinous error of logic – we assume not only that we exist, but that other things exist as well.

It is at this point, of course, that your conditioning takes over – “Of course we exist”, you say, “how could it be otherwise”? This is the knee-jerk reaction typical of an oppressed thinker today, and the prevalence of this mindless assertion – calling it a failure of an argument would be too kind – worries me more than I can say about the future of our society. Beyond the obvious lack of critical thinking evidenced by such lemming-like idiocies, this simple error is the cause of deeper, more dangerous problems as well.

But I digress. I will leave the deeper analysis of this crisis to the historians who survive it, and turn my own meagre talents to the task of alerting the public of this travesty. It is with heart-felt distress that I type my final plea to you, the thinking public – “Do you believe”?

A Cautionary Note on Unlocking the Emotional Brain

[Follows from Mental Mountaineering]

In children’s stories, the good guys always win, the hero vanquishes the villain, and everyone lives happily ever after. Real life tends to be somewhat messier than this.

The world of therapy presented by Unlocking the Emotional Brain reads somewhat like a children’s story. Loosely, it presents a model of the brain where your problems are mostly caused by incorrect emotional beliefs (bad guys). The solution to your problems is to develop or discover a correct emotional belief (good guy) that contradicts your incorrect beliefs, then force your brain to recognize the contradiction at an emotional level. This causes your brain to automatically resolve the conflict and destroy the incorrect belief, so you can live happily ever after.

Real life tends to be somewhat messier than this.

After about a month of miscellaneous experimentation on myself based on this book, my experiences match the basic model presented, where many psychological problems are caused by incorrect emotional beliefs (I don’t think this part is particularly controversial in psychological circles). It also seems to be true that if I force my brain to recognize a contradiction between two emotionally relevant beliefs, it will resolve the conflict and destroy one of them. Of course, as in real life where the good guy doesn’t always win, it seems that when I do this my brain doesn’t always destroy the right belief.

I have had several experiences now where I have identified an emotional belief which analytically I believe to be false or harmful. Per UtEB I have identified or created a different experience or belief that contradicts it, and smashed them together in my mind. A reasonable percentage of the time, the false belief emerges stronger than before, and I find myself twisting the previous “good” belief into some horrific experience to conform with the existing false belief.

In hindsight this shouldn’t be particularly surprising. Whatever part of your brain is used to resolve conflicting emotional beliefs and experiences, it doesn’t have special access to reality. All it has to work with are the two conflicting pieces and any other related beliefs you might have. It’s going to pick the wrong one with some regularity. As such, my recommendation for people trying this process themselves (either as individuals or as therapists) is to try and ensure that the “good” belief is noticeably stronger and more immediate than the false one before you focus on the contradiction. If this doesn’t work and you end up in a bad way, I’ve had a bit of luck “quarantining” the newly corrupted belief to prevent it from spreading to even further beliefs, at least until I can come up with an even stronger correct belief to fight it with.

Milk as a Metaphor for Existential Risk

[I don’t believe this nearly as strongly as I argue for it, but I started to pull on the thread and wanted to see how far I could take it]

The majority of milk sold in North America is advertised as both “homogenized” and “filtered“. This is actually a metaphor created by the dairy industry to spread awareness of existential risk.

There has been a lot of chatter over the last few years on the topic of political polarization, and how the western political system is becoming more fragile as opinions drift farther apart and people become more content to simply demonize their enemies. A lot of causes have been thrown around to explain the situation, including millennials, boomers, free trade, protectionism, liberals, conservatives, economic inequality, and the internet… There’s a smorgasbord to choose from. I’ve come to believe that the primary root cause is, in fact, the internet, but the corollary to this is far more frightening than simple cultural collapse. Like milk, humanity’s current trend toward homogenization will eventually result in our filtration.

The Law of Cultural Proximity

Currently, different human cultures have different behavioural norms around all sorts of things. These norms cover all kinds of personal and interpersonal conduct, and extend into different legal systems in countries around the globe. In politics, this is often talked about in the form of the Overton window, which is the set of political positions that are sufficiently “mainstream” in a given culture to be considered electable. Unsurprisingly, different cultures have different Overton windows. For example, Norway and the United States have Overton windows that tend to overlap on some policies (the punishment of theft) but not on others (social welfare).

Shared norms and a stable, well-defined Overton window are important for the stable functioning of society, since they provide the implicit contract and social fabric on which everything else operates. But what exactly is the scope of a “society” for which that is true? We just talked about the differences between Norway and the U.S., but in a fairly real sense, Norway and the U.S. share “western culture” when placed in comparison with Iran, China, or North Korea. In the other direction, there are distinct cultures with different norms around things like gun control, entirely within the U.S. Like all categorizations, the lines are blurry at times.

The key factor in drawing cultural lines is interactional proximity. This is easiest to see in a historical setting because it becomes effectively identical to geographic proximity. Two neolithic tribes on opposite ends of a continent are clearly and unambiguously distinct, where-as two tribes that inhabit opposite banks of a local river are much more closely linked in every aspect: geographically, economically, and of course culturally. Because the two local tribes interact so much on a regular basis, it is functionally necessary that they share the same cultural norms in broad strokes. There is still room for minor differences, but if one tribe believes in ritual murder and the other does not, that’s a short path to disagreement and conflict.

Of course, neolithic tribes sometimes migrated, and so you could very well end up with an actual case of two tribes coming into close contact while holding very different cultural norms. This would invariably result in conflict until one of the tribes either migrated far enough away that contact became infrequent, became absorbed into the culture of the other tribe, or was wiped out entirely. You can invent additional scenarios with different tribes and different cultures in different geographies and economic situations, but the general rule that pops out of this is as follows: in the long run, the similarity between two cultures is proportional to the frequency with which they interact.

The Great Connecting

Hopefully the law of cultural proximity is fairly self-evident in the simplified world of neolithic tribes. But now consider how it applies to the rise of trade, and technology over the last several millennia. The neolithic world was simple because interactions between cultures were heavily mediated by simple geographic proximity, but the advent of long-distance trade started to wear away at that principle. Traders would travel to distant lands, and wouldn’t just carry goods back and forth; they would carry snippets of culture too. Suddenly cultures separated by great distances could interact more directly, even if only infrequently. Innovations in transportation (roads, ship design, etc) made travel easier and further increased the level of interaction.

This gradual connecting of the world led to a substantial number of conflicts between distant cultures that wouldn’t have even know about each other in a previous age. The victors of these conflicts formed empires, developed new technologies, and expanded their reach even farther afield.

Now fast-forward to modern day and take note of the technical innovations of the last two centuries: the telegraph, the airplane, the radio, the television, the internet. While the prior millennia had seen a gradual connecting of the world’s cultures, the last two hundred years have seen a massive step change: the great connecting. On my computer today, I could easily interact with people from thirty different countries around the globe. Past technologies metaphorically shrank the physical distance between cultures; the internet eliminates that distance entirely.

But now remember the law of cultural proximity: the similarity between two cultures is proportional to the frequency with which they interact. This law still holds, over the long run. However the internet is new, and the long run is long. We are currently living in a world where wildly different cultures are interacting on an incredibly regular basis via the internet. Unsurprisingly, this has led to a lot of cultural conflict. One might even call it cultural war.

Existential Risk

In modern times, the “culture war” has come to refer to the conflict between the left/liberal/urban and right/conservative/rural in North American politics. But this is just the most locally obvious example of different cultures with different norms being forced into regular interaction through the combination of technology and the economic realities that technology creates. The current tensions between the U.S. and China around trade and intellectual property are another aspect of the same beast. So are the tensions within Europe around immigration, and within Britain around Brexit. So was the Arab Spring. The world is being squished together into a cultural dimension that really only has room for one set of norms. All wars are culture wars.

So far, this doesn’t seem obviously bad. It’s weird, maybe, to think of a world with a single unified culture (unless you’re used to sci-fi stories where the unit of “culture” is in fact the planet or even the solar system – the law of cultural proximity strikes again!) but it doesn’t seem actively harmful as long as we can reach that unified state without undue armed conflict. But if we reframe the problem in biological and evolutionary terms then it becomes much more alarming. Species with no genetic diversity can’t adapt to changing conditions, and tend to go extinct. Species with no cultural diversity…

Granted, the simplest story of “conditions change, our one global culture is not a fit, game over humanity” does seem overly pessimistic. Unlike genetics, culture can change incredibly rapidly, and the internet does have an advantage in that it can propagate new memes quite quickly. However, there are other issues. A single global culture only works as long as that culture is suitable for all the geographic and economic realities in which people are living. If the internet forces us into a unified global culture, but the resulting culture is only adaptive for people living far from the equator… at best that creates a permanent underclass. At worst it results in humanity abandoning large swaths of the planet, which again looks a lot like putting all our eggs in one basket.

Now that I’ve gotten this far, I do conclude that the existential risk angle was maybe a bit overblown, but I am still suspicious that our eventual cultural homogeneity is going to cause us a lot more problems than we suspect. I don’t know how to stop it, but if there were a way to maintain cultural diversity within a realm of instant worldwide communication, that seems like a goal worth pursuing.


Bonus: I struggled to come up with a way to work yogurt (it’s just milk with extra “culture”!) into the metaphor joke, but couldn’t. Five internet points to anybody who figures out how to make that one work.

Mental Mountaineering

Back in November, Scott Alexander wrote a post called Mental Mountains, referring to the book Unlocking the Emotional Brain and this discussion of it over at Less Wrong. I’m halfway through the book itself, and I’ve read both discussions of it including some of the follow-up conversations that happened in the comments. It’s a fascinating model and definitely worth reading if you’re into that kind of thing. I’ve been reading a lot of therapy/psychology books recently and this one does seem to tie a lot of things together very nicely.

One partial comment that stood out to me from the Less Wrong discussion was the following by PJ Eby:

…I didn’t realize yet that hard part 1 (needing to identify the things to change) and hard part 2 (needing to get past meta issues), meant that it is impossible to mass-produce change techniques.

That is, you can’t write a single document, record a single video, etc. that will convey to all its consumers what they need in order to actually implement effective change.

I don’t mean that you can’t successfully communicate the ideas or the steps. I just mean that implementing those steps is not a simple matter of following procedure, because of the aforementioned Hard Parts. It’s like expecting someone to learn to bike, drive, or debug programs from a manual.

Let it never be said that I didn’t like a challenge.


I’ve been working on my own brain fairly intentionally for several years now. This process has included traditional therapy with a licensed psychologist, a bunch of reading, and of course just a lot of my own time spent thinking and introspecting and running various thought experiments to see how different hypothetical worlds would make me feel. In this time I have made substantial progress on some problems, and very little progress on others. I’m always looking for more tools to add to my toolbox, and when I first read Scott’s article I added Unlocking the Emotional Brain to my short-list of books to get out of the library.

I’ve read the first three chapters of the book now, and I’ve already paused my reading several times to try and put various pieces of it into practice inside my mind. It’s far too early to draw any reliable conclusions from that, but preliminary results appear promising. I should, however, note that I’m likely to be an outlier in this respect. I’m an introspective and generally self-aware person to begin with, this is an area of general interest for me anyway, and of course I’ve already spent a substantial amount of time articulating and discussing my problems with the help of a real psychologist (though not one who is aware of UtEB). In other words, I have a fairly substantial set of advantages over the average person who might read UtEB and try and self-inflict its particular form of therapy.

At this point it’s too early to know if the internal process I’m going to follow is even going to generate substantive long-term results. If it does however, then I may very well take a crack at generalizing that into a series of posts for do-it-yourself therapy. PJ’s reservations are well-founded but I firmly believe I can explain just about anything to a general audience, and this sure seems like it would be valuable enough to try.