The Upper Limit Of Understanding

Walking down the yellow-brick road of everything being storytelling, I stumbled into a handy metaphor of system models. If my Self is a complex adaptive system and the reality outside is also such a system, my lifelong process of meaning-making could be viewed as asymptotically constructing a more accurate model of reality. Let’s unpack that.

This is a story of interaction between two systems: the Self and the Context. The Self is well, me. The Context is the reality. The Self is receiving signals from the Context as the Input, and the Context is receiving Signals from the Self as the Output.

A diagram showing Context and Self, connected with arrows, labeled Input and Output.

For example, there could be some sensory Input (seeing an apple), and then some action as an Output (reaching for an apple). This interaction of two systems is continuous, with many inputs and outputs happening in parallel, like a river.

Some Inputs are nourishing to Self, and some are harmful or even fatal, a SIGKILL of sorts. Given no other recourse, the Self makes a significant assumption: that it can influence the Context by varying its Output. Having this influence motivates Self to learn to predict the Input based on the Output. Thus, from the perspective of Self, the name of the game is Understanding, or learning how the Context works.

To excel at this game, the Self constructs a meaning-making device: a Context Model. It’s an internal proxy for the Context and is used to evaluate the Input and discern an Output. It’s the vehicle for answering the question: “What is the meaning of this Input within this Context, and what is the appropriate Output that influences the Context most effectively?”

A diagram showing Context and Self, where Self contains a Context model, which takes Input and produces Output.

For example, I hear a driver behind me honking. The Context Model helps me make meaning of what might be happening (“they want me to hurry up and move”), and select an appropriate action (“curse them under my breath”).

With such a setup, the accuracy of the Context Model becomes paramount, and the Self is highly motivated to continuously improve upon it. Thus, the Context Model is constantly developing. The inputs that are congruent with the model’s current structure are used to reinforce it. The inputs that aren’t congruent challenge it and eventually spur a structural change within the Context Model: a transformation.  I say “eventually” because I notice that the model is naturally resistant to change. I see that often, the incongruent inputs are being re-fed back into the model from memories, appearing in consciousness as fretful relitigations of past conversations or actions, beating myself up, etc. These are useful signals indicating that the model as it exists today is due for re-structuring.

Each transformation brings more complexity to the model. The model becomes more subtle, more attuned to, more representative of Context. What used to be a matter of primitive impulses becomes connected through causal chains. What used to be concrete becomes abstract. What used to be a strict taxonomy becomes a cross-categorical cloud. The Model’s complexity grows over time.

Because the Self contains the Context Model, the complexity of the Self increases as the model transforms. From this perspective, in its process of continuous development of the Context Model, the Self strives to at least match the complexity of Context. Within the Game of Understanding is the drive to grow and develop, based on this fundamental assumption: if the Self becomes as complex as the Context, it will be capable of containing an accurate Context Model, which produces perfectly effective Outputs and predicts every Input.

To put it in more dramatic terms, understanding the meaning of life becomes possible when I completely understand the world around me.

An important insight hides in those last three words: “world around me”. The two systems in this story, the Context and the Self, are not peers. The Context includes and transcends the Self.

A diagram, showing that Context includes Self.

In this arrangement, the Context Model also necessarily includes the Model of Self. I can observe this clearly by looking at my archaeology of self effort. And look! It’s a recursion: within that Model of Self is a Context Model, and so on.

A diagram of Context including Self, showing the recursion: within Self, there is a Model, which then includes an smaller Context and Self, and so on.

This shift in perspective reveals the Upper Limit of Understanding. At least in this story, the inner system can never match the complexity of the system that includes and transcends it. The Context Model can never be an accurate model of the Context. The Game of Understanding is an infinite game, and the meaning of life is forever a mystery.

When I first arrived to this point, I felt this weird combination of joy, relief and a twinge of disappointment. Seeing the upper limit for the first time was a profound experience, a sense of connecting to something impossibly large, yet somehow familiar. I’d read how “life is a journey, not a destination” in multitudes of different ways, and in that moment, I truly felt it. And in disappointment, I saw a small part of me that still wished for the possibility of “winning” the game of life.

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