On the illusion of clarity

The teachings of Don Juan cover

At the top of my list of favorite books are Carlos Castaneda’s “The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge” and its sequels. I think they contain a tremendous amount of wisdom. This passage is among my favorites in these books. Don Juan, a Yaqui Indian shaman and one of the main characters, describes to the author, his apprentice, the four obstacles that a person encounters in a pursuit of a long-term goal (such as becoming a shaman). These four enemies are fear, clarity, power, and old age.

I’ve read this passage for the first time close to 10 years ago, and it’s been in the back of my mind since then. The main question that has concerned me is, of course: What is my enemy? Starting from the bottom of the list, it was fairly easy to eliminate old age and power. Self-examination revealed that it is not fear either. Thus, it must be clarity. Here is what Don Juan says about clarity:

Once a man has vanquished fear, he is free from it for the rest of his life because, instead of fear, he has acquired clarity – a clarity of mind which erases fear. By then a man knows his desires; he knows how to satisfy those desires. He can anticipate the new steps of learning and a sharp clarity surrounds everything. The man feels that nothing is concealed.

And thus he has encountered his second enemy: Clarity! That clarity of mind, which is so hard to obtain, dispels fear, but also blinds. It forces the man never to doubt himself. It gives him the assurance he can do anything he pleases, for he sees clearly into everything. And he is courageous because he is clear, and he stops at nothing because he is clear. But all that is a mistake; it is like something incomplete. If the man yields to this make-believe power, he has succumbed to his second enemy and will be patient when he should rush. And he will fumble with learning until he winds up incapable of learning anything more. His second enemy has just stopped him cold from trying to become a man of knowledge. Instead, the man may turn into a buoyant warrior, or a clown. Yet the clarity for which he has paid so dearly will never change to darkness and fear again. He will be clear as long as he lives, but he will no longer learn, or yearn for, anything.

He must do what he did with fear: he must defy his clarity and use it only to see, and wait patiently and measure carefully before taking new steps; he must think, above all, that his clarity is almost a mistake. And a moment will come when he will understand that his clarity was only a point before his eyes. And thus he will have overcome his second enemy, and will arrive at a position where nothing can harm him anymore. This will not be a mistake. It will not be only a point before his eyes. It will be true power.

I have to say, even though this passage seemed profound, it made no sense to me when I read it. How can clarity dispel fear and blind at the same time? How can clarity be “almost a mistake”? Earlier this year, after almost 10 years of confusion, a series of events revealed the meaning of this passage to me, and I would like to share my thoughts here today.

First of all, what is clarity? And why does it dispel fear in the first place? Generally, we are afraid when we cannot foresee what is going to happen. We are often afraid in the dark because our ability to see and therefore anticipate potential dangers is diminished. How do we anticipate future outcomes and overcome fear? Quite simply, using data, logic and the fact that the world that we live in is continuous, in the sense that dramatic unexpected events (like a meteorite hitting a city) are relatively rare. Clarity is nothing more than the ability to extrapolate from the past and present into the future using data and common sense.

But why is clarity “almost a mistake”? The problem is that dramatic unexpected events are rare, but small unexpected events are common. And consequences of such small events have a tendency to accumulate and amplify leading to what is known as the “butterfly effect”. In general, extrapolations are bad. We rarely or never have complete data, and our models of the world have all kinds of flaws. Thus, our extrapolations might work on short time scales giving us some ability to predict outcomes of our actions, but they inevitably fail after a while. That’s why clarity is “something incomplete” and “almost a mistake”.

Expected and realized outcomes

Expected and realized outcomes

So, what are the practical implications of these quite trivial observations? For me, the most important implication is with respect to my own decision making. When we make decisions, we use the flashlight of clarity to anticipate the consequences of these decisions. But in most cases the realized outcome is not what we expected. Moreover, the realized outcome is typically worse, often much worse, and only rarely better than expected (see Figure). This typically negative deviation from the expectation is often startling, and it forces us to make further decisions under stress, which is a really bad thing (see, e.g., a popular article and the actual research article). Instead, knowing that clarity is only an illusion, one ought to seriously consider outcomes that are worse than the expectation and be prepared to counter them. In short, to obtain power, one has to have a portfolio of ready-made strategies each of which will lead one to a favorable outcome despite unfavorable circumstances.


2 responses

  1. Reblogged this on 斌的空间 and commented:
    I heard this comment from a colleague recently, which found its way into my head for some reason. Basically he was very happy when a microscopy experiment had worked. He then said, quote “I never expect such kind of things to work, so it’s always surprisingly pleasant to see it does!” I thought about two points after hearing this: (1) he has a very different perspective (perhaps a correct one) on research, in that most things we try have a high probability to fail in the beginning. I think that is not special to research. But the nature of research determines that we are constantly doing things “for the first time”. (2) The low expectation (things will fail most likely) didn’t stop him from trying his best. So superficially speaking, his motivation seems detached from his expectation.

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