A Short Piece

Art Is a Source for Mental Models

Can art provide categories and lenses we can’t find anywhere else?

Photo by Sebastien Le Derout

Mental models” are tools through which we can understand the world. Reminiscent of Cardinal Newman’s point that words do not wear their meaning (which means interpretation is unavoidable), data does not “wear on its face” the right way to interpret it, nor does data tell us automatically the right conclusions we should draw. We have to do that work ourselves, but if we use the wrong model or lens through which to understand data, the data won’t stop us from making that mistake. It will remain silent, and, right or wrong, let us do what we want with it.

This is an existentially terrifying realization, for it means we could carry about our work for years, thinking we’re heading in the right direction, precisely because the data “does what we want it to do,” only to be getting ourselves increasingly lost. How can we avoid this waste of time?

Well, there’s no way to be certain we can avoid this mistake, but the more mental models we possess, the more reason we’ll have to be confident that we are “checking and balancing” ourselves as we progress in our work. This is because by being “epistemologically diverse,” we’re more likely not to suffer “tunnel vision” (there are real risks to “epistemic uniformity” like fragility, overconfidence, misinterpretation, self-deception, etc.).

What does this have to do with art and literature? Well, I believe there are a lot of people who recognize how data science, computer science, and fields like that can be sources of useful “mental models,” but I believe literature is also an important source. Art in general provides ways for us to understand how people act, how politics needs to operate, how we can engage in mechanisms of self-deception, and so on.

What constitutes great literature is precisely what “shows” us something radically important about real life. If irony, for example, is important for understanding life but we don’t know what irony is, then as we go about our days believing we understand life fully, we won’t.

The Fragility of Goodness by Martha Nussbaum, for example, reminds us that we can learn from the works of Sophocles and Euripides that “tragedy” is not a simile for catastrophe, but a “trade-off between competing goods.” Nussbaum makes the point that without this “mental model” of “tragedy,” then we will not have the possibility of understanding political situations as anything but “problems and solutions,” when in reality they are often “trade-offs” (a point emphasized by Thomas Sowell throughout his career). Lacking a category of “tragedy,” when these trade-offs are made, we’ll interpret these results as “failures,” for trade-offs are not solutions. Furious, we may then vote for a politician who promises us solutions (versus the honest politician who doesn’t) and end up with a leader who leads us astray. Thus, from failing to absorb the mental model of tragedy, we end up politically impoverished (which could lead to economic trouble and even war).

Irony is a mental model that, as we learn from Harold Bloom, defines many great writers. “Irony” is not a simile for “paradox,” but entails a particular meaning that I think our lack of literary engagement has contributed to us forsaking. And yet if Harold Bloom is correct, irony is a defining feature of great art. What is it? First, irony is not merely a “tough situation” or “misfortune,” as the term is often used popularly. Irony is when I do y in order to accomplish x, but it is precisely y that keeps x from being realized. Worse yet, I even forsake w in order to do y and accomplice x, yet w would have accomplished x.

What does irony teach us? That it is precisely our ideas and motivations about “what is best” that can ruin “what is best,” that self-deception is real and overconfidence a significant problem. Irony teaches us that our mental facilities are less reliable than they seem and that we can be our own obstacle. Taking this seriously, not only are we more likely to be intellectually humble, but we are also less likely to be “too sure of ourselves,” which we learn from Learned Hand is key for freedom.

If I step into political situations and try to understand them “ironically,” I will not be quick to assume that because Conservatives are trying to “save America” that they are “saving America”; in fact, I will search for evidence that their efforts to “save America” are destroying it. Similarly, I know it’s possible that efforts to increase freedom can increase imprisonment, efforts to reduce poverty can increase it, and noble leaders can be made tyrants precisely through their efforts to be noble. Not because people are evil, stupid, etc., but because the nature of reality is such that irony is part of life. Irony teaches me not to assume bad results occur because of negatives; irony teaches me that bad results can emerge precisely when people are at their best. Not always, but if I don’t have an “irony category” in my brain for this possibility, I will lack a model to understand data that might one day prove critical that I not lack.

“Tragedy” and “irony” are two categories I’ve focused on here to make a general point about the use of art for harvesting “mental models,” but I could just have easily discussed the “self-sabotage” we learn about in Dostoevsky (or the use of absurdism to assert freedom), the nature of interpretation and association in Flaubert’s “A Simple Heart,” our “immersive” relationship to time from Proust, and let’s not even begin to list out the models we garner from Shakespeare.

Characters we meet in Jane Austin and Faulkner are “models” through which we can try to understand the people around us and assess how they may respond in the intersectional space between culture, politics, power, race, family, and so on. Without artistic models, the only models we have are the model of ourselves and the people we know, which will likely be extremely similar, because none of us can be that diverse naturally (for we can only live in one place at one time, around only so many kinds of people, who are likely shaped by our shared environment similarly, and so on). Where literature is present, people can contain multitudes; where it is lacking, only numbers.

The points that have been made in this piece about literature applies more broadly to art in general. If we never see Picasso, we lack “a model” through which we can understand how desire can ravage the soul; if we never watch Mad Men, we don’t fully grasp the barriers which can inhibit women or the competing pressures working men can suffer. And without these “lenses,” we will likely prove impoverished for understanding the ways our teenagers may act and our spouses suffer in their silence, all of which could help us understand a political movement headed up by such people.

Art provides us with models through which we can understand human motivation, the different ways people can interpret the world, etc., and without these models, we won’t be wrong all the time, but when we are, we’ll lack a structure in which counter-data can even enter our focus to make us realize we’re wrong. “Mental model diversity,” which is similar to polytheorism versus monotheorism (as discussed in other works), is critical for combating confirmation bias, self-deception, error, and not missing out on key information and data. Art, practical, expands our toolbox, increasing our diversity of tools, and it’s inevitable that we’ll need our toolbox. If we open it and find only a wrench, we better hope that’s the tool we need, but probability isn’t on our side.

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