Seeing Clearly

The ultimate use of information is to help you make better decisions. You gather information through your senses; the better your reading of the situation corresponds to what is really there, the better positioned you’ll be to make good decisions.

Some decisions are more consequential than others. I chose to eat fried eggs with Brussel sprouts and chorizo for breakfast today. I could’ve picked something else, and it wouldn’t have mattered much. That’s a low stakes decision; I’ll get another shot at breakfast tomorrow morning. Others have much higher stakes. Choosing to marry and start a family, for example, forever changes the course of your life.

Ultimately what you choose comes down to how well you understand the feasible options. When I opened the refrigerator this morning, I could see what ingredients were available to me. I also knew how much time I’d have to make breakfast, what utensils were available in the kitchen, and so on. This is information. I could’ve chosen to have a soufflé for breakfast instead, but I’ve never made one before. I would’ve had to go look up a recipe online, go to the supermarket to buy ingredients, block out most of my morning, etc. Fried eggs with Brussels sprouts and chorizo was an easier choice; my senses told me so.

Sometimes our senses can mislead us, leading us to make poor decisions. This is one of the reasons why many people are afraid of the dark; under poor lighting conditions, banal things can come across as threatening. Our minds fill in the blanks, as illustrated in the wonderful Vedantic story of the rope and the snake:

A man walks at night along a path. He sees a poisonous snake barring his way and turns and runs in the opposite direction. As he returns along the same path in the morning, he finds a coiled rope on the ground. He realizes that in the darkness, he mistook the coiled rope as a snake and it dawns on him, in the dark it is hard to see reality as it truly is. In the light of day, we see more clearly.

How do you know you’re seeing clearly? You know your reading is good if the outcomes match your expectations. My breakfast was fast and delicious, as I expected. I also think it was healthy. That was a good decision; my read of the situation was accurate. A snake could bite if you reach out, an outcome you’d rather avoid. But you’d also expect a snake to move after a while, something a rope wouldn’t do under its own power. So you could wait it out in lieu of having better light on the situation. Seeing the snakerope stay still for a long time would be another piece of valuable information.

If you do reach out to touch this chimera in the dark—i.e., to validate its snake-or-rope-ness by bringing another sense into play—you’d expect it to feel a particular way. The rough surface of the rope would immediately belie its snake-ness. Then again, the situation could go the other way: you could think you see a rope, when in fact a snake lies still before you. In this situation, reaching out to gain better information could have disastrous consequences. How do you choose?