Abstraction 8: The Bowl

I’m going to propose a few odd abstractions. They will be focused around specific objects to assist in seeing them distinct from one another. Hopefully this will come out less confusing than I expect.


Imagine a wooden bowl. The wooden bowl is just a piece of wood. It has no real inherent value to someone until it fulfills its function.

The function of a bowl is to hold food. It can hold all sorts of food, keep that food in a single place, be used to pass food easily between people, and even hold water. Holding the food is far more important than being a nice piece of wood.

However, the food isn’t what we really care about. That isn’t The Thing. The bowl holds the food, but the food is eaten at the meal when the people come together and talk. People speak and communicate with one another. They bond, they fight, they laugh, they fill their stomachs, and they connect.

The connection is far more important here and far more curious. Minds change, qualia occur, relationships are modified or maintained, and the group grows a little bit closer to one another somehow. Still, though, connections aren’t The Thing.

It isn’t the group being a little bit closer that we care about. What we care about is: what happens later? How does the group fare? Do they prosper or do they fall?

What does the single wooden bowl mean to the group when all it does is hold the food that sits at the meal where the conversations take place which lead the people to slowly change and prosper or fall as a group?

And more importantly: if you as an outsider can only interact with this group by giving them a single bowl, what bowl could you give them to improve or harm the future of the group through the strange and non-obvious mechanisms of cause and effect?


But we aren’t done! I was asked to provide more examples in these odd abstraction things, so I’ll bring up a relevant example of The Bowl.

While at a workshop a while back I played the Calibration Game run by a volunteer there. I won’t go too far into the details of the game, but it was designed to get people to make bets on what they thought the probability was of something that could occur.  It was designed with the intention of getting participants more comfortable with betting on their beliefs about reality and to start getting a sense of what thinking of beliefs as probabilities might feel like.

However, the Calibration Game wasn’t actually very good at this. It wasn’t terrible, but it didn’t accomplish its purpose towards getting people aligned more towards and better at belief calibrations (in a similar way that a lumpy soup bowl isn’t so great for eating soup).

lumpy bowl

And yet… the Calibration Game is a wonderful and amazingly useful game!

If we map the calibration game as the bowl in our earlier abstraction, then it’s a lumpy bowl with a hole or two in it that isn’t very good at whatever purpose the bowl maker had intended. Despite that, a large list of beneficial consequences of the game started occurring.

The Calibration Game offered point incentives to answering questions correctly on different betting pools and strongly encouraged discussion among the participants at the workshop in order for people to make smarter bets to win more points. Some of the questions involved details of randomly selected participants. This led to people going around doing polling and talking to shy participants who likely wouldn’t have been approached otherwise. It led to competition, pacts, brainstorming, incentivized science and game theory topic discussion, and gave a steady positive and social background environment.

People grew closer, interacted more frequently and in more focused concentration on the topic matter than they would have otherwise. They also developed further as individuals, as friends, and began creating the myriad of interconnected relationships that form a community.

The game is absolutely wonderful because despite being a kind of lumpy and strange bowl it accomplished great results and THAT IS THE POINT. It doesn’t matter that the bowl wasn’t great at being a bowl. It doesn’t matter if people complain about the bowl or the original causal action you take fails to achieve that action’s single next associated effect. That’s not what counts.

What counts are the consequences of the action regardless of how predictable they were. We care about whether the ultimate consequences are in line with our wide spread of overall goals. Whether the specific goal we had in mind was accomplished or not is inconsequential. Causality is a strange and winding path that must be taken as it comes and not as we desire it to be. And sometimes that means handing someone a weird lumpy bowl that spills milk everywhere and makes them yell at you.


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