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The Real World and the Meta Level

The old cliché:

Small minds discuss people;

Average minds discuss events;

Great minds discuss about ideas.

ELEANOR ROOSEVELT

The Real World begins as the space of people. People have certain characteristics: Bob is at work; Tina is tall; Margaret is old; Lance is handsome. But people alone are boring, locked in a timeless existence where they have properties but nothing happens to them.

So the Real World is also the space of events: what people do and what happens to those people. Bob’s birthday is next week; Margaret got a new job. The fact that Bob goes to work may be true, but it’s a fact in a vacuum, unrelated to anything else. Useless. If you want to know about people then it’s actually much more enlightening to discuss the events surrounding them. It’s his birthday next week, so maybe he won’t go to work that day; now you have some predictive power!

Events include relationships between people: Tina and Lance are dating; Margaret and Bob are coworkers. Now the facts can be put into context. Since Bob and Margaret work at the same place, do they do similar jobs? How do their skills differ? I wonder if Margaret has more experience than Bob does. Their characteristics matter now because the questions have purpose.

When you advance to the event level, by observing relationships between people you can start to see similarities and generalizations that were not clear at the people level. Tina is tall, but is she taller than Lance? Stand them next to each other and let’s find out. Now who is faster? Let them have a footrace. Who is more sociable, who is more alert, who drinks more coffee? Let’s find out.

But events can also be boring. Why should I care about Bob and Margaret, or Tina and Lance? Is there something about them that is special or important? What if I never see Tina again? If I learn that Tina is taller than Lance, then even if true it is highly localized knowledge, unlikely to apply to anything else. More useful might be to find some true thing that doesn’t depend on Tina specifically; if I trade her for someone else, in my mental model, I don’t want to have to start from scratch.

If you like math analogies (you are here, so…), it’s sort of like this: if people and events are like numbers, then we want to learn to do algebra. Let p be a person, and let’s write a true equation which applies to p. Later on, we can evaluate p=”Margaret” or p=”Bob” and, if we’ve done our job correctly, it will work equally well for both.

Which is why we go one level further up, to what might be called ideas. Though, I prefer the terminology of principles, or to call this the Meta Level. These names are all appropriate. This is the realm of ideas / principles in the sense that there aren’t any specific people (or events) there; there are only generalized people-shaped slots (“p”) where an individual can be placed once the principle is prepared. It’s a Meta Level because the principles are abstracted from the people and event levels; it’s sort of one floor higher in the building but built on top of (and supported by) the lower floors.

The sort of question you might ask here is not “How are Bob and Margaret’s job qualifications similar?” but rather “What are the sort of job qualifications that are required for this job?” or even “What qualifications are valuable across different jobs?” You might ask about conscientiousness, or IQ, or previous experience, or whatever else. But once the qualifications are properly understood, you can drop any individual in the person-shaped slot and say how qualified they are.

This can seem very non-human, demoralizing in a way, because the principles all seem very far away from the people. The Meta Level is far and inhuman, in a sense: the principle doesn’t care (or even know) about Bob in particular. If Bob never existed, the principle would go on in exactly the same way. By contrast, the Real World (the level of people and events) is near. If your goal is to learn about, or even help, Bob, then why spend time on the Meta Level so far from him?

The reason is that, just as the event level teaches you about the people level, the Meta Level teaches you about the Real World. Events include relationships between people, and similarly principles include relationships between events. When we learn the relationship between events, we further elucidate the relationships between people, and then the people themselves; we climb down and down the ladder until we get back to Bob with a fuller understanding of what we’re up against.

A specific example: World War I and World War II were very different events involving very different people. In what ways were these events similar? What can I learn from them by abstracting away the particular individuals and events involved? Thinking in this way, I might discover some general principles which apply to war, or global politics, or authoritarianism, etc. Maybe this even helps prevent us from completing a trilogy down the road.

This is what is often missed in liberal arts courses, to take a second example. In great literature, the Real World-like events of the story are of little consequence. (Hamlet didn’t even exist; why do I need to remember his mother’s name??) But a great story can reveal something on the Meta Level that is invisible at the lower level of Bob, Tina, and Hamlet; a truth that applies to all three and to everyone else besides. That’s the real promise of the Meta Level.

How to Leave the Real World

Moses left the Real World when he climbed Mount Sinai; he went to the top of the mountain with thoughts about people and events, but he came down with ideas. He came down with principles. He reached up to the Meta Level and found a more general truth governing what people were acting out in the Real World.

I like the mountain-climbing analogy; Pirsig uses it too, and refers to this Meta Level as the High Country of the Mind:

If all of human knowledge, everything that’s known, is believed to be an enormous hierarchic structure, then the high country of the mind is found at the uppermost reaches of this structure in the most general, the most abstract considerations of all.

There are actually many Meta Levels. Once can climb up and up and up almost without limit, until the Real World is far from view, as anyone who has read any abstract philosophy can easily attest.

But Pirsig (like Moses) recognized the importance of carrying that abstraction back down to the Real World:

What’s important is the relevance of such a discovery to all the valleys of this world, and all the dull, dreary jobs and monotonous years that await all of us in them.

At the end of the day, for better or worse, we live in the Real World; we are only visitors on the Meta Level. But a lot can be learned during these visits, and if we’re careful not to break the stone tablets on the way, we may eventually understand the Real World more clearly as a result of our travels.

Some people leave the Real World by pursuing art, which is well known for abstraction, creativity, and complex connections between seemingly disparate ideas. When described in this way, science is pretty similar: both consist in setting up camp in this High Country and expecting extended stays. I’m happy to throw in with the group of people suggesting that art and science are not so different.

I’ll close with the words of Einstein on this topic:

[O]ne of the strongest motives that leads men to art and science is escape from everyday life with its painful crudity and hopeless dreariness, from the fetters of one’s own ever shifting desires. A finely tempered nature longs to escape from personal life into the world of objective perception and thought; this desire may be compared with the townsman’s irresistible longing to escape from his noisy, cramped surroundings into the silence of high mountains, where the eye ranges freely through the still, pure air and fondly traces out the restful contours apparently built for eternity.

For many, the Real World is painfully dreary, hopelessly chaotic, and endlessly disappointing. Maybe, through art or science or another form of abstraction, the Meta Level is not only where we find clarity, but also where we find peace.

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