Thinking Fast and Hard

byJacobian11d13th May 20191 comment

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Cross-posted from Putanumonit.

Note: Yes, I know about Worm. No, I haven't read past the first quarter or so.


A cool superpower to have would be the ability to slow subjective time and get a lot of thinking done.

In every superhero movie, no matter how fast the protagonists fly or how hard they punch, they always end up within one step of disaster because their planning skills are dogshit. The villain loses not because he can’t punch as hard, but because of steadfast refusal to think things through. Outside of some genre fiction, it’s very rare to see a villain that deserves the epithet scheming.

Also, the hero wins because he’s handsome. When everyone is flying by intuition, lookism wins the day.

The scariest comic supervillain would be named Murphyjitsu. Her superpower would be the ability to go through the following checklist:

  1. Do I have a plan?
  2. Imagine that my plan failed. Am I utterly shocked?
  3. If not, what is the most likely failure mode? How do I prevent it?
  4. If I’ve iterated enough that the plan seems very likely to work, remember to notice any confusing and unexpected evidence that might cause me to rethink it.

Murphyjitsu would spend her formative years on the harsh streets of Distopolis, building a burning resentment for humanity and practicing calibration by tracking the success rate of all her predictions and plots.

Sarah Constantin notes that deliberate and effortful thinking (aka System 2) is as mysterious as it is powerful. We underestimate its power only because of how rarely it is used. We underestimate its mysteriousness only because it takes deliberate effort to notice how little we understand it.

System 2 is a scarce resource, a sort of superpower of the human mind that it only breaks out in emergencies. The Global Workspace model of consciousness posits that the brain contains a multitude of modules each doing its own processing while competing for the spotlight of conscious attention. My hypothesis is that a main function of consciousness is to allocate System 2 resources to subprocesses that need it.

Unexpected stimuli grab your attention, to check whether dealing with them requires any thinking. For example, we are perfectly capable of handling any number of strangers with unconscious System 1 processing, as can be demonstrated by a stroll through a busy city. But when a stranger walks into a room we perk up – even though we determined many things about them instinctually (size, gender, mood, whether they’re a threat or not…) dealing with someone in close quarters may call for a more detailed plan.

The best part of having the superpower of (objectively) fast and (subjectively) sustained deliberate thinking is that it’s completely secret. No need for capes and masks and secret identities. From the outside, it would just look like I’m a reasonable and successful person, perhaps a lucky one. I would make great jokes, perfectly worded. I would have great opinions, perfectly anticipating all objections. A few discerning minds may begin to suspect: The conversation shifted to this topic just two minutes ago, how did he already come up with 5 great takes? Ironically, everyone would chalk my superpower up to amazing intuition.

Writing is the closest I get to fulfilling this fantasy. You are reading this paragraph mere seconds after the last one, but you’ll never know how long it took me to come up with it. Did I write in flow, typing at the speed of thought? Did I cross it out and rework it over the course of hours or days? I often feel disappointed when talking to writers I admire, their output at the live speed of conversation is inevitably less impressive than what they produce by sustained effort.

Thinking fast and hard beats shooting lasers from your eyes or spiderwebs from your butt. If you don’t think so, you haven’t thought hard enough about it.

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