“An understanding of confusion has yet to be operationalized…
(it’s) a syndrome, a collection of problems.”
— Allan Ropper (2014)
|Lincoln Stoller, PhD, 2021. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International license (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0)
In the first of this series, titled “To Be Confused I – Physics,” I present you with intellectual confusion. I want to build the contrast between different kinds of confusion. We can’t understand how we decide until we have an understanding of how we become confused. In this piece, I talk about how our awareness can become confused.
Compare the confusion in our heads to the stock market. The stock market is a marketplace where everything is sold at auction. Shares of ownership are sold for thousands of public companies and nothing has a fixed price.
Despite periods of fluctuation and uncertainty, stocks always have a “last price.” They don’t have a “next price,” only a last price. They don’t even have a current price, only a variety of bid prices by institutions willing to buy and a variety of offers made by those willing to sell. There is no price on anything and no advertised value. Bargaining is everything.
Imagine you went shopping and nothing had a price on it, only a “last price.” If you want something, then you are invited to make a bid. Of course that would not be enough. You would need to know the price at which your item was being offered. You might also like to know who else was bidding and what they were last willing to pay for it. The only price at which you could be certain to get what you want is the price the store is offering.
There is a lot one could say about auction markets. If you thought each item should have a price and you wanted to know what that price was, then an auction market would confuse you. An auction market is like a fencing match in which contestants advance and retreat along a single line. The last price is the point on that line where the last point was scored. It’s a game.
Offense by one player and defense by the other will lead the aggressive player forward for the moment. Defense by both results in stability: no action and no change. Offense by both generates a frenetic clashing of their foils. Your own decision-making process is like this: a conflict of parties, usually a conflict between two main opinions, but sometimes more than two.
We say we like stability, but in those areas where we’re subject to confusion we are not satisfied with it. If you’re happy with stability and you’re not confused, then there’s no more to say at the moment. Chances are you’ll remain stable until support runs out or pressing novelty appears.
Confusion comes from an imbalance that could be leading to change or could be locked in struggle. We often mistake confusion for imbalance but lack of balance is a situation, confusion is our reaction to it.
There are three kinds of imbalance, and this applies to you and your decision making: leading confusion, trailing confusion, and uncertain confusion. In leading confusion, you’re considering an action that’s proactive. You think you know where things are going and you’re almost ready to commit. You’re ahead of the pack. If “the pack” is your own range of opinions, then you’re taking the lead in forming an opinion.
In trailing confusion, the action you’re considering is reactive. You’re joining the followers and you’re feeling pressed to catch up, desiring to avoid further losses or avail yourself of a waning opportunity. You’re committing to the idea that things will continue getting worse or stop getting better.
There’s a funny asymmetry between leading and trailing uncertainty. The confusions feel similar but the calls to action are different. Leading uncertainty requires courage, lust, or inspiration; trailing uncertainty is driven by fear, need, or obligation. Each camp is a group of odd bedfellows, and each camp is at odds with the other.
The third challenge to stability is struggle or contest, where both sides are demanding a response or urging immediate action. Some of us are proactive, others are reactive, and still others just need to create conflict in order to take any action at all.
What happened to stability? Stability went out the window.
When I think of stability, I think of Buddhism, a religion that espouses stability and works to mitigate confusion. The interplay between stability and confusion has been a dominant meme in culture and religion. There is an important point to remember: change does not require confusion.
“The world, harmoniously confused, where order in variety we see, and where, tho’ all things differ, all agree.”
— Alexander Pope (1688–1744, English poet)
The whole reason we want to see into the future is to change without confusion in consonance with our environment. If we could only discern the rules that are governing the important events of the moment, then we could change appropriately and without confusion.
We’re always looking for these rules. They could be physical laws, moral prescriptions, or market forces. The first thing we try to determine is which of these is operating. What are the forces leading to change, and can we change with them?
If you’re considering ketchup, then you’ll weigh the cost of the ingredients, the integrity of the market, and your lust for a hot dog. If you’re considering suicide, then you’ll weigh the value of your life, whether the world will treat you justly, and your longing for relief. Which will make you the happiest, hot dog or death?
“A single dog could chop 36 minutes off your life.”
— Sarah Wells (2022)
The Buddhist will say, “six of one, half dozen of the other. Only stability will bring you peace.” You will respond, “But I must choose. No action is not an option.” The Buddhist will say, “No action is the only option because there is no genuine change. Conflict remains in conflict. There is no winner, it’s just a game.”
Just as there are better or worse actions, there are better or worse Buddhists. The better Buddhist, in keeping with their tenet of stability, considers your situation and flows with it. Stability does not mean stasis and games have consequences.
Choices that end in death and choices that end in hot dogs both require consideration. The value of winning or losing may be relative, but the process of playing is of consequence. The nature of your involvement is the main consequence, and the Buddhist is right that the game is not over until you choose to stop playing.
If you want to play a game, life offers many: hot dogs, suicide, the stock market. The mistake people make—the mistake we’re encouraged to make—is that we can only play the game, not make the game. That is the first and the last error because the only one who benefits in any game is that character that exists only in the game and nowhere else, and none of us do.
Games are simulations of limited realities. Only unreal players exist in the game only. For real people the game is just an exercise and the benefit is in the playing, not the winning. No one knows this better than the game designer for whom winning and losing are two sides of the same coin and neither can exist without the other.
If the playing of the game you’re in is not intrinsically rewarding, then you’re not a mature player or a Buddhist. You are an expendable resource consumed in the game’s playing; a resource that is fodder for the game itself.
The first rule in resolving confusion is to become aware of what you’re confused about. If you know what you’re confused about and you see the dichotomy, then you’re playing the game and you cannot win. You do not resolve confusion by seeing in it but by seeing beyond it.
Confusion is the nature of games. They place you in confusion and expect you to resolve it. In a society that throws Christians to the lions the only ones who win are those who don’t play. Even the spectators are players and they lose too. You’re led to believe that clarity leads to the winning choice but you should not believe it.
The right choice in the ketchup contest is a salad. The right choice in the suicide contest is to go out and find the world. The right choice in the stock market is to ponder the chaos. In each case, the right choice is the one that makes you the designer of the game, not an avatar in it. We rarely realize that the player of the pieces is a piece themself.
The fallacy lies in the dichotomy of winning versus losing. A reward is like money. You can trade it but you can’t eat it, and trading money just puts you in another game. Greater awareness in the game won’t reveal the actual solution because the actual solution lies outside the game.
The game is a fallacy of clarity. Real clarity lies in discarding the game’s solution and becoming comfortable with the greater confusion. Confusion is reality. You do not win it, you navigate it. The reward is in playing ever more inclusive games that are images of how you see yourself.
“If you use your mind to study reality, you won’t understand either your mind or reality. If you study reality without using your mind, you’ll understand both.” — Bodhidharma, 5th or 6th century Buddhist monk
In these works, the object is not to win or lose. The object is to finish, discard, and start again. Here are a few of the games I’ve built.
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