Big Three

What I call the Big Three is an open-ended question that you might ask someone to get some insight into their deepest thoughts, and especially to reveal some things they feel are important discoveries about the world, understandings that perhaps they are proud of, want to share, and help shape who they are and what separates them from the masses. Someone can use the opportunity to convince you how smart they are in any way they think is important, or to demonstrate their value in a certain field, or even to set themselves apart from conventional ideas… whatever they like. A well thought out answer is very revealing. And I feel it can give you a reasonable measure of their intellectual depth and style.

My example of the question itself, follows the next section.


When a colleague and I were recruiting software engineers for a dot-com start-up, we had many discussions about the interviewing process and we were forced to look long and hard at whether we were doing the best job possible of identifying smart, motivated, and effective people. We found it a challenging process. Not surprisingly, personal endorsements were the most reliable indicator of success. But more surprisingly to me was that conventional interviewing techniques of all sorts were of limited use. Even good open-ended questions were a poor way to evaluate a candidate’s thought process, judgment, and problem-solving capability.

We all know the stories of all those unconventional interview techniques you hear about that are used by oh-so-clever companies like Microsoft and Google. They involve riddles, or brain-teasers, or unsolvable problems designed to elicit deeper insight into thought processes and problem solving abilities. They are probably a step forward, but when I see them in action they look more like a gimmick to me than any kind of breakthrough. The idea seems valid. The weakness of the approach might just be that the asker can only formulate tasks and questions that their mind considers valid. So at best they can only identify if another person thinks like them and are as sharp as they are in ways they understand. Those clever types of interviews always left me thinking that the interviewers were well-intentioned but especially clueless. It occurred to me that a better interview question might be “what’s the best interview question?” Shifting the focus of an interview to the quality of the interview process is exactly my style, and may reveal too much about me.

However, there are proven models that have been used in fields like psychology and education that have been shown to be effective in assessing development (intellectual and broader). Examples are the Piaget stages of development and Erikson’s stages of psychosocial development (just examples – I’m not qualified to judge their merits). But they don’t extend to what we think of as higher levels of abstract thought. There we turn to IQs and analogy tests and more correlative measures. Useful but IMO inadequate.

My colleague had some insights I thought were very good as well. At one point we were discussing how it seemed most software engineers and mathematicians at some point develop an interest in gambling, in our case blackjack. He made a great point that you could judge how smart someone was by at what age they discover the martingale system, then at what age they discover it doesn’t work. The same goes for the gambler’s fallacy etc. It sounds a lot like the stages of development, but of course it’s impractical.

Pyramid test: The same colleague shared another idea that I thought was actually ingenious. So much so that I actually turned it into a Windows App that strives to measure one’s intelligence. The idea was to try to discover where a person stood in determining what common ideas were real or not. He proposed that all such things formed a pyramid (with no firm apex). At the bottom of the pyramid were the things most everybody would understand and agree to: Santa Clause is not real. Easter bunny is not real. and so on. A level up the pyramid would be things like: Ghosts are not real. Astrology is baseless. Earth is round. The next level might be: whether human-produced CO2 affects the Earth’s climate, or whether vaccinations cause autism. As you get further up the pyramid you are in more elite company where you have sifted through lots of contradictory and misleading information to determine an actual truth. Thus the smartest people would climb high up the pyramid. Perhaps the very peak is reserved for Einstein or Shawn Carrol or Sabine Hossenfelder. I love this idea, but you can see the obvious flaw from my example. It MUST contain FACTS that are highly controversial yet are judged definitive by the author. Consider for example that I construct my pyramid to give high points for those who conclude that the universe is superdeterministic and that de Broglie–Bohm pilot wave theory is the basis of reality, or worse yet that there either is or is not a supreme being. We will never agree on who makes the standard. We could conceivably have the world’s  leading scientists construct a pyramid that corresponds to existing evidence. Each question could be constructed as so: “Based on all credible evidence, what is the proper degree of belief one should have in the theory of Special Relativity? 1-100″ I’d like to write such a test, but I would not want to take it! Bu to be honest, I would absolutely relish knowing where I would disagree with Shawn Carrol on such a test!

So back to reality. The line of thought I just described leads me to my Big Three question. It’s purpose is similar, but it is designed to be realistic and less absolute or judgmental. It won’t give you a number representing anyone’s intellect, and it may not even reveal how smart someone is, but it will open the door to discuss such things in a real and useful way. More importantly it can help two people to know what forms of insights they value and why. I propose that it’s about as good as you can do. And perhaps what I’m suggesting is that it is the ultimate interview question, or lets call it my current best shot.

A way to phrase the Big Three question:

What concepts (or ideas, theories, disciplines) do you feel you have some special understanding of that most people misunderstand, or do not understand as well? Pick three that you get a lot of satisfaction in understanding, and that contribute most to deep insights into the world, and also that represent your most insightful thoughts. You won’t be judged or challenged on your actual expertise.

Here are some simple examples that might be given:

  • General relativity
  • Cosmology
  • Salesmanship
  • Evolution
  • Auto repair
  • Christianity
  • Chess
  • Child rearing
  • Superconductivity in Bose-Einstein Condensates
  • Witchcraft

To be fair, I’ll expose the three that come to mind immediately for me. Two are semi-scientific, and one is more human behavior.

Concept 1: Counterfactual Definiteness

I chose the concept of counterfactual definiteness (known as CFD in the field of quantum physics) because it is an extremely useful and revealing way to understand the world. It explains so much that people would otherwise describe as unknowable or mysterious. Yet it is very provocative to most people and misunderstood by nearly everyone (maybe everyone). I feel like most people would call it a fringe idea, yet I feel it is at the heart of nearly everything we observe and could very well define the underpinnings of our universe. And it presents a far more palatable and likely explanation for some of the oddest observations in quantum mechanics. For example, you can dismiss Schrodinger’s dead and alive cat!

The name for this idea is unfortunate. It’s really just a firmer belief in cause and effect than most people will admit. The idea is that everything that happens is determined by real and explicable forces. Thus there is some degree of super-determinism operating on our universe, there is no true randomness, and the generous interpretation of human free will is a functional illusion.

The name comes from the realization (belief) that an observed event is the one and only one that could have been possible given the initial conditions that everything shares. Obviously, consideration of what those conditions were, or how they came about, is a vast area for further discussion.

Consider for example a great simplification. We observe a tree fall over. Ignoring for now the nearly infinite details that we may not know, in simplification, we understand the reason the tree fell. It was a combination of the wind and gravity for example. It is not valid to ask what if the tree fell upwards, because that scenario is not a valid option in our world. We do not live in a world in which gravity makes things fall upwards. It’s also not valid to ask what if the tree chose to fall in a different direction because we know of no way that a tree can choose it’s method of falling. We stick to the causes and effects we do understand and we concede that from what we know only that which did happen could have happened. Any other scenario would require different conditions, say the universe was created with a different form of gravity. It’s possible to extend this thought process to everything that resulted in the tree falling, all the way back to the initial conditions, perhaps to the start of the universe. This idea is often called super-determinism.

Where super-determinism and counterfactual definiteness meet near universal resistance is when human free will is considered. It’s very difficult for people to even consider that their conscious decisions are influenced by the universe they live in rather than exclusively by their choice. People like to think of their mind as being supernatural, as not being a machine made up of the same stuff as the universe in which we live. Despite the fact that every scintilla of evidence we know about the human body and mind is that it is only made up of the same particles, atoms, molecules, and so on as everything else in the universe. And those parts are all subject to the same forces known to science. It’s bizarre that we even consider otherwise when you think about it. It feels just like all the other egocentric assumptions the human race has made in the past about its special place in the cosmos. We thought we were the center of the solar system, that we were specially created in the image of a supreme being, that the sun and the stars and the animals and even the races we subjugated in our history were made for our benefit or pleasure. In the post-Copernican world we’ve had to accept a much more humble and rational place in the cosmos, one in which we are truly a part. Life as we know it is not magic, nor divine. It’s merely a wonderful and rare event in a vast physical world that somehow resulted in our being.

A reasonable counter-argument to super-determinism is the accepted argument that quantum physics is inherently random, that the quantum world is governed by true complete randomness. We can certainly observe apparent randomness at play at the smallest level. However, we also know that the greatest degree of deterministic complexity is indistinguishable from randomness. We can’t measure every particle int he universe and determine how any one electron would react. So we cannot as a matter of principle prove that randomness exists at all, no more than we can prove that determinism is absolute. But what we do know is that every single physical law we discover and prove IS deterministic.

Now that’s not to say that we cannot make choices and decisions. Even if our world is deterministic and some sort of physical fate dictates every event in our future (maybe until some cataclysmic finality or re-cycle), we still live and think and inhabit a world of free will in which the illusion is real enough. For example, we would not use the explanation of a deterministic world to excuse bad behavior (say to excuse murderers) just because we believe that a person had no real choice. In the very real delusional world we live in, the choice was also real and the consequences must follow. This complex dichotomy will doom almost everyone to reject the idea because it’s just too radical or complex for people to consider.

To appreciate the simplifications that super-determinism offers in understanding the world, consider the implications to Bell’s Inequality and Schrodinger’s Cat. As abhorrent and complex as a deterministic world seems at first, it’s far easier to swallow than some alternatives.

John Bell himself made this statement in 1985:

There is a way to escape the inference of superluminal speeds and spooky action at a distance. But it involves absolute determinism in the universe, the complete absence of free will. Suppose the world is super-deterministic, with not just inanimate nature running on behind-the-scenes clockwork, but with our behavior, including our belief that we are free to choose to do one experiment rather than another, absolutely predetermined, including the “decision” by the experimenter to carry out one set of measurements rather than another, the difficulty disappears. There is no need for a faster than light signal to tell particle A what measurement has been carried out on particle B, because the universe, including particle A, already “knows” what that measurement, and its outcome, will be.

I don’t personally take Bell’s views lightly, as his proof of non-locality represented by Bell’s Theorem and supported by experimental evidence ever since is perhaps the single greatest physical insight into our universe to date! (IMHHO of course) To be honest Bell himself admitted that although this deterministic loophole could in principle never be eliminated, it was also implausible. But I’m not convinced. Perhaps it IS a matter of philosophy as some suggest (because it is untestable and therefore may be beyond the realm of science).

But let’s suppose that we started by presuming the simplest physical explanation, one consisting only of cause and effect. And from that basis we set out to either prove or disprove whether there IS free will or any non-deterministic effects. Such an experiment at it’s best possible incarnation might look exactly like the entanglement experiments and tests of Bell’s Inequality. Would they not? And wouldn’t the experimental results we’re so familiar with be exactly the form evidence we’d expect if the world was superdeterministic? For example, two entangled particles would have initial conditions that persisted and how we measure them was predetermined as well. If we exclude faster than light communication (between entangled particles) and hidden dimensions and so on, then determinism is all that’s left!

One nice consequence of this belief is that it can free you from second-guessing yourself and being mired in regrets. Whatever factors went into making a choice were real and final and there’s no use in wringing your hands over what-ifs. Personally, I find that many people are completely miserable because all they do is dwell on what they should have done despite having no way at all of knowing what it was in advance!

Concept 2: Pilot Wave Theory

De Broglie–Bohm pilot wave theory is a concept I discovered only recently. It makes an incredible amount of sense to me and offers an alternative to the things that disturb me most about our conceptual understanding of quantum physics. I can deal with the weirdness of the quantum and I can handle not being able to visualize things. But the Copenhagen Interpretation (the part about human observation or any other form affecting reality) is not something I can swallow. It too closely resembles the long history people have of judging the world as simplistic and human-centric. And the Many Worlds interpretation also seems phony and contrived as being actually TOO expansive and ridiculous. Other concepts like waves that travel backwards in time, and hidden dimensions are far beyond my understanding to even judge. But when I heard of Pilot Wave Theory and gave it some thought, I found it attractive, realizing of course that palatable is not evidence. I include it in my list because it’s on the cusp of my current attempt to comprehend quantum physics.

Some sources:

Concept 3: Intractable Confirmation Bias

I feel there is something (a glimpse of understanding) that I have attained about human behavior and psychology that is deeper than most, but it is particularly hard to describe. I use it to understand people, and I constantly test it when I’m competing in sports, trivia, pool, or any measurable competition. So I have a huge personal database of evidence that it works time and again and proof that adequately reflects human conditioning and is responsible for more human intellectual foibles, including my own. Yet it’s very hard to articulate and will probably sound oversimplified and trite when expressed by a writer of my limited ability. But I’ll try my best.

I’ll start with a quote:

“Everyone believes very easily whatever he fears or desires.”
– Jean de La Fontaine.

It ties in with the idea of Cognitive Ease. Some references:

Confirmation bias, the instinctual disposition to favor confirming evidence over contradictory evidence, is massively powerful. I feel it controls our thoughts like a drug and subjects even the smartest people to poor judgement. It’s tied in with our inclination to jump to a conclusion. In fact, we seem to feel pressured by society to jump quickly to a conclusion as a sign that we’re smart and our thoughts are valuable. Note how we seem to value strong opinions (Fox News) over careful consideration (maybe Walter Cronkite or Ted Koppel) – don’t hold me to these examples, I’m sure there are MUCH better ones.

I am constantly amazed at how people, even those who are conventionally “smart”, jump to conclusions that are ridiculously wrong just because they have failed to consider, or even imagine, an unlikely but correct alternative.

So that sounds like a pedantic complaint. Fair enough for the reader to judge it as the normal criticism that a frustrated scientific-type person might express about the ignorant masses. That’s partly what it is. But what I mean to highlight is much deeper and better supported by experience. I have used my understanding (claimed or presumed) to defeat opponents at sports (pool and bags), trivia competitions (thousands including clear state championships against arguably better opponents), and some testy business situations. The problem is that describing specific examples would come across as overly confrontational. I will have to work on a good presentation of this idea and evidence….

Stories to illustrate:

  • Scott Frost $250 match
  • Vic/Doug bags match
  • Johnny Archer/Mika finals story
  • Multiple trivia examples
  • Mike Sigel vs. Efren
  • “47” multiple