Choosing our future

Choosing our future
Photo by Kyle Glenn / Unsplash

Information is about surprise. If this comes as a surprise, then read on!

Think about the last time a friend surprised you: they did something that you didn't expect them to do. And in that surprising moment, you learned something new about your friend that you didn't know before. Maybe it was a little thing reinforcing a general behavior that you already suspected. Perhaps it was a new thing that revealed an entirely new side of them to you. Regardless, it was something new, and in that newness, you learned something about them.

These surprises come because we imagine what someone might do based on what we know about them. We think we know their values. When they don't act as we thought they might, we have to reconsider what we know. Are their values what we believed them to be? We have to rethink our understanding of their values because we couldn't predict what they did. So we end up adjusting our beliefs about them to predict better what they will do in the future.

Internal Values

If someone ends up disappointing us, it's because we liked the values that we thought they had but learned that their actual values didn't match up with what we thought they were.

When we know someone well, we know their values. We know which way their inner compass points from a set of facts and can predict what they are likely to do. The key here is that everyone makes choices based on their internal values. What we see about someone tells us what those inner values are.

Likewise, we can observe how we act to learn about our values. How do we react to someone on the street asking for help? Do we cross to the other side to avoid being accosted? Do we pretend they aren't there? Do we drop a few coins into their hands? Do we invite them into a nearby restaurant to get a hot meal? We can have reasons for any of these actions. But next time you do one of these, ask yourself why you made the choice you did. Compare that with what you want people to believe about your values. If you surprise yourself, you've learned something new!

Our ability to choose doesn't mean there isn't a biological basis for our mind. It just means that there's a lot of internal information. For example, we can predict how a friend might act without denying them free will precisely because we always risk being surprised. Moreover, we can never learn everything there is to know about a person. So even if there isn't free will, the effect is the same: we can always learn something new if we watch someone for long enough.

Useful Spaces

One way to visualize how something changes is by looking at different measurements over time.

We're familiar with our common three-dimensional space: width, height, and depth, for example. Or longitude, latitude, and altitude if we're working with a map. We can draw where we go on a trip by plotting our position on the map.

Configuration space is a way of creating a map of all possible configurations that something might have. For example, in planning a road trip, a map of roads might represent the configuration space for our road trip. We don't intend to go off-road, so we constrain ourselves to the roads on the map.

Phase space is similar to this but with more flexibility. For example, rather than keeping to longitude, latitude, and altitude, we might use other measurements that help us understand what we're studying. For example, plotting just the pendulum's position doesn't give us as much information as drawing the position and velocity together. The resulting circle or ellipse tells us that we can expect the highest speed when the pendulum is closest to the center and vice versa.

By Krishnavedala - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

These spaces are just shorthand for saying that we want to draw some lines on a graph with axes representing something we can measure. These lines trace out how the values of the axes change over time or which combinations of values are possible. The resulting picture helps us understand how different things relate to each other as they evolve.

Personal Journies

How we choose to effect change over time is guided by our values. Another way to say this is that "what is" doesn't determine "what ought to be." Facts don't make our choices, though they can inform them or limit them. Instead, our values define our options and guide our choices. Our choices determine how those facts change over time.

A "fact" is just an answer to a question. So the color of my hair today is a fact, and the color of my hair tomorrow is a fact, but that fact could change from one day to the next if something happened that impacted my hair color.

We can consider the constellation of facts that define the "present" as a coordinate in a configuration space of sorts. How that constellation changes over time is the trajectory in that configuration space. That change over time is the trajectory that we are on.

Even more helpful is to add how our values might change as our circumstances change, creating a phase space. We can then see where changes in our circumstances might go against our values. The challenge is to find a way to reach our goal without going against our values.

The trajectory might not be consistent with our stated values. But that's why we need to know ourselves. We need to know if our internal values are consistent with our professed values. For example, do we act out of instinct the way we say we want to?

The day-to-day changes guided by our values form a path, trajectory, or course in that phase space. The resulting route might be more circuitous than we might expect, but it will be consistent with our internalized values.

Someone looking on from outside with a different set of values might wonder why we make the decisions we make. That's okay because we're true to who we are. We need to communicate our values so that our audience can understand why we make the decisions we make. If the values we profess aren't those that we act on, then our audience will become confused. If they are different enough, people might think we are hypocrites. Thus, we need to make sure we know who we are and the values we have.

What Can You Do?

So, where are you today, where do you want to go, and how do you get there?

First, take a look at your core values. Then, think about what you can do today, even if it's a small step that will align with your values and get closer to your goal. Don't worry about how many steps you might need to take. Instead, focus on the long-term goal and know that you will have reached it by being true to yourself.

For example, retirement is a long-term goal that we all want to reach. So let's say that you need $1,000,000 to retire comfortably. This target will give you at least $40,000 per year on average, with some adjustments for inflation.

If you don't have any savings yet, there are a few options to get to that million dollars: rob a bank, win a lottery, or save $100 per week for 35 years. Which of these match your values?

You probably don't want to rob a bank, but if that was the only option available—there's no lottery, and you can't find a job—then it might be the best option you have. But is it worth robbing a bank today if you could wait a while and have other options later?

Playing the lottery might not seem like a bad option. But can you depend on it? What are the odds that you'll win the lottery? States don't run lotteries at a loss. They run them to raise money. So on average, every ticket bought will pay out a percentage of the purchase price. If you play the lottery often enough, you'll win some, but you'll (on average) receive less than you paid. If the risk of losing the lottery doesn't deter you, then you'll get better returns for your risk by investing in the stock market.

Finally, consider saving $100 each week for 35 years. You'll put away $182,000 over that time but earn enough to have your million dollars (assuming 8% returns with a mix of stocks and bonds). You won't take on undue risk, either through a lottery or through crime.

You might not be able to afford this if you're working for a living wage or less. But perhaps you can delay saving for a few years while gaining experience that lets you move to a higher-paying job. Then, when you get pay raises, make sure that any additional expenses you take on are necessary and not just inflating your standard of living. Finally, consider making your savings a bill just like all your other bills that you pay each week or month. Then, even if you can only save $10 each week, perhaps by not playing the lottery, your future self will thank you.

The important thing is to look at where you want to be in five, ten, twenty years. What can you do now, consistent with your values, that will move you towards that goal? Is the goal feasible? If not, is there another goal that you can reach without compromising your values?