Mental Models (An Introduction), the Matrix, and Worldly Wisdom

Mental Models (An Introduction), the Matrix, and Worldly Wisdom

Morpheus: “Have you ever had a dream, Neo, that you were so sure was real? What if you were unable to wake from that dream? How would you know the difference between the dream world and the real world?”

The first time I watched the Matrix I didn’t get it. I laughed at the idea that anyone could believe this reality wasn’t real. I enjoyed the movie as a movie, but when I realized that the philosophy behind it was actually a thing (e.g., Descartes, et. al.), I couldn’t believe it.

But the core idea isn’t unbelievable; it’s just very different from the Christian worldview by which the West is so influenced. We believe reality to be real because a real God created it, and because, well, KISS. Keep It Simple Stupid. You know, Occam’s Razer–the simplest explanation is always best. But there is one core idea the Matrix plays on, and it is the main point in my writing.

Mediated reality.

The fact that every single thing we know about the universe has come into our brains through our senses means that the reality we experience may only be as real as our minds tells us it is. Maybe it’s not real. How can we know? If we can’t circumvent this meaning-making process in our minds, how can we be sure that what we see and feel is real? We function in a closed loop between mind and senses. The problem is that we can’t step outside that loop and observe it, critique it, or provide any sort of commentary on it at all. That’s what it means to be finite.

Descartes thought he solved this conundrum when he said that the ultimate test of reality is cognitive thought. Since he could think, he existed, and that was proof enough… but in the end he still couldn’t be sure.[1]

Cypher: “You know, I know this steak doesn’t exist. I know that when I put it in my mouth, the Matrix is telling my brain that it is juicy and delicious. After nine years, you know what I realize?”
[Takes a bite of steak]
Cypher: “Ignorance is bliss.”

We Construct Our Reality

So the concept of mediated reality tells us we are finite, small, and really unable to be objective and conclusive about anything at all.[2] We find our humanity in its limitations, its finitude.

I’ll just drive straight at my point here–follow close. Our experience of life is our experience. Our reality is mediated by our senses. Our worlds we live in are constructed by ourselves in our own minds as we interpret our sensory inputs. And while the world certainly exists apart from us–because God exists apart from us–our experience of His world is limited in both time and space–and limitations produce error. That error is what causes interruptions in the world and its story. When someone reaches out to act on his view of the world, and his view doesn’t coincide with reality–the whole of it–he fails, stuff happens, people die.[3]

Mental Models to the Rescue

Since reality is, it really exists, therefore what I’m now talking about is the model of reality we have in our minds. We have models for everything from walking up the stairs to cutting an onion, and we know the consequences of both. If you don’t raise your foot enough you’ll trip; if you stick your face in an onion you’ll cry. We know that about the world. You could say we have mental models for those activites which we draw on, which we act on and don’t even think about it.

These mental models, then, are the tiny stories and patterns we have in our minds which tell us how to live. They are snippets of practical knowledge. If knowledge is on a continuum of theoretical to practical, then mental modeling is on the practical end. Models aren’t generally what you think about, they’re what you think with and act upon, subconsciously.

Because we are finite and limited, we make bad decisions because we only hold some of the facts, with only a partial perspective. Mental models as a study was invented in order to provide holistic context for thoughts and ideas. We can’t think about everything at once in order to keep from being skewed, but we can hold a handful of mental models in place which represent that holistic framework.

What’s the Big Deal?

Our mental models define who we are, how we live, and the choices we make. But since we only act on what we truly believe, they even go beyond our patterns of behavior into the ultimate level of our ideals. Our models of behavior (which are practical) are directly influenced by our understanding of the big ideas (which are theoretical). And this is where it gets exciting. We can change the way we act by changing the way we think, and we can change the way we think by changing our mental models.

If you choose to join me as I survey these mental models on my wiki, you will begin to see why they are so important. But first, let me give you a few generalizations of their significance:

  1. Mental models facilitate cross-germination
    The very core value of mental modeling is in finding generalizations which remain true across disciplines. Who knew that becoming a computer programmer could make you a better thinker? The mental modeling required to structure rigid “if this then that” code facilitates the mind to see logical relationships across the board.

  2. Mental models provide a framework for thought
    What Charlie Munger calls a “Latticework of models” is the most compelling reason for developing these models. He said:

  3. “You’ve got to have models in your head. And you’ve got to array your experience both vicarious and direct on this latticework of models. You may have noticed students who just try to remember and pound back what is remembered. Well, they fail in school and in life. You’ve got to hang experience on a latticework of models in your head.”[4]

  4. Mental models engage the mind-heart gap
    Too often knowledge is acquired, not learned. How many times have you seen a person being a blatant hypocrite, while totally unaware? His theoretical knowledge doesn’t match his practical knowledge. He hasn’t learned the concept “experientially.” He has no mental model for it, otherwise it would rise up and stop him dead. Christians like to talk about “head knowledge” and “heart knowledge” as if those were spiritualized concepts. But everyone lives according to the world in their head–their mental map of reality–and if the way they are living is wrong, there’s a disconnect in their head between their mental models and their claimed mental models. Understanding that demystifies this problem somewhat.

  5. Mental models encourage critical analysis
    Modeling gives labels to common problems, encouraging productive introspection, a healthy criticism of worldviews, inherited ideas, biases, and so forth. You know that person who makes fun of fat people while chain-smoking? He is blind to his prejudice, as if overeating were any worse than chronic smoke-inhalation. He doesn’t see the connection, but if he possessed a mental model which would draw that connection, maybe he would.

  6. Mental models encourage wisdom
    Wisdom is the “knowledge that is gained by having many experiences in life.”[5] Wisdom is about life, not abstract principles. Or is that even a legitimate dichotomy? Wisdom is about those principles put into life. Wisdom is the magic some people have to navigate the world in fluid, powerful ways. Wisdom is the fluency and mastery one has over the world and its ecosystems, a cognitive framework that becomes practical patterns of success. Possessing mental models is the front-lines way of bringing theoretical knowledge to bear on life.[6]

Join me as I seek to discover, label, connect, and learn from the models we all carry around in our heads. We all have them and it’s my mission to make sure they are capital-T True. I can’t be infinitely objective and wise, but I can learn from One who is, and I think the front lines of that battleground is in identifying my models of reality, recognizing their error, and adapting them to be in line with Truth and Reality. Nothing new. Just a new (and hopefully more clear) way of going about old things.

While ignorance may be bliss, it sure has its consequences. So I’ve set my path away from Cypher and toward Neo, and even in that choice we have a great example of the use of models. Those two characters present two ways of dealing with life, and set within the story, I an convinced the way of exploration, discovery and enlightenment is the way for me. Thanks Neo.


  1. This worldview is what lies at the heart of everything from the ancient epicureanism to the increasingly popular modern worldviews such as nihilism and neo-stoicism. The worldview that tells you to enjoy what you got while you got it, regardless of where it came from or what it does to you is a result of a loss of meaning, a loss of hope for meaning.  ↩

  2. The best hope we have is to immerse our hearts and minds into an objective source. We have to find Someone else who Knows and let Him tell us how things are, letting our experience confirm what He has said.  ↩

  3. An example of this is Adolf Hitler. The man lived in a world that didn’t mesh with reality so that when he acted, England, America, and the Allies responded. His worldview, his narrative in which he found meaning, was flawed, even if some of his principles weren’t (unity, love, etc.).  ↩

  4. Source  ↩

  5. Merriam-Webster  ↩

  6. Source  ↩

The Great Conversation by Robert Hutchins (Book 1 of The Great Books of the Western World)

The Great Conversation by Robert Hutchins (Book 1 of The Great Books of the Western World)

The Great Books of the Western World: Embarking on a Survey of Western Thought

The Great Books of the Western World: Embarking on a Survey of Western Thought