The Thinker and The Prover: Part 1

A Twitter thread by Jim O’Shaughnessy

Aaron Morekin
5 min readDec 30, 2020

To read this thread as intended on Twitter, follow this link

“The unexamined life, said Socrates, is not worth living. That’s some serious shit. Most people wouldn’t want to examine that statement, much less their own lives.” ~Jed McKenna

“We say “seeing is believing,” but actually, as Santayana pointed out, we are all much better at believing than at seeing. In fact, we are seeing what we believe nearly all the time and only occasionally seeing what we can’t believe.” ~Robert Anton Wilson

“People consistently overrate their own skill, honesty, generosity, and autonomy…They chalk up their successes to skill and their failures to luck, and always feel that the other side has gotten a better deal in a compromise.” ~Steven Pinker

“If people want happiness so badly, why don’t they attempt to understand their false beliefs? First, because it never occurs to them to see them as false or even as beliefs. They see them as facts and reality, so deeply have they been programmed.” ~Tony de Mello

We humans are an interesting lot. We often conflate our opinions and beliefs as facts that are axiomatically true, and, when we fuse them with emotions, see them as extensions of our very identity and any disagreement by others as a personal attack on who we are as individuals.

In his book “Prometheus Rising,” Robert Anton Wilson cites the work of Dr. Leonard Orr, which simplistically divides the human mind into 2 parts: The Thinker and The Prover. This is a useful model that is technically “wrong” because of its simplicity.

Yet, I also want to demonstrate that things that are objectively “wrong” because they simplify things can nevertheless be extremely helpful. This underlines George Box’s idea that “all models are wrong, but some are useful.”

I’ve explored this idea with people in conversation, and one thing I notice is that I see the very concepts I’ll be discussing happening in real-time in my discussions with people if I even hint that they as individuals (and of course me as well) might be susceptible to this process of flawed cognition. It happened so often that I’m going to change up the way I discuss it. Rather than think about how this might routinely affect you as an individual, think of this as a simplified look at what @BrianRoemmele refers to as HumanOS — our installed human operating system that we all had as “software” that turned on the moment we left the womb.

Cognitive psychologist Donald Hoffman argues that our perception of the world is more akin to a desktop on a computer. An interface that helps us interact with the environment, but with unnecessary complexity hidden away. The added benefit here is that it will (I hope) distance the idea from ourselves and avoid the reflexive (and often unconscious) process of our minds to move into “shields up, do not like!” mode.

Now, back to Orr. He argues that the Thinker can think of anything it wants and often takes cues and guidance from family, friends, religions, and other philosophies and conflates those thoughts and principles with its own thoughts, and often does this unconsciously.

In other words, The Thinker can imagine almost anything, no matter how fantastic or illogical, that it wants. Magic or mundane, we give free rein to the Thinker to “believe as many as six impossible things before breakfast” as the Queen says to Alice in the Wonderland books.

The Thinker is not precise — It sees his/her own thoughts as original and can mix together many societal beliefs as if it had originated them. This is not intentional and The Thinker tends to put all of these desperate thoughts into a big think vat that it identifies as “unique” to it, even though many are derivative of sometimes centuries of human thought. But the Thinker can also shade the world any way it desires.

It can envision life as a happy journey filled with well-intentioned people and friends or as a dark walk through streets filled with trouble and strife that create a deeply unfair universe that’s “out to get” it. Thus, the world can be thought of as a happy cheerful place or one of terror and despair. And this process extends to *everything.* It can envision free markets as the best or that Marxism is the one true doctrine. It can see baseball as the national sport or insist that it’s actually football. The point is, after much or little thought, the Thinker “decides” that something is right and true and after doing so, SHUTS OFF and lets The Prover take over.

The Prover’s job is simple — it sees these beliefs and then gets to work “proving” them. Do you believe that your hometown team is an extension of you? The prover will make that so. Are you Team Red or Team Blue? Doesn’t matter, whichever you are, the Prover will provide a steady flow of information to both “prove” and reinforce what the Thinker decided. The Prover doesn’t KNOW how much or how little effort the Thinker gave these beliefs or how sophisticated or simplistic the Thinker’s process was — its job is simple: its only job is to prove what you believe is correct. Now, how does it accomplish this?

First, by being the ultimate confirmation bias machine. It blinds you to any information that contradicts your Thinker’s beliefs. It then often binds the “correct” observations it lets through your perception filters to your emotions and continually suggests that those beliefs are actually permanent aspects of who *you* are as a person. If your Prover is good at its job, you will link these beliefs to “hills you’ll die on” because of your certainty of the absolute truth of these beliefs. Because its job is to prove rather than question, it shuts down your ability to think “what if I’m wrong?” Things that go unquestioned go unseen. They are effectively invisible to us. And remember, this happens with all of “us” because it comes fully installed as HumanOS and is an app that runs continually and silently in the background of our minds.

The Prover is also powerful because it makes great use of our reticular activating system, which among its many jobs, habituates our minds to ignore repetitive, meaningless stimuli while remaining sensitive to others. And you can guess which stimuli it sees as meaningless and which it is sensitive to — an easy way to quickly understand it is to think of the last car you bought. Did you “suddenly” start seeing the very same make and model *everywhere* after you bought your new car. That’s the result of your RAS becoming sensitive to the new stimuli as a result of your purchase.

Next up, part 2: Why this matters if you want to upgrade your mental models.

A Twitter thread by Jim O’Shaughnessy