Insights for the deeply romantic and deeply skeptical

Eliminate or Illuminate the Middleman: On whether to admit we interpret reality

The stuff between our ears, and/or between reality and perception

Let's say, for argument's sake, that there's a real world out there for us to perceive. And then there's our sense of what that real world is. Intermediating between these two, what is there?

All of us, some of the time, and some of us, all of the time, assume there's nothing—no middleman between reality and our sense of it. In other words, what we perceive is a direct, clear-channel result of what's out there.

Some of us, some of the time, however, notice that between reality and perception, there's always us: the perceivers, the middlemen who interpret perceptions—whether consciously or unconsciously—but in the process take their cut and leave their biases

What can we do about these middlemen (and middlewomen)?

One of two things: We can try to eliminate them, diminishing their influence by ignoring, disowning, banishing, or disavowing them. However, the risk here is that, by ignoring them, we give the middlemen free reign to interpret any way they please. But, in a way, that's also a benefit, because it frees us to think anything we want.

Alternatively, we can try to illuminate our middlemen, shining light on them, declaring them, putting them on the table where we can keep an eye on them. This would be more honest, but very distracting, like starting every sentence with, "I believe (though I may be biased) that... " It also makes us look wishy-washy. In negotiation with people who are eliminating their biases, illuminating yours is the surest way to lose.

Which is a reason most of us, most of the time, eliminate our middlemen rather than illuminate them—which doesn't do much to constrain the very real bias our middlemen impose.

I believe (though I may be biased) that there are ways to illuminating our middlemen work well more of the time. We need a technical language for talking about middlemen—something subtle but fluent that falls between the generality of "We're all a bunch of hypocritical self-deceivers " and the specificity of monitoring every move. Knowing better how biases work, and assuming that all of us have them, we can monitor them without having to be distractingly vigilant.

T.S. Eliot's poem "The Naming of Cats" captures well the relationship between reality, perception and the middleman interpreter. In it, cats get three names, which I think represent the three elements: 1) The common name; the generalization. The name given to more than one cat, which would be our perception of a cat as one member of a family of cats. 2) The particular instance. A name that's particular to a single cat, which would be the perception,  and 3) The mysterious translation from instance (2), to generality (1) which would be our middleman, the interpretation process between reality and perception. 

"The Naming of Cats, " by T.S. Eliot

The Naming of Cats is a difficult matter,

It isn't just one of your holiday games;

You may think at first I'm as mad as a hatter

When I tell you, a cat must have THREE DIFFERENT NAMES.

First of all, there's the name that the family use daily,

Such as Peter, Augustus, Alonzo or James,

Such as Victor or Jonathan, George or Bill Bailey—

All of them sensible everyday names.

There are fancier names if you think they sound sweeter,

Some for the gentlemen, some for the dames:

Such as Plato, Admetus, Electra, Demeter—

But all of them sensible everyday names.

But I tell you, a cat needs a name that's particular,

A name that's peculiar, and more dignified,

Else how can he keep up his tail perpendicular,

Or spread out his whiskers, or cherish his pride?

Of names of this kind, I can give you a quorum,

Such as Munkustrap, Quaxo, or Coricopat,

Such as Bombalurina, or else Jellylorum—

Names that never belong to more than one cat.

But above and beyond there's still one name left over,

And that is the name that you never will guess;

The name that no human research can discover—

But THE CAT HIMSELF KNOWS, and will never confess.

When you notice a cat in profound meditation,

The reason, I tell you, is always the same:

His mind is engaged in a rapt contemplation

Of the thought, of the thought, of the thought of his name:

His ineffable effable


Deep and inscrutable singular Name.


Jeremy Sherman is an evolutionary epistemologist studying the natural history and practical realities of decision making.


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