Thinking About Thinking - 2020

What is your Zero Error?

By Balaji Prasad

“The goal of life is to make your heartbeat match the beat of the universe, to match your nature with Nature." ~ Joseph Campbell

It has billions of neuron cells and trillions of connections between them: the human brain is an incredibly complex thing. It is not surprising that it would be so, in order to deal with a universe that is infinitely more complex than itself.

The mind is one of nature's big mysteries and its secrets are likely to remain out of reach for the foreseeable future; despite all the faith in neuroscience, philosophy, psychology and various other disciplines that chip away at the edges of the big mystery that starts from the biologically identifiable entity that we call “the brain" and moves into the depths of an even more mysterious non-entity that we confer the label of “the mind" to.

David and Goliath

The universe is big. Much bigger than the mind. And therein lies the void. I am limited to whatever my mind - whatever that is - can hold in its innards, with the capacity it has to do so. Whatever part of the universe that I am not able to stuff into this remarkable but nevertheless relatively constrained space remains firmly outside my mind's scope and grasp. But that is where much of life as a whole teems. It is worth observing though that all of that is not “my" life - mine is a much more minuscule subset of the whole: a sub-universe that, to me, is the universe.

So this David can never vanquish Goliath, for he cannot see the gigantic creature in its entirety. Even the parts that he sees are too large for him to take in fully. David resorts to the limited tools he has - to metaphors, sketches, abstractions, words, logic, and myriads of other expressions - to make some sense of this rather ungainly beast. At least, as much as is needed to survive the occasional onslaughts from the sometimes benevolent but sometimes cantankerous giant who is both there and not there at the same time.

However, this sense of the beast is not quite enough to get a full grasp of it.

A low-res life

Reality exists in a much higher resolution than does my mind. If my television set does not support high-definition, it will not matter if the network is streaming extremely high-resolution images to me at blazingly high speeds. I catch what I catch because that is all I can catch. The coarse and grainy pixels on my screen give me a fleeting glimpse of what is out there, but I come to the rather sad conclusion that there is much that I don't know. And can never know.

The only resolution that I can make to myself is that I must remember that my life is lived in an instrument with a remarkably low resolution. This awareness might at least let me stay in touch with the reality that there is a deep and vast darkness out there, where many signals bounce back and forth, but which are well outside the frequency range of the elegant but limited instrument I possess.

The “zero error"

If I am able to see that there is an “it" and that there is a “me" that thinks of an “it", and that the thought and the thing are not the same thing, then I have an awareness that there is something along the lines of a “zero error" in the fine instrument that I possess.

The instrument errs. Repeatedly. However, my awareness of this error-proneness allows me to do a couple of things. First, I take all measurements that come from the instrument as likely flawed in some way, and apply a generous discounting factor to all the measurements that come from this instrument.

Secondly, not all flaws are equal of course. Knowing about the zero error may cause me to pay attention to where I go wrong more, and more often, enabling me to tune the instrument over time. Yes, this process could stretch well into the grey-hair region and even the no-hair regions of life, but just this simple awareness of the existence of a zero error may allow the instrument to be tuned to some degree, so that it lies less and speaks the truth a bit more.

When there are more truths and fewer lies, and when I know how to discount whatever lies there are, that is when I move closer to the way things really are. It is still not a hi-res life, but it is a low-res life that knows that it can never be a high-res one. It knows its place in the overall scheme of things.


Balaji Prasad is an IIT/IIM graduate, a published author, SAT/ACT Online and Offline Coach, interview, resume, and career coach at NewCranium. Contact: 704.746.9779 or