The Mind is a Knife

Imagine a knife that has magical powers. It’s blade is so sharp that it can cut through any matter. It can glide through metal and dissect diamond like butter. The edge of the blade is basically infinitely small, and sharp, and slices through matter itself and cuts at the atomic level.

Such a knife with magical powers is an plot device in His Dark Materials, the young adult fantasy series written by Philip K Dick. It’s called the Subtle Knife, because of it’s powers. But of course, such a knife is impossible in the real world. But can it be a metaphor?

The analogy of the mind as a knife is apt. Imagine your brain is a knife, which is used to cut through the clouds of complexity, to clear away the fog that surrounds reality. Thus, the sharper a knife, the easier it is to cut through. While preparing for programming interviews recently, I spent a prolonged period of time practicing programming questions. I could feel an almost physical change in my thought process - I got used to the analytical process, like learning a new muscle memory. This process of solving a coding problem on websites like leetcode, makes you feel like a physical knife yourself, probing and testing the various solutions, trying to find an edge through which you can cut.

Another knife-mind analogy is found in the classic book, Zen - The Art of Motorcycle Maintainence. Again, imagine a metaphorical knife that represents your intellect. The sharpness of the knife represents the precision & focus of your mind, same as before. But now also consider how exactly is this knife used by you. This knife cuts and divides reality into different categories. The knife’s cut frames your worldview, how you think of your experiences, and how you categorize your thoughts and approaches to different aspects of your life.

For example: If you were to think of a computer, you might view it as a collection of hardware and software - chips, transistors, power supply, led screen, operating system, installed applications. Here the intellectual knife has cut up the system into it’s physical parts - divided it rigorously based on a scientific analysis. Or you might think of a computer as a tool for education, for powering industry and machines, for communication and entertainment and business. Here the knife cuts the computer, not into parts, but into it’s functions, it’s purposes. The computer is viewed as a whole, not just the sum of it’s parts. It is a different way of framing reality, equally valid as the other way.

This mind-knife can frame and cut reality in many different ways, and in different senses, not necessarily analytically. A lover might tune his mind’s knife to be very sharp to the emotions and thoughts of his beloved - he is intimately familiar with his partner’s needs and emotions. A politician would sharpen their mind-knife to the games of power and organizational behaviour. An businessman would sharpen their mind-knife to market forces and trends in their industry.

So if we combine these analogies, the perfect knife is the ideal vision of a 100% efficient mind. A mind which is infinitely sharp and perfectly tuned to any task it attempts. Such a mind can delve very deep into any topic, in the right way i.e. being attuned to the right facts and not wasting effort in incorrect directions. Nobody is perfect, of course.

Written on January 12, 2020