[Summary: This essay has three parts. First, truth is really important. Second, you are a damn fool. Well, not a fool. I’m trying to get your attention. But you are fallible, and so am I. We all are. This makes discovering truth very difficult. Third, our fallibilities can be exploited by others who do not particularly care for truth. Be humble, embrace your fallibilities, and try to overcome them as we strive towards accessing truth.]
“Being good, she observed, meant being good to others, including strangers. And that was pretty much enough to live by. But how can you know the right thing to do? Human reasoning, she said – referring now explicitly to Socrates and Plato – human reasoning is imperfect. Human bias keeps us from perfect vision of what is happening around us. But the quest for truth – the quest to understand the world around us – must ultimately be how you enact the good.”
– Alice Dreger’s mother (Galileo’s Middle Finger, p. 256)
“Veritas super omnia.”
Last year, I shared some thoughts on Isaiah Berlin’s 1994 essay, “A Message to the 21st Century.” Everyone should read it, in my opinion. I often come back to his words, as I see them as a synopsis of the human condition. Berlin emphasized that the values we hold most dear frequently clash with other ones (justice can clash with mercy, spontaneity with rational planning, liberty with equality, knowledge with happiness, etc.).
“A man carries within him the germ of his most exceptional action; and if we wise people make eminent fools of ourselves on any particular occasion, we must endure the legitimate conclusion that we carry a few grains of folly to our ounce of wisdom.”
― Mary Ann Evans (George Eliot), Adam Bede
In his book The Blank Slate, Steven Pinker borrowed a concept from the conservative scholar Thomas Sowell, who argued that there were two “visions” of human nature (Pinker, 2002). Pinker referred to these as the Tragic Vision and the Utopian Vision, and he spent several pages placing famous historical thinkers into one of the two camps.
According to Pinker, the Tragic Vision suggests that “humans are inherently limited in knowledge, wisdom, and virtue, and all social arrangements must acknowledge those limits” (p. 287). On the other hand, in the Utopian Vision “psychological limitations are artifacts that come from our social arrangements, and we should not allow them to restrict our gaze from what is possible in a better world.”
These groupings are not perfect, but Pinker argues that they work better than trying to categorize people as left/right or conservative/liberal. For some examples, in the Utopian camp, Pinker placed people like Bobby Kennedy, Rousseau, and Thomas Paine. For Tragic Visionaries, he chose – among others – Friedrich Hayek, James Madison, Edmund Burke, and Hobbes.
“There have been four sorts of ages in the world’s history. There have been ages when everybody thought they knew everything, ages when nobody thought they knew anything, ages when clever people thought they knew much and stupid people thought they knew little, and ages when stupid people thought they knew much and clever people thought they knew little. The first sort of age is one of stability, the second of slow decay, the third of progress, and the fourth of disaster.” – Bertrand Russell, Mortals and Others (1931: 106)
“Spare me the true believer.” – my father
I recently found the below essay, “A Message to the 21st Century,” written by Isaiah Berlin. Apparently, he wrote it in 1994 after he was given an honorary doctorate degree by the University of Toronto. The heart of the essay is a warning against fanaticism, a reminder of the need to be aware of our own limitations, and the wisdom of the unavoidable need for compromise. We all have values that we hold more dearly than others, but they inevitably clash. Berlin advocated, wisely, that we seek balance among our values (freedom and equality, for example), rather than championing one exclusively above all others.
As Bertrand Russell cautioned, disaster is most likely to occur when we are overconfident in our convictions, particularly when those convictions have little merit. It seems to me that the solution is to retain some humility, no matter how much we think we know (rather than being limited to the people Russell would categorize as ‘stupid.’)
I’ve pasted parts of Berlin’s essay below, boldfacing some of the parts that resonated with me. I recommend reading it in its entirety.
“There are men who will kill and maim with a tranquil conscience under the influence of the words and writings of some of those who are certain that they know perfection can be reached.
“When you plant lettuce, if it does not grow well, you don’t blame the lettuce. You look for reasons it is not doing well. It may need fertilizer, or more water, or less sun. You never blame the lettuce. Yet if we have problems with our friends or family, we blame the other person. But if we know how to take care of them, they will grow well, like the lettuce. Blaming has no positive effect at all, nor does trying to persuade using reason and argument. That is my experience. No blame, no reasoning, no argument, just understanding. If you understand, and you show that you understand, you can love, and the situation will change.”
— Thích Nhất Hạnh
I’ve liked this for a long time. That is all.
“For the great enemy of the truth is very often not the lie—deliberate, contrived, and dishonest—but the myth—persistent, persuasive, and unrealistic. Too often, we hold fast to the clichés of our forebears. We subject all facts to a prefabricated set of interpretations. We enjoy the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought.”
Today, my son told me he had figured out how to never make a mistake again. His solution: just never try or do anything anymore. He said it with a smile, but I think he half wishes this was an option. Unfortunately, he seems to have inherited a personality quirk (defect?) from me, which is that we are both incredibly good at self-flagellation when we make mistakes.
To cite a minor example, sometimes I’ll dwell for a couple of days on a student’s question that I couldn’t answer in class. Or if I forget somebody’s name who I am definitely supposed to know, I will swear at myself under my breath far too many times, more than most people would. And those are just minor examples. It can be a problem, one that I wish I hadn’t passed along. Dammit (see?).
To reassure my son, he is actually on the same wavelength as Alain de Botton, one of the better known modern philosophers out there. And he’s not even 10 yet. Good for him.
“You can’t have everything. Where would you put it?” – Steven Wright (comedian)
“It seemed like a good idea at the time.” – S.A. (neuroscientist, friend)
Lately, I keep seeing a recurrent theme in a number of widely different sources. It’s a concept taught in Economics 101, that of tradeoff and opportunity costs – money or time invested in one object or activity cannot be spent on another. A related concept, foundational to biology, is life history theory (LHT). In his book “Patterns of Human Growth,” the biological anthropologist Barry Bogin defined LHT as:
“the study of the strategy an organism uses to allocate its energy toward growth, maintenance, reproduction, raising offspring to independence, and avoiding death. For a mammal, it is the strategy of when to be born, when to be weaned, how many and what types of pre-reproductive stages to pass through, when to reproduce, and when to die.” (1999: 154)
you could be a winner at the game of life