Words to live by

I’ve long been concerned with the problem of being understood — of helping other people with whom one interacts, who think about and perceive the world in different ways, understand my perspectives and thoughts. Trying to solve this problem of understanding, unfortunately, often ends in extreme long-windedness that rarely gets me much closer to my goal.

So over the past months I’ve thought about coming at the problem in another direction — something fundamentally short. The aphorism. Or a collection of aphorisms, more accurately — short phrases, either original or borrowed, that have stuck in my mind at one point or another as concise explanations of how I see the world. These aren’t my favorite quotes (those are usually longer, for one), but they do encapsulate a lot of my outlook (in almost all of these cases, my outlook preceded coming up with an aphorism that encapsulated it):

— “Know thyself.” What better place to start with the ancient Greeks? This phrase has a rich heritage, being supposedly one of three carved into the walls at the famous Temple at Delphi, used extensively by Socrates in Plato’s dialogues, and then later by such luminaries as Thomas Hobbes, Alexander Pope, Benjamin Franklin and Ralph Waldo Emerson. And I take this aphorism quite seriously. To know and understand oneself is highly important. I examine and analyze my thoughts and actions regularly, not just over weighty or emotional matters but over trivial things too. If I want other people to understand (know) me, then I have to take that first step.

“Nothing in excess.” This was the happiest discovery of my exploration into aphorisms. I started out with something along the lines of, “everything in moderation” — only to discover that “nothing in excess” had been written at Delphi, along with “know thyself.” (The third Delphian aphorism, “make a pledge and mischief is nigh,” is sadly largely irrelevant to my philosophy.) And just like “know thyself,” I take the idea of “nothing in excess” very seriously. While I teetotal on some things, like tobacco and mind-altering drugs, in most things my philosophy is to avoid going too far. I’ll have a beer or two, but never get drunk. My diet is relatively simple, and I allow myself an occasional fast food hamburger or ice cream sundae without getting angry at myself — but without making a habit. I pursue a range of interests and hobbies, and sometimes get really into one thing for short bursts of time, but over the long run try to avoid letting any one interest, hobby or habit define me. Even in ideology (more on that later) I try to avoid extremism.

“Correlation doesn’t equal causation.” Among the most important watchwords one can have in this information-rich age. This doesn’t have a rich Delphic pedigree, but it’s no less valuable. Our lives are overloaded with streams of data, trends moving up or down, forward or backward. It’s always helpful to remind yourself that two things changing at the same time doesn’t necessarily mean there is a related cause. This aphorism isn’t to say that causation is impossible (a higher-order philosophical question), only that it’s a lot less harder to prove than those bundles of nerves we call brains think.

“Never trust any fact that reinforces something you already believe.” This one is my first semi-original formulation, though the thought behind it is hardly new. Like the above aphorism, it’s an heuristic to sort through our information overload today. But while “correlation doesn’t equal causation” is about not jumping to conclusions, this aphorism is about how to avoid letting your own conclusions bias you. When we learn something that coincides with existing facts we know or beliefs we have, it can be all too easy to immediately accept it. In fact, those cases are when we should be most suspicious, to counteract our instinctive acceptance. We should always be challenging our own preconceptions — not necessarily rejecting them, but forcing ourselves outside of our comfort zones to give uncomfortable facts a fair hearing and comfortable facts a skeptical one. This applies even to things that seem to have a mountain of evidence behind them — never be afraid to consider the counter-factual. If the evidence is strong, being challenged will only improve the theory.

“Take ideas seriously.” A third aphorism related to processing information, this builds off of the prior two. They’re about being cautious about what ideas to accept, while this urges the opposite: to not be parsimonious when considering new thoughts. It can be too easy sometimes to dismiss new ideas as ludicrous or silly or wrongheaded. I think it’s important to give ideas the full weight they deserve: ponder them before passing judgment. This doesn’t mean that one has to treat all ideas equally and accept everything. Even outright offensive or evil ideas — racism, sexism, bigotry and other forms of prejudice, hatred and fear — should be studied and considered. This does not embolden proponents of evil, but weakens them, because dark ideas wither when exposed to the sun.

— “People are strange.” Even someone as introverted as I deals with other people on a day to day basis. And one of the most common ways to pass judgment on others is that they are strange — that they don’t conform to expectations of how people should speak, think or act. Well, I am one weird fellow. And I think it would be a bad precedent for me to set to start judging people for being weird. Hence this aphorism: everybody’s weird in some way, and one shouldn’t condemn them just for being different from one’s expectations. That doesn’t mean you’re expected to like everyone, just that you should find better reasons to dislike someone than that they are different. I’m weird, you’re weird, everybody’s weird. Pretending that the way we think and act is normal only closes us off from others. Besides, if you give it a little thought, you can always find SOMETHING to dislike about someone beyond just their oddity.

“Remember, the enemy’s gate is down.” This isn’t exactly Delphi, but this quote from Orson Scott Card’s 1977 novella (and later novel) Ender’s Game is still something to live by. In the original context, this referred to zero-gravity wargames. Contestants in the wargames would enter a large zero-gravity hall from a door in the middle of one side, while their opponents would enter from the opposite. Contestants always clung to their prior frame of reference from the gravitized hallway and saw themselves moving horizontally across the hall to the enemy’s gate. Ender, Card’s protagonist, realized that in zero-gravity, the old frame of reference means nothing. Instead of moving across the room, he urged his teammates to think of themselves as falling downward toward the enemy’s gate. This new frame of reference helped him bypass ossified tactics and come up with new, revolutionary approaches to the wargames.

None of us are participating in zero-gravity laser tag (we can only wish), but this is still relevant advice. We should always consider whether our preconceptions actually apply, even if they’re more subtle than which direction is down. Sometimes forcing ourselves into a new paradigm can make all the difference.

“If you ever say to yourself, ‘I can’t understand why they believe what they do,’ you’re doing it wrong.” This is less cryptic and more specific than most of the earlier quotes, but I still think it’s important. This grows out of the prior aphorism, “take ideas seriously,” as well as my work as a political reporter, interviewing people every day with strongly held opinions about one issue or another. Moreover, people usually believe that their opponents are wrongheaded at best, evil or idiotic at worst. Most people aren’t insane, and hold opinions about taxes, abortion, God, freedom, war, sex, art, sports or anything else for specific reasons. They may be good reasons or they may be bad reasons. But they’re reasons, and we owe it to our fellow humans to try to understand why they believe what they do. As above, this doesn’t mean we have to agree with them, or discard our own beliefs. We must merely recognize that if we can’t understand someone’s beliefs, it’s usually not because their beliefs aren’t understandable, but because we aren’t trying hard enough to understand them. Again: understanding is not accepting. Even our bitter enemies deserve the courtesy of consideration. If we are truly in the right, this consideration will only strengthen our resolve. If we are not, we may realize our intellectual houses were built on sand all along. But you never reach that point without trying to understand why others believe what they do.

— “Never ascribe to malice that which is adequately explained by incompetence.” This aphorism has various alleged fathers, from Napoleon Bonaparte to science fiction writer Robert Heinlein to some bloke named Robert Hanlon. Despite being more obscure than this phrase’s other potential coiners, it’s Hanlon who most often earns credit, as this phrase is sometimes called “Hanlon’s Razor.” But enough about etymology: this epigram is all about agency. As humans we’re wired to find patterns and attribute actors to actions we observe — even when those actions aren’t actually caused by anyone. Similarly, when people do bad things, we often assume it’s deliberate. Often, however, people aren’t trying to cause harm, they’re just bumbling about mucking stuff up.

This doesn’t mean that nothing is deliberate. On the contrary, many things are. But ordinary people being incompetent is often a far better explanation for the travails of the world than evil people being efficient. True evil is rare indeed compared to true ineptitude.

Following my first aphorism, “know thyself,” what can one learn about me from this collection of philosophical musings? It seems that the operative word is “detachment.” I try to separate myself from my biases and emotions to consider things clearly. This can lead to excessive skepticism, so I then recognize and try to counteract that by actively considering other points of view.

Where this can lead me astray is in cases where the right course IS clear, but my inclinations lead me to endlessly ponder something instead of acting on it. It’s the subtle trap of nihilism Dostoyevsky captured in Notes From Underground. I have to be sure that in my detachment I don’t lose my connections to the world of deeds.

All that said, and considering the fact that my own background and position gives me the flexibility to spend hours pondering aphorisms and philosophy instead of struggling to survive, I think there’s wisdom in what I have to say here. A world in which everyone thought like me might not be a very fun place — I am strange, after all, and so don’t expect other people to be like me — but I still think people would be better off if they were a little more skeptical, a little more reflective and a little more moderate in their approach to life. Beliefs mean nothing if you only apply them to yourself — to truly believe something is to think that other people would be generally better off if they believed the same as you. And whatever the virtue in these words I’ve gathered here today, I do believe them.