Everyone Is Wrong
(Even When They Are Right)
By Steve Gillman - October 17, 2011
The truth lies in the middle, but that's just a metaphor,
and one which works in only a limited way. Perhaps it is better
to say that the truth is pointed to in many ways, or that various
aspects of the truth are pointed to with various ideas.
Here is a story as an example:
At some point, Frank started to run out of time to do all
the things he wanted to do. He decided it was time to pay for
people to clean his house. It makes sense to pay $15 per hour
to a house cleaner since he could generate $30 per hour doing
something else, right?
This is what he told his friend. In fact, he extrapolated
the principle here and decided that anything which saved his
time was worth up to $15 per hour saved (he set the amount lower
than the $30 per hour he makes, to allow for a margin of error,
as well as taxes). He decided that he should pay for any such
product or service if he could.
His friend said this is nonsense. He suggested that Frank
was living a very narrow life if he specialized so exclusively
on his work and paid for every dish to be washed, all yard care,
and so on. He should do all the things most people have to do,
in order to have a more rounded life. Of course his friend was
wrong. But then so was Frank.
Simple principles teach us a lot, but the truth is more complicated
than any principle can capture. In this case, it almost certainly
makes sense to start paying for services that save time. If Frank
could afford a lawn-care service, why mow his own lawn? He could
instead be creating something of more value, or just enjoying
a day in the park.
But there is at least one reason he might mow that lawn; because
he might actually enjoy it. In that case why pay for someone
else to take his pleasure away? But what if he enjoys it just
a little? Maybe he should allocate such "partial-pleasure-tasks"
at a value of just $10 per hour (choose a number).
Isn't life complicated? Of course, it doesn't necessarily
feel like it if you handle it the way most people do: intuitively.
But for your intuition to work at its best, it should be trained
in efficient patterns of thought, and it should be introduced
to new perspectives like the one suggested in this example. Frank's
intuition should be exposed to both his idea and that of his
His friend was right too, when he noted a problem with delegating
everything except his most efficient and profitable activity.
He may not explain it well, but he is seeing something of reality
and truth. One example was given above, in the complications
of activities which are enjoyed to some extent.
Another example is the more complicated reality of what causes
greater creative output and creativity. This gets much more complicated.
Specifically, the question is "Will Frank be most productive
when continually focused on one task for an extended time, or
does his output actually increase when he alternates tasks and
broadens his focus? In a school setting, for example, studying
has been found to be more effective in shorter sessions with
small breaks between them. It seems that first and last things
studied are recalled more easily, and many short sessions create
more first and last things.
Isn't it likely that something similar could be true in other
productive activities? If you are working on designing a new
business system, for example, it might help to stop and wash
the dishes, or go to go shopping, even though these are things
which you can pay to have done for you. Many a genius has had
great ideas pop into her head after setting the problem aside
and taking up some other task. Such changes in activity may be
especially helpful in more creative work.
Now back to the primary point. You can see that in the example
above it doesn't work to apply ether Frank's idea nor his friend's
idea in the extreme. Principles--even moral rules--cannot be
taken as exact guides to action because they cannot contain the
whole truth. You might be tempted to think that the principle
or truth or rule just wasn't defined well enough, and if you
could just work on it a bit, you could create something permanently
true and useful. Of course there is little evidence of such a
thing happening in history - at least with "principles of
life," and you probably already suspect that I or any thinker
could tear apart any rule or truth you try to define.
For example, let's look at the principle that you shouldn't
lie. No, this is too easy, for it fails the moment a hypothetical
(or real) murderer asks you where your children are. What about
not stealing? Also too easy. Surely a man living under a dictatorship
whose family is starving while government officials prosper is
justified in stealing some food for his family. In fact, it seems
a reasonable argument that if he had a chance to easily steal
food, then to let his family die would be the true crime.
Okay, maybe they are all too easy to refute. But at this point,
you might try the argument that the man wouldn't really be stealing
under the circumstance. So to make the rule useful, we need to
further define stealing. Of course then I would find another
"moral" action that violates the new improved definition.
You might change the rule slightly. You could say that lying
is wrong except when there is force involved - that it is okay
to lie to someone who is using force or the threat of force against
you. Of course, then you are just proving the point that principles
laid out in language usually can't contain the truth and must
So am I saying that there is no truth? Not at all. I am just
pointing out that no matter how hard we try, we cannot capture
it entirely and permanently in words. I am certainly not denying
the importance of words in understanding truth. I simply think
they are a way to point at it, and that their value in "capturing"
it will always be limited.
An explanation: Suppose I ask a man "How do I get to
the post office?" and he tells me, "It's about six
blocks up on the right - you'll see it." That isn't a very
exact map he drew with his words, yet it may be the most efficient
way to point out the truth of where the post office is. And that
is what I want, after all. I want to find the post office - not
the best description of its location, or the most elegant and
Words are some of our most powerful tools for understanding
when they are used to point to the truth. On the other hand,
we become their tools when we try to fit reality to their rules,
ideas and supposed "truth." Consider the following
Life is evil, a man said,
and he walked by a beautiful fruit tree,
without seeing it.
Life is good, a man said,
and he walked by a hungry child,
without seeing him.
Life is, a man said,
and he gathered the fruit from the tree,
and he fed the child.
Now, you might think that this is message about the futility
of words in moral and philosophical discussion. This short story
hints not only at the blindness-to-reality of the first two men,
but at the idea that their blindness may even be caused by their
words. It may seem to suggest that seeing without the use of
words is the only way to truth (the "life is" comment
of the last man is unnecessary in this case).
Does it say that though? It is, after all, using words to
show YOU some aspect of the truth of reality. It can hardly be
claiming that words are without value. The point is all about
how we use words, or how they use us (and perhaps how others
use us with words as their tools). Words cannot ever fully define
truth, but they can point towards it.
Therefore, take the attitude that everyone is wrong. That
doesn't mean we have to tell them that, or that we have nothing
to learn from people. It just means that we must always be ready
and willing to go beyond what we and others say, to new definitions.
The truth is always beyond the words, and we cannot find better
words to point to it if we try to cling to the old.
Someone who clearly saw my point wanted to argue about this.
That's interesting, isn't it? Finding a new approach to the truth
wasn't as important as pointing out flaws. I imagine if he found
that post office just four blocks up, he would run back to tell
the man "You were wrong - it wasn't six blocks!" Running
an extra eight blocks just to prove someone wrong might seem
silly, but we do it all the time (me too) in intellectual discussions.
I am pointing at something real here. Maybe you see it, maybe
you don't. Maybe you are thinking "I see your point, but
it just isn't important."
tough questions, answers, evil
Some tough questions about biases, good and evil and many
Some Tough Questions
October 12, 2011
Sometimes it is better to keep exploring the tough questions
in life rather than to have pat answers ready for them. Often
there are not any simple answers to complex matters. With that
in mind, today I am posting a few questions without answers.
A thousand obvious and subtle biases can get in the way of
clear thinking, so what is the path to higher intelligence?
If you can see a truth and act accordingly right now and from
this moment forward, doesn't this indicate that you can be "born
again" in a fundamental way?
If the evil was called good by the rest of the world, would
you have the will to call it by its name and act accordingly?
Does transcending the self mean denying what is good for you,
or is it the highest expression of self interest, hidden in an
apparent contradiction created by an imperfect language?
Do believers think that god has never made himself known to
atheists, or do they believe that atheists are denying what they
secretly know because they prefer the alternative?
What is fed is what grows, so what are we feeding in ourselves
when we condemn others, rather than forgiving them?
We generally do not accept the "I was just doing my job"
justification for serious crimes and immoral acts, but where
is the moral line beyond which you should not do your job?
What do we know of love, and is it possible that what we know
of it gets in the way of actually experiencing it?
What moral stature is left in a political system that advocates
slavery--the military draft--in the name of freedom?
Why do so many of those in Hollywood, who are near the top
of the economic pyramid, make so many movies in which those who
make money are portrayed as the bad guys?
If scientists collect data in the form of observations, and
then construct theoretical explanations of how things work, how
different is that from the way in which superstition develops?
What does the "creationist's" desire to dress religious
mythology in the forms of science say about the state of his
Does anyone--or the world--actually owe you a single thing?
Isn't is a bit arrogant to believe that our own version of
how things are "supposed to be" is the one correct
one out of six billion?