More Than Meets The Eye: Eight Aphorisms

For years now I have been using a few aphorisms again and again. I think there is often more going on beneath the surface in human behavior (nothing new here). These aphorisms help tease out some of those situations. The other day I discovered a new one. It was time to make a list. Each has exceptions, of course, but here they are:

[1] React to ideas behind words, not words themselves.  Not everything is a shibboleth. There are instances where people prematurely react to our use of certain words. They think those carry certain obvious implications, associations, social signals. We likely do the same. We bristle at the sound of certain words. Here are words I’ve seen people do this with: patriot, republican, democrat, science, evangelical, dispensationalism, social justice, spiritual formation.  We jump from the sound of a combination of phonemes to whole life associations and project associations and intentions on others; just by their use of a word. We shut our ears and hearts to the speaker because she used “that word.” The wise person stops to listen charitably for what person means or is trying to accomplish by their use of the word.   Meaning is bound up in the relation of words and concepts to other words. There is an approach to meaning that I will call “naive realism.” The idea is that one word means one thing independent of its relations to other words. It especially carries the assumption that the listener can read reality right off of the surface appearance/sound of words. Not so. Meaning, use, nuance is complex and goes deeper that surface usage. The charitable person learns to listen and look beyond the mere surface appearance/sound for what is really being meant or done with words. See #5 below for one reason we do this.

[2] People talk past each other because they are emphasizing two different “goods.” When my daughter participated in middle school Lincoln Douglass debates I discovered that there was more to analyzing a debate than just identifying both opposing positions. Here is an actual debate question for debate teams proposed around 2020: “Should voting be compulsory?” The positions are simple: yes and no. However behind these positions there are multiple values —> liberty, civic responsibility, representation of citizen voices. Each of these has great value, but in this case (comulsory voting) they can compete. In instances of deep disagreement, people are often FRAMING the debate in terms of two separate goods (i.e. values, good things, helpful outcomes). Both feel justified in pursuing their position because they are pursuing a value/good. The problem is that there are multiple “goods” that could be realized by separate routes of action.

Party A wants to turn a piece of land into a renewable energy plant. Party B wants to protect the land and keep it as the last undeveloped plot in the city. Both parties have a “good” in view, they just aren’t the same good. In this case they are “clean energy” versus “conservation.” A wife wants more family time and is worried kids aren’t seeing enough of Dad; she fears it is hurting their development. The husband wants to reach a certain goal in his current company. He’s afraid that if he lets up at the current work pace he could lose his job and things would be really bad for the whole family. Deep arguments ensue at home between both husband and wife both of whom are pursuing a value/good.

I don’t know that there is an easy solution here. You can see how one could easily slip into a secondary debate about which “values/goods” should take precedence. Even if solving debates is not easy, recognizing the underlying goods that each party is pursuing can help.

[3] Sometimes we think we are committed to the truth, when we are really just defending what is familiar. We all like to think we are committed to discovering the truth about situations in life. Sometimes, what is really afoot is that we are trying to find “facts” that secure what is familiar to us.  It may turn out that what is familiar to us is, in fact , the truth of the matter. Happily, in these cases, our search for “facts” will turn out to be energies spent defending what was true. However, given my own Christian worldview, humans are brilliant but broken. We are what the Bible calls “sinners.” We are easily mistaken. We frequently fail to see the world the way it really is. We are loath to admit that the world is more complicated and nuanced than we take it to be. The problem is not truth, it’s us. We are dedicated to what we think is true; but not always to what is in fact true.

A person who is dedicated to the truth will proceed differently than a person dedicated to the familiar. Dedication to the truth includes engaging in behaviors that could put our own familiar perspectives at risk. It is ultimately based in a kind of humility about one’s own limitations. The humble person is willing to acknowledge her sinfulness (in Christian theology) or epistemic limitations. She or he is going to recognize that the same fallibility that she projects on others could in fact characterize her. Dedication to truth is driven by a real hunger to know reality, even if it comes at the cost of what is familiar and comfortable.

[4] People too often confuse “means” for “ends.” This is an illuminating concept once you grasp it. We sometimes treat methods for accomplishing goals as if they were the goals themselves. I learned this from the instructional design program at Florida State University years ago. Business, churches, individuals try to protect methods for doing things as if they were the goal or end itself. Acme Industries always has the Big annual Spring Sale. Turns out, the Spring Sale doesn’t generate all that much income. It takes more work and preparation than most want to admit. However it’s a time honored tradition at Acme. The suggestion that next year they ditch the Spring Sale and try something else to generate income was met with absolute horror in a planning meeting. Questioning the Spring Sale is to question one’s loyalty to Acme Industries. Putatively, the END—and old word meaning GOAL—of the sale is to generate revenue. Acme diehards are mistaking a means/method for accomplishing the goal (the sale is just a means to make profit) and are treating it as if it is a goal itself. However, Acme doesn’t exist to have the Spring Sale!. It exists to make profit. There are exceptions to this. There is a place for tradition (i.e. certain time honored methods and means) in life, but the aphorism is powerful tool. There can be multiple ends/goals at play. However its important that a group stop and ask… what ends/goals is this method/means accomplishing? And if its not, why not switch it for one that DOES accomplish the goal? And if people won’t let a method/means go… there is evidence they have mistaken it for the goal itself.

[5] If you fear the outcome, you will distrust the process. I picked this up while reading the first chapter of Why Churches Need to Talk About Sexuality. A Dallas area church formed a committee to explore what kind of role same-sex attracted people could play in their church. I was fascinated by the fact that you could swap out the controversy (e.g. replace it with the 2020 election) and people’s reactions would be almost identical. No matter how hard the church tried to go about conducting the exploratory committee in a fair, careful, sensitive way, people distrusted their every move, because they were worried that the outcome would not be what they wanted. During the 2020 election of Joe Biden. People were convinced that a “fair/honest” process could never result in anything but one outcome – the election of Donald Trump. If another outcome resulted, it could only be evidence of foul play.

What is interesting here is that in 2016 democrats were sure H. Clinton would win. Turns out there were millions of people secretly wanting change who weren’t willing to speak up about it. They came out and voted for Trump. What people saw on the outside of society didn’t match reality. In 2020 people were secretly worried about Trump and more extreme followers. The opposite was true. Trump was certain he’d read the surface appearance of society. There were too many supporters to fail (according to polls). Votes showed otherwise. The reaction was massive amounts of hours and dollars spent discussing voter fraud, hacked voting machines, poll observers not being able to do their jobs, boxes of votes being thrown out, ballot boxes not being secure. In the end much of this effort seems to have fizzled out and been unsubstantiated. People just didn’t like the outcome and therefore refused to trust the process.

[6] There are three sides to every story – my side, your side, and the truth. I picked this up from a Jamaican church elder I grew up under. He used to say it and I’ve found it invaluable. In disagreements of every sort, people will present one side of an issue. Another party will present a different side. Husband versus wife. Church group one versus church group two. Sports fan A versus fan B. Very often the truth does not align exactly with EITHER side. There IS a truth of the matter but its is more complex than either side wants to admit. Both sides are getting part of the picture right, but are unwilling to admit this.

This should not be confused with the misapplication of the story of Six Blind Men and the Elephant. Six blind men had never seen, touched and elephant. They were brought to one. One grabbed its trunk. “The Elephant is like a snake.” One grabbed its ear, “The elephant is like a palm leaf.” One grabbed its leg, “The elephant is like a tree.” A fight ensued. In reality they were all partially right. Misuse of this parable occurs when a person suggests that all religions are the same (like the parable) and everyone has access to some part of the truth. It assumes there is a person who can see both the blind men and their interactions with the elephant … It assumes the speaker has a META perspective at a level higher than the disagreement of the blind men. It assumes the person has a META-perspective and access to MORE information than all religions combined and can in fact see the SUPER-reality that contains perspectival-reality. In religious contexts this just isn’t so, so the application of the Blind Men and the Elephant is a mistake. However in many day to day situations we CAN, through careful learning or reflection, pick up on meta or second-order perspectives about disagreements such that we can conclude there is a 3rd side to the story that combines aspects of both disagreeing accounts.

[7] Reality is stratified. Where you see one factor at play, there may in fact be five. This illustration could be made with concentric circles, but I think the stratification metaphor is easier to visualize (both examples below from science and computer networking use stratification).

In science writing, there is a classic model of reality that involves stratifying it into something like academic domains. Think of a layered cake. On the bottom is physics, above that chemistry, at layer three there is biology, at layer four maybe zoology or psychology. Perhaps economics or sociology is up on top. The items at one layer are composed of the items in the lower layer. What happens at one layer engages, involves, affects, requires, all the layers below it or above it. In a networking stack, you can’t use the computer application (program) without simultaneously using the hardware on the bottom layer. Whether one layer can be wholly reduced to the layer below it (i.e. reductionism) is a massive debate in science. I’m not a reductionist. A person, for example, exists at (I didn’t say in) all the layers simultaneously. Whether humans are dualistic (i.e. made of body and spirit which may not be located in the strata) is a debate that I can set aside right now. I’m just going for the layered illustration and whether humans have an immaterial sole, they are certainly composed in a stratified way. This stratification metaphor can be used in language, companies, computer network stacks, etc… Networks are made up of hardware

Sooooo…. when you think of events, causes, situations, health problems, solutions to things… often there are multiple layers/strata at play. Person A wants to analyze the problem in terms of one cause or one strata. In reality there may be 4 or 5 at play.

This is a common computer networking “stack” image.

This is from the first edition of Arthur Peacocke, Theology for a Scientific Age, 217.

[8] Media outlets—conservative and liberal—skew our perception of reality. We have a massive epistemic problem in society today; we can’t tell what is real. This is partly due to the fact that reality is too complex for any one person to know what is going on in. In my dissertation I speak (briefly) about an epistemic access problem we have as knowers —> we have a problem accessing/knowing what is real for two broad reasons. (a) Limitations we have as knowers and (b) the world is too complex at places even for the best knowers to capture it. This state of affairs is complicated by social mediate and news outlets. Recently we’ve become aware of the fact that search engine algorithms return answers to our searches based (in part) on our past searching history. What you get when you search for something in Google is not what someone else will get. What you see on facebook is not what someone else will see. We’ve learned that Facebook algorithms prioritize posts based on what is likely to generate the most engagement. We always suspected that news/media outlets run stories that are most likely to draw viewers. Most of our informational intake is skewed. Liberals and conservatives are drinking from skewed information sources. You and I are no different. The information we get is being served to us in a way that fulfills not just political agendas, but often economic agendas. Your attention to a news story or facebook page is a money maker for someone on both ends of the spectrum. Information can be presented in many ways; it is often presented in ways that will keep sub-populations of people engaged and watching.

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