Josh Haas's Web Log

Words are bullshit

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I’ve always been very suspicious of words. When I was in high school I was on the debate team, so I constantly had to practice arguing both sides of an issue, and one of the things I noticed was that I could work myself up to a state of passionate conviction that I was right, even though thirty minutes ago I was equally convinced of the other side. I was raised in a family of Democrats, and raised to believe that the Democratic party was right and the Republican party was wrong. My parents would even half-jokingly say “Republicans are evil.” After a while, though, this started to seem a little silly; how could half the population of the United States be right and virtuous and the other half be wrong and evil? On the debate team, I would be arguing from a conservative position one minute, and a liberal position the next, and honestly sometimes both seemed right and other times both seemed wrong.

In all this mess of wrongness and rightness, one distinction that emerged for me was the difference between value judgments and statements of facts. Value judgments seem very subjective; it’s pretty much impossible to prove using any kind of logical argumentation that something is good or bad, or wrong or right, if the person you’re talking to doesn’t accept the premises that you’re arguing from. On the other hand, facts are something you can rely on: they’re objective statements of what is, untainted by any subjective notions of what ought to be.

In theory, anyway. In practice, “facts”, I’ve learned, tend to be value judgments masquerading in disguise. In any complex situation, there are a million little details. What you leave in and what you leave out come down to what you see as relevant, and “relevant” means, “related to your goal or purpose in talking about this situation”, which puts you back in the realm of the subjective. A candidate walks into a job interview with two interviewers; the first walks out seeing the candidate as intelligent and straightforward; the other thought the person was obtuse and rude. It happens all the time.

Even the very simplest, most basic things, contain an element of subjectivity. Let’s take the statement, “there’s an apple on the table.” What’s an apple? Well, without getting too scientific about it, it’s a fruit whose parent was an apple tree. But what if that apple tree had some mutations, and the apple is a little larger, a little bumpier than your typical apple? (Keep in mind that every living organism has mutations… the only question is, how drastic are they?) Is it still an apple? At what point does a sufficiently mutated apple become a new species? There’s no hard-and-fast rule… what ends up happening is that interested parties (biologists, apple farmers, Whole Foods, the USDA, etc.) hash it out and come to some kind of an agreement.

We don’t see the subjectivity in our everyday facts because humans have a natural tendency to socially converge on a set of common values, a consensus reality. If I’m in a room with you looking at the apple, most of the time neither of us are apple experts, neither of us are thinking about mutations, and both of us are hungry: we accept “there’s an apple on the table” as self-evident fact. And this is by-and-large a fine way of operating: if we really thought about the fundamental accuracy of everything we said, we’d be completely paralyzed.

That said, at the end of the day, all the word “apple” really is is a short-hand for a complex biological phenomenon. Moreover, it’s an imperfect shorthand. There is no one-to-one mapping between our concept “apple” and a set of things in the real world; there are always border cases. We can keep on revising our concept of “apple” til the end of time and there will keep on being border cases. And our concept leaves out the majority of what there is to know about apples. For instance, did you know that apple seeds contain cyanide? Take anything you take for granted, drill into it, and there is always a world of complexity there that you’ve never thought about.

My conclusion from all of this is that in fact there is no such thing as a true statement about the world. Words and the concepts they represent are functions of the human mind, and the human mind is incapable of wrapping itself around reality. It’s like trying to paint a picture by singing a song: music can suggest images, but it can’t actually convey them.

In many ways this is a liberating observation. People spend a lot of time worrying about being right. People stake their entire careers on trying to convince other people that they are right, and that others are wrong. When I hear politicians speak, for instance, no matter what side of the political spectrum they’re on, I tend to hear “blah blah blah blah” — a lot of claims, emotions, rhetoric, all of which can sound better or worse or resonate with me more or less strongly but at the end of the day, often mean completely nothing.

When you drop the pretense of “right” and “true”, in a black-and-white way, what you’re left with is flexible adaptation of your concepts to experience. One thing I’ve noticed is that the more I’ve actually experienced something, the less opinionated I am about it, or at least the more skeptically I treat my own opinions. It’s easy to be opinionated about something that you’ve only engaged with on a conceptual level: in fact, most people, myself included, are almost frighteningly opinionated across a vast range of subjects that honestly they know nothing about (What’s your opinion on the government’s health care policy, for instance? Do you have a strong one? Are you sure you’re right?)

This seems counterintuitive — the more you’ve experienced, the less opinionated you are — but in fact it’s very logical. Concepts are compelling things, and we’re in love with our own. The more a concept relates to a sense of self, the more in love with it we are — if our sense of self is strongly based on us being an American, for instance, woe to anyone who dare criticize America in front of us! For American, substitute Republican, Democrat, black, white, gay, Jew, engineer, lean startup practitioner, housewife, businessman, artist… the list is as infinite as human culture. But the more experience we have, the more we are forced to confront the fact that our concept is just an approximation. The real world is always happy to teach us that things are more complicated than our mind is capable of wrapping into our world view. For instance, if you’ve learned to drive, you’ve probably been taught at some point that if you start skidding you need to turn your wheel in the direction of the skid. That’s probably good advice on average, and if you started skidding and didn’t know what else to do, that’s as good a thing to do as any and probably much better than turning the wheel in the other direction. But I bet you $5 that if you talked to someone who’s had extensive experience skidding — say, a professional race car driver, or someone who drives an ambulance in an icy climate — the conversation would be substantially longer than “turn your wheel in the direction of the skid”. Life is always more detailed and rich than our mental sketch summary of it.

It’s comforting to hold on to concepts, because it gives a sense of security to feel like you understand the world around you, that you’re in control, that you know what’s right and what’s wrong. But the ability to let go of those concepts is the ability to learn and grow. Uncertainty is the precondition for insight. In a sense, holding onto concepts is like keeping yourself in a cocoon… it feels safer, but it narrows the horizon of your world. So, what I like to tell myself, is that words are bullshit… I say stuff, but even as it comes out of my mouth, I know at some level it’s not really true, it’s just me expressing what I feel in the moment to the best of my abilities. That way, I can make strong statements and get things wrong, because I know that even if I tried to be really careful and always be right I wouldn’t be successful. And oftentimes, being creatively and aggressively wrong can lead to more interesting places anyway.

Written by jphaas

June 14th, 2011 at 12:01 am

Posted in philosophy