To More Fully Understand Reality

I really love science. Most of the shows on my podcast feed are science shows, and even though I am not a scientist myself, I love listening to new discoveries and trying to think about the world in the way a scientist would. Even though he is not a scientist himself, Colin Wright, in his book Becoming Who We Need To Be, has a whole chapter dedicated to experimentation and what we are doing when use the scientific method to understand the world around us. This entire chapter resonated with me since I like to think about the world scientifically.

 

I spend a lot of time trying to approach the world in a rational and empirical way, continuously doubting the stories I tell myself and wanting objective confirmation of the things I experience. I forget how foreign this way of thinking can actually be for much of humanity. Many people do not truly approach the world following the scientific method and have not been trained to think in truly scientific ways. Our ancestors for thousands of years evolved in small groups where we could understand reality and bond at the same time by telling stories that explained how the world operated and how humans should exist within it. It is only relatively recently in human history that we found out how to interrogate the world through experimentation to truly see what was happening in front of us.

 

Wright writes, “Our understanding of the world, the galaxy, the universe in which we live, is increased through a scientific model, which allows us to posit ideas and then test them systematically.” A challenge for humanity is recognizing that we further our understanding by developing testable hypothesis and designing experiments that set out to prove those hypothesis false. It is too easy to prove what you want to believe is true and approaching science and the universe in this way presents us with too many opportunities to nudge the data and methods to get the results we hope for. Setting out to rigorously try to disprove your theory leaves you in a place where you never quite confirm what you believe, but as you eliminate different alternatives that would prove your thoughts false, you gain more confident that your idea is an accurate reflection of  the world. “We observe, we experiment, we refine and experiment some more, and we eventually learn something that we can express and act upon.”

 

Wright suggests that part of why this is so hard for so many people is because, “this is in part a consequence of having been told since birth that our opinions are just as good as anyone else’s.” We live in a world today where we feel as though we are supposed to have an opinion about everything. It feels like we should come up with the answer for every problem, even if we have no reasonable basis for having an opinion. I believe that is part of why we operate unscientifically, but I also think that human nature does not favor believing in something because we have systematically tested it and ruled out alternatives in a legitimate manner. It is far easier, and often more comforting, to believe the world is a certain way because it feels intuitively correct. Striving to use the scientific method in our lives, however, has incredible payoffs as we step away from the false narratives and stories we create in our head and learn to live with more accurate information that better reflects the reality of the universe without preconceived expectations of what that reality should be.

Original Intent

A popular idea among many people, in regard to the Constitution of the United States is the idea of “Original Intent.” It is a concept that suggests that our constitution should be strictly followed and narrowly interpreted, that what was written and ratified in 1788 is what should still guide our government today. Historian Joseph Ellis thinks this is a troublesome view given the nature of the Constitution’s adoption and approaches of Madison who greatly influenced the shaping of the constitution.

 

In my last post, I wrote about the Constitution as a living document, designed with the intent that it would be updated and adjusted through time to meet the needs of citizens at a given point. Ellis, in his book The Quartet, continued with this view of the document and wrote,

 

“The Constitution was intended less to resolve arguments than to make argument itself the solution. For judicial devotees of “originalism” or “original intent,” this should be a disarming insight, since it made the Constitution the foundation for an ever-shifting political dialogue that, like history itself, was an argument without end. Madison’s “original intention” was to make all “original intentions” infinitely negotiable in the future.”

 

The Constitution has few hard and fast rules, especially when the Bill of Rights and subsequent amendments are not considered. It focuses most thoroughly on the role of Congress and authorities and duties delegated to Congress. The Executive Branch is also fairly well detailed and explained, but the Judicial Branch is hardly developed in the Constitution. Broad language such as “necessary and proper” was written into the Constitution, creating  flexibility for Congress. Trying to look back at the Constitution and assume what the founding fathers waned our government and society to look like today is trivial in the eyes of Ellis. The Constitution they wrote encourages debate, argument, and new interpretation. Clinging to ideas of original intent appears counter productive, because the founders never intended for their understanding of the world to lock in specific governance rules for all time. The intent was a document which would define and separate power to allow for deliberation and debate among the branches and among the people to guide the important decisions of the nation.

 

I also believe that original intent does a disservice to the Constitution and to society by elevating the document and the founding fathers to a quasi-religious level. To assume that original intent is the most appropriate way to understand the Constitution is to assume that the document itself and the men who wrote it were somehow greater than ordinary men and that the written words of the constitution are in some sense sacrosanct and divine. Our founding fathers, the quartet detailed by Ellis in particular, no doubt achieved something remarkable with the writing and adoption of the constitution, but if you study the time and can view history through the lens of those who experienced it, you see that history was shaped by people who made mistakes just as we do today, who were counting on good luck, and who had equally cloudy judgement and foresight as today’s leaders. Just as we would assume that a law written today is not perfect and should not ever be adjusted when the situation calls for it, we should not assume that the Constitution is a document that cannot be re-imagined and re-understood as society and the world change.

Getting Team Members to Take Action

I don’t find myself in a lot of direct coaching situations today, but nevertheless, Michael Bungay Stanier’s book, The Coaching Habit, has been helpful for understanding coaching relationships and knowing how to be truly effective not just as a coach, but also as someone receiving coaching. One recommendation that Bungay Stanier has in his book is for coaches to ask more questions relative to the advice they give. As a person working on a small team and as a spouse, this is something I have always been challenged by. As an employee who knows that he doesn’t quite know everything (as much as I sometimes do feel that I do), recognizing that the questions people ask me are great chances for us both to develop greater understanding is important. For the person being coached, questions are always a little terrifying. Answers from above are easy, but questions mean you have to really know your stuff and be prepared to provide a meaningful response.

 

Bungay Stanier recommends that coaches use questions to get the other person thinking and to truly get to the most important issues for a given employee. From the outside we can look at someone’s problems and assume that we know what is going on for them, but we can never truly get inside their head. Asking more questions relative to giving advice is one way to better understand what someone is dealing with. One way to get more questions into your coaching conversation is to give the person you are working with a chance to answer both your questions and also their own questions before you chime in.

 

Bungay Stanier recommends the following approach as a coach when someone asks you a question, “Say, ‘That’s a great question. I’ve got some ideas, which I’ll share with you. But before I do, what are your first thoughts?'”

 

This strategy provides an insight into the thoughts and approaches of the other person. It reveals their general approach to a given situation and helps you understand where their thinking breaks down. The response gives you a chance to give examples and to focus on what the other person is actually looking at and thinking about, whereas giving advice without this question just shows what you think about a problem without understanding it from the point of view of who you are working with. You won’t be able to address the person’s questions if you don’t know how they are understanding and interpreting the situation they are in. Asking what their thoughts are and what their approach would be in a given situation reveals how you can be the most effective as a coach.

 

As an employee, I try to remember this and bring this into my own 1-on-1’s with my manger. I know that I can shed light into my thought process and outline what approaches to problems and situations seem reasonable to me. Rather than expecting an answer from my manager, I can better explain my challenges and how I have thought about approaching a situation to elicit better guidance. It is not easy on either side, as the coach or the team member, but it is necessary to actually drive improvement for both of us and our team.

Writing, Physics, Inspiration, and Life

One of Amanda Gefter’s favorite physicists was John Wheeler, and in her book Trespassing on Einstein’s Lawn, Gefter quotes him numerous times and describes the impact that Wheeler had on her life. What made Wheeler different from other physicists, what entranced Gefter with his work, was his often poetic way of describing the universe and interpreting what the mathematics of the universe told us. In a world of complex physics, daunting mathematics, and mind bending conclusions, Wheeler’s voice cut through with simplicity and his poetic style was elegant yet clear and inviting.

 

One part of Gefter’s book describes a trip she took with her father to Philadelphia to look over Wheeler’s old notebooks after he passed away in 2008. At the American Philosophical Society, Gefter and her father poured over his old notebooks, studying his thoughts, the progression of his studies, and analyzing the conclusions he reached along the way. One of his annotations in a notebook was included in Gefter’s book, and I think it does an excellent job illuminating Wheeler’s poetic style and what it was that drew Gefter to his writing, speaking, and way of describing science.

 

“Still,” Gefter writes, “Wheeler was lost. ‘Not seeing a dramatic clear path ahead,’ he wrote. ‘Now have concluded just have to push in through the undergrowth. ‘Traveler, there are no paths. Paths are made by walking.’”

 

In his personal notebook, describing what appeared to be a dead end in his research, Wheeler turned to a phrase we have probably heard before, but probably not in our science classes. Wheeler was pushing the edge of scientific thought, and he had come to a point where he could no longer rely on the research of others to show him the path forward. The quote was used to describe propositions, yes/no or true/false statements about some reality. Wheeler, like Gefter years later, was searching for some truth to the universe that was not observer dependent, that did not need to change or adjust based on a observer’s position, speed, or quantum composition. Propositions seemed to be a place to start, but even there, the dreaded sentence, “this sentence is false” seemed to break even propositions and seemed to pull apart any basic form of reality.

 

Altogether this short section from Gefter, the lessons she shared about Wheeler, and the scientific challenge which served as the genesis for Wheeler’s note teach us a few things. Often times we want a dramatically clear choice in our life, but for each of us, the path has not been made. We must push through the undergrowth of life, creating our own  path as we go. We must abandon expectations of how things should be and how things ought to turn out for us, because there is no solid truth that we march toward. We are not pushing forward in the universe and in our lives to an inherently perfect and true destiny. The reality we find as we cut through the undergrowth is as observer dependent as gravity and time. How we choose to see it depends on our reference frame, and our reference frame is something we have some choice in. And while we are using that choice, we can be boring, stuffy, and self pitying, or we can be inventive, flourishing, and excited for the new discoveries that know will lie ahead of us.

Exoneration

In the United States we love labels. We fully embrace the part of our brain that wants to categorize and classify everything around us, and when it comes to people we search for the right label to apply to every person to help us understand who they are, what they believe, and what they are likely to do or think. Our brains are constantly looking for patters, and labels are a type of heuristic to make people easier to understand.

A label that has been used more and more over the last several years, but has only become more complicated, is the word racist. Most people do not think seriously about race, though unavoidably race does influence our behaviors. Race triggers tribal instincts deep in our brain, encouraging us to look at others and decide whether they are like us or not like us, and associate and act accordingly. Where we live, who we hang out with, the jokes we tell, and where we go out for dinner are all areas where our tribal brain shapes our behavior based on perceptions of race, which is to say perceptions of sameness and otherness. Without self-awareness these implicit biases are hard to observe, understand, and counteract in ourselves, but they can be observed and criticized by other people or within a larger society.

It is this conflict, the challenge of seeing how implicit bias impacts our individual decisions and the ways in which implicit bias manifests in racial injustice, that has made the label racist so charged and so difficult to understand. We want to group social injustice, white people who make jokes about minorities, and our segregated society into the racist label, but the people who are tied up in everything described by the label are unable to see how they could be described by such a term.

Ta-Nehisi Coats in his book Between the World and Me describes this problem and how white people in our country have reacted to the charge of racist. “My experience in this world has been that people who believe themselves to be white are obsessed with the politics of personal exoneration.” In a sense, those who are grouped under the umbrella of racist become singularly focused with making excuses to show that they do not fit within the label. They demonstrate ways in which their behaviors are inconsistent with the most obvious forms of racism, and argue that their individual actions could not contribute to the system which has been oppressive for minorities and contributes the segregation that our society sees today.

Those charged with the label racist view racism as being overt actions, demonstrable discrimination, and unabashed ill-will toward minorities. The type of implicit racism that is rampant throughout society is somehow shielded (by hiding behind economic excuses) from the understanding of what racism is for those who are criticized as being racist. Society however, can see the way that individual decisions and historical injustice have piled on to create a society that is deeply affected by racist politics. Somehow we need a new label and new description to accurately explain society and individuals without forcing an exonerative reaction form those at fault.

Always Asking Questions

Questioning the world around us is part of what makes us human. Our search for answers and a better understanding of the universe is the story of human progress on Earth, and we must constantly ask questions and to find new answers to propel us forward. Often we never reach the answer we were hoping for, but we still ask questions and we still do our best to continue to understand what is taking place in the world around us.

 

In Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coats discusses how he learned to question the world, to truly strive to better understand the universe, by observing what took place around him and asking why.

 

“My mother and father were always pushing me away from secondhand answers—even the answers they themselves believed. I don’t know that I have ever found any satisfactory answers of my own. But every time I ask it, the question is refined. That is the best of what the old heads meant when they spoke of being “politically conscious” —as much a series of actions as a state of being, a constant questioning, questioning as a ritual, questioning as exploration rather than the search for certainty.”

 

Recently I have been more aware of the answers people have to the frequent questions our world asks: Who should we elect, what is the nature of religion, how should we organize society to maximize human progress? Listening to the responses people have, it is clear to me that most people do not have answers, but instead have partial secondhand responses that they think they should defend. Most people do not live their lives in a constant state of questioning, and if they do, they seek out certainty to place themselves and their actions on the correct side of any given issue. Rather than inquiry and a deeper understanding, people pursue comfort and reaffirmation. This is clear in the simplistic shallow answers people offer to complex questions.

 

What Coats learned from his parents was to find his own answers. His parents pushed him to learn, to be aware of the world around him, to ask why, and to not accept the simple answers that people offered. His story shows why it is important to be constantly questioning what we know, why we know what we know, and whether our model of the universe is operating with the best information available. It is likely that we won’t find perfect answers, but that does not mean we should stop questioning or that we are on the wrong path because our knowledge is in one way or another incomplete. Recycling answers from someone else, especially secondhand answers that were never formed as complete thoughts, is dangerous and misleading. We fall into cycles where we fail to actually look for answers and build more complete understanding, and instead look past the answer given and find the response that seems to support our identity and the belief we want to hold about ourselves.

 

Our understanding of the universe should be nuanced because the universe, human interaction, and the organization of everything from atoms to people is complex. When we fall back on absolute answers and simple solutions, we are avoiding the nuanced and the challenging investigation of our planet. Easy and assuring answers are nice, but they do not aid human progress and they do not allow us to live in a state where we improve upon our knowledge and beliefs.

How We Argue – Talking Past Each Other

Senator Cory Booker discusses the state of national debate in politics in his book United and I think accurately describes an unfortunate reality of today’s political discourse. The arguments that we make today often don’t seem to be in alignment. Each side is arguing in a way that does not seem to actually address the point being made by the other side, and does not seem to be operating with the same set of facts, values, or baseline understandings. Booker writes,

“We often end up in national conversations that are akin to arguing about what  the temperature is in a room without looking at the thermostat. What we need is a collective call to the common good based upon indisputable facts and the broader aspirational ideals to which we all ascribe.”

Booker’s point is well intentioned and falls in a recent theme among books that I am currently reading and podcasts that I listen to regarding language, reason, argument, and understanding. Booker is absolutely correct that we are arguing without a baseline and without a common set of facts, but the challenge is that his final point rests on political decision making, and even for an individual, deciding what aspirational ideals should be ascribed to is a struggle.

Author Colin Wright’s new book, Becoming Who We Need to Be, looks at one of the problems with arguments today and how we end up talking past each other. We fail to develop a shared understanding of the world and issue at hand because we use language differently depending on our viewpoints. We apply labels (acronyms, descriptions, names) to elements of an issue or argument, and if those labels are not well defined or shared, we end up at a point where our argument is in some way unintelligible to someone who sees things differently.

I have also recently listened to a couple of podcasts on Julia Galef’s show, Rationally Speaking, where the ideas of self-interest, rationality, and decision making have been challenged and examined from very nuanced perspectives. It turns out that we are not so good at determining what is in our own best interest, and much worse at understanding how other people determine what is in their best interest.

Julia Galef was also interviewed herself on a recent episode of the Ezra Klein show, and in the podcast Ezra and Julia discuss the problems that arise in our arguments. We are not open to the other side, and often shut out ideas that seem to be oppositional to ourselves or come from people we find disagreeable. This means that before we even begin an argument or debate, we are judging how aligned we are with the other person, and determining how much we should agree with them on any issue before we have even begun talking or listening.

I think Booker is correct that we are arguing without understanding what we are arguing about or what the baseline is, but trouble with how we use language, how we determine what is politically best for us or others, and how we rationalize what we and others believe make it politically challenging to ever decide what we should all ascribe to and how we could reach that goal. One solution would be an increased validity in political and knowledge institutions. A greater sense of support and acceptance of reports from academic institutions and politically neutral government agencies can help us be more aligned in our debates and discussions. This would require serious effort and commitment on the part of the agency or academic report to be seen as non-partisan, and it would also require the public to accept reports and findings that did not align with political ideals.