Finding the Truth

What to do when it feels like you're spinning your wheels intellectually

Frank Busch / Unsplash

Sometimes I feel like I’m spinning my wheels intellectually. The basic truth is that I read a lot of non-fiction books, and a lot of them disagree. Pretty significantly. 

For example, a month ago I read a book called Widen the Window by a former Army intelligence officer and current Georgetown professor Liz Stanley. The idea of the book is that when we get stressed out, our survival brain takes over and makes it hard to use our thinking brain. So we need to learn techniques to calm down our survival brain—and widen our window—so that we can react better to stressful circumstances by using our thinking brain. That’s cool! Makes sense. 

Except, now I’m in the middle of a book called How Emotions Are Made by neuroscientist by Lisa Feldmann Barrett that completely disagrees. She writes that humans don’t have a survival brain and a thinking brain—we just have one brain and its job is to regulate our bodies. Therefore the key to emotion management is not to learn to calm our survival brain, it is to manage our bodies.

To which I basically respond, “Excuse me, I’d like to talk to the manager.” 

How do I resolve these contradictory claims? Mostly I don't. Basically what I do is believe the new stuff, and forget the old stuff. Who needs it anyway? Every day is new! Ignorance is bliss. 

It’s like being the Brain in Pinky and the Brain. Every episode you try to take over the world. But none of the plots carry over from one episode to another—every episode is a self-contained blank slate.

This is a very annoying way to live. I want ideas to carry over from one day to the next, and when they contradict each other, I want to get to the bottom of it and figure out the truth. I want to feel like my beliefs about the world are well-grounded, and unknotted—I want my beliefs to be more like a chef’s mis en place than a hairball at the bottom of a drain.

More specifically, I want to feel like I have well-grounded reasons for believing what I believe. Instead I just feel gullible. Here I am nodding my head at any author that can fog a mirror, like a philosophy undergrad. One week you read Kant, and you believe the intent behind our actions is the best way to determine their moral status. The next week, you read Mill, and you throw out that sappy moral imperative bullshit, because the only way to assess moral status is through the consequences of our actions. “UTILS, baby!” You shout as you fill out your spreadsheet assigning moral point values to every friendly conversation and Taco Bell run. 

This is bad, I think. Or is it? Is it even true? Or did I just make you nod your head? Let’s see if we can untie the knot..

The upside of trying ideas on

One way to unknot ideas it to take them out for a spin.

That's what reading lets you do. It’s like living with an idea for a few days. You’re not married to it, but you’re going on a weekend trip. You get to see how it looks by candlelight, if it packs too much stuff in its suitcase, and how it reacts if the car breaks down or you miss your flight. 

It’s a commitment, yes. But it’s not a commitment. You might decide that it’s unreliable, and break up. Or you might decide you like it, and keep it. 

What’s more, you don’t have to introduce it to your friends right away if you don’t think they’d like each other. You can kind of keep both sides of your life going at once while you figure out if you really have to choose a side—or whether there might be a way to integrate the two. 

This process, I think, is fairly important. There’s tremendous upside in variability and diversity of ideas. Typically when we’re reading non-fiction books it’s because we think we’re going to get something out of them: we’ll find new ways to live, or understand the world, or make decisions. There’s generally some kind of practical upshot of the book that you can take away into your life. 

Most non-fiction books recommend ideas that are low cost to try, and have potentially high upside. So why not just go ahead and try them? 

I’ve felt something similar doing Superorganizers interviews. The reason I love doing them is that everybody has a different system for running their life, and the systems are fairly modular. I get to pick and choose little bits to try to incorporate into my life. Everything from the way I track my todos, to the way I organize my calendar are from the interviews I’ve done—and I don’t have to completely agree with the philosophy behind the tip in order for it to fit into my life.

I give it a shot—if it works I keep it, and if it doesn’t I throw it out. I don’t need to take tons of notes to resolve contradictions, because it happens semi-automatically in practice. I take what works, and forget the rest.

But what about truly understanding what you think?

Okay, yes, you can try ideas on. But does that fully resolve the issue? A big piece of the issue is not practical, it’s intellectual. I want to truly understand what’s going on in the world. And it’s very annoying to feel like I’m just believing the last thing I read. 

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