Being right all the time.

In my research I have collected piles of books. Partly on my e-reader, but I found out that I liked it better to devour paper books. And so there are piles of ‘real’ books on my desk. Some already read, some still waiting to be (re)read.

One of those books was a book with the beautiful title ‘How to make good decisions and be right all the time‘. This book was ‘set to be read’ last week – I try to get at least one book a week from the left ‘still to read’ stack to the right ‘already studied’ stack. I was looking forward to reading it, because, especially considering my blog on morality last week, I’m pretty much looking for the shades of grey and clarity around this subject. Morality fascinates me enormously.

I expected the title to be ironic. After all, everything I had read so far had strengthened me in the opinion I expressed in my blog last week: morality is full of shades of grey and it is quite difficult to find a certain viewpoint that is ‘better’ than the other viewpoint when there are moral differences of opinion. Always being right therefore, as the book promised, seemed to me to be a utopia (also a beautiful book by the way, I should add it to the ‘still to be (re)read’ pile).

Map of Tomas More’s imaginary land ‘Utopia’.

Funny enough, reading the book it got clear to me very quickly that the author does NOT mean it ironically. He is actually looking for ‘true morality’. As the writer Iain King argues, in physics with Newton’s revolution (you know, the apple that fell on his head) we have found a certainty that is enticing. Since Newton we know the laws of gravity, of time and space (yes I know, my science heart already went into resistance here and I kept calling ‘what about Einstein?’ to the book). And that gives us certainty.

Philosophy, and certainly moral philosophy, needed such a Newtonian revolution, King states. To make this clear, he starts the book with three rather classical moral dilemmas. I will describe one here:
Sven lives in a dictatorship. It is a cruel regime that is kept alive by the notoriously ruthless police. He is offered a job with this police force. Sven hates the regime, but he knows that if he doesn’t take the job, Erik will get the job. Erik is a person who enjoys doing nasty things. Should Sven take the job and help to keep the cruel regime alive? Or should he let Erik take the job, knowing that Erik will work very hard for this police and that Erik will make the police even more ruthless?

To establish that there is a correct answer to this dilemma, King spends 230 pages on systematically positing and ‘proving’ a universal moral theory. I put the word proving between quotation marks, because yes, I was not convinced. When King uses Sherlock Holmes to prove moral theories, I become a bit uncomfortable (‘it’s an imaginary person King!’). If the author ‘proves’ that the purpose of life is to generate value, by stating that the argumentation does not take into account the possibility that life has no (or no clearly formulated) purpose at all, but that in that case the whole reasoning is meaningless, so that that part may just as well be left out of consideration, I become desperate. The book is full of circular reasoning, post hoc propter hoc theorems and more nonsensical maxims. With King, ‘Proof’ becomes more like ‘throwing theses at people until they are numb’. I was not convinced (as you notice).

Anyway, I thought to myself: do you know, no matter how he comes up with it, maybe I’m too strict. Maybe I read it as a scientific book from which all notes and references have accidentally disappeared. Maybe I should read it more like a practical self-help book. Let’s see what he comes up with, maybe I can still use his guidelines on how to make good decisions.

King ends with 20 guidelines for making good decisions. In itself, most of them don’t even sound that bad. For example: ‘Have empathy, and be faithful to your obligations’, or ‘Help others with humility and be grateful for the help you get’. All fairly standard moral texts, which you also encounter historically in self-help books and religious texts. Some others, however, make me slightly uneasy: ‘Communicate in such a way that people act in a way that is optimal for the real circumstances’ for example. Or ‘Let people choose for themselves, unless you know their interests better than themselves’.

But the ‘proof of the pudding’ comes when we are back at Sven. Because King ultimately has an answer for this man in this rather dramatic dilemma. Now we know,’ writes King, ‘that Sven SHOULD take the job. It would be selfish vanity to refuse to dirty his hands. And while he does something only to prevent other people from doing even worse things, he must keep his bigger goal in mind: to overthrow the cruel regime’.

King continues with an even more astonishing sentence than previous advice: “What is special about this advice is that it is more than advice. This is the Right Answer (capital letters by the writer). It is not a matter of opinion, it is the truth.

Wow…. When I read this, I fell silent for a moment. I entertained the idea to throw the book out of the window. And then I realized: this book is for me the best proof of the necessity of my research. People who don’t look for doubt, for not knowing, end up always (or at least very often) falling into this kind of trap. A reasoning that seems logical at the beginning, if you follow it rigidly and monomaniacally, almost always leads to a nonsensical, excessive or at least questionable outcome. There is no truth. In spite of capital letters…

This book stays on my pile. Probably at a place of honour. Because for me it marks an important point in my research. Yesterday – I had just finished the book – I had my first consultation with a colleague to convert everything we know about doubt, changing our opinion, not knowing, moral truths and the influence of your emotional elephant, into training. A training in being ‘comfortable not knowing’. A training in the fact that ‘interdisciplinary working requires interdisciplinary looking’. A dialogue training for secondary schools, replacing the current debate training. And we have at least 10 other ideas.

Incidentally, yesterday we promised ourselves that if someone does not agree with our ideas for training, or wants to change our mind in any way, we should always take the space to say: Oh really? How interesting! Tell us your idea! Not knowing is in the end mostly practise what you preach. Building a training that is based on that starting point, may be a challenge 😉 But that’s what we are aiming for!

Truth and Righteousness enter a bar, part 2

Last week (ok, that’s not true, it’s more than two weeks ago, I dreaded writing this blog and procrastinated) I told you all about the slippery of the truth. Truth is not so true at all. Truth is a status we give to things that have seeped through a complex system of perceptions, heuristics and prejudices. Despite that system, truth is so important to us that go to war for it. With guns, on the highway or on social media.

What we also want to wage wars for, perhaps even more so than truth, is about righteousness. Moral considerations are absolute: stealing is bad, saving someone from drowning is good. Despite the tricks philosophers try to play with us (just look at the trolley problem), we never – or almost never – doubt our moral consideration. Righteousness… just is?

Unfortunately, righteousness faces the same problems as truth: we are just steering our elephant again. Our first instinctive reaction comes from our heuristics, our emotions, our instinct. For example, as an anti-authoritarian person, I have an instinctive positive reaction to actions that fight for a better climate. Even if my 13 year old son wants to play truancy and travel to The Hague with classmates to demonstrate, I automatically react positively. Only to find out too late that I really have a problem with the fact that my child is traveling alone in a full train to The Hague and demonstrating in a big crowd of people I don’t know. Not to mention the truancy…

The reason I have approved all of this is that I find it very important, from an educational point of view, that my son learns to deal with these matters. That he stands up for his opinion. That he weighs up the value of respecting the rules and customs on the one hand, again the value of standing up for something that is so important that it can’t be done according to the rules. At least, that is what I am telling myself. My elephants rider is teaming with integrity, good sense of purpose and rational thoughts. Unfortunately they are all fabrications of my head, and have nothing to do with the reason I said ‘of course you can go and demonstrate’. My elephant went left at the moment he heard ‘it’s for a better climate’ and my rider couldn’t do much else but go along and invent a story.

How would I have reacted if my son had wanted to demonstrate for a stricter immigration policy? Or for more flexible rules around the age limit for games and films? Would I have said just as naturally: yes, it is important to learn how that works, demonstrate? Or would I have reacted differently?

Accuracy and truth, all in all, they are unreliable beacons to organise your life. They absolutely direct my actions, but the question is to what extent I should let that happen. Because if they are actually elephants who instinctively react, why is my truth and correctness better than that of another person?

Jonathan Haidt describes in his book ‘the righteous mind’ that all morality consists of the same six ingredients. I have mentioned this before. The degree to which we consider the ingredients important varies between groups. But according to Haidt’s description, there is less light between all our different versions of Righteousness than we think.

If this is so, if this description is correct, then who can appeal to moral superiority? Whose compass is then the most pure? I started my research more than six months ago with the proposition that we all think we are Frodo, but that according to the rules of the story at least half of us were actually orcs. But is that so? How many really bad people do I know? Are our moralities really so different, so easy to score on a ‘good’ and ‘bad’ yardstick?

While I’m writing the previous paragraph, I’m getting restless. Because despite the fact that I believe in the description of Haidt, despite the fact that I see much wisdom in a description of morality as a general shared concept with different priorities between groups, it is difficult to unite my lower abdomen with the consequences. Because morality touches me, on a deep level.

Another example to illustrate this. Again about my son (sorry! Especially for him…). He was once small, three or four years old, when we had this conversation:
Son: ‘Mommy, I know what I want to become when I grow up!
Me: ‘What is that dear?
Son: ‘Well you know, first I wanted to become a firefighter’.
Me: ‘Yes, I remember’.
Son: ‘But you know, that’s a lot of work. So now I think I’ll become a pyromaniac’.
Me: …..

There are many mysteries in this short exchange. For example: how on earth does he get the word pyromaniac? (it featured in an song from the thema park the Efteling.) But at the moment itself my overwhelming feeling was one of powerlessness and a some despair. He was – and is – a clever child. His reasoning that lighting a fire is less work than putting it out, was difficult to undermine. But at the same time I saw in my minds eye where this could lead if he continued to develop his cleverness without ‘moral guidelines’. Or at least without moral guidelines that I thought were good enough.

So for me a very important and difficult question is: How far does moral pluralism go? In the end, can we justify everything? I can start the argumentation, but I already know that I don’t like where it ends. There is – I have – a need for an objective or at least shared ‘right’ and ‘wrong’. I must continue to believe not only in the Frodo’s, but also in the Orks. Not so much because it is true, because they are really there, but because it is necessary to structure my life. To make the group, society, work.

The question is: do we make the differences between our moralities, between our versions of Righteousness, greater than they are? Because that is functional for our society? Because it controls us better as a group, keeps us more together, binds us? And if so: how bad is that? Is it inescapable? Or does it amount to a sliding scale to a tribal world in which the other always has to remain the enemy?

I don’t know. I still think hard on this one. What I do know, is that the fact that Righteousness is less absolute than I thought, touches me even more deeply than the fact that Truth has fallen from its pedestal. Somehow – maybe my scientific background? – I can quite easily accept that Truth is grey. But Righteousness? I’m still working on that…..

Truth and Righteousness enter a bar, part 1

Do you know those bar jokes? A rabbi and a pastor enter a bar? The result is always a form of confusion. And it is usually quite funny. In recent weeks more and more jokes have been gurgling around in my head that resemble those bar jokes. They are about Truth and Righteousness, and are usually just as full of confusion. But I can’t laugh at them. For Truth and Righteousness are for me pillars of my existence. I assume that I know what is true, and that I do the right thing. Beacons in my upbringing, roadsigns on the way to adulthood. Search for truth and act righteously. Laughing at Truth and Righteousness is therefore very difficult for me. And yet I increasingly discover that there are serious problems with these beacons from my youth. Next week I will find out what the situation is with Righteousness, today I will examine Truth.

The first crack in the mirror of Truth came at university. I studied physics. We talked about electricity and magnetism, and about mass and speed. We did experiments and calculations and felt powerful. Until one of my teachers, in a lesson about light and reflection I believe, asked us if the table we were sitting at would be there if we didn’t look at it.

And no, it was not a philosophical discussion. The discussion was about light, about reflection, about proving that molecules (and the even smaller elements of molecules) exist. We obtain the technical proof for this through collisions. In Switzerland, at CERN, we collide particles at high speeds to see what there is. Nice technique. But, said the teacher: if you can only see something by colliding it with something else, then does it also exist without that collision?

I still don’t know if the table I’m typing at is there, when I’m not in my office. I hold on to the idea that everything just stays where I put it, even when I’m having lunch. That my world is real, and formed the way I see and touch it.

But when I walk outside with my dog, we both walk in a totally different world. Mine is full of colours and shapes, his is full of smells and sounds. Who is right? Which world is true? Scientists conclude that in our first years of life we are very busy understanding the input our eyes and ears give us. We make pictures in our heads that fit as well as possible with the input we see. But at some point our brain is ‘done’ with this, and the rest of your life you have to do with the interpretations you have collected up until then. A nice anecdote to illustrate this: I grew up in the centre of Haarlem, and when I was three, our family moved to a suburb with grass and pond. When I saw a duck in the pond by our new house, I called it a pigeon. And when we went to town for shopping, and my sister saw a pigeon, she called it a duck.

Photo of Simply Superb Swans, a blog about birds

Truth, it seems, is something we build in our heads. We use the input the world gives us, but we interpret it. As Multatuli said: ‘Maybe nothing is entirely true, and not even that. Your eyes fool you, and once you have used your eyes, your brain does the rest. With all the shortcuts we have discussed earlier, such as confirmation bias and cognitive dissonance. We don’t see what we think we see, we construct a truth. And once we have built that truth, we then only see those things that confirm our truth.

In Will Storr’s book ‘Heretics‘ the author describes many examples of our truth distortion. Renowned scientists who dismiss facts on semantic or detailist arguments because they disagree with the content of the facts. Two different people who look at the same object, but see something else. The most memorable (if horrible) example of this in the book is when the author is undercover on a journey with Holocaust deniers. They are in Auswitz at the gas chambers, and the tour guide shows that the door of this room has a handle on the inside. Prove – to him – that this room was not a real gas chamber. The author looks at the same door, and sees the locks on the outside of the door. They both look at the same door, but their eyes register different parts.

This piece from the book is horrible and chilling to read, especially because I don’t want to look into the head of a Holocaust denier. Such a person just has to be very badly informed, very stupid, or very evil (a quote form Kathryn Schulz in her TED talk about why we think other people are wrong). Storr shows me the possibility that the truth is more complex than I can accept in my heart.

Still from the TED talk of Kathryn Schulz ‘On being Wrong’.

Truth, it is an essential part of our society. And at the same time something totally elusive. As they write in this article about narrative journalism (sorry, in Dutch) at Follow The Money: the danger of telling stories that are meant to convey the truth, is that a story has to be completely true. There should be no contradictions, no white spaces. A story only runs smoothly when it takes you all the way, sucks you in. You don’t do that by constantly contradicting yourself. You do that by building up a compelling and storyline.

However counterintuitive, this is where I learn my most important lesson: beware of stories, of truths that are completely true. Beware of people who know for sure. The presence of contradictions, doubt and uncertainty in a story or in an opinion, is a good indication of his truth. Because real truth? It is always more complex than we think.