On Avoiding Conceptual Dead Ends

Say that we are climbing a mountain and the trail becomes hard to follow. We come to a post with twenty signs nailed to it. Nineteen are marked with lines and squiggles that mean nothing to us. One reads “trail to summit marked with orange circles.” We follow its directive and, lo and behold, arrive at the summit.

. . . of the many ways it is said:
do not enshrine
your preference
for one over the other

Thus we say of the sign that pointed the way: “that is the one true sign.”

We all do this, often without noticing. Don’t kid yourself that you’re the one who wouldn’t do it. The best we can hope for is to notice when we do it – as it happens or soon after – and then update our belief system accordingly (more on this anon).

What should we actually say of the sign? We might say something like: “for me, that was the most helpful sign. I can’t speak to the others because I didn’t understand them.”

Not understanding things inheres in the human experience. There are gaps in all our knowledge – collectively and individually. Since we can’t know everything, we have to delegate – let neuroscientists know about the brain, auto mechanics about car engines, et cetera.

But if our ignorance hurts others – that is, if we weaponize it, then we have an obligation to inform ourselves. People have died painful deaths for not agreeing that Jesus is the way, the truth and the life. It’s important to realize that we could have been the ones who did the killing and felt their actions were mete and just, and then not do that.

We need to interact more effectively with ignorance. It is not an error to defer to a brain surgeon when it comes to a tumor in our skull. It is an error to assert that “Jesus is the way, the truth and the life” when there are obviously so many other ways.

In the analogy of the mountain trail and its signs, how might we update our ignorance?

Well, we might gaze about the summit. We might notice that we share it with folks who do not read or speak English. Thus, we can infer that some of the signs we did not personally understand were nevertheless accurate for some people.

We could also study language. Even a cursory review would clarify that some of the signs we didn’t personally comprehend said more or less the same exact thing as our sign. If we can say this of ten of the twenty signs, perhaps we can infer it is true of the balance as well.

We might also infer from the fact that somebody put up twenty signs – including one that was helpful in our specific cognitive, perceptual and cultural context – that it is more likely than not they were trying to help as many people as possible. The sign-maker was trying to optimize her helpfulness.

All of these actions would help undo our allegiance to “our” sign. All of them would nudge us in the direction of understanding concepts in terms of “helpful” and “unhelpful,” rather than merely “right” or “wrong.”

The foregoing paragraphs emphasize two ideas.

First, it is wise not to become overly attached to our concepts. They are not “right” or “wrong” so much as “helpful” or “not helpful.” They are pointers, and pointers are never that to which they point. And that to which they point is always more complex and variable than what the pointer can possibly indicate.

This is true whether we are talking about A Course in Miracles or Christan Science or Zen Buddhism or Zoroastrianism or Jungian psychotherapy or crystal healing.

Second, our concepts are tools. Their job is to help us do things – like feed the poor, shelter the homeless, nurture bees, minimize waste, resolve conflict peacefully, bake bread, make art, et cetera. They are good to the extent they are helpful. To the extent they are not, then they should be discarded.

A tool can be very handy for a given job but completely irrelevant for subsequent jobs. For example, a hammer will help me build a horse barn, but it will not help me groom the horse. A saw will help me trim deadfall branches into fence posts, but it will not help me knead bread.

I might have a favorite saw or hammer – one my Dad gave me, say, as his Dad did before him – but it’s still just a saw or hammer. Lots of folks have them, and most of them will do the job as effectively as the one I’ve got.

In other words, the way I feel about my tool won’t make it work better or worse. Two plus two is not five just because I shout “five” with blazing passion, or because my father said it was “five” on his deathbed, or because that’s what the high priests say it is.

Is there another way to be in relationship with concepts? Our default mode is to equate them with truths and then defend them. But perhaps there is another way, one that accepts them conditionally, as subject to inquiry.

That is, rather than say the sign that got us to the summit is THE SIGN we might do something like the following:

1. Acknowledge the tendency to enshrine the concept (our sign is THE SIGN);

2. Acknowledge how this enshrinement promotes a need to defend the sign against other signs, and against those for whom another sign was THE SIGN;

3. Gather evidence;

4. Evaluate the evidence;

5. Talk to folks in order to broaden the inquiry and ensure we are fairly evaluating the evidence; and then

6. Either accept the concept, update the concept, or discard the concept precisely as the previous 5 steps direct us.

Concepts – like all tools – need to be effective. Effectiveness can be measured. It is tangible. Do the concepts make us smarter? Gentler? More inclined to help others rather than hurt or stymie them?

Do our concepts help bring forth love or something other than love?

And, perhaps most importantly, are we willing to go slowly and collectively in order to find out?

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