But in Ender’s mind, madness. Thousands of competing contradictory impossible visions that make no sense at all because they can’t all fit together but they do fit together, he makes them fit together, this way today, that way tomorrow, as they’re needed. As if he can make a new idea-machine inside his head for every new problem he faces. As if he conceives of a new universe to live in, every hour a new one, often hopelessly wrong and he ends up making mistakes and bad judgments, but sometimes so perfectly right that it opens new things up like a miracle and I look through his eyes and see the world his new way and it changes everything. Madness, and then illumination. (Xenocide, p. 439)
My worldview tends to be flexible in a lot of ways. I can often see both sides of an issue, and string ideas together as necessary to support each side. I see the world of ideas almost as a game, where the different ideas are game pieces and I can put them together in different combinations to serve my purposes at any given point in time. Occasionally, I find a pattern of ideas that I find useful, where things just click into place (“Madness, and then illumination”). I tend to keep those patterns around by recording them here in my blog, like the idea of cognitive subroutines. But the churning never stops.
I had a couple experiences in class earlier this week where this came in handy. In one class, we were having small group discussions, and towards the end, we were trying to summarize the group’s opinions about our reading, and I was able to string the discussion ideas together into a coherent pattern to present to the class on behalf of the group. In my other class, we had to do a group presentation and I ended up answering the questions at the end, because I quickly saw ways to reassemble our group ideas into a new pattern that tangentially related to the question.
One question that often comes up when I describe things in this way is where truth fits into all of this. In other words, is it a good thing that I have an affiinity for what would be called spin in politics? Or does it demonstrate that I have no morals, no regard for the truth, and will do whatever is expedient for me?
Is there such a thing as the Truth? I’m not sure there is. So much of what we observe is influenced by our previous experiences that I don’t think it’s possible for anybody to have a truly objective point of view. Books like Latour’s Politics of Nature and Hayakawa’s Language in Thought and Action and Wilson’s Quantum Psychology describe the context-dependent nature of thought, and lectures like Hacking the Mind remind us how our brains can be fooled in all sorts of ways. I could throw around terms like “social construction of facts”, but the basic idea is that “truth” is a really tricky concept and depends a lot on what other people think. Truth evolves; the truth about the Earth went from being the center of the universe, to circling the sun, to being an insignificant mote. For there to be universal undisputed Truth, there would have to be an omniscient impartial observer to decide on what Truth is. God serves that purpose for a lot of people, I suppose, but since He is not available to me to communicate the Truth in any situation, I think it’s equivalent to there being no such observer.
So let’s say that playing games with ideas loses us the concept of absolute Truth. What do we gain, if anything? I would argue that we gain better communication. If we insist on the concept of Truth, then if somebody disagrees with us, it is because they are wrong. At best, they may be misinterpreting the Truth. This immediately sets up the conversation as being confrontational and a zero-sum game, where if one person is right, the other person is wrong. If we instead see the conversation as an opportunity for both sides to learn and to come to a mutual agreement, the conversation is much more productive.
To be an effective communicator, you have to be able to put things in terms that your listener will understand. Whether you want to call it sales or framing or storytelling, putting the ideas together into the right pattern is what lets us get our point across to our listener. This is important because better communication is what connects us and lets us create bigger achievements than any of us could achieve on our own. Being able to bridge the gap between people’s minds is at the root of a lot of problems I see around me, from management screwups to politics to discrimination.
And sometimes that communication can’t happen when people are concerned with the Truth. For instance, the difference between good storytellers and bad ones is that the bad ones don’t know which details to leave out. They see the story as a sequence of events, and in an attempt to be completely truthful, they include every element. The good storytellers know their audience and tailor their story appropriately, including details that will connect to the audience, and leaving out ones that won’t. Are they less truthful? Perhaps. But I think the connection to the audience matters more.
A similar example is the Dilbert-ian engineer who always talks in jargon and can’t help giving every last bit of detail about what they’re working on. They are holding to the idea that more information is always better, because Truth is what matters. But because they can’t communicate with the rest of their company, they end up being useless and ineffective, complaining about how their project was screwed up by “politics” (and, yes, I used to be one such engineer). One has to ask whether it’s more important to be “truthful” and make sure every detail is technically correct in one’s explanation, or to use a simplified explanation that isn’t perfectly accurate but gets the idea across so that other people in the company can use it.
I really like that quote at the top of the post, from the third book of the Ender series. It describes my mind in a lot of ways. One of the reasons I continue to blog is that it lets me take a snapshot of the “idea-machine”s going through my brain so that I can later refer to them and/or mock them if need be. I try to keep my mind flexible, to continue to try new patterns. I’m not always as successful at it as I would like, but it’s a good goal because it will make me a more effective communicator, and I think that’s the key.