Truth, Will & Relevance
My aim here has not been to establish a coherent system, but rather to lay out a generative background for overcoming mistaken biases and assumptions. The value in the notion of will to relevance is not that it accurately explains or proves a lot of specific things; its value is that it leads me to think more carefully. It keeps me grounded — in the sense that we ground electrical currents.
This is not a foundation, it’s a way to keep ideas flowing — remember that what’s difficult one moment might be a gratifying challenge after a few other things are tried, learned, or overcome — while channelling the most dubious or dangerous ideas out of the way.
It’s as much about epistemology as it is about psychology. It’s about truth — or at least working towards truth, or being ready for when truth might unexpectedly appear. It prevents me from either trusting old assumptions or getting too excited by new ideas.
It comes down to a concern that I might mistakenly believe ideas to be right and true when in fact they only satisfy a need to feel more relevant. I caught myself doing this when I was much younger, calling it “the architect’s ego” after noticing my inclination to design idealistic social structures was a direct extension of my passion for architecture and physical design. In some aspects both enterprises come from the same source. Aesthetics can have a powerful affect on ideas and beliefs.
So I asked myself, “What if all of my ideas merely fulfill my personal need to produce aesthetically pleasing things?” When I took a serious look at my ideas through that lens, I started to find I was in love with ideas that were not particularly valid or useful. I loved them merely because they were my ideas, and I had been seduced and flattered into overlooking a lot of their flaws.
And I’m not the only one. Every day I see people promoting an idea not because it’s more valid but because it’s theirs and it fulfills their need to feel effective and relevant.
We often see groups from younger generations avidly promoting new ideas and practices, and I suspect this has as much to do with their frustration at feeling irrelevant in the old system, less to do with the actual merits of the ideas and practices. This is not a new suggestion, but I think it’s more useful to ground it in the theory of relevance to make it continuous with the rest of human behaviour.
Conversely, established groups in older generations who oppose reform aren’t necessarily basing their ideas on merit either. As often as not they seem to be trying to maintain their old networks of relevance (both social and conceptual networks) rather than bothering to make an honest evaluation and accommodation to emerging opportunities and challenges.
In the past we’ve talked about this behaviour in terms of desire to “hold power” (or in the case of reformers, to “gain power”). I try to avoid those terms.
By framing it as relevance and effectiveness instead of power we have a more effective way to evaluate and reconcile the desires of different groups. Instead of talking about “who is right” or “who has the right” to power, we should ask, what effects will occur if we change or don’t change, and how do our decisions affect future frames and flows of relevance.
This way of thinking is as much a practice as it is a theory. Over time I’ve learned to turn this thinking back on itself, as a way to catch the biases and infatuations that might affect my own ideas, as if they themselves are parasitically lodged in the mind, trying to make themselves more relevant at the expense of generative progress.
This is really the key point: whatever it is that motivates us, is motivating me as I write this, and it’s motivating you as you’re reading and thinking about it too. We need keep ourselves actively aware of the heuristics and biases that creep into our stories and ideas.
Maybe even all of the ideas in this book are misleading. I don’t assume they’re perfect. But these ideas — the last notion especially — unlike other ideas, compel me to keep looking and asking, which is often the best we can do in the face of such profound uncertainty.
It comes down to education as a way of life: keeping the love of learning alive, fostering both the spirit of adventure and the will for discipline. This is the vision I find in my favourite thinkers, both ancient and modern.
As I read John Dewey’s Democracy and Education, for example, I got a sense that for Dewey, education is itself a kind of religion. As I read further I found he was even more explicit about it. In an essay titled “What I Believe,” he directly challenged the basic assumption that life must be lived for the sake of something supernatural, or outside of experience, arguing we can cultivate worthwhile meanings and values through experience itself by applying open, scientific, pragmatic methods, as “means to a fuller and more significant future experience.” This process of discovery isn’t merely useful, it’s a sufficient source of joy in itself.1
Peirce suggested it could be said that “there is but one thing needful for learning the truth, and that is a hearty and active desire to learn what is true.” Inquiry at its fullest “has the vital power of self-correction and of growth,” because “no matter how erroneous your ideas of the method may be at first, you will be forced at length to correct them so long as your activity is moved by that sincere desire.”2
We can debate until we’re dead about whether truth is known by induction, deduction, abduction, falsification, or first principles. Ultimately no theory or method alone (or in any fixed combination) will provide a formula for determining the truth.
Our ideas and methods are all conceptual tools — no more and no less — varying in applicability, depending on the factors present in particular situations and subordinate to our intrinsic desire to make our ideas mutually relevant and outwardly effective.
There is no cause for despair here. The faith we place in ideas is not exactly misplaced, it’s merely misidentified. While we might feel like it’s our ideas we trust, it’s actually ourselves we trust.
If you genuinely believe you have a great idea, look at that as a reflection of your ability rather than the idea itself — and not an ability that you can take for granted, but an ability that requires development and ongoing discipline. We’ve produced a lot of great ideas, we have no reason to doubt our ability to produce better ones in the future — as long as we don’t get arrogant, and as long as we don’t let our ideas use us more effectively than we use them.
1“What I Believe” (1930) in The Essential Dewey, Hickman & Alexander ed. (1998): V. 1, p. 25.
2“The First Rule of Logic” (1898) in Collected Papers: V. 8, p. 405.