The Better Letter: Words to Live By
Collected rules, "laws," maxims, heuristics, and other ditties worth remembering.
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Words to Live By
Today’s TBL offers 50 rules, maxims, and heuristics that I have found useful for trying to ascertain truth and foster understanding. Some demand at least a bit of explanation while others require none. Please offer any others you’d suggest or arguments why mine are lacking in the comments or via email: rpseawright [at] gmail.com.
1. The Golden Rule. “Here is a simple, rule-of-thumb guide for behavior: Ask yourself what you want people to do for you, then grab the initiative and do it for them. Add up God’s Law and Prophets and this is what you get (Matt. 7:12).”
2. The Golden Mean. Aristotle called it the “golden mean,” Confucius called it the “doctrine of the mean,” and Buddhists call it the “middle way:” the desirable middle between two extremes. Thus, courage is the golden mean between irresponsible recklessness and cowardice. As Aquinas observed in his Summa Theologica, “evil consists in discordance from their rule or measure. Now, this may happen either by their exceeding the measure or by their falling short of it…. Therefore, it is evident that moral virtue observes the mean.” We tend not to see, as C. S. Lewis warned in Mere Christianity, that the devil routinely sends errors into the world not one-by-one but two-by-two: in “pairs of opposites,” on either side of the truth.
3. Hope is not a Strategy. And lunch is not a long-range plan.
4. Measure twice; cut once.
5. Occam’s Razor. Entia non sunt multiplicanda praeter necessitatem. Entities are not to be multiplied beyond necessity. More than seven centuries on, the law of parsimony remains a core principle of science and philosophy. Simplicity is powerful.
6. Hanlon’s Razor. Never attribute to malice (conspiracy) that which can be explained by incompetence. A more comprehensive definition was offered by Douglas W. Hubbard: “Never attribute to malice or stupidity that which can be explained by moderately rational individuals following incentives in a complex system of interactions.”
7. Grice’s Razor. As a principle of parsimony, conversational implications are to be preferred over semantic context for linguistic explanations. In practical terms, it means addressing what the speaker meant instead of a literal understanding of what was said.
8. Brandolini’s Law. “The amount of energy needed to refute bulls*** is an order of magnitude larger than to produce it.”
9. Seawright’s Paradox. “It is true that the world is full of stupidity and stupid people and that there is always more than enough evil to go around. It is simultaneously true that we should never ignore or underestimate what humanity has done and can accomplish.”
10. Seawright’s Second Paradox. In matters of taste, finding what you’re looking for is the primary goal. In matters of truth, it’s the main threat.
11. Godwin's Law, short for Godwin's law (or rule) of Nazi analogies, is an internet adage asserting that as an online discussion grows longer (regardless of topic or scope), the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Adolf Hitler approaches one.
12. Cunningham’s Law. “The best way to get the right answer on the internet is not to ask a question; it’s to post the wrong answer.”
13. The Duck Test. If it looks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck, then it probably is a duck. It’s abduction in a nutshell.
14. Don’t put all your eggs in one basket.
15. Gibson’s Law. As William Gibson said many times, “the future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed yet.” Success and social chaos are never evenly distributed, either. It isn’t clear – and there is precious little evidence to support it – that reality is ever evenly distributed. Some of us are smarter, or stronger, or richer, or more conscientious, or more robust, or luckier. Moreover, as David Karpf pointed out, “Nothing ever quite seems to fulfill its imagined revolutionary potential, and nothing ever quite seems to die.”
16. Seawright’s Law of Reasonable Expectations. “Less will change than we expect, things will change less than we expect, and any changes will not persist as long as we expect.” Even if there is good evidence of some current problem, most such problems are relatively minor, and even the major problems are rarely catastrophic. Pollster Bruce Mehlman cited “extreme expectations” as the number one risk facing the U.S. in 2022. “Lack of realism and perspective is itself a major risk. It undermines the rationality-based cooperation essential for the nation and its institutions to succeed as designed.”
17. The Probability Principle. The world is less certain and more random than we generally expect, but we should bet with the probabilities at least most of the time.
18. Morgan’s Mandate. “Long tails drive everything.” As Morgan Housel has explained, “[T]hey dominate business, investing, sports, politics, products, careers, everything. Rule of thumb: Anything that is huge, profitable, famous, or influential is the result of a tail event. Another rule of thumb: Most of our attention goes to things that are huge, profitable, famous, or influential. And when most of what you pay attention to is the result of a tail, you underestimate how rare and powerful they really are.”
19. Pascal’s (modified) Wager. We must weigh not only the alluring probabilities of being right, but the dire consequences of being wrong.
20. Feynman’s First Principle. “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself — and you are the easiest person to fool.”
21. Truth is a journey. The arts reject the “index mindset” in that artists think we can recognize good over bad, great over good, and that “true love” is worth seeking, having, and even dying for. Our myths may be misguided, but they steer however shakily towards the true harbor, while materialistic “progress” leads only to a yawning abyss and the Iron Crown of the power of evil, explained Tolkien. Narrative trumps data every single time. Ultimately, feelings don’t care about your facts. Much of the time, if we look carefully, we’ll see it’s a feature of humanity rather than a bug.
22. Truth must be earned. Facts without interpretation are useless. In her wonderful novel, Housekeeping, Marilynne Robinson (correctly) observes that: “Fact explains nothing. On the contrary, it is fact that requires explanation.” Truth and understanding require facts but also require much more. The person who understands myth knows Truth is never simply meted out. Truth is only unfolded over the course of a journey involving great effort and difficult moral judgments. Truth must be earned.
23. Dillard’s Law. “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.” Our seeming inability to plan for the long-term is a big problem. However, our unwillingness to pay sufficient attention in the here-and-now is a bigger problem.
Alia Shawkat was asked by The New Yorker recently what sets the heavy-hitters she has worked with apart. Her answer was inspired: “They’re not on their cell phones. That’s honestly the biggest thing. … They’re very focused and primed and physically charged. They’re conserving their energy….”
Tim Ferriss recently interviewed South African lion tracker Boyd Varty, wherein Varty posits tracking as a life metaphor.
“The idea that there is information in your life, if you are looking for transformation, but you have to teach yourself to attune to it. And so, what do you need to attune to in transformational processes? Things that make you feel expansive, things that make you feel alive, letting go of your rational idea of what you should do and noticing what you move towards. Noticing what you’re curious about, noticing the people who energize you, the activities that make you feel more alive.
….A big insight was that where your attention goes, your life goes, and if you are constantly putting your attention on living things, this more aliveness in your own life.”
We could be changing the world, but we’re doom-scrolling on Twitter instead.
24. Seawright’s Law of Attention. Pay special attention (pro and con) to things that can’t be measured, things that compound, things that matter, and things that last. Everything can't be measured. In fact, the more important it is — love, learning, wisdom, imagination — the less it can be measured at all, and the more disastrous any attempt to do so tends to be. We often try to measure, classify, and organize our lives as if they were a collection of compartmentalized to-do lists. By doing so, we end up applying mechanical principles to things that are fundamentally messy, intertwined, and unpredictable.
25. The Sagan Standard. “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence” (as Carl Sagan stated on Cosmos, the PBS series). Hume, Laplace, Thomas Jefferson, and others may also lay claim to the idea.
26. Hume's Guillotine. What ought to be cannot be deduced from what is.
27. Miles’s Law. “Where you stand depends on where you sit.”
28. Bonhoeffer’s Realization. “Stupidity is a more dangerous enemy of the good than malice,” Dietrich Bonhoeffer (one of the great theologians of the 20th Century, martyred for plotting Hitler’s overthrow) argued. In 1976, Berkeley’s Carlo M. Cipolla put it in academic terms, publishing an essay outlining the fundamental laws of a force he argued is humanity’s greatest existential threat: Stupidity.
29. “See the world as it is.” This was Albert Jay Nock’s motto. Such realism used to be essential to conservatism and still should be. Unfortunately, we see things more in accordance with our wishes and our interests. And we’re often cowards, too. Maybe Donald Trump and AOC don’t know better, but Joe Biden knows eliminating drive-through voting isn’t old or new Jim Crow. Marco Rubio knows Biden isn’t pushing Marxism. J.D. Vance knows pretty much everything he’s saying these days is nonsense. Maxine Waters probably knows slavery was worse than a couple of guys on horseback at the border. And every professional Republican in Washington not named Trump knows the 2020 election wasn’t stolen.
Central to good judgment is realism — simple, old fashioned fidelity to reality. As George Orwell wrote, “sooner or later a false belief bumps up against solid reality, usually on a battlefield.”
30. Maslow’s Hammer. If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.
31. Wilson’s Recognition. “What you win them with is what you win them to.”
32. Planck’s Precept. Science advances one funeral at a time. “A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.”
33. Hogan’s Law: “He who misses best wins.”
34. We’re all sinners. If they taught us nothing else, Mao and the Cultural Revolution taught us that human nature is not a blank slate. Those who ignore or try to alter human nature often end up leaving a lot of dead bodies around. About the only thing Reinhold Niebuhr, Billy Graham, and Paul Tillich shared was their conviction regarding the empirical truth of the doctrine of original sin (which means we all sin and everything is tainted by sin, not that we always sin). “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23), the Scripture says. Check out the news on any random day to find plentiful proof. Or simply do a bit of self-reflection.
35. Hitchens’ Razor. “[W]hat can be asserted without evidence can also be dismissed without evidence.” It’s a variation of an old Latin proverb: Quod gratis asseritur, gratis negatur, translated as “that which is easily asserted is easily negated.”
36. Reagan’s Exhortation. Ronald Reagan got it exactly right with a rhyming Russian proverb: Trust, but verify (Доверя́й, но проверя́й).
37. Mike Tyson’s planning fallacy. “Everyone has a plan until they’re punched in the mouth.”
38. Murphy’s Law. “Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong.” While not literally true, although it often feels like it, it reminds us that our plans aren’t as good as we think and we should expect the unexpected.
39. Beware unintended consequences. As Adam Gopnik’s recognized: “What history actually shows is that nothing works out as planned, and that everything has unintentional consequences. History doesn’t show that we should never go to war — sometimes there’s no better alternative. But it does show that the results are entirely uncontrollable, and that we are far more likely to be made by history than to make it. History is past, and singular, and the same year never comes round twice.”
40. Incentives matter.
41. Taleb’s Injunction (the importance of “skin in the game”). “Don’t tell me what you think, just tell me what’s in your portfolio.”
42. It is easier to destroy than to create.
43. Kahneman’s Uncertainty Principle. “We systematically underestimate the amount of uncertainty to which we’re exposed, and we are wired to underestimate the amount of uncertainty to which we are exposed.” Accordingly, “we create an illusion of the world that is much more orderly than it actually is.”
44. Kahneman’s Canon. We too easily focus on some shiny object, to the detriment of our longer-term well-being, because the “long-term is not where life is lived.”
46. Things that matter come at a cost.
47. We matter. Materialists tell us that nothing ultimately matters and we need to get over it. Analytic philosophers tell us that since consciousness is the only way we could know anything about what we have agreed to call “reality” and that consciousness is an illusion, nothing matters and we need to get over it. Scientists insist that the universe doesn’t regard us at all and, if it did, it would regard us with pitiless indifference. Joseph Heller wrote a 576-page novel called Something Happened, the ironic essence of which was nothing meaningful happened and happened in the most pessimistic and miserable way possible. Yuval Harari insists we make no independent choices. He thinks we are “sheep with nuclear weapons.”
But I’m not aware of anybody who lives that way. Disagree with Richard Dawkins, for instance, and he will eagerly display his combative outrage and contempt for your ideas and for you. Clearly, he thinks things matter a very great deal. Harari may claim not to deserve credit for writing his books, but he accepts royalties all the same. Camus argued that all was meaningless but he fought for the French Resistance anyway.
Despite the denials, we all intuitively recognize that what we do – who we are – matters. You may not think God is involved, but human cognition drives us to impose meaning into the universe. We matter.
48. Change requires grace. We know and are less than we think. As George Carlin recognized, we can’t fix things ourselves. Making things and getting better begins with the grace to see we need change.
In the arms of a saint I'm a stranger | We're all trying to find our way | At the death of every darkness there's a morning | Though we all try | We all try |We're all one step from grace.
49. The Serenity Prayer (by Reinhold Niebuhr).
God, grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change,
the courage to change the things I can,
and the wisdom to know the difference.
Living one day at a time,
enjoying one moment at a time;
accepting hardship as a pathway to peace;
taking, as Jesus did,
this sinful world as it is,
not as I would have it;
trusting that You will make all things right
if I surrender to Your will;
so that I may be reasonably happy in this life
and supremely happy with You forever in the next.
Lord, make me an instrument of your peace:
where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
where there is sadness, joy.
O divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek
to be consoled as to console,
to be understood as to understand,
to be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive,
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.
Totally Worth It
Feel free to contact me via rpseawright [at] gmail [dot] com or on Twitter (@rpseawright) and let me know what you like, what you don’t like, what you’d like to see changed, and what you’d add. Praise, condemnation, and feedback are always welcome.
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This is the best thing I saw or read this week. The saddest. The sweetest. The funniest. The most powerful. The most remarkable. The most striking. The most comprehensive. The most naïve. The most intriguing. The least surprising. How sanctions are working. This tweet is funny, and it’s one time it’s worth reading the replies, too. A different sortof war. Of course. Yup. Oops. Close to home. Beauty is always moving; unexpected beauty is profound. Hallelujah.
Please send me your nominees for this space to rpseawright [at] gmail [dot] com or via Twitter (@rpseawright).
The Spotify playlist of TBL music has been divided in two. A Christmas music edition has been split off from the regular version so you needn’t listen to Christmas music in February – not that that’s a bad thing. The regular TBL playlist now includes more than 200 songs and about 14 hours of great music. I urge you to listen in, sing along, and turn the volume up.
This week’s benediction is a musical prayer by Keith Green.
We are all broken and wildly prone to screw things up. W. H. Auden got it right.
O stand, stand at the window | As the tears scald and start; | You shall love your crooked neighbour | With your crooked heart.
We live on “a hurtling planet,” the poet Rod Jellema informs us, “swung from a thread of light and saved by nothing but grace.”
This week’s blessing is the most famous of them all, from Numbers 6:24-26.
The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you; the Lord lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace.
To those of us prone to wander, to those who are broken, to those who flee and fight in fear – which is every last lost one of us – there is a faith that offers grace and hope. And may love have the last word. Now and forever. Amen.
Thanks for reading.
Issue 105 (March 11, 2022)