I named this blog “ginsudo” in 2007, saying that it means “the way of ginsu.” That was a lazy evasion, as the natural follow-up question should be “Sure, but what exactly is your way?” And I had no answer.
Sure, I had theories. I always have a theory. A good friend called me out on this, fifteen years into our friendship. I was regaling him with some forgettable tale about personal growth, and he listened with patience and bemusement as I concluded with the immodest judgment that I’d changed so much that I must be unrecognizable as the person he met a decade and a half ago. He replied, “Well, there’s one thing about you that hasn’t changed, that was clear from the day I met you, that is perhaps your defining characteristic: You always have a theory. And you express your theories with a visceral passion. A few years later, you might have a completely different, possibly even mutually exclusive, theory. But you’ll have a theory, and you’ll believe it with all your heart.”
I can’t decide if that’s a sparkling insight or an acerbic insult, and I can’t deny its truth. I sat with that truth for another five years before I realized: “Hey waitaminute. I’d rather always have a theory, and always change it, than always be in a perpetual state of confusion. In either case, there’s no real answer, so I might as well be excited about the illusions along the way.”
That’s the background to this momentous event: I’m changing the tagline of this blog from “the way of ginsu” to the shortest statement that I can make of what has really become my way, after all these years of searching. I may have believed a lot of things over the last dozen or so years, but I didn’t believe any of them strongly enough to make it the meaning of ginsudo. I like to think that underneath all of the other theories I have ever had about life, this statement is the purely distilled expression of the true meaning of them all. So here is the latest, and greatest, expression of my way:
At the base of every argument is the irrefutable fact that there is only one thing that everyone agrees upon.
Now, I don’t mean to be coy about what that one thing is: “I think that I am thinking, right now.“ Everyone agrees that this is a thought that must be in your head as you think anything else. A few people would say that this is the only thing that everyone must acknowledge is true. Whether or not it’s the only thing, it is certainly irrefutable.
There are only two ways to object, and both of them are inadequate to the task.
One objection comes from the land of science fiction, or perhaps from sciences so far advanced that they seem like fiction. This objection says that it’s likely we’re not at all what we think we are, that the odds are likely that we’re simply living in a simulation. Perhaps nothing is real at all. This objection is irrelevant. Even if it is true, the simulation creates in you the thought that “I think I’m thinking, right now” – you could say that’s actually the test of a successful simulation.
The other objection comes from either sophistry or deep insight – as diametric as these are, it’s often difficult to tell the difference. But in either case, the objection is simply, “So what? It’s a trivial observation.” The deep expression of this objection goes on to say that the sense of self is an illusion, consciousness is a human construct, all outcomes are deterministic (or “fated”), so thoughts are merely distractions from a more important truth. But I never said that “I think I’m thinking” is the the most important truth, even if it is the only one that everyone agrees upon. In fact, I’m saying that this truth is the gateway to many deeper truths, which is perfectly in accord with this line of putative objection.
So the interesting claim of ginsudo is not the actual fact that everyone must agree upon. It’s the idea that this fact is at the base of every argument. In the most grandiose statement of my way, I’m claiming that I’ve found the bottom turtle.
This comes from the apocryphal tale of a famous scientist explaining cosmology to an audience. After the lecture, one elderly lady approaches the scientist and says, “Your lecture was hogwash – how can anyone believe that the earth simply exists in the universe without any support beyond your mystical claims?”
The scientist asks, “Well then, what do you suppose supports the earth?”
She says, “The planet rests on the back of a giant turtle.”
The scientist responds, “Alright then, what supports the turtle?”
“An even larger, more grand turtle.”
At this point, the scientist is sure she’s trapped: “And then? What’s beneath that grand turtle?”
She exclaims triumphantly, “You silly goose, it’s turtles all the way down!”
In stating my way, I’m revealing many things about myself, but there’s one thing that people who know me already know too well: I’ve been in a lot of arguments. I’ve been in arguments with people who love me, people who hate me, people smarter than me, people with an exasperating inability to understand even the most basic tenets of argumentation. I’ve been in arguments with my bosses, my employees, my peers, my friends, my lovers, my children, and way too many people on Twitter.
What I’ve learned from all these arguments is that most people in arguments aren’t trying to win the argument. They’re trying to say something about themselves, say something about the other person, say something about the world or about life or about the universe and god and everything. But if you are trying in good faith to get to the truth in any argument, there is always one technique that you will try, and that is to seek a place of common agreement that precedes the argument. Almost always, this means that you try to find the nearest place where you agree.
That means, for example, that if you and I are arguing about who to vote for in the next election, we might argue about economics or immigration or globalism or socialism – and we might find that we’re making no progress. If we want to make progress, we seek the nearest place where we have a common goal, usually something like: “We want the best outcome for this country.” But maybe we find out that isn’t our common goal. Maybe one of us says, “What do you mean, ‘our country’? I want the best outcome for humanity first, our country only a distant second and only to the extent that our country can affect the future of humanity.” It’s interesting to find a place like that, where you thought you must have a common point in your argument, but actually, there’s a deeper foundational point that you must discuss first.
What I’m saying here is that it’s not enough to start from the nearest foundational point. The foundation under all foundations, the last turtle in the entire stack, is in not the nearest but rather the deepest point: that there is only one thing that everyone agrees on. The idea that “I think that I am thinking, right now” is the only thing that you must agree on is both freeing and compassionate. It frees you from every assumption you were making about what the other person must agree upon. It forces you to understand that you diverge from your counterpart in this argument somewhere after this base agreement, and there is absolutely no rule that requires that the divergence take place in any particular place above that bottom turtle.
This truth gives you enormous power, which you will probably never choose to use. If you had the time, you would build up from this base, instead of simply finding the nearest point of agreement. A stable bridge cannot be built simply as a quick connection between the nearest shores across the water. Instead it must be anchored deep in the foundation not only of both shores but deep underneath the waters. So in arguing with someone, if you really want to understand your disagreement, you would start from the foundation that the only thing that you must agree upon is that each of you is thinking, “I’m thinking, right now” – and you would try to draw a line from that thought to each other, finding where you disagree along the way.
For all practical purposes, you would have neither the time nor inclination to do this with every person you would want to argue with. But simply knowing that this is the base, that you would have to work up from this base if you really and truly want to resolve your argument – that knowledge would curtail a lot of your desire to argue in the first place.
That is my way, if not in practice, always in theory.