Wisdom is the ability to hold two conflicting truths in your mind at the same time, without budging

Mammoth or no Mammoth – Out caveman ancestors faced simple questions with simple answers. In this case the answer is: Mammoth.

This morning on Radio France Internationale I listened to a story on child abuse by catholic priests in Canada. And I heard myself thinking: “Well, no wonder, if you create a system where critizising the authorities is considered blasphemy and at the same time forbid these authorities from having healthy adult relationships… It’s no surprise that in a system like that you have a lot of abuse of the weakest parties and that it will be easy to cover this up for decades.” But then, at the same time, I thought: “Wait, are you saying it’s not the priests fault? They just did what the system made them do?” So I sat in my car in the Washington DC morning traffic and tried to hold these two truths in my mind at the same time:

  • The abusers are guilty, it’s their full responsibility. They chose to act the way they did and used the system to their benefit, destroying lifes in the process.
  • It’s the sytem’s fault. A system like this is destined to lead to abuse. As long as you have a system like this, there is likely to be abuse like this.

Holding two conflicting truths in your mind at the same time is painful. It somehow doesn’t feel right, because from back in the caveman days we are wired to pick one truth and run with it. Mammoth or no mammoth, clear thing. If you accept conflicting truths, the world will yell at you: “Are you for us or against us? Make up your mind!” And because you accept both truths, both parties will think you are against them, as you accept the truth of their opponents as well. But I am convinced that true wisdom comes from holding steady and giving all kinds of conflicting truths a space at your table. I must warn you, though, it’s not a very useful skill (But I don’t think that wisdom should have the purpose of being useful, anyway…). While those who fully embrace one truth are plunging ahead in bold and passionate action, you are still sitting there, pondering all the different guests around your table, unable to go on a crusade. But training your mind to hold steady while hosting different truths will lead you to a deeper understanding of the world. And to a deeper connection to all people you encounter. Because you will consider their truth do be true. If only you could stop telling them that other people’s truths are true as well…

11 Responses

  1. Holding two things in your mind that appear to be at odds creates a feeling Psychiatrists call cognitive dissonance. It will eventually cause you to pick one path or the other.
    In this case I think you could consider that both are right because it’s not either/or situation. The situation didn’t force them to do what they did but it made it easier for it to happen and them to hide it.
    I enjoy your posts because they make me think.

    • Hi Martin,
      Thanks for your comment. I think the first time I actively and intellectually struggled with this was when I did research for my PhD and everyone in the field told me a different story about whether or not community-based resource management improved local governance in Namibia. My brain played all kinds of tricks with me to get out of the cognitive dissonance. It was basically the question: Who do you believe? And my brain offered all kinds of options: The government officials, because they are officials? Well, relatively easy to dismiss. The NGOs because they are the good people? O.k. I could see how they had an interest in making all look great. So, maybe the poor people, because, well, they are the poor people and after all, what kind of interest could they have? Actually, they did their own interests, and being the poor people is not the same as being the naive or even stupid people. Quite the opposite, because they survive in a situation where I wouldn’t last a month. I worked closely with another researcher who had been there longer and I felt very drawn believing his (cynical) picture of the situation, because we were so similar and because cynicism is so much easier to defend than optimism.

      In the end I wrote 300 pages to basically say: “I don’t know. These are the very conflicting stories people told me. I believe and mistrust all of them. Logically, they can’t all be true. But in a social system, maybe they are.” This was also the first time I really REALLY understood that when it comes to understanding social systems, there is no omniscient author who know the whole true story. And that such a thing (the whole true story) might not even exist.

      • Thanks for the reply.
        The very nature of how our memories work causes people to believe they are telling the truth when in fact CAT scans have shown that the creative centres are heavily involved in recall. In other words we recall what we consider key facts and fill in the blanks by reasoning and imagination.
        It’s a real wake up call when we realise that “truth” is so subjective.
        Moreover people will defend their version of events passionately because their own sense of self worth is on the line making the level of emotional commitment a useless measure of truth.
        There is a useful TED talk about how to spot someone is lying https://martinhouseconsulting.wordpress.com/2013/05/23/video-how-to-spot-a-liar/
        but that won’t help with the person who believes their own story .

        The whole story is exactly that – a story!

  2. While I agree with your general thesis, I find your comment that “back in the caveman days we are wired to pick one truth and run with it. Mammoth or no mammoth, clear thing” very wrong-headed.
    This is a common European assumption that when we were “savages” we barely did more than eat, fornicate and fight, with the odd grunt thrown in.
    My experience of traditional Aboriginal people in Australia is that their minds are much more attuned to uncertainty, ambiguity and responsiveness than western minds are – and are more attuned to holding contradictory thoughts at the same time. Life before Europeans came to Australia required deep knowledge, flexibility, adaptability and ingenuity – and not “that mammoth, me run” type of thinking.

    • Hi Bob,
      Thanks for calling me out on that. You are really making me think. So what do you think, where does our general need to see things as black and white and to avoid ambiguity come from?

      • I don’t know – do we really have that need?

        My pop-sociological guess would be that the post-Enlightenment mind is uniquely rationalist and one-dimensional (which has clearly had many advantages … if you can count the state of the contemporary world as an advantage). In particular, I think the reductionist tendency to see all things as made up of definable smaller parts encourages non-system or non-network thinking – without being able to be clear about it, I think network thinking is somehow more capable of holding seemingly contradictory positions.

      • It’s not about thinking in black and white, but about understanding the threshold of grey areas. What matters is context and coherence.
        If both do not match, then you have a problem. Two conflicting ideas cannot both be right—they are either both wrong or one is right. The key words here are coherence and context.

        Two opposing thoughts CAN exist in different contexts—never in the same one.

        We cannot have our cake and eat it too.

    • I would gently like to point out this reply is inadvertently condescending and negative. People of today , regardless of where they are, are NOT the same as people thousands of years ago. When you use aboriginal people as your argument, I feel as though there is an underlying judgment (though not intended) you may not realize. And, really, we are all indigenous to somewhere.

  3. While I agree with your point of holding 2 conflicting ideas is the sign of an evolved mind, the example you use are not conflicting. One is nested in the other.

    Conflicting ideas are where if one idea is true then the other cannot be true. What you have put forward is a case of both ideas being true. Perhaps your argument might be which one came first?

  4. It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.
    ~ Aristotle

    No. There is no way to hold 2 conflicting opinions without being dishonest to self. Cognitive dissonance is a real thing, but not one of wisdom.

  5. //The abusers are guilty, it’s their full responsibility. They chose to act the way they did and used the system to their benefit, destroying lifes in the process.
    It’s the sytem’s fault. A system like this is destined to lead to abuse. As long as you have a system like this, there is likely to be abuse like this.//

    — I do not see these as conflicting.
    The abusers are free agents that decide to do harm.
    This does not mean the system is not guilty of favoring this conduct.

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