Newsletter #83: The Case Against Pragmatism
The Negative World calls for a open mindset of exploration
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Last month’s newsletter was very long, so this month you get a shorty.
My friend Dwight Gibson once told me that “pragmatism killed Michigan.”
That intrigued me so I asked him what he meant by that. He said that pragmatism is focused on what you can do with your own two hands to solve a particular problem.
He felt this value was a legacy of large scale auto industrialization, which changed the culture of the state. This left it without the cultural resources to adapt to the shift to a post-industrial economy.
By contrast, in Silicon Valley, people regularly undertake audacious ideas that they aren’t sure how they will accomplish or even if it is possible to accomplish them. Elon Musk’s plan to colonize Mars is the perfect example of an anti-pragmatic approach.
One of the problems with pragmatism, Gibson notes, is that “there’s no room for God to show up.” Its worldview is limited to what we see, know, and can do.
The reality is that the world is much larger, much more complex, and much more full of possibilities than most of us imagine.
I will give an example from my own life. Over a decade ago I went through the worst three year period of my life, one full of all sorts of weird and bizarre things I still can’t explain or make sense of.
As this period ended, it felt like God said to me, “Now, Aaron, let me show you the answer to questions you didn’t even know you were supposed to be asking.” (I mean this metaphorically, not literally of course).
One of them is that I discovered I had a magnesium deficiency that had caused a lifelong, low grade depression I’d never even known I’d had.
I had long had a sort of vague sense of unhappiness. While certainly I did not suffer from the major depression that effects all too many people, I was definitely a glass half empty person. I often felt unhappy for no objective reason, even when things were going well in many ways, but I never believed this was unusual.
About a month after I started taking magnesium supplements, it was like a fog lifted from around my head.* The analogy I use is someone who has 20/40 or 20/50 vision but has no idea that they can’t see as well as other people. Then you give them a pair of glasses and everything is sharp, dialed in. That’s how I felt.
Something I had no clue I should even be thinking about ended up making a major change in my life for the better.
Who knows what else is out there?
Or think about how the things that we do propagate far beyond what we may ever know.
A friend from my old church in Chicago had spent 25 years in prison as an accessory in a gang related murder. He became a Christian half way through his sentence after falling into despair and contemplating suicide. He said that another prisoner on the yard was preaching about Jesus, and after hearing that he decided to try turning to Jesus in desperation before trying to kill himself.
He never saw that person again. The guy whose words transformed his life radically for the better never knew the impact they had had.
These unknown possibilities are one reason I resonate so much with the work of Nassim Taleb. His ideas about randomness and black swans are things I’ve experienced in our own life.
For example: how will I be able to have the level of impact in the world I aspire to with my work? I don’t know. But this newsletter started as an experiment with only 35 readers. I said if I didn’t get to 500 subscribers through word of mouth in a year, I would shut it down. After that year, I only had 200 something people on the list so I notified my charter subscribers that I was shutting it down.
Unbeknowst to me, someone had sent the original version of my three worlds of evangelicalism issue to Rod Dreher, who wrote about it and sent me about 2,500 subscribers in a week.
Something could happen tomorrow that puts me on a trajectory I could never have envisioned reaching.
Now, something bad could also happen. We aren’t guaranteed to have only pleasant surprises in this world, or to achieve every audacious goal we set for ourselves. But the possibilities of life are much greater than we think they are.
There’s a time for a pragmatic approach. Too much day dreaming can get us in trouble. We do need to focus on plowing the field that’s in front of us, taking care of the business we need to get done.
But this can also hurt us if we take it too far.
For example, an overly pragmatic approach can produce an apocalyptic mindset. If we don’t see how we or our friends can overcome a situation or change a trend through some action that we can plan or execute, we can become fatalistic or desperate. Elijah ran away and told God he was the only one left. God told him not to get cocky, and that he had 7,000 more people just like Elijah. God is not constrained to save by many or by few.
It can also stop us from starting off in a direction if we can’t envision in our mind exactly how we are going to get to our destination.
Dwight Gibson’s work today involves reviving the art of exploration. In the age of exploration, people sailed off into the unknown territory. They had techniques and methods for going about this, but there was no getting around having to be comfortable in the unknown and unfamiliar.
As most of the world was mapped, and our scientific understandings improved, exploration began to give way to management and engineering. This produced a mindset of control, and increasingly risk aversion. We don’t want to take on a task we aren’t sure isn’t going to work correctly, where every contingency isn’t accounted for.
One reason Silicon Valley has been so successful is that it has not adopted this mindset. It understands that value comes in going “from zero to one.” Although as technology is increasingly dominated by mature giants, this might be changing. The fierce debates over AI safetyism vs. “effective accelerationism” shows the attempt to impose the standards of the rest of society onto the tech world.
I believe that one of the key shifts that evangelicals need to make in the negative world is away from pragmatism and towards exploration, to have a less bounded mindset and more realization of and openness to the possibility of things beyond what we know. This is related to the idea of re-enchantment, but separate from it.
Back in the 1970s, Bill Hybels went door to door in suburban Chicago asking people why they didn’t go to church. He got an earful, as he put it. He then designed Willow Creek Church as a church designed with those reasons in mind, one that served a need in the market that was not being met by the existing churches. This is a classic business plan type approach.
I don’t think this is going to work in the more fundamentally unknown terrain of the Negative World. I don’t see being able to do this kind of simplistic market research and business planning is going to be the norm.
We are entering an era where as individuals and institutions we need to be comfortable with a lot of things we don’t know, and paths that we don’t have mapped.
A big part of this will simply be shifting away from the de facto pragmatic mindset that dominates so much of American life, and realizing that there’s a vastly greater world, and vastly more opportunities than we can see in front of us.
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* You might question whether or not magnesium was the cause of this. I can’t prove it scientifically, but multiple lines of evidence converge. Among other things, I had no idea I was depressed and had no idea that magnesium could even influence such a thing. For those who wonder, I take 400mg of magnesium citrate daily and use Now Foods supplements.
Dwight Gibson on Exploration
Two years ago I had Dwight Gibson as a guest on my podcast. Our discussion may be of interest.
Ambitious people understand, then, that a migratory way of life is the price of getting ahead. It is a price they gladly pay, since they associate the idea of home with intrusive relatives and neighbors, small-minded gossip, and hidebound conventions. The new elites are in revolt against “Middle America,” as they imagine it: a nation technologically backward, politically reactionary, repressive in its sexual morality, middlebrow in its tastes, smug and complacent, dull and dowdy. Those who covet membership in the new aristocracy of brains tend to congregate on the coasts, turning their back on the heartland and cultivating ties with the international market in fast-moving money, glamour, fashion, and popular culture. It is a question whether they think of themselves as Americans at all. Patriotism, certainly, does not rank very high in their hierarchy of virtues. “Multiculturalism,” on the other hand, suits them to perfection, conjuring up the agreeable image of a global bazaar in which exotic cuisines, exotic styles of dress, exotic music, exotic tribal customs can be savored indiscriminately, with no questions asked and no commitments required. The new elites are at home only in transit, en route to a high-level conference, to the grand opening of a new franchise, to an international film festival, or to an undiscovered resort. Theirs is essentially a tourist’s view of the world—not a perspective likely to encourage a passionate devotion to democracy.
- Christopher Lasch, The Revolt of the Elites