A Short Piece

The personal side of “Monotheorism” by O.G. Rose

Photo by Josh Gordon

The argument of “Monotheorism” is basically that it’s human nature to see everything in terms of a single theory, a “theory of everything,” and though not every “macro-theory” is necessarily wrong, if we don’t fight our natural tendency to be “monotheoristic” (in favor of dialectic “polytheorism”), the likelihood of us being accurate in our monotheorism is very low. Here, I hope to point out that we tend to do the same thing in terms of explanations (notably regarding why people do what they do). This makes the problem personal.

Audio Summary

When Dad forgets to pick up pizza, we tend to say “It’s because he’s forgetful” — a single explanation — versus “He’s forgetful, had a very busy day, and was thinking about if he was going to take us to the park later.” This second explanation, which entails multiple reasons, isn’t what we naturally do when we try to explain a situation: instead, we speak as if human motivations can be boiled down to one thing, which is rarely the case. It’s natural to focus on a single explanation — it would be bulky in a conversation to ourselves or others to list out every explanation every time — and arguably it’s usually harmless. Unfortunately, we tend to form our habits based on what we say, do, and think during times when it’s “harmless,” and those habits determine what we say, do, and think when it counts. We make our choices, but then our choices make us.

I see this play out in myself all the time. When someone asks me, “Why did x happen?” I naturally give a single answer. This suggests that what I said is the answer, and even if there are other factors and reasons, I suggest they mustn’t practically matter. I don’t naturally tend to reply with an answer that entails multiple reasons, let alone break down each contributing factor into percentages of how much they likely contributed to the outcome. Naturally, it doesn’t even occur to me that I should consider multiple possibilities; instead, I just say, “x is why,” and move on.

The essay “Monotheorism” hopefully makes the case clear for why this is so problematic when it comes to understanding the universe. Here, I want to focus for a moment on why monoexplanations deny the humanity of people. Basically, monoexplanations treat people like they’re flat and simple; generally, they’re degrading and prone to cause drama.

Human motivations are complex. Why people work the jobs they do can be a mixture of reasons like “I don’t mind it,” “It provides for the family,” “I learn some skills,” and so on. Naturally though, we tend to assume linear and simplistic explanations (or at least reflect such in speech), and basically claim that if a person is working x job, he or she “must like it.” And perhaps there is truth to this, but the problematic step is acting like this explanation “explains the whole of it” — a dangerous and natural step.

First, if the person is making sacrifices to work that job, this “monoexplanation” will fail to appreciate what the person has undergone. Second, just because a person says that “they like x,” it doesn’t mean that they would do x “if they were totally free” (often, people mean “I like x job given that I have to work”). Again, the reasons people do what they do are complex: if we offer a single explanation, at best, we’re likely incomplete.

There is something “flat” and even offensive about monoexplanations, and it’s not surprising they can hurt people when we understand their actions and lives in such terms. Monoexplanations treat people two-dimensionally, as if they are easy to understand, and it’s perhaps because our brains want to believe people are easy to understand that our brains make this mistake. But people are vast and complex, and the more we learn about them, the more we find there is yet more to know.

We should learn to think twice.

If we understand people in terms of “monotheories” and “monoexplanations,” the ideas of people we store in our minds will likely leave the people behind. If our goal is to love others but we don’t recognize how monoexplanations can threaten that goal, we will likely carry out our goal in a way that makes the goal unachievable. With wisdom though, we can avoid irony: how we understand the world won’t be why the world always feels misunderstood.

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