An Essay Featured In The Map Is Indestructible by O.G. Rose
Human Nature and the Need for Small Theory
“Monotheorism” is the belief that there exists a single theory that can explain every given phenomenon and/or given event, and it is human nature to be monotheoristic. If we are Capitalists, it is natural for us to think all problems result from a lack of free markets; if our passion is ending xenophobia, it is natural for us to think of everything primarily in terms of ethnicity; if we are Theists, it is natural to think everything can be explained by a sacred tradition; and so on. It is very difficult for us to think of x in terms of Capitalism, y in terms of ethnicity, z in terms of coincidence, and so on. For good or for bad, we naturally accept a framework and understand everything through it, and so married do we become to our “single framework” that it becomes “invisible.” It’s too natural.
Humans naturally look for “a theory of everything,” an obsessive search that is arguably most obvious in Physics, though please don’t mistake me as saying that M-theory is wrong or that such a theory cannot be true. My point is that we are all naturally monotheoristic, and that this can blur our discernment, making it less likely that we will be accurate when we claim to have found “a theory of everything” (as will be expanded on, if we reach “a single theory of everything,” it’s best done through a dialectical orientation of polytheorism). Also, please also don’t mistake me as saying that an economic, sociological, and/or general “macro-theory” theory can never be right, cannot account for much, etc. — it is not my place to make such claims. Also, I am not saying that there cannot be such thing as an uppercase-Truth: that is a different inquiry for a different time. I am primarily focused here on our nature to be monotheoristic and the best methods for dealing with that natural tendency. Aware of monotheorism, it is my hope that we will become more accurate in our theorizing and more capable of “costly empathy” versus “cheap empathy,” as will be expounded on.
As discussed in “Self-Delusion, the Toward-ness of Evidence, and the Paradox of Judgment” by O.G. Rose, “cases” are what change phenomena into evidence: if I believe someone hates me, the scowl on the person’s face becomes evidence that this is so, versus a random look. Generally, it is very difficult for someone to hold onto more than one case at a time (let alone five): it is hard, for example, for a person to study the world both as a Theist and an Atheist simultaneously and equally: if we try, we can’t help but give one side more weight than the other. And if we do try, if we’re a Theist, we tend to look at the world “as a Theist-Atheist,” per se: we tend to look at the world “as a Theist through Atheism” versus “an Atheist through Atheism.” We put our shoes in other people’s shoes every now and then, but very rarely our feet: it’s just too difficult to separate ourselves from our minds and the “case” and/or “worldview” our minds have married (and everyone’s mind must marry some worldview to function).
The human being is naturally monotheoristic, and as a result, we are naturally not empathetic. As argued in “On Critical Thinking” by O.G. Rose, empathy is nearly identical with critical thinking: it is epistemologically invaluable. Because we are naturally monotheoristic, we are also not naturally skilled at critical thinking, and as we need critical thinking to realize we lack it, so it is hard to grasp that we aren’t empathetic unless we know what constitutes empathy. To make a distinction inspired by Bonhoeffer’s “cheap grace” versus “costly grace,” the only empathy people tend to exercise is what I will call “cheap empathy,” which is the act of “thinking like others think according to our worldview.” Self-deceptively, worldviews tend to entail a view of how others think; for example, the Alt-Right Conservative may think that Muslims in the Middle East hate America, and hence when such a Conservative tries to think like a Muslim, the Conservative thinks about ways to destroy America. This is an extreme example, but I do believe it makes the point: “cheap empathy” confirms ideology versus lead a person to critiquing it and “opening up” to others.
In “cheap empathy,” since we are thinking about what others think, it can strike us as empathy, and frankly since the results tend to fall in line with our ideology (as they are so bracketed at the start to do) the results are easy to accept. We probably want to accept the results, for they strengthen our ideology precisely by making us think that we are not ideologues; after all, we’ve (seemingly) exercised empathy, which is precisely what ideologues don’t do. If we believe Liberals are Anti-American and try to think about the world as an Anti-American, we may think we’ve tried to be empathetic of Liberals, but rather we’ve only been empathetic with our idea of others, not actual others (though that doesn’t mean we are necessarily wrong). Tragically, this is usually the only kind of empathy anyone ever exercises, and though it seems empathetic, it is ultimately nothing more than a tool of ideology preservation (something at which all of us are talented).
“Costly empathy,” on the other hand, costs us: it forces us to challenge our worldview, to suffer existential tension, and to “die to ourselves,” per se. To “put our feet in another person’s shoes” and actually see the world through their eyes forces us to, first off, confront our own fallibility, finitude, subjectivity, and “smallness.” When we consider our limits through our own eyes, we tend to “soften” our limits: we acknowledge that we can be wrong but within a framework that assumes “in its structure” that we are right. When we are “cheaply empathetic,” considering the possibility that we are wrong is done “softly”: it causes little if any existential pain. However, when we truly think about our own fallibility through the eyes of others, there is less if no “softening”: we see ourselves as “‘nakedly” as we tend to see those with whom we disagree. This can existentially hurt; this can “cost.”
“Costly empathy” forces us to confront everything we think, say, and believe. It forces us to “destabilize” ourselves, to see ourselves in a world with others who think differently than us and who confront us with the possibility of being wrong intellectually, religiously, and ideologically. This causes existential tension that had we not tried to be empathetic — had we thoughtlessly accepted our ideology and view of others — we wouldn’t have experienced. For trying to be actually empathetic, there is a sense in which we are punished. But “costly empathy” isn’t so much a punishment as it is a “purging,” a refining and “sanctification,” per se. It improves us, helps us escape ideology preservation, equips us to love actual people versus our ideas of them, and is necessary for Pluralism to lead to human thriving versus conflict.
Those who fail to combat their monotheistic tendencies are especially prone to fail to be empathetic. They will seem empathetic to those who happen to think like them, but this isn’t true empathy: it’s group-think. If someone thinks like us, to think like them is to simply think our own thoughts through them, an appearance of empathy that anyone can do easily and use as evidence to themselves that they are empathic. Monotheorism isn’t only a matter of empathetic failure, but empathy is the best tool for combating monotheorism, enabling critical thinking, without which our thinking would likely be our brainwashing.
In Arrival, directed by Denis Villeneuve, the human race attempt to translate an alien language to learn why the aliens appeared. In line with Wittgenstein’s “language game theory,” it is learned that Chinese scientists are using a board game to communicate, but the protagonist notes that since the board game is about strategy and war, the Chinese scientists are likely to think the aliens are hostile. In other words, given how the board necessarily frames communication, the Chinese scientists are likely to conclude the aliens are a threat. Similarly, monotheorism restricts us to “a single theory” for understanding the world, nearly forcing certain interpretations, given how the theory “brackets in” certain possibilities while “bracketing out” others. Since we are naturally monotheoristic, we are naturally likely to be like the Chinese scientists in Arrival, leading to untold consequences. For being ourselves, we are mentally handicapped.
No one holds multiple worldviews in their mind equally at the same time: no one is equally Christian and Muslim, Stoic and Henotheist, etc. It’s not possible: all of us must pick a (“first mover”) worldview and go from there. Worldviews can certainly change, but they cannot coexist in the same mind at the same time equally (or at least I don’t think so, and if such people exist, I struggle to believe there are many). Yes, a person can “entertain” multiple worldviews at once, but everyone must have a “main” worldview, if you will, a primary one from which such “entertainment” occurs: no one has “multiple primarily worldviews.” It’s not possible, as it’s not possible to possess multiple “first causes.”
This being the fundamental nature of “having a view” itself (as all must), everyone is prone to be a monotheorist. Likewise, by how we experience the world, we are motivated to confirm and find evidence for our monotheism, our “theory of everything.” This is possible because worldviews are very absorbent and versatile: no matter what happens in our lives, worldviews can find a way to “fit” those happenings into themselves (because “the map is indestructible,” as discussed throughout the work of O.G. Rose). As worldviews are “confirmed to” us and “absorb” more happenings “into” evidence, we become more invested in our worldviews, and hence become increasingly confident (consciously or subconsciously) that we can in fact find “a theory of everything” (that just happens to be composed of everything we think is true). Phenomenologically and neurologically, humans seem primed to be monotheorists and increasing so through time. We are “toward” (our) monotheorism, “toward” being our own evangelist.
Many postmodern thinkers have dedicated themselves to tearing down theories and “normals” that exclude “the other.” Derrida noted that “deconstruction was justice,” and there’s indeed much to be said about the need to deconstruct societal norms and practices that (indirectly and emergently) exclude. In many respects, we need deconstruction to combat our own monotheoristic nature and to help “check and balance” ourselves from trying to understand the world through a single lens. Yes, most understand when asked directly that everything can’t be understood in terms of just economics, religion, race, or the like, but we naturally fall back into monotheorism when we go back to our daily lives: it’s unconscious. We must develop self-critical habits, not simply deconstruct others and practice “cheap empathy” to help preserve our own ideology (which our monotheorism will serve if we let it); perhaps we could say there is a difference between “costly deconstruction” and “cheap deconstruction,” that we need to avoid the latter. There should be a cost to overcoming ourselves, but it is a cost that we naturally try to make others pay.
That said, it must be stressed that though we must be self-critical of ourselves to check our monotheoristic tendencies, it doesn’t follow that no “theory of everything” exists or that searching for “a theory of everything” is inherently problematic (though admittedly I think it tends to be). I personally make claims such as “irony is the fabric of reality” and tend to seek out “large theories” throughout my works, but, out of bias, I like to think that not all macro-theories are equally “open” to other possible explanations (the premise “life is a struggle of being looking for Being,” for example, is more “open” to various possibilities than a theory such as “economic disparities are a result of Big Government”). This doesn’t mean the second premise is false (it’s certainly more concrete), but it does mean that theories are not equally “open” or “closed.” Determining which theories are which requires examining each to tell.
Also, it is important to note that if it is true that “his Progressive views kept John from getting the job,” it doesn’t follow that ideological bias is always why people don’t receive employment; likewise, if God wanted x to happen, it doesn’t necessarily follow that everything that happens is God’s Will. Perhaps John wasn’t employed due to politics while James wasn’t employed due to laziness, all while Greg was employed because his boss was a sexist. Theories and explanations can be incredibly valuable and true, but because we are monotheoristic, we are more likely than not to take theories and explanations too far.
There’s a philosophical idea that if everything wasn’t one it would be divided by nothing; hence, everything must be one. The idea is vague, but there is a general logic to it that I find compelling (at the very least, everything must be one in “being”). There is a reason I think to search for “a theory of everything,” but we mustn’t forget that we cannot mix what Aristotle would call “the essential” with “the accidental,” “the thing” with “the description.” Perhaps “being” is a valid macro-theory (versus say Capitalism), but within “being” there can be economic, literary, and sociological “micro-theories.” It is a matter of order, but monotheoristic, we naturally disorder.
Theory both hides and unveils: thanks to it, we can understand how economies work, and yet simultaneously it quickly becomes hard not to see phenomena in terms of our theory, making us susceptible to error. A theory provides a place for us to “put” what we experience (like a shelf), and yet at the same time a theory can blind us from experiencing what doesn’t “fit” our theory. Like eyes, theories “make us see things” (and do note that all ideologies are ultimately kinds of theories); to see, we must risk blindness and hallucination.
No matter how many times people observed sickness, until the theory of germs was created, people were virtually powerless to stop germs from spreading: empirical observation alone wasn’t enough. Theory is necessary, and yet naturally monotheoristic, we are likely to put too much stock in a single theory and push it too far, making ourselves susceptible to confirmation bias, “overfitting,” “the look-elsewhere effect,” “black swans,” and other epistemological errors.
‘All models are wrong but some are useful,’ to allude to George Box: since no model or theory captures all of reality, no theory is fully true (and if it was, it would be useless, too complex, as depicted in “On Exactitude in Science” by Borges). This “incompleteness” is precisely the source of a temptation to make a theory ever-larger and ever-inclusive, and the more brilliant the thinker, perhaps the more likely this temptation will be given into (the person feeling more capable, having the capacity to see patterns/coincidences others don’t, etc.), and yet the best approach is to refrain from trying to make a theory “too big to be wrong” and rather to create many “small theories,” the diversity of which can contribute to balance.
What we need, I think, is the practice of “small theory,” an end to attempts create giant systems into which all reality fits, and instead to generate multiple theories which don’t necessarily rely on the correctness of one another to stand (“a balance of theories,” per se). The concentration of ideas into a single theory makes us especially prone to err: when we write about an election, for example, we should write about it in terms of race, economics, psychoanalysis, etc. in the same work as opposed to across works: the diversity of ideas will help strengthen the work and help us resist self-confirmation.
In a world where thinkers focus on creating multiple “small theories” as opposed to “big theories,” not only will they better avoid being professionally, psychologically, and personally too wrapped up in a single idea, but thinkers will also help facilitate more intellectual competition and evolution. When thinkers focus on creating and defending a single large theory, the theory can become “too big to fail” for them and contribute to intellectual tunnel vision. Theory naturally “focuses vision” in that it results in people seeing and interpreting phenomena in its terms, and though this isn’t necessarily bad, by having multiple theories, thinkers will be better equipped to combat tunnel vision, prevent themselves from forcing what they observe to fit into a single theory like a child forcing a circle puzzle piece into a square hole, and help them value fields and ways of thinking outside their specialty. To use Thomas Sowell’s language, if people can think “across visions,” they are more likely to internalize “the conflict of visions” in a manner that produces intellectual evolution, as opposed to leaving the conflict only externalized as it currently is, which accomplishes little individual and societal growth (or at least not as efficiently).
“All models are wrong,” but the more intellectual models people have available to them, the more likely —through theory and idea competition — people will produce something that is “useful.” That said, I don’t mean to suggest there is no role for “large theory,” only that the likelihood of a given ‘large theory’ being useful is relative to the degree it has emerged out of a competition of “small theories” and that the “large theory” itself is “constructed around a space,” per se, in which many “small theories” compete (note that the polytheorism of Hinduism emerges out of an Ultimate Monotheorism). In other words, a “large theory’ about why a practice of “small theory” is best could be valid and is arguably needed in order to justly answer the question “What is the nature of a reality in which ‘small theory’ is the best approach?” It would be a fallacy to assume that because x is a “big theory” and y a “small theory” that y must necessarily be right, but it would be wise to assume that x is more likely to be wrong than y, even if in the end x is proved to be justified. Furthermore, it should be noted that there can be a difference between “a chain of causality” and “a chain of deduction”: arguing that w explains x, y, and z is not always the same as saying w will cause x, y, and z (or that w will cause x which will cause y which will cause z). In a chain of deduction, if w is false, then x, y, and z lack explanation, but in a chain of causality, if w doesn’t cause x, x can still cause y, and y can still cause z.
Lastly, a practice and habit of “small theory” might be the best way for us to “trace out” the uppercase-Truth if there is indeed such a thing (or at least help us decide which truth is the best candidate to be “like” Truth); if there is any possible method for determining the best “big theory,” small theory might be the way. If z “appears (true)” in theory w, theory x, and theory y, the fact that z “pops up” so often would give us Popperian “reason to think” that z is in fact true-like-Truth. However, if we only study and work on theory w, though the appearance of z in theory w would give us some degree of “reason to think” z is true-like-Truth, our reason won’t be nearly as strong as it would be if we were to observe z in w, x, and y; furthermore, the likelihood of us being wrong about z and deceived is much greater. Of course, it could just be a coincidence that z appears in w, x, and y, but since ultimately the best we can do is guess (as discussed in “On Certainty” by O.G. Rose), the possibility of Pynchonian coincidence is one we simply must live with (though “small theory” may help us be less paranoid about it).
In closing, all theories, ideas, and questions must be approached from an initial position, and considering the natural problems of monotheorism, starting off against a “big theory” until the theory has proved itself is necessary if we are to better overcome our natural biases, cognitive-shortcomings, and monotheoristic nature. We perhaps need “chains of deductions” to understand the world, yet it is better to have multiple chains as opposed to a giant one. As the prospect of the best form of government, a benevolent dictator, makes totalitarianism tempting, so the prospect of creating a “single unified theory” tempts us to indulge our monotheoristic nature (and do note that even if we do lip service in favor of polytheorism, it is incredibly difficult to not practically be a monotheorist). But I think the risk is too great: we must resist.
No theory warrants being the only theory around; at best, some theories deserve to be a lens option for our mental phoropter. We look through one lens, try to see if the letters on the chart are clearer, then try the next. Sometimes the first lens is best, other times lens eight, but it’s never always one. Perhaps, in the end, there are only twenty or so theories that deserve the honor of being a lens option for our mental phoropter, and perhaps most that try to earn the honor should be discarded. But if we at least know that we must be skeptical of monotheories and expect ourselves to be polytheorists, then when someone offers us a pair of glasses and promises that we’ll never have to take them off, we’ll be wiser. The world is too vast and beautiful for only one set of eyes.