A pinhead is a person so small-minded his shoulders taper up to either a pin’s head or even narrower, a pinpoint. We apply the epithet like an X marking the spot, pinpointing anyone we think is an idiot.
I’m on a never-ending quest for objective definitions of wisdom and conversely, stupidity. By objective, I mean something beyond thinking a butthead is just anyone I butt heads with. This quest has practical implications in that much of the misery humans impose on each other stems from over-confident, under-analyzed name-calling, for example calling anyone I butt heads with a butthead. And then bombing them.
Here I want to explore an alternative definition of pinhead, not as having a head like a pin but heading for a pin. When you head toward a goal, aim for a target, or pursue some end, are you pinpointing or narrowing in on it?
“Same difference,” you might say, but no, there’s actually a pretty big difference rich in implications about everything from love, religion and politics to the natural history of goal-seeking behavior.
Let’s say you’re goal is to find your iPhone, misplaced in the house somewhere. You had it yesterday. You can just picture it, your iPhone crying, “Find me please!” You’re looking for a single pinpointed thing.
But what if you’re looking for a decent cup of coffee? You don’t want tea or milk and you reject that cup of coffee you forgot and left in the microwave yesterday. Other than that, within a narrowed range any cup of coffee will do.
Pinpointing implies that you have a positive ideal in mind. Narrowing implies rejection of everything that falls outside of a narrow range. Some goals feel like pinpoints, those supposedly one-dimensional things we learned about in elementary school geometry class. Other goals contain whole ranges of acceptable options, known mostly by rejecting unacceptable options.
Searching for your one true iPhone, your bull’s eye goal is that single pinpoint in the center of the target. Searching for a decent cup of coffee your bull’s eye is anything that doesn’t fall outside the biggish circle in the middle the target.
Suppose your goal is to find a home in a new town. You stick a pushpin into your map to mark the spot. But what is the spot? Is it the big red top of the pushpin, or is it the impossibly infinitesimal point?
Say your goal is to find Mr. or Ms. Right, the partner of your dreams. Is this partner a pinpoint or a narrowed range? Do you have a perfect vision of your partner in your mind’s eye, a soul mate who, like your iPhone cries, “Find me please”? Do you go around checking people against this perfect vision until you find the one exact match?
Or is your Mr. or Ms. Right anyone from a narrowed range of possibilities, who, like a decent cup of coffee is found by rejecting all of the Mr. or Ms. Wrongs until you’re left with Mr. or Ms. Right-enough?
The evolutionary psychologist Randy Nesse notes that it won’t do to declare to your partner, “Baby, you’re like a total seven out of ten and probably the best I can get. So I’m right here with you until, like maybe an eight comes along.” Because relationship is so high-stakes, intense, intimate, competitive, and risky, we need to be more reassuring than that, saying and even believing a very pinpointed interpretation, at the extreme something like “Baby, you are my one and only soul mate. Before we met I dreamed about you, the only person who could ever satisfy me. In my dreams I saw you crying “Find me please.” I knew someday I would find you and until I did, I keep looking, accepting no substitute.”
You’ll find such pinpoint exclusivity in the pursuit not just of monogamy but monotheism. In both, high stakes and intense competition escalates us toward the pinpoint interpretation of goal seeking. A religious leader isn’t going to say, “Our god is a pretty good god and his suggestions for how to live are pretty OK, so you might as well live by them at least until maybe a better god comes along.” Instead, you’ll hear, “This is the one true God. He came to me in a vision crying “find me please.” I sought Him and I found Him and I would never put any other God before him.” Pinpointing is the interpretation of choice for all fanatical battle cries, whether they be romantic, religious, political or philosophical.
Through our power of language we humans are uniquely suited to the pinpoint interpretation of goal-seeking behavior. Like no other organisms, we can name the things we seek. We can make the name sacred.
Words afford us the power to hold fixed in our minds our pinpointed goals. The name we give our goal stays constant, a permanent X that marks the immovable spot at the center of the bull’s eye circle we’re aiming at.
Or at least we think the spot it marks is immovable. Often the name is an X marking a spot that changes a lot.
For example, over the years our descriptions of Mr. or Ms. Right change. Reacting to a boring date we might picture Mr. Right as an animated and scintillating conversationalist. Reacting to an over-stimulating date a week later we might picture Mr. Right as mellower and not quite so intense. If challenged on our inconsistency we might say, “What do you mean? I’m still looking for Mr. Right!”
Sure the name stays constant. What it represents does not.
Likewise, the meaning or definition of “God” can shift around. Theological historian Karen Armstrong argues that religions do evolve with changes in culture but most hold one belief constant: the belief that they don’t evolve.
This sense words give us that we can pinpoint can be used in self-serving ways. For example, I can claim I’m being consistent in always demanding “fairness,” a pinpointing name that I shift around at my convenience, calling it unfair when I’m imposed upon and fair when I impose on others. Fanatics claim to be masters of discernment, capable of pinpoint precision. Living in the real world though, something has to give and generally what does is their ability to see themselves moving the X around at their convenience. And if you call them on it, they say “What do you mean?! I’m the most avid defender of fairness there is!”
Yes in word, but not in deed.
Word power gives us the impression of pinpointing even though we’re not we’re not. When you finally find that iPhone, you don’t inspect every detail to make sure it’s yours. You decide it falls within the range of things indistinguishable from your iPhone and pocket it. Fellow-traveling fundamentalists may think they’ve pinpointed the very same One True God, but they don’t bother to check every detail with each other. Even our proper names are improper. You don’t check your friend down to the minutest detail before calling him by his name. You decide that he’s no other than your friend and then assume he is therefore your friend. In fact, the minutest detail is beyond our reach. We couldn’t possibly know things down to their minutest details, all the sub-atomic particulars you would need to check to verify that you’ve pinpointed your target. We really do pursue all goals by narrowing, not pinpointing. Like the coffee connoisseur we may romance the idea of “The one perfect cup of coffee,” but in truth we just reject the cups that fall outside a more or less narrow range, and drink what we find indistinguishably acceptable.
For centuries, researchers have been mystified about the origins of goal-seeking behavior. We don’t see goal-seeking behavior in physics or chemistry. We think we see it in plants and animals and yet it doesn’t make sense. A plant seeking the sun or some single-celled organism steering toward sugar can’t possibly have a mental image of its goal, some pinpointed object of desire in mind. You can’t have a goal in mind if you don’t have a mind.
So maybe these organisms are just machines. Maybe real goal seeking requires organisms like us who can print our heart’s desire in our minds with words.
And where then do these machine-like organisms come from? Two possibilities: They were pinpointed objects of desire in the mind of God. Or they are the pinpointed objects of desire for natural selection, which “selects for” their traits.
Natural selection doesn’t “select for” anything. Natural selection is just the name we’ve given the way that when organisms die, having failed at self-maintenance for whatever reason, whole family lines of potentially subsequent organisms are eliminated. The survivors are those that fall within the narrow range, the inner circle on the target, the head on the pin.
And what was their secret? We might venture guesses and claim that natural selection “selected for” the traits we imagine did the trick. But we can easily imagine lots of traits that might make for survival in a given environment. Moths can escape predatory birds by flying faster than them, or camouflaging, or tasting bitter or whatever. Do we want to say natural selection “selects for” every possible survival formula?
Natural selection doesn’t have objects of desire; it has rejects of desire. Like us really, it doesn’t pinpoint, it narrows by a process of elimination.
Language gives us special goal-seeking abilities, the power to narrow in with great precision on what we’re looking for. But still, it’s narrowing in, goal-seeking by a process much more like evolution than we’ve noticed. Life’s goal seeking behavior operates by processes of elimination. What is not eliminated is a range of things, real variety rich in potential for further evolution.
Oh, and pinheads? From the rich range of possible interpretations of the concept I offer this: People who think they only head toward pinpoints and insist that their pinpointedly sacred words mark a single, exact immovable spot, and then move that spot at their convenience.
See, I’m in favor of conscientious name-calling. A good negative term can delimit a range of bad behavior worth eliminating. That’s why I’m not just on a quest for an objective definition of wisdom but for stupidity and pinheadedness also. Our to-don’t lists are even more important than our to-do lists. Not to put too fine a point on it, I don’t want to be a pinhead.