People claim they’ve thought rationally about God, politics, and spirit, but those topics are so damned vague and remote, that most often, what really decides our big picture philosophy are the little immediate and practical considerations. We pick our big-picture beliefs not based on their accuracy but on their ability to encourage us, make us popular, and impress people in the short term. Our small-scale practical considerations are the Unidentified Flying Objectives that drive our big picture generalizations.
The word “Universe,” is just eight letters long–very small in comparison to the thing it names.
Having little names for big things make us omnipotently creative visualizers. Imagine pitching the universe like a softball. Not difficult, right? It’s a lot easier to imagine than to do. That should make us suspicious of our imagination’s accuracy when it comes to large-scale phenomena.
Try some other little words for big things:
Climate crisis, melting ice caps,
The government, the twelve trillion dollar national debt.
In our minds’ eyes we can manipulate these big things the way we manipulate little ones. We can picture getting into heaven and enjoying eternal paradise the way we get into college and enjoy four fun-filled years. We can picture stopping the climate crisis and refreezing the icecaps the way we put away the ice cream and preserve a delicious midnight snack. We can imagine shrinking the government and eliminating the twelve trillion dollar debt the way we shrink our dining-out budget and pay off our credit card debt.
At a human scale we’re pretty practical and accurate, but we’re unspeakably bad at the big picture. Universe and softball are both eight letters. The universe and a softball are both sort of kind of round and soft–not exactly but close enough that we don’t have trouble plopping the universe into an imagined pitcher’s hand and watching him toss it underhand.
About the big, vague, long-term future we can picture almost anything. About the small, concrete and immediate, we’re under real pressure to get it right and we often can. Our success with little things (getting into college, putting away ice cream, etc.) gives us confidence we misplace onto the big picture:
“Get into Heaven? I’ll tell you how it’s done. It’s simple.”
“The climate crisis? Why, if I were in charge of the world I’ll tell you what I’d do!”
“The budget deficit? Look, it isn’t rocket science. The stupid people at the top just don’t know how to deal with it.”
So how well do we make decisions that have both concrete immediate consequences and vague remote consequences? Which consequences will we be more careful to get right?
As a rule most our grand-vision, high level abstract beliefs are very likely to be more driven by short term than long term considerations. About the very big picture, I’m much more likely to believe what makes me popular, confident, self-satisfied, rich and influential in the short-term that whatever is most likely to prove accurate in the long term.
Short term concrete objectives trump remote vague objectives, so when people say they have chosen their big picture philosophy carefully there’s reason to doubt they’ve given it as much thought as they claim. We have honest and dishonest guides on our shoulders whispering in our ears. But if we’re honest about it, their clout and credibility isn’t a function of their honesty but their leverage. The more an option costs me today the less I’m likely to choose it whether it’s honest or not. And the more an option gains me today, the more I’m likely to choose it, whether it’s honest or not.