“How can you say “Trust your gut?” Guts can be wrong — you have to use your head!”

If there’s one question on everybody’s mind, it’s “What should I do?” or, to elaborate a bit, “What’s the most I can do with what I’m dealt to bring out the best here?”

Mind you, most of the time, our minds are off not asking questions, but, rather, going with whatever is right in front of us. When we hit a snag, that’s when our mind engages, and it’s this question of what to do that engages it.

Funny thing about questions: There are really two kinds, and we often confuse them. One kind has knowable answers; the other has only guessable ones. What’s the capital of Minnesota? or “Do cats have gall bladders?” have answers that investigation would discover. Just Google, or look on page 232. Questions like these are fundamentally different from “What should I do?” or “Where will I live in 30 years?” No quantity of research will get you more than a guess on these, because they depend on complex interactions of factors playing out into the future.

Mind Readers Dictionary: The Podfast : Play in Popup

Mind Readers Dictionary : Play in Popup


We tend to confuse these two kinds of questions in part because we want to — we really wish future- dependent answers were already written somewhere. We also confuse them because we hear stories — lots of them.

Fiction gives us characters wrestling, just like us, with the question, “What should I do?” but with fiction, unlike in real life, the answers are knowable, already written at the back of the book on page 232. Authors can and usually do write fiction backward, already knowing outcomes that their characters are stuck struggling to find out. We’re enchanted by the stories these authors weave. We go to movies because we love it when a screenwriter builds on a great resolution in the last scene. But while watching the movie, we identify with characters who don’t know what to do, people just like us — except that their future is known and ours isn’t.

We live in a couch-potatocracy. The contrast was obvious when I visited old friends in Guatemala last month. Compared to these often illiterate rural villagers living without electricity, we’re story fiends, addicted to and expecting far more sitcoms, soaps, gossip, news, movies, books, and dramas than people have in the past — or do still in many parts of the world. It makes me wonder how chugalugging this much fiction is changing us. It probably makes it harder to decide what to do, while it paradoxically raises our expectation that doing it should be easy. Every hero does things a little differently, confusing us about what we should do. Every hero has to guess what to do, but guesses right, making us think we ought to be able to guess right just as easily.

Long before our addiction to fiction reached its current state, people debated both what we should do and the best method for deciding what to do. There’s long been a sense that, with the right method, we could do more than guess: We could catch the answer blowing in the wind and pin it down to live by.

On method, there are five distinct schools of thought:

  1. Listen to your heart: Your gut is the best guide.
  2. Listen to your people: Your culture is the best guide.
  3. Listen to a higher power: God is the best guide, and reveals the answer if you listen right.
  4. Listen to your mind: Critical thinking is the best guide.
  5. None of the above: There is no guide, so stop looking for one.

Each of these schools of thought has had its day — or, rather, days, or recurring periods of prominence. Each school makes a strong case — that is, which method gets you to the real truth, and which method has real sticking power. From our methods, we want two things: right guidance and strong guidance, a true and strong signal.

Signal strength comes up especially when we debate what everyone should do, and where everyone should go for guidance. You probably know a few purists who believe that if we all would just subscribe to the one true method, we would have the same guidance and would then live in harmony, all of us doing what’s right. The feasibility of their arguments rest in part on how easy or natural it is to subscribe to the method.

For example, arguing that our guts should be our guides, Epicureans, eighteenth-century liberals, and modern libertarians might argue both that the gut really knows what’s right and that, besides, it sends the strongest signal, so it’s futile to try to think for ourselves, do what society says, divine God’s intentions, or abandon hope. People just end up listening to their guts anyway.

Likewise, arguing for society as the guide, Stoics, Hobbsian social contractists, 18th-century conservatives, and modern patriots might argue both that society is the repository of our most tried-and- true truths and that, despite our efforts to follow our gut, think for ourselves, listen to God, or abandon hope, social pressures are the most compelling.

The faiths argue both that God is the source of truth and that devotion to God is the only force strong enough to make people behave well.

And though promoters of independent-mindedness and postmodern futilism wouldn’t argue that people are naturally inclined to reason things out for themselves or give up on finding a guide, they do argue that these are the right methods for dealing with the pursuit of the true path and that nothing short of commitment to them will prove reliable in the long run.
Five methods, each promoted as the source of guidance to living right that is both true and the most enduring, each having, over the centuries, their purists — practitioners of method orthodoxy, or methodoxy.

That method orthodoxies should arise is understandable. With as many sources of guidance as have proliferated, we need ways to simplify. It would be a great load off our minds if we finally discovered that all good outcomes are derived from following one true method. The temptation toward methodoxy is strong enough that most us have dabbled in it — if not as philosophers looking for the true way to all truths, at least as pragmatic people investigating some practical aspect of it. Follow your bliss, think for yourself, be a team player, trust your heart, have faith — the familiarity of these catchphrases is evidence of the power of methodoxy, a sense we all share that if we could only agree on right method, then right outcomes would inevitably result.

Of course, if there were one true method, we would have discovered it by now. There isn’t, though, because, in practice, the methods blur together. Our guts aren’t independent of our minds. Guts learn from experience, and experience is shaped by our mind’s interpretations. Our minds, likewise, are not free from the gut’s influence. What our gut ignores, our minds don’t trouble with — indeed, it’s our gut response, the ache of uncertainty, that makes us trouble over where we’re going to get guidance. And, really, the idea of heart or mind independent of social context is a fiction. We don’t have some pristine sanctum of intuition or intellect we can access when we decide to stop listening to what other people tell us to do. What we think and feel is shaped to the core by our social affiliations.

Given that, in practice, our sources of guidance are intertwined, I would like to propose a sixth approach: antimethodoxy. That is, embrace the messy medley of sources. There’s a reason I’m a fanatic about antimethodoxy methodoxy — actually, two reasons — again, pertaining to signal strength and signal veracity. In practice, we can’t help but merge methods. The strongest signal (indeed, the only signal) is a mixed signal from all the methods. And, as for signal veracity, the point is to keep our eyes on the prize: It’s outcomes that matter utmost, not methods for getting to outcomes. When people become fussy about whether you got it from your head or your heart or society, they tend to lose sight of the practical question of what’s going to work best — what bet is likely to pay off with the best results.

We all have heard the philosophical question about whether ends justify means. In the abstract, as it’s sometimes debated, the question is somewhat silly. Of course ends justify means: If jaywalking would save a life, you would jaywalk. The question isn’t whether ends justify means, but when they do so. In what situations is it OK to use a potentially bad method to achieve a good outcome? Bad methods are bad because they have some potential to produce negative outcomes, so ultimately the means- and-ends question dissolves into simple cost-benefit analysis, weighing potential outcomes.

I still have a few pacifist friends who argue that violence is an unacceptable method, but I have fewer than I had before 9/11. Many of us had never encountered a situation that called for violence, and we universalized a methodoxy from our limited experience. Resonant adages true to our personal experiences rang true: “Violence doesn’t solve anything.” “An eye for an eye leaves the world blind.” After 9/11, even many of us who oppose the war were confused. Countervailing adages rang true, too; we remembered that, yes, maybe there are circumstances in which violence solves things. I missed the draft, but, for many of us opposed to the war in Vietnam, dodging it was easy. Imagining getting drafted for World War II still makes me balk. I’d go. I’d have to. There’d be no glib methodoxy to save me. I’d be forced to weigh possible outcomes. And there would be no turning to page 232.