Most of the time we have answers enough—no questions on our minds. When a question crowds in, it’s usually some variation on or aspect of this one—the mother of all questions:


At first it reads as generic and bland. But notice all that’s packed into it. Dissecting it reveals all the great questions, all of science and philosophy:

“What can I do . . . “: Who am I, and what can and can’t I change? In other words, all philosophy of action, purpose, knowledge (epistemology), and experience (phenomenology) plus all of medicine, biology, and psychology, to name a few.

” . . . What I’m dealt . . . “: What is my environment? In other words, the philosophy of what is real (ontology), the philosophy of what is beyond direct experience (metaphysics), and all of science’s and social science’s efforts to understand the natural and manmade world.

” . . . To get to the good”: What is the good? In other words, all of moral philosophy, indeed, all of economics, politics, and theology to boot.

Mind Readers Dictionary: The Podfast : Play in Popup

Mind Readers Dictionary : Play in Popup

Yes, it’s the mother of all ivory-tower speculations, but it’s also the mother of the most practical and personally pressing speculations. That should tell you something about the ivory tower. Ivory is heavy. It doesn’t float suspended in midair. Though some academic speculators do lose touch with reality, really the ivory tower is planted firmly in the earthly realm. The question behind all the work in the ivory tower is the mother of all questions, the very same question that at times has kept you up at night, trying to figure out what you should do next.

The mother of all questions is the question behind negotiating with your partner over what movie you’ll see tonight, where to send the kids for school, or where you want to go to school, what to do next, how to treat your cancer, what to do to preserve what’s working in your life and change what’s not, how to break out of poverty, and how to break into a brighter future. It’s the question behind our individual and collective decisions, behind our selfish and our selfless questions, how to get what you personally want and what you want for humankind.

As an evolutionist, I’d go so far as to say it’s the question implicit in all biological evolution as well. It’s not that potato bugs ask it but that, if evolution doesn’t supply their bodies with the means to answer it instinctively, then zap, they’re natural history.

Being so universal, this question can be sliced in a whole universe of ways. I want to touch on two of the dynamic relationships between parts of it.

I, You, Us

Built into the question are three main variables:

1. I,

2. What I’m dealt (my environment), and

3. The good (my goals).

In a one-on-one relationship, my environment becomes “you,” and my goals become my goals with respect to you—or, simplifying a bit, our relationship. So we end up with:

1. I,

2. You,

3. Our relationship.

Whenever I’m bothered in interaction with someone else, I can hold any of these three as constants or as variables open to alteration. To illustrate, when I’m bothered in your presence and feel as though something’s got to give, I’ve got three possible variables to focus upon:

1. “I’m feeling bothered.” (It’s something about me.) This holds you and my goals as given and seeks resolution in altering me. In other words, I should learn to accept you more.

2. “You’re bothering me.” (It’s something about you.) This holds me and my goals as given and seeks resolution in altering you. In other words, I should try to change you.

3. “This relationship isn’t working.” (It’s something about our relationship.) This holds me and you as constant and seeks resolution in altering my goals. In other words, I should distance myself from you.

Floodlighting all three of these possibilities keeps us from lurching automatically into assuming any one of them. The most common assumption is number 2, translating “ouch” into “you’ve done me wrong.” We all know people who do it. They simply assume that if they’re annoyed in your presence, it’s clearly because you are being annoying, maybe even on purpose. But that’s only one of three possibilities.

We also know people who assume that if they’re bothered, it’s their problem. A fair amount of current pop philosophy claims that this is always the best assumption: “You can’t change other people; all you can change is your attitude about them.” I don’t buy it, of course. If you can’t change other people, why does everyone try so very hard to do so?

In the seventies some of us tried to speak exclusively in “I messages,” which we designed to keep the spotlight on what “I” could do to change my attitude. Using I messages can help correct for a tendency to blame others, but as a way of life it’s distorting and dangerous. Try using I messages with someone who always blames other people. You’ll be eaten alive.

Stella: I feel saddened when I see you kick our dog.

Stanley: Yeah, well if it bugs you, I guess you’re going to have to do something about your attitude, aren’t you?

We also know people who tend to assume that if something feels wrong, it means there’s bad chemistry and that they should leave.

The ideal relationships are ones in which all three variables are open to question. The trick is to be able to separate the symptom from the diagnosis. In other words, to declare that you’re bothered without jumping automatically to a conclusion about why. The symptom is all yours—no one can tell you what to feel. But if the rapport is good, then the diagnosis can be collaborative.

“I’ve been angry at you all afternoon and I’m not sure why yet. Can you help me figure it out?”

It takes a lot of trust to feel safe enough to bring up a question like this to another person and expect fair treatment. But then again, the way you build such rapport is by bringing up questions like this. The alternative breeds distrust. If you bring up a symptom prepackaged with a diagnosis, especially when it blames the other person, you create mistrust:

“I’ve been angry with you all afternoon because you have been so mean and selfish.”

Means and Ends

I’ll play one more game with this mother of all questions, this time dividing it into two parts, not three. Notice how the mother question covers both means and ends. “What can I do with what I’m dealt” is all about means. “To get to the good,” is all about ends.

Means and ends can be taken as constants or variables. We can be certain of our ends and allow our means to take care of themselves. This is what’s meant by ends justifying the means.

Alternatively, we may be certain of our means and let the ends take care of themselves. This is what I’ve described as “methodoxy,” an assumption that if you restrict yourself only to virtuous means, you’ll always have good outcomes.

Or we can ponder both our means and our ends, wondering what is the truly good and wondering also about the best ends for achieving that good.

I favor this latter strategy. I’ve described the dangers of being overconfident that you know what’s good, and thereby automatically sanctifying every possible means of achieving it. Lenin and Stalin on the left, Hitler and Mussolini on the right, and all sorts of dangerous wackos in between—the world has suffered enough at the hands of those who are happy to break any egg necessary to make their self-serving omelets.

I’ve also described the dangers of means-purists who are sure that, so long as you practice only the True and Virtuous means, then you sure to get to the good.

Declaring my preference for keeping both means and ends questions alive, I’ve declared a preference for a more complex and less popular approach. It may be an approach that’s best suited for life in the ivory tower. But here’s my point. I suspect that the way people either inside or outside the ivory tower lose touch with reality is through overconfidence in their means or their ends. People who are sure they know what’s good, or are sure they know the right method for achieving good, and as a result assume that they’re on the right track, tend to drift off track without knowing that they have.

If you’re able to let means and ends remain tentative and inter-related then the whole mother question stays alive and you build your tower skyward while firmly rooted to the earth.