I’ve been doing Mind Readers Dictionary steadily for close to five years–one article, one idea per week. Only now am I getting around the stuff that started it all for me, the universal tough judgment calls at the heart of all the uncertainty we feel in any and every area of life.

Last week I listed the “seven wonderings of the ancient world,” the judgment calls that come with the territory of being alive. This week I cover some uniquely human dilemmas. Anatomically we’re just another midsized mammal. But mentally we have a uniquely strong ability to manipulate symbols and therefore concepts and images of things beyond the reach of our senses. And so we end up dealing with wonderings that other creatures don’t get, wonderings about how to manage our complex thoughts and emotions.

Here then are my seven wonderings of the modern (human) world:

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1. D.U.G. (Delayed Uncertain Gratification) Dilemma:
Whether or not to wait for something. (Should I aim for long-term or short-term gratification?) Nature for the most part is nearsighted, but we humans are farsighted, imagining and aspiring to achieve long-term goals even at the cost of short-term sacrifice. Sometimes the sacrifices pay off and sometimes they don’t. Should you have that other piece of cake, smoke those cigarettes, invest in that new business, go into debt to get a college degree? A bird in the hand is only sometimes better than two in the bush. Perseverance only sometimes furthers your purpose. It’s darkest before dawn but also before death. So of course we wonder sometimes whether a sacrifice is worth it–because sometimes it isn’t.

2. Bi-Mundialist’s Dilemma: Whether or not to be realistic. (Should I focus on sensory evidence or my mind’s eye interpretation?) We humans live in two worlds–the world we see when we open our eyes (the real world), and the one we see when we close them (our dreams, visions, and delusions). Should you strive for your dream job, venture, partner, society, or presidential candidate, or should you work with what you have? Sometimes it pays to dream and sometimes it pays to accept reality as it is, and often it’s hard to know when to do which. Keep your eyes on the prize? Which one? Accept things as they are? Which things in particular?

3. Gambler’s Dilemma:
Whether or not there’s something to learn here. (Should I regret or just move on?) We humans can ruminate, replaying past disappointments and regretting what we did wrong. But not all disappointments are our fault. The regret we feel is sometimes useful for helping us learn a lesson. And sometimes it’s worse than useless because there’s really no lesson to learn. Sometimes the alarm we feel at how things turned out is a false alarm, and sometimes it’s the wake-up call we need in order to learn not to make the mistake again. “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results,” they say, often claiming it was Einstein who said it first. I doubt he did so, because that quote borders on the insane. If you bet on the 80% odds and the 20% odds win, is it insane to bet on the 80% odds again? If your son’s chemotherapy didn’t work, would you give up on chemo? Only maybe. We’re all gamblers, placing bets and trying to learn from the results, but sometimes we bet wrong about whether there’s something to be learned from the bets we’ve placed. Which writing on the wall? Which message from God or the universe? Sometimes it’s hard to tell.

4. Lip Dilemma: Whether or not to voice it. (Should I reveal or conceal this?) Within ourselves or in communication with others we wonder whether to call attention to something. For example, if it’s something bad, will calling attention to it lead to improvement, or will it only make the problem worse? Loose lips both sink and save ships. Tight lips both save and destroy lives. Sometimes exposing a problem to the light of day dispels it; sometimes it makes it grow. Sometimes burying a problem makes it decompose and sometimes it makes it fester. Honesty is only sometimes the best policy, and anyone who tells you otherwise is a liar–a meta-liar, a liar about the ambiguous merit of lying.

5. Carrot-and-Stick Dilemma: Whether and how much to encourage or discourage action. (Should I reward or punish?) To move things all we can do is push or pull to varying degrees. To persuade people we employ some combination of carrots and sticks. Sometimes offering rewards inspires people to try harder and sometimes it lulls them into trying less. Sometimes threatening punishment makes people try harder and sometimes it frightens or frustrates them into trying less. We try to figure out how to praise without spoiling, how to blame without engendering resentment. It’s not always easy to figure out when to do which. Good cops persuade, but so do bad cops. Tough love isn’t the answer, it’s the question: when to be tough and when to be loving. You catch more flies with honey than with vinegar but more still with poop–and besides, what works with flies may or may not work with the people you’re trying to persuade.

6. Tab Dilemma: Whether or not to keep track of who owes what. (Is this best treated as a business or a love relationship?) Well, in business you keep track of who owes whom. In friendship, love, and family you don’t, you just give of yourself and assume it will all work out. Sometimes we’re businesslike when love is called for and sometimes we’re loving when really it would be better to treat the relationship as business. As Paul Simon sings, “Negotiations and love songs are often mistaken for one and the same.” The Book of Job teaches us that if we love God unconditionally we will be rewarded tenfold–which is actually an appropriately ironic mixed message. Moral questions offer a parallel: there’s head morality, whereby you calculate what’s fair in a businesslike fashion, and then there’s heart morality, where you focus on giving your loved ones what they want even if it’s costing everyone else an enormous amount. The classic brain-splitter: Would you sacrifice your own child to save a hundred lives? Head says yes, heart says no.

7. Rutgroove Dilemma: Whether or not to wonder. (Am I decided or deciding?) Our bi-mundiality gives us the option to explore more broadly than other creatures, to think about what could be and might have been–in a word, to wonder. The mother of all wonderings then is whether or not to wonder. Have you already decided what you’re going to do or are you still deciding, wondering about what’s the right path? If you’re in a groove, shut up, stick with your knitting, don’t ask why, cruise, settle in, don’t-worry-be-happy. If maybe your groove is really a rut, though, wonder, worry, doubt, reinterpret, visit alternative scenarios. A groove is a terrible thing to waste on wondering, but it’s also terrible to cruise along in a bad rut. Our uniquely human powers of wondering are conducive to two opposite attitudes about the future. A mind’s-eye vision can come on so strong that we come to believe in destiny. But the mind’s eye can also wander. Without a mind’s eye we would never have wondered about whether the future is predestined nor ever come to realize that it is not. Given intrinsic uncertainty about the future, what seems a significant problem today can turn out to be no problem at all tomorrow and what seems insignificant today can turn out to be a big problem tomorrow. We can only guess what to wonder and worry about, and sometimes we guess wrong.

There–my current non-definitive lists: the seven wonderings of the ancient (all of life) and modern (human life) worlds. I’ve thought a lot about how these wonderings interrelate, how the lines between them blur, and how they came about in the first place. I also wonder openly about whether the lists are as clear and clean as they can be and I creatively doubt that they are even though I have yet to meet a tough judgment call that doesn’t fit into these categories.

I’d welcome suggestions for other universal tough judgment calls, but also examples of particular tough judgment calls you think don’t fit my categories. If you’ll e-mail me your suggestions, I’ll comment back to you personally.

And sometime soon I’ll make a case that all these wonderings are the product of one core feature of the universe: emergence–the way in which interaction of parts at one level leads to forms at a higher level, forms that change the rules of causality. This pattern shows up all the way down to the level of thermodynamics, the way interactions of molecules lead to a higher-level population effect called entropy. But it also operates all the way up to the ways individual humans behave differently from groups of individuals. More on that some other time.

Here are the tough judgment calls again for quick reference:

Seven wonderings of the ancient and modern world

Of the ancient world (all of life)

1. Porcupine Dilemma: Whether or not to combine with this. (Should I be open or shut to interaction with something outside?)

2. Siamese Twin Dilemma: Whether or not to stay with this. (Should I stay or leave an existing interaction?)

3. Aphid’s Dilemma: Whether or not to be consistent here. (Should I be constant or vary a behavior?)

4. Serenity Prayer Dilemma: Whether or not to try to change this. (Should I impose or accommodate now?)

5. Missile Defense Dilemma: Whether or not to pay attention to this. (Am I receiving a signal or just picking up noise?)
6. Croaker’s Dilemma: Whether to signal or not. (Is it time to shout or time to hide?)

7. Slime’s Dilemma: Whether to act on behalf of the individual or the collective. (Should I put myself first or not–is it time for me or we?)

Of the modern world (human life)

1. D.U.G. (Delayed Uncertain Gratification) Dilemma: Whether or not to wait for something. (Should I aim for long-term or short-term gratification?)

2. Bi-Mundialist’s Dilemma: Whether or not to be realistic. (Should I focus on my sensory data or my mental images?)

3. Gambler’s Dilemma: Whether or not there’s something to learn here. (Should I regret or just move on?)

4. Lip Dilemma: Whether or not to voice it. (Should I reveal or conceal this?)

5. Carrot-and-Stick Dilemma: Whether and how much to encourage or discourage action. (Should I reward or punish?)

6. Tab Dilemma: Whether or not to keep track of who owes what. (Is this best treated as a business or a love relationship?)

7. Rutgroove Dilemma: Whether or not to wonder. (Am I decided or deciding?)