I’d heard that a famous old religious scholar lived down the street, so when I saw him at a block party a few years back, just when I was getting into this philosophizing, I approached him and asked if we could have lunch sometime.

See, I had designed a new religion. I called it “Taowinism” (a cross between philosophical Taoism and Darwinism). I wanted to hear what he thought about it, maybe convert him to it.

Lunch was fun. I told him about my ideas and he put them in religious historical perspective. I shared some of my new coinages, including the freshly minted term “conviction impairment,” which I described as a new condition that many of us suffer and benefit from: in a world swarming with diverse ideas it has become harder to maintain conviction about any particular one. He said he liked it.

Mind Readers Dictionary: The Podfast : Play in Popup

Mind Readers Dictionary : Play in Popup


A few months later, friend of mine who followed this religious scholar’s work told me that he was quoting me in his lectures. I was proud. Later the friend mentioned that I was quoted in the scholar’s latest book. I looked me up and was startled at the distortion. I was being used as the poster child for what was wrong with irreligiousness. He depicted me as a lost soul who had bounced from weird cult to weird cult, coming to him in desperation and confessing to my “conviction impairment.”

I phoned him and asked for lunch again to straighten things out. The conversation was cordial. He apologized for misunderstanding me, and we moved on to our religious differences. At one point I tried to give the conversation some focus by asking him a fundamental question: Which came first, matter or purpose? He argued that purpose came first, God’s purpose. I argued that matter did. We argued about it straight through the main course, each of us supplying evidence that didn’t impress the other. Realizing we were getting nowhere, I asked whether he agreed with me that both of our opinions were speculations, that neither of us could know for sure whether matter or purpose came first. He agreed that we were just speculating. Then I suggested we shift the conversation to why two grown men would argue so passionately over something so speculative.

What I wanted, I’ve come to realize, is shop talk about our convictions. Convictions are tools or instruments. I figured maybe the professor and I could talk about our convictions the way anglers compare notes on what’s in their tackle boxes, or bass players like me talk about our amps and strings. Not bragging, just comparing what the things do and how they work for us, discussing the consequences of possessing them.

The religious scholar said no, that to talk about the practical consequences of his religious convictions was to reduce them to a tool rather than a truth. He even suggested that I was deliberately trying to undermine the power of his truths by arguing that they have practical consequences. It was as if ideas were either true or practical but couldn’t be both. Here I had encountered the professor’s load-bearing walls. The conversation moved on cordially to other matters, but we were pretty much done talking about our respective beliefs.

I subscribe to the philosophical school of thought called pragmatism, which argues that all ideas that matter to us have pragmatic consequence. They shape our behavior in some way. Pragmatists assume that an idea without practical consequence, no matter how true it might be, is of no interest. The only ideas that matter to any of us are distinctions that make a difference to our actions or behaviors—differences that make a difference.

Being a philosophical pragmatist affords me a conversational option with fellow pragmatists. No matter how much we disagree, we can always go meta (search “Meta”), stepping out of our beliefs to talk about what they do for us pragmatically.

Non-pragmatists like my religious scholar neighbor are wary of pragmatic analysis, and therefore have a hard time talking shop.

My favorite conversations are with pragmatists who share my beliefs—“To affinity and beyond,” I call it. We have strong affinities on our core assumptions, methods, and questions. We can really rock without stepping on each other’s toes.

My least favorite conversations are with true believers who disagree with me, people who are so sure they’re right and I’m wrong that they don’t even recognize they have beliefs. (search “Illuminate or Eliminate the Middle Man”). The most I can do is say, “Well, thank you for sharing,” and escape as quickly as possible.

I suspect I don’t mind conversations with true believers who share my beliefs. Because we have load-bearing walls in common I might not encounter any resistance from them and therefore might not notice that they’re true believers. Still, if their self-certainty becomes overbearing it can creep me out. Since they share my beliefs they remind me of me, and their overbearing style can force me to wonder if I’m overbearing too.

In between the delights of conversations with like-minded people and the tedium and frustration of “thank you for sharing” conversations with over-confident people who disagree with me are the pleasures of shop talk with fellow pragmatists in which we compare and contrast perspectives and what our perspectives get us.

For example, I have a fundamentalist Republican friend who is a total joy to talk with even though our assumptions, methods, and questions are quite different. We talk shop. We have compatibility in negotiating our incompatibilities.

I think one prerequisite for the ability to talk shop is having already digested the dreaded possibility that your beliefs could be steering you wrong. If you don’t face that possibility, you have to defend your beliefs against all perceived threats. Next week, I’ll talk about the pros and cons of “pre-grieving” the possibility that your bets and fortunes will fail.