I love teaching at a small college because it forces me to be a generalist. I teach history, psychology, philosophy, economics, marketing, writing, and literature. As a result I work primarily with the patterns that connect various disciplines.

Here’s one that keeps popping up. It’s a chiasmic* question–a question that addresses two alternatives, each an inversion of the other. I find it in the Book of Job, and in Socrates, the history of technology, Catholic vs. Protestant Christianity, the two core definitions of love, and the difference between business and friendship.

Mind Readers Dictionary: The Podfast : Play in Popup

Mind Readers Dictionary : Play in Popup


Job: Should you love God because God rewards you or does God reward you because you love him?

Socrates: Are things good because the Gods love them or do the Gods love them because they’re good?

History of technology: Do talented people get rich or do rich people get talented?

Catholic vs. Protestant Christianity: Does God send you to heaven because you’re good or are you good because God is sending you to heaven?

Definitions of love: Do you love her because she is enjoyable company or is her company enjoyable because you love her?

Business vs. Friendship: Do we give because we get or get because we give?

All these questions have a chicken-and-egg quality. Chickens produce eggs that produce chickens that produce eggs. Such systems of reciprocation are called “dialectical,” because two (or more) things are in dialogue with each other: A shapes or informs B. B shapes or informs A. Feedback loops of all sorts, vicious and virtuous cycles–they’re all examples of dialectical relationships.

Whether the chicken or the egg comes first is puzzling, but the question is easy to take lightly because really, whichever comes first, the two interact reliably to produce more of each other so it hardly matters how they got started.

But in the context of the questions I’ve listed here, what starts the dialectical system going has been the subject of very passionate debate. When you’re poor, unloved, praying to go to heaven instead of hell, what to do to jump-start the cycle becomes a burning question. So let’s take a closer look:

Job: Should you love God because God rewards you or does God reward you because you love him?

The Book of Job appears in Genesis, the oldest part of the bible. God is admiring the devotion Job shows for him when Satan, playing not the representative of evil but rather a sort of “devil’s advocate,” challenges God, arguing that Job merely loves him because he gets so much from him. God puts Job to a test. He kills Job’s livestock and children, and though Job mourns deeply, he does not stop loving God. To God, this proves Job’s devotion. Satan is unimpressed because, after all, God hasn’t caused Job any physical pain. So God gives Job a horrible skin disease. Job’s grief intensifies. He never curses God but gets close, in effect saying, why, if you were going to treat me so badly did you give me life in the first place? Close enough to self-restraint for God. He rewards Job tenfold for his losses, and we are to learn from this that our love for God should be unconditional. The story ends a bit ambiguously: Love God unconditionally and you will be rewarded tenfold.

Socrates: Are things good because the Gods love them or do the Gods love them because they’re good?

In Plato’s dialogues, Socrates searches for the essence of virtue with Euthephro, a guy who claims he knows what virtue is. When Socrates first asks, Euthephro merely defines virtue by his own example. Socrates counters that he’s not looking for examples, he’s looking for the essence of virtue–the necessary and sufficient conditions by which we could judge any action and determine whether it is virtuous or not. Euthephro then says that virtue is whatever the Gods love. Socrates points out that the Gods fight among themselves about what’s virtuous.** Euthephro then claims that the virtuous is whatever all the Gods agree is virtuous. Socrates asks whether the Gods’ endorsement makes an action virtuous or rather whether the Gods were able to recognize a virtuous action by its characteristics. Euthephro says the latter, that the Gods are good at recognizing virtue. Socrates reminds Euthephro that he doesn’t want to know who recognizes virtue but how they recognize it–what essences indicate virtue to the Gods. Euthephro tires of this inquiry and excuses himself. Endorsements and blessings remain a challenge to us these days. For many Americans the war in Iraq was good because Bush said it was. Bush had earned their respect and confidence and as a result they felt they could take his word for it. In North Korea people take Kim Jong Il’s word. Indeed we all take all take someone’s word for something. If so-and-so says it’s good, then we trust that it is. If it’s good enough for him, it’s good enough for me.

History of technology: Do talented people get rich or do rich people get talented?

Jared Diamond’s book “Guns, Germs, and Steel” takes on the
sensitive question, Why did Europeans end up with the most resources and technology? Counter to conventional wisdom, Diamond concludes that it wasn’t the Europeans’ innate talents that made them wealthy but rather their wealth that made them talented. All people have equal potential to develop talents but because of geographical luck, Indo-Europeans had early access to the most efficient crops and livestock. Their wealth freed them to develop their talents. Diamond acknowledges the feedback loops that have enabled the rich to get richer. His main point is that European dominance started with luck-of-the-draw Indo-European wealth.

Europeans just happened to be resource-lucky. They weren’t God’s chosen people endowed with special gifts of technological innovation. Or were they? Someone with a religious and racist turn of mind could use Diamond’s evidence to argue that the Europeans were rich merely because God chose them to be: God’s endorsement of Indo-Europeans was all it took to make them his winners. God gave them all the early advantages and no matter how vile and rapacious they were as they colonized, they were still God’s chosen people. It’s a wrongheaded argument–but it’s defensible based on Diamond’s evidence.

The argument echoes the idea that God or the Gods arbitrarily pick winners and losers regardless of or even despite their merit. Why was King David God’s chosen one? King David coveted the wife of one of his generals. To get the wife, he sent the general off to a battle where he was sure to die. And though King David’s strategy violates at least two of the Ten Commandments, God still blesses King David. Why?

The question came up again at the end of the Middle Ages when people started to wonder how a sinning priest could be the earthly representative of Christ. The Catholic Church’s response was that the behavior wasn’t relevant. By the Church’s rituals the clerics were endorsed by God as his representatives. God’s endorsement is what gave them their authority, not their behavior.

Catholic vs. Protestant Christianity: Does God send you to heaven because you’re good or are you good because God is sending you to heaven?

If God forgives you your sins, he grants you eternal happiness in heaven. If God doesn’t forgive you, he condemns you for all eternity to his torture chamber. How does God decide whether to forgive you? If you’re dying to get to heaven instead of hell, the question will matter a lot.

You might also wonder why God would forgive some and not others. The churches’ answer has generally been that God doesn’t have to forgive any of us. It’s generous of him to forgive some, and it’s not our province to tell God which ones to forgive and how. I don’t believe in heaven or hell, but I surely understand why people would.

Christians have long speculated about what it takes to get into God’s forgiveness zone. The key question is whether it starts with your action or God’s. Do you have to make the initial effort to prove yourself to God? Or does God simply choose you? Granted, the more effort you make, the more God will love you, which will make you make more effort. But knowing there’s a virtuous cycle isn’t enough. The question is how does it get started? The Catholic Church says it starts with your deeds, which result in God’s forgiveness. Many Protestant churches say it starts with God’s forgiveness, which results in your good deeds. For Catholics your deeds determine whether you’re getting into heaven. For Protestants your deeds indicate whether you’re getting into heaven. For the Calvinists, God chose who would go to heaven at the birth of creation and there’s absolutely nothing one can do about it. But according to Calvinist doctrine, you can tell whether you’re chosen or not by reviewing your actions. To Catholics, God sends you to heaven because you’re good; To Protestants, your behavior provides evidence of whether God has chosen you to go to heaven.

Definitions of love: Do you love her because she is enjoyable company or is her company enjoyable because you love her?

Love is a many-defined thing, but at their core, the definitions reflect a conflict between two ideas about what love really is. One is that love is unconditional. Unconditional by definition would mean that it arises independently of any features of the beloved. You would love selflessly, without an eye to compensation or benefit to you. The beloved could become a nasty, sour, mean, unattractive, decrepit beast and you wouldn’t even notice. You would still enjoy your beloved’s company because your love is unconditional.

The other idea is that love is conditional. It’s a product of what you get from being with someone. At the extreme of conditionality, love is simply the name we give to a positive and immediate bottom-line reward of being with someone. If being together is convenient and pleasurable, it’s love. If it’s inconvenient and not sufficiently pleasurable, the love is gone.

Do you believe in love at first sight? Some think it is evidence that love is the magic indefinable starter yeast, wholly unconditional since you can feel it before you know anything about the one for whom you feel it. But at first sight you’re still getting something from the other person even if it’s only a quick glance at an attractive surface.

At the extremes, both unconditional and conditional love seem unworkable, but averaging them isn’t particularly workable, either. “I love you unconditionally and conditionally,” doesn’t feel reliable–but maybe it’s as good as it gets. As with Job, we love without caring what we get…and as a result get rewarded tenfold.

Business vs. Friendship: Do we give because we get or get because we give?

Both business and friendship are products of give-and-take. They both involve reciprocation with increasing confidence that reciprocation will continue. The difference between them is mostly that in business you keep track of transactions; in friendship you don’t (see Feedback and Feedforward).

If you’re looking to start a friendship you have to signal that you’re not keeping track. That’s done by giving as though you don’t care if you get anything back. Folk musician Malvina Reynolds sang, “Love’s just like a magic penny, hold it tight and you won’t have any, lend it spend it and you’ll have so many, they’ll roll all over the floor.”

Businesses recognize this. To look friendlier they give things away as if with a reckless disregard for profit. Sometimes it works. Like Job, they end up having more.

* Chi is the letter X in Greek. “Chiasm” is a rhetorical term for a X-shaped statement, a statement in which two terms show up twice each in reverse order: “Don’t let a kiss fool you or a fool kiss you.”

** Monotheists wouldn’t have this problem. One God; one standard for virtue…if they could ever figure out what that one God deemed virtuous.