I’ve written before about “halting moves,” our various don’t-go-there gestures that accommodate the basic human need for reasons to stop thinking. The mind is a pinhole in a flood. There’s so much to attend to. Wonder and uncertainty are relatively taxing states. The mind prefers rest, and so we find a variety of ways to shift from doubt to certainty, from question to answer, from thinking to all done thinking.

I like to identify these halting moves, because the move from doubt to certainty, although a universal necessity, is a move it’s best to make with precision, neither staying in doubt longer than necessary nor moving to certainty too soon.

Mind Readers Dictionary: The Podfast : Play in Popup

Mind Readers Dictionary : Play in Popup


Here’s another such halting move worth monitoring: You’re wondering about something, and then someone, maybe you, says something that feels thrillingly true, and the sheer physical pleasure—the ecstasy of it—is enough to stop thought. The words work like a drug that lifts you from doubt to certainty. You were in a state of inquiry and now you’re drunk, exalted, a word whose origins are from the Latin exaltare (meaning “raise, elevate”), from ex- (“out, up”) plus altus (“high”). But pun-power, by converting alt to halt, can make it mean “up-stopped” instead.

Our vulnerability to ex-halting moves relates to our fundamentally bi-mundial state. We live in two worlds, the real and the perceived. We want success in the real world, but it’s our perception of success that tells us that we’ve got it. Exaltation, the “aha” or “eureka” bliss, is a perception of profound truth, but it can be had sometimes when a truth has not been found.

In effect, we fly by instrument, like those pilots who on a stormy night see nothing directly and must navigate by the dials and meters that fill the cockpit—internal representations of an external state. Our perceptions are like those of the pilots, supposedly reflecting the exterior state. But, again like the pilots, we’re using instruments that may be miscalibrated.

I want to make good decisions, but the way I know whether I have done so is by the feeling that I’ve made a good decision, which can be had more readily through exaltation than through careful thought.

“Don’t believe everything you think,” the bumper sticker says. And somewhere I read (though I’ve never found the source), “Never speak more eloquently than you can think.” Both of these sayings are warnings against ex-halting moves.

As Socrates is awaiting trial, he falls into conversation with Euthyphro (pronounced YOUTH if fro), an old acquaintance who claims he knows how to identify virtuous deeds. Socrates asks what’s the key, and Euthyphro says virtuous deeds are those that please the Gods. Socrates asks if the Gods are pleased because the deeds are virtuous or rather, if the deeds are virtuous because the Gods are pleased by them. Euthyphro said the former—that the Gods know a pious deed when they see one. Socrates then notes that pleasing the Gods must not be the key, saying, “When I ask you what is the essence of virtue, you offer an attribute only, and not the essence.”

In parallel, we can ask whether a statement is true because it delights us or whether it delights us because it’s true. These may sound equivalent, but they aren’t. Ex-haltationists believe that if it delights it must be true. I would say, be careful. Delight in what’s true, and enjoy delight whenever you get it, because it’s fun. But, like Socrates, assume that there must be some other key to truth, that delight is only a possible response to truth, one that misfires sometimes.