To a Man with a Hammer…

January 4, 2009

Imagine a nursing infant in the arms of its trembling mother, surrounded by Turks. They’ve thought up an amusing trick: they fondle the baby, they laugh to make it laugh, and they succeed — the baby laughs. At that moment a Turk aims a pistol at it, four inches from its face. The baby laughs gleefully, reaches out its little hands to the grab the pistol, and suddenly the artist pulls the trigger right in its face and shatters its little head… Artistic, isn’t it? By the way, they say the Turks are very fond of sweets.

[…]

I’m an amateur and collector of certain little facts; I copy them down from newspapers and stories, from wherever, and save them – would you believe it? – certain kinds of little anecdotes. I already have a nice collection of them.

The Brothers Karamazov, pp. 238-9

The Japanese film The Women of the Dunes and Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov have something in common: they both feature the idea of falling into a trap. In The Women of the Dunes, the main character, a scientist, somehow gets himself into a giant sand pit, from which he spends the bulk of the movie trying to escape. However, sand being sand, he finds it extremely difficult to make any progress in climbing out, and meanwhile the sand is constantly piling up all around him, threatening to bury him while he sleeps.

In the novel, Ivan Karamazov, an intelligent and thoughtful person, gets caught in a mental trap. At some point prior to the novel’s beginning, Ivan must have hit upon one big idea that pushes everything else to the side: there is something wrong with a universe in which children suffer. Ivan’s idea isn’t necessarily wrong, but that isn’t the problem. The problem is that he becomes obsessed with it. Once he gets this idea, he doesn’t do anything with it; he just sits around being depressed and collecting stories about people who are cruel to children.

The moral of these stories is that once you are caught in a trap, it’s really hard to get out. Reading the blog maintained by reason.com, one gets a sense of the same perverse pleasure that Ivan feels in BK. The writers over at reason.com are convinced that government is terrible, and so they set about gathering examples of the terrible things governments do. Again, it’s not that their motivating idea is wrong, it’s just that at over some threshold I get the urge to say “Enough!”

Different people get obsessed with different Big Ideas. Marxists are convinced that class struggle is at the root of every social interaction. LIbertarians tend to see all problems in the world as the fault of some government policy. American liberals blame evil corporations and the Republicans for everything bad; Republicans think that it’s all the influence of Godless Liberals. These are caricatures, but only just barely.

Getting out of these mental traps is harder than it seems, which is why I am so fond of the sand analogy. Looking at “just the facts” can be harder, because your worldview tends to shape what you see as objective “facts.” My post on Sarah Palin wasn’t intended to be political, only to illustrate this concept.

If I were immune to the tendency of falling into traps, I wouldn’t care enough to write this post. With the amount of reading I do, I need to start thinking about whether the things I read are really giving me new perspectives, new evidence, and new ideas, or whether I’m just seeking confirmation for things I already believe. I don’t traditionally make New Year’s resolutions, but maybe this can be my one: try to read things that are less likely to confirm my beliefs, and more likely to cause me to change my mind about something, even some idea I hold dear.

Happy New Year.

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