American Secrets: Moving From Pragmatism to Idealism In a Less Than Ideal World

There are many secrets that aren’t actually secrets. If you pay attention, they are deafening if you are actually listening.

People who live by the facts are known as pragmatists. Or perhaps it’s the other way around, pragmatists are those who dictate their lives according to facts. Let’s take a closer look at what the pragmatic maxim actually is:

Consider the practical effects of the objects of your conception. Then, your conception of those effects is the whole of your conception of the object. Pragmatism rejects the idea that the function of thought is to describe, represent, or mirror reality. Instead, pragmatists consider thought an instrument or tool for prediction, problem solving and action.

A shorter, more terse definition might be: Someone who takes into account a bevy of different scenarios for a given situation, and is able to weigh and balance all outcomes in order to choose the optimum result for the current line of thinking. This is easier said than done, for example, one cannot claim to offer a pragmatic line of thinking when it comes to deep sea fishing, which is an area that would require years of experience in order to become an effective pragmatic thinker in that area. One could get on a boat, hire a crew, and go deep sea fishing, but when presented with a bevy of different scenarios, one could only make an educated guess as to what to do. “There’s a large storm off the portside bow, we have a Kraken creeping up on our stern, some Sirens off starboard that are singing such an alluring tune, and fish are aplenty in our nets…what should we do?” This is information overload, and without having a fine tuned sense of pragmatism for a specific situation, meaning experience as well as a calm logical demeanor, it’s hard to choose what to do. The right things to do are: Keep catching the fish — Avoid the storm — Get rid of the Kraken — But, let’s see what these Sirens are all about, it seems like the best outcome.

The facts have fooled us. We did everything correctly in our own minds, save for checking out the Sirens. What was seemingly a benign choice to be serenaded by the Sirens proved fatal, and this was due to not knowing the facts. Or maybe, that’s not actually true…sailors of yore all know about the perils of the Sirens. It was a well published fact within the sailors’ manuals: Stay away from the Siren Song. We knew the facts, but even when given all the pertinent information on why to avoid them (you’ll die), they were still lured in by the Siren Song. That leads us to wonder why temptation won over, given all the other things that were going on at the time. Why would we have sailed towards the Siren Song? The answer is simple: Due to information overload, we chose the most gratifying scenario at the time, the one that we thought would serve us the best for the short term. “With all of these things going wrong at this very moment, we might as well get something short term out of this, no matter what the consequences are.”

To be a pragmatist means to be objective first and foremost. By allowing emotion to take over, objectivity is lost amongst the whirlwind of emotion, and we can be overcome and lose sight of what we know to be true within us. By allowing subjectivity to dominate our minds, by not following the facts that we know to be true, we succumb to the Siren Song. Facts no longer mean anything, even though they are time tested and proven to be true again and again, the Siren Song lures us to our demise if we are not pragmatists; if we do not absolutely trust the facts we are doomed to fail.

Let’s explore the other side of pragmatism: Idealism. The Sirens are beautiful, and given our current situation of Krakens and storms surrounding our boat, let’s go for the most immediately satisfying result, all other things surrounding us be damned. This is idealism, this is hoping for the best without even considering the worst that might happen, even when we know the Sirens will lead us to our doom. Why not try to outrun the storm? Fight off the Kraken? At least with those two options, you have a chance of surviving. Here is our world, crashing down around us, but the sounds of the Sirens intoxicates our thinking because it floods us with false hope, drowning out the facts to the point where all we can think about is that song, that alluring tune luring us to our doom. All other plausible escapes to getting out of this predicament are drowned out with the idealistic hope that if we just give these Sirens a chance, perhaps they’ll be different than all the other Sirens we know have lead other sailors to their deaths.

Idealism is the acceptance of multiple facts. It’s the assumption of “I’m in charge of the boat, so whatever I choose is true, must be true.” More broadly, idealism is arrogance. Let’s have a look at the definition of the word arrogance:

Having or revealing an exaggerated sense of one’s own importance or abilities

Our idealistic captain of the boat now thinks he knows better than all of the other captains who have run into similar situations, and is willing to discard those pragmatic facts in favor of what he thinks is best. Our captain has now gone rogue, and has gone off script due to his own arrogance, and is going to get the entire crew of the boat killed because he has thrown caution to the wind. Idealism not only instills a false sense of self-worth, it attempts to create heroes out of mere mortals because they want to go for that Hail Mary, they want to not only outrun the Kraken, but beat it into submission and keep it as the ship’s pet. They not only want to outrun the storm, but they want to speak of how they actually battled through it, took it head on and sailed right through it. They not only want to speak of how the tamed the Sirens, but of how they changed their tune to be one singing their praises, and of how the Sirens are now drawn towards them and their crew.

So what is more believable? That a captain sailed right through the storm, or out flanked it? That the captain warded the Kraken off the stern of the ship, or tamed it? That the captain ran from the Sirens, or seduced them? This is where we introduce a familiar concept, known as Occam’s Razor. And for this, we must go back to my most favorite of subjects, propositional and symbolic logic.

Among competing hypotheses, the one with the fewest assumptions should be selected.

Or, a more modern definition:

The simplest explanation is usually the correct one

But my favorite is the mathematical definition:

By definition, all assumptions introduce possibilities for error; if an assumption does not improve the accuracy of a theory, its only effect is to increase the probability that the overall theory is wrong.

What this says is that if a fact isn’t a provable fact, it makes the overall assumption even more of a falsehood. If you cannot prove whatever you are introducing to the system being tested is true, it’s probably better not to introduce it at all, unless it’s an absolute fact. If it’s not an absolute provable fact, it will do more to disprove you than to help prove your case. Please take a second to reread this statement, to make sure it’s understood.

Introducing non-provable statements into a system do more to disprove the system than to stabilize it, no matter how true those statements sound. If it can’t be proved, it does more harm than good, so only introduce provable statements. If you can’t absolutely prove it, leave it out.

We need to get back to our analogy. Our Kraken looks bored, and somewhat hungry.

What does this have to do with secrets? It turns out, everything. Secrets are either one of two things: Facts, or falsehoods. As it relates to our discussion of pragmatism vs idealism, secrets are either known facts, or facts which some believe to be true, regardless of what the known facts actually are. If it’s proven, it’s a fact. If it’s a secret, it’s not a known fact but is whispered to be true. Now herein lies a dichotomy, because there are plenty of cases where someone flew into the face of “known” facts deadset on proving them wrong, and they succeeded in disproving them. The proverbial case of this is “The Earth rotates around the sun, and not vice versa.” At first, Copernicus was dismissed:

Some people believe that it is excellent and correct to work out a thing as absurd as did that Sarmatian [i.e., Polish] astronomer who moves the earth and stops the sun. Indeed, wise rulers should have curbed such light-mindedness.

But Copernicus persisted, he applied mathematics and science to his studies, years of work and calculations. By the time of his death, this was proclaimed:

Some years ago word reached me concerning your proficiency, of which everybody constantly spoke. At that time I began to have a very high regard for you… For I had learned that you had not merely mastered the discoveries of the ancient astronomers uncommonly well but had also formulated a new cosmology. In it you maintain that the earth moves; that the sun occupies the lowest, and thus the central, place in the universe… Therefore with the utmost earnestness I entreat you, most learned sir, unless I inconvenience you, to communicate this discovery of yours to scholars, and at the earliest possible moment to send me your writings on the sphere of the universe together with the tables and whatever else you have that is relevant to this

Decades of studying. Decades of proving himself to make sure he was taken seriously. Also, lots of lobbying against the establishment (in this case, the Catholic Church). No one took him at face value, he had to prove himself time and time again. But he was a pragmatist. He tried to prove himself wrong, only to make sure he was right, and that’s the definition of a true pragmatist…they doubt themselves only to make sure they are absolutely right. Sadly, this is no longer the case in our modern world.

Falsehoods are considered true until proven false. Or until they are proven varying degrees of not true. This is a tragedy.

We still live in a world of Krakens and Sirens, they’ve just taken new forms. Yet somewhere along the way, we’ve lost sight of how to avoid those evils. Instead, we see them as beacons, welcoming us into their lairs without even giving it a second thought because in this digital age, we can just turn around and choose a new path sans peril, sans consequences. We can change our minds at any time to fit the current narrative, and no one will ever know, because we didn’t have to sail back into the harbor proclaiming victories and actually having to prove it. We can just say we believe what might e true, and by saying it, it’s fact, even if we didn’t always believe it.

And therein lies America’s dirty secret, the one that is so painfully obvious even though it is trying to hide behind a cloak of secrecy, attempting to hide behind decades of civil rights and equality. The captain always knew what was right, he always knew how to avoid the perils of the sea, yet idealism took over and he began to think he knew what was right even though he knew he might be wrong. The sailors rallied behind him, populism took over, a herd mentality evolved which swept over the crew…now they are all chanting the same chant. “We will defeat the Sirens, we will tame the Kraken, the storm will bow down to us”…all said without looking into the history of what’s happened to all the ships before them when they thought they could do the same thing.

Read into this what you will. The facts will be here, waiting for you.