7.7. Depends on Your Perspective

7.7. Depends on Your Perspective

The suitability of a particular perspective depends on what we’re trying to accomplish.

Suppose you’re standing on a beach.

And as you look to your left and right, you see a smooth coastline stretching in both directions.

Suppose you then go up in a plane, and fly over the same coastline, and discover that what looked like a smooth, simple coastline is actually very jagged and complicated.

Suppose you go up even further, in a satellite, and discover that from outer space, that same coastline looks smooth and simple again.

So which perspective is accurate?

They all are, right?

One may be better than the other for some specific purpose. But none is inherently better than the other. They’re all accurate from their particular perspectives.

This is similar to how knowledge works.

Digital maps allow us to move around, and zoom in and out. But printed maps, like that one behind me, can only depict one perspective.

You’re limited to the size of the map. You have to choose what to include and what to leave out. You have to choose one scale, and stick with it.

And no matter what you choose, you’re going to end up with a depiction that’s full of omissions, oversimplifications, and distortions. There’s no One True Map that depicts everything perfectly.

But we like to pretend there is.

We like to pretend if there’s any omission, oversimplification, or distortion…the map must be wrong.

Of course, it’s possible to make an inaccurate map. If you say, “I’m going to make a map of Africa from a certain perspective, with a certain scale, and certain features,” and you leave out the Sahara desert, or produce something that looks like Australia—then your map is wrong, by your very own standards.

But most of the time, when we’re assessing somebody’s argument or claim, we aren’t asking ourselves what perspective they’re coming from.

We’re assessing it according to some unrealistic, unattainable standard where they’re supposed to get absolutely everything right, and encompass all truth in their one limited perspective. And if they don’t succeed at that, then they’re “wrong.”

Basic accuracy is important. And we should insist on that.

But most of the time, what we’re really arguing over, when we say we’re arguing over “truth,” is which perspective is most useful to accomplish whatever it is we’re trying to do.

No matter how we look at it, we gain and lose things, depending on what perspective we use.

So the suitability of a particular perspective depends on the situation.

You wouldn’t use a detailed map of the world to drive across town. Nor would a pilot use a map drawn on the back of a napkin to fly across the Pacific.

In short, beyond basic accuracy, don’t worry so much about “the truth,” as if there’s One Map to Rule Them All.

Instead, think about what a certain perspective leaves in and leaves out. What it reduces or exaggerates. What it takes a lot of care to portray accurately, and what it distorts.

And think about how much those inevitable choices matter, based on what you’re trying to do.

We can still disagree about those things. But unlike our wars over absolute truth, knowledge, and beliefs, this is a much more peaceful—and productive—conversation to have.


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