When to Choose 3
Note: this is the Third in a three part Thesis, Antithises and Synthesis series, I highly recommend reading the previous two articles before reading this one.
In Part 1, I discussed the benefits of delaying decisions until the last responsible moment. In Part 2, I talked about the importance of not procrastinating, particularly around decisions. Moreover I hold that the arguments in both articles were sound, and that they touched on true principles.
Of course this presents a conundrum. How could both of those ideas be true, when they appear to be fundamentally opposed? The first solution that comes to mind is that the application of these principles is simply contextual. However I don’t find this very satisfactory.
By stating that the difference is purely contextual, we ignore the whole problem, which is that we have two contradictory, but seemingly true principles. Certainly there is some context that can help differentiate between the application of either principle, but that only obscures that there must be some deeper truth that generalizes and encompasses both principles. One can say that the reason why the sky is blue at noon, and red in the evening is contextual, but it wouldn’t teach anything about the reasons for the change in the sky’s appearance.
Furthermore, if we seek knowledge for anything useful, then it there must be a way for us to apply it. If the difference is merely contextual, then at least we should be able to define the boundaries between the contexts so that we can apply the ideas appropriately.
At first glance the impasse seems to be a disagreement about commitments. When talking about delaying decisions, I quoted Bob Martin who said “A good [software] architect maximizes the number of decisions not made.”. Generalizing the point, the argument is that decisions inherently introduce commitments that must be fulfilled, and are hard to remove.
The argument to not delay making a choice countered that goal setting is both necessary, and an instance of making decisions ahead of time. It argued that avoiding such choices only leads an individual to squander what kind of person they become.
However, there is more than simple opposition here. Bob Martin isn’t opposed to commitments. In fact he argues that we must be very committed to a “Restrictive Discipline”, that avoids introducing dependencies in our code. He has little reservation about the future constraints that commitment imposes. Likewise, very few would argue that you must be forever indentured to goals that you no longer desire to achieve. We should be allowed to change what we want to become.
I think this brings out two points of friction that we see with the two principles: What commitments do we make, and how should we make them. Ironically, it is these points of friction, that I believe tie both principles together into one.
Fight the Good Fight of Faith
In his letter to his friend Timothy, Paul encouraged him to “Fight the good fight of faith”. I hadn’t really understood what that meant until I reasoned about this issue. In Part 1 noted earlier that “There is a level of humilty” associated with “delaying” decisions. We clearly cannot know the future, so it is haughty to pretend that we can know how to make the best choice far in advance.
However, this does not hold up in a certain case. Once we have determined the truth of a principle, or something that will happen, then it would be foolish not to commit to the conclusions we draw from it. If you knew with absolute certainty that the S&P 500 were to jump up 500% in the next two weeks, it would be neglectful to not put all your money into it and reap the benefits of that knowledge1.
So the friction of what commitments do I make, revolves around a level of uncertainty about the decision being made. In this life nothing is certain (except death and taxes), but that didn’t stop Paul from fighting his good fight, nor does it stop Bob Martin from practicing his “Restrictive Discipline”, when programming. What both these men have in common is a fervent belief, or faith, in the truth of the principles that they have found.
A lot of people in this day and age will recoil at this point, so I want to be emphatic about it: You should have beliefs about what is true, and what is good and you should absolutely be committed to them. Often this is derided as simply being dogmatic, closed minded, and fanatical. However, as I’ll show later, this is mistaken. It is too much to go into deeply at this point, but I would remark that any man or woman who refrains from committing to belief, proclaiming to only accept that which they can know without a doubt, is not seeking truth, but their own vanity. They scorn faith so that they can feel safe in their perceived comfort of correctness.
Returning from that digression, we see that life, and indeed many important pursuits that it contains are acts of faith. We must attach ourselves to principles and values that we know, or believe to be true, and then proceed. Likewise, when we encounter those decisions that we know that we don’t know are true, we should proceed cautiously, refraining from committing ourselves.
Profess a good Profession
While Pauls exhortation to “Fight the good Fight” is frequently quoted, I find that there is equal value in the rest of what he said:
Fight the good fight of faith, lay hold on eternal life, whereunto thou art also called, and hast professed a good profession before many witnesses.
1 Timothy 6:12 (KJV)
What does he mean that Timothy has “professed” a good “profession”? The word profess, means to fore-acknowledge, usually publicly, some kind of knowledge. Clearly Paul is talking about how Timothy has acknowledged his faith in Christ, however we can learn more about what that actually means, if we look into the history of the word “Profession”
“Profession”, before it signified any kind of occupation, was reserved for only certain forms of work, particularly those that required both a specialized knowledge, and a honed skill set. It was to contrast it from both the skilled technician and the academic. The professional is a person both comfortable with theoretical knowledge, but also knew how to apply it into action.
Looking back at the Bible we can see the condemnation of those deemed too concerned with theoretical correctness, and no interest in actually practicing their understanding.
Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin, and have omitted the weightier matters of the law, judgment, mercy, and faith: these ought ye to have done, and not to leave the other undone.
Matthew 23:23 (KJV)2
We can take this and apply it to the discussion above. Simply arriving at the truth, and proclaiming that we have arrived at it is not enough. We must turn it into a “profession”, or in other words, we must marry principles and practice. It is when we only give rote lip service to ideas, without applying them that we become the “dogmatic” hypocrites, who focus on the minutiae, and forget the “weightier matters of the law”. We lack true understanding if we never apply the principles that we have found.
Often there is seen to be a conflict between Principles, and Pragmatism. This present argument is an example. Prudence says that we should wait for more knowledge, but principle, says we must not procrastinate.
But the solution is that Principles, and Pragmatism are not opposed but actually needed for each other. We cannot be pragmatic without first having principles. Principles allow us to determine on what grounds we are willing to negotiate. “Pragmatism” without a foundation of principles is just capriciousness.
Likewise, any Principle we hold to be true, we must put into practice, otherwise we are not actually committed to it. We also fail to actually understand it without seeing the true pragmatic applications of that principle.
Studying and writing on this topic the last three months has been incredibly enlightening. When I started out, I thought I would be able to write it all into one article. Then I realized it would take more, and so the three articles were born. But now I realize that I have barely touched the surface of these ideas. While I am closing this part of it, I imagine I will be returning to these ideas again throughout the future.
Once again, I want to thank my Wife, for enduring my many circular and incoherent ramblings on these ideas, as well as my good friend Nathan Cheever, for listening to and prodding me to write these articles.