Note: this is the Third in a three part Thesis, Antithises and Synthesis
series, I highly recommend reading the previous two articles before reading
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
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
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 knowledge.
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
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)
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
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.