It seems that something in the human mind is drawn to absolutes. Against a world that is littered with indeterminacy, half-truths, and shades of gray, we hunger for black or white, all or nothing, pure truth determined or damnable lie exposed. Examples are really too many to name, but I’ll try to examine a few.
Consider the fundamentalists in religion. Certainly, given the span of recorded history and the many different forms of public worship that have risen to prominence,1 one would think questions of how the world was created, what constitutes a good life, and what happens at the end of it would be open to debate and question. The cults of Allah, Amon, Baal, Brahma, Buddha, Enlil, Jove, Odin, Yahweh, and Zeus contain many common elements. From these, intelligent people might come together, discuss, and define answers to the questions of the ages.
But for every ecumenical council, there are a hundred sects claiming to know the one, true, real answer for all time. In America, you find these people sporting bumper stickers that read “Jesus is Lord” and “God Said It, I Believe It, That Settles It.” In the Middle East, you find them raging in the streets and crying for the death of anyone who questions—and so insults—their religion. Under stress, these people resort to a literal interpretation of their scripture, whether it be the Torah that was blended from the four Yahwist, Elohist, Deuteronomic, and Priestly sources; the Bible that was translated at third hand from Aramaic, to Greek, and finally into King James’s English at the beginning of the seventeenth century; or the Quran that was transcribed in the original Arabic from the visions of Muhammad in the seventh century.
The quest for absolutes is not the province of religion alone. Our secular age has given rise to secular prophets like Marx, Nietzsche, Lenin, Hitler, and Mao. Each has his own book, his teachings, his maxims. Each has a vision for the future that his followers are supposed to adopt without question. Whether Communist or National Socialist, the adherents are not allowed to question or interpret. They are consumers, not apostles.
Humans crave absolutes in more than just their belief systems. Look at the early sciences, which supposedly followed principles of open-mindedness, investigation, and empiricism. Still, when we first gave up the idea of the Aristotelian, Earth-centered universe enclosed by the “perfect” celestial spheres for Nicolaus Copernicus’s Sun-centered system in 1543, the orbits of the planets were still presumed to be perfect circles. It wasn’t until a generation or two later that Johannes Kepler described them more accurately as ellipses or ovals.
In the 18th century, Carl Linnaeus developed the taxonomy by which all animals and plants were divided into genus and species. A century later Darwin described the mechanisms—if not the actual chemistry—by which species arise. For generations since, people have accepted that the distinctions between lineages were—well—lines, boundaries that could not be crossed. Among the hummingbirds of North America, the ruby-throated (Archilochus colubris) was on one side, and the rufous (Selasphorus rufus) on the other.
Certainly, the ability to interbreed and the viability and fertility of inter-species offspring are general guidelines to speciation. But we have since learned that genomic variation runs deep even within species. While the genetic variation between humans (Homo sapiens) and our closest relative, the chimpanzee (Pan troglodytes), might be as little as 2%, the variation between one human being and another due to gene copy number, mutations, short tandem repeats, and other technical differences may be as high as 5%. Analysis of human intestines and skin surfaces suggest that each of us harbors colonies of bacterial as genetically unique as we ourselves are. Recent genomic surveys of the oceans2 have shown that what we once thought of as microbial species are actually genuses, with their domains changing over distances as short as twenty miles. Life at the level of our DNA is messier than anyone thought.3
Of course, this preference for perfect circles and well-defined speciation in science might be called first assumptions. As new information comes in, these assumptions are refined to a higher level of complexity. But you really can’t say the same thing for absolutes in politics.
Political and economic theories account for some of the most subtle and devious questions that human beings have to deal with and the choices they have to make. The opportunity for evoking and then suffering unintended consequences in either arena is too great to forego the need for analysis and debate. Yet people repeatedly prefer simple, absolutist solutions and platforms that can be reduced to slogans. “Fifty-Four Forty or Fight”—as if the dispute between two nations could be resolved with a straight boundary line. “No Justice, No Peace”—as if justice was simple and obvious to administer, and peace a single, unified state. And now “We Are the 99%”—as if all the greed and evil could be contained in so small a population fraction as one percent, and as if the rest of society shared unified goals and needs.4
Simple economic systems—which ignore or try to contain the tendency of humans to make selfish choices, operate at different levels of efficiency, and obstinately try to work around the rules—usually end up in chaos and collapse. Systems like Marxism and National Socialism delude their theorists, as well as their followers, with the notion that they can create a new kind of human being with a perfected nature. These systems work admirably so long as people can be coerced, or programmed a young age, to ignore personal interest, devotion to family, and individual levels of intelligence and energy. The systems work perfectly with either angels or robots. With humans, they fail miserably. But they have the singular advantage of being attractively simple and absolute.
People in positions of power, who must administer a set of rules and ensure compliance, too easily fall into blanket assumptions about right and wrong and issue “zero-tolerance” policies. “That cheese spreader in your Lunchables package, Priscilla, falls under the school’s definition of a knife.” “The bottle of aspirin in your backpack, Cindy, violates the campus no-drugs policy.” No rule or law can be made to fit all possible situations, but harried administrators will try.
Humans were given better minds than this. Any lawyer or judge will tell you there is more than one way to interpret a statute or a contract clause. In this country, we spend huge amounts of time, effort, and money examining individual situations, mitigating circumstances, possible motives, and mental conditions to establish what might constitute justice. Rather than an annoyance, this effort is one of the glories of our society. We try to balance personal freedom with social stability. We attempt to permit a wide latitude of personal action while ensuring predictable social interactions and fairness for all concerned. It isn’t easy.
If people didn’t hunger for absolutes, they would consistently vote for politicians who promised “I’ll try to see all sides of the question” and “I’ll do my best, under the circumstances.” But the middle of the road is a lonely place these days. We hunger for the man or woman with a perfectly simple solution that can be explained in a ten-second sound bite. We’ll follow a dictator who will cut corners, scapegoat obvious villains, promise free bread, and make the trains that run on time.
Is this human stupidity? Laziness? Inattention to detail? In some measure, perhaps. But even smart people can enthuse about absolutely dumb solutions. Look at the number of educated intellectuals who have fallen for Marx’s convoluted premises and the promise to reverse the economic equivalent of gravity and make water flow uphill.
I believe the hunger for absolutes is a sign of people who are too busy to become educated and investigate for themselves. Most of us—perhaps even 99% of us—are too busy working to put a roof over our heads and food on the table, too busy taking care of squabbling children and aging parents, too involved in the mechanics of everyday life, to give our full attention to the larger political and economic issues of the day. We want a ten-second sound bite because we don’t have the time or patience to read a ten-page proposal.
When times are good, the economy’s booming, job market’s looking up, our savings are growing, and the seven fat years are here—that is, when we have comfort and security and a sense of alternatives being available to us—then it doesn’t much matter what political and economic choices we make. When we’re in good health and fortune smiles, it doesn’t much matter what god we believe in. But when the economy slows, the opportunities fade, the ground parches with dust, and the seven lean years arrive—then there’s no time to study the issues. We want solutions. Now.
I’m not saying that complex political choices and economic solutions should be left to a cadre of experts. Heavens, no! The opinions of the leisured classes occupying legislative chambers and lecture halls are no substitute for the personal interest of an informed citizenry. But I can wish for a greater public appreciation of the complexity of the world we live in. We are all human beings with different needs, wants, desires, skills, and insights. No one from the one percent wakes up in the morning and declares himself a villain; no one among the rest of us is a saint. The universe is not run by clockwork. And no orbit anywhere is a perfect circle.
1. We won’t go into private superstitions and personal fetishes.
2. Among them the voyages of the J. Craig Venter Institute’s Sorcerer II.
3. So much for the Platonic ideal—the presumption that an animal with as many different forms as the horse must derive from one perfect specimen somewhere in the mind of God, of which the horses in our fields are all just imperfect copies. Instead, the genus Equus merely passes through the noble Arabians and the racetrack Thoroughbreds along a spectrum ranging from zebras to donkeys. Making such distinctions is the business of humans and of no concern to the horses themselves.
4. And thereby doing away with the Pareto principle, which offers as a general rule of problem solving that 80% of the effects results from 20% of the causes.