I’m not sure I could tell you what this all adds up to or why this blog is an expression of these ideas. But I like the idea of a consecrated but untamed place, and the spiritual development the term implies, not impressed by a conquering army, or ritual defenestrations, but by those who hoped that one day others might enjoy a cathedral of their own.
-J Arthur Bloom, missionary ground: A brief word on this blog’s title
Jordan’s post made me realize that I have always sought to make my little corners of the web into missionary ground, in the sense that he is describing.
Growing up, I would tell my dad about the stuff I had learned in history (mostly) or English, and he would say something to the tune of—“That’s totally wrong. But remember it because it’s what your teacher will want you to say on a test.” I found this very troubling. Teachers were authority figures, but my dad was the king of authority figures. That their stories did not line up—that they straight up contradicted one another—was really quite unpleasant.
Since that time I have consistently sought certainty in a world where so many stories are presented as though they were born of the true knowledge of the storyteller. Any certainty would do; even a Pyrrhonian certainty that no one knows anything at all. I’ve tried that one on for size many times, and it will always have a hold on me.
In 2004 I set out to conquer the untamed stories by declaring a little corner of the Blogger empire my missionary space—again, in Jordan’s sense. I was not looking to convert the world—I was looking to build my cathedral.
And I did attempt to build it. First, from Protagorean foundations. Then, from Popperian ones. Then, from Humean and social science inspired ones. Between these episodes of attempted craftsmanship was a virtual ocean of reading, quoting, linking, writing, and arguing. Between attempts to raise up an elegant edifice was messy trial and error, and intense devotion to particular ideas for brief and longer periods of time.
The truth is in the mess, and not the edifice. No matter how many cathedrals I start I am always living in the untamed lands, where stories vie for my allegiance. Where sometimes I think Pyrrho was right and we are all little more than dreamers and storytellers, and the rest of the time I am merely certain that my own mind is systematically working against me.
Writing at The Ümlaut this year has been good for me; I have followed trains of thought in a far more focused, less messy manner. Still, I scrutinize my work and wonder whether they form a whole or if they are incompatible pieces to entirely distinct puzzles. Are this, this, and this part of one story or am I contradicting myself? What about this and this? I often have trouble trusting my answer to this question.
Still, I continue to work on my next cathedral, clinging to the hope that this will be the one. I feel I have made a great deal more progress than the last time I made the attempt. But is this an accurate reading of my circumstances or is this the same false confidence I always feel when setting about a task of this sort?
If I have given the impression up until this point that I have some sort of anxiety on this score, I hope you’ll forgive me for that bit of stylistic indulgence. I actually love it down here, in the untamed lands, where I’m never more than half-sure of anything. I don’t know if I’m going to ever finish a cathedral with solid enough foundations to last long, but I do know that I am so much better at navigating these parts than I was even a year or two ago. And I am incomparably better than the 19-year-old kid who planted a flag in the blogosphere nine years ago.
When it comes to cognitive biases and imperfections, I have grown comfortable thinking of my mind as a table at which many strange characters sit. One of those is GMU-style libertarianism, informed largely by people like my friend Eli and the GMU professors who have a large presence in the blogosphere and on Twitter. Then there are people close to me in my life, whose idiosyncrasies I know well; I often think about how any one of them might react to a particular story I have read. Then there are the people I seek out who often force me to experience the cognitive dissonance of disagreement when I know the person I am disagreeing with is intelligent—people like Noah Smith, Claudia Sahm, Bernard Yu—they are numerous these days, I am proud to say. And there are others.
This isn’t to say that I have cataloged the sources of my biases and elevated myself above them—I am just as imperfectly human as anyone else. But I am more comfortable living with my biases than I used to be.
I really am serious about this next effort to build something, but I am also keenly aware that a cathedral is something that no individual can build alone—indeed it cannot even be built in a single generation. We speak of people like Daniel Kahneman or Everett Rogers—to say nothing of Adam Smith or Charles Darwin—as having done immensely important work because after decades or centuries of other people building on top of what they did, we now know that their work was, indeed, important.
So I will continue to do work in the hopes that I can add a few pieces to something bigger than I could ever possibly accomplish on my own.
And in the meantime, I will revel in the madness of this perpetually untamed space of stories and uncertainty.