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Toxic Absolutism

The Birth and Death of Ideas

Originally Published on January 21, 2022

Absolutism is where intelligence dies. Intelligence is where absolutism dies. We make a conscious choice to accept which one we feel more gravity towards, an ideology of absolutism or one of intelligence. There are elements of either in both, but the totality of their weight on the other is what defines how we approach our beliefs and ultimately our expectations for the world around us.

But Tom, if I draw a square on a piece of paper, it is absolutely a square? In a linear way of thinking, this is absolutely true. We do not live in a linear world, however. If you view that square as three-dimensional it is not a square at all, it is a cube. It is so much more than a square. It is six squares. Or, perhaps it is fifty squares stacked atop one another. Even the most tangible things have greater perspective. That becomes even more complicated when we apply linear thought to our ideals.

There is infinitely more depth to everything we see when we begin to understand that we aren’t seeing the totality of anything with a linear mindset. We need to train our minds to approach the complex issues that divide us as a society in this manner — with a three-dimensional perspective.

That may all sound merely philosophical, but it is entirely practical. As I often do, I direct you to the founding of our country. Liberty may sound absolute. You are either free or you are not free in the linear sense. Our founders thought broader of the idea of liberty, though, and gave us the tools to do the same. The separation of powers between the States and the Federal Government is a product of the three-dimensional idea of liberty. One of the most profound contentions of the anti-federalists was that the States would lose their identity, that localities would lose their values to the absolutes of one-whole.

Our Bill of Rights was the result of seeing liberty as a three-dimensional ideal. That the overriding premise of liberty could take on unique moral perspectives that may number infinitely — but they were allowed to be spoken and prevalent within the environments that cultivated them, freely from the whole.

The decline of thinking independently has punished us with many absolutes over time. For the longest time the loudest arguments against absolutism were targeted at the religious community, but that has reversed course in recent decades. We now find ourselves navigating a society where absolutism has compromised science and diminished its value to that of a pseudo-scientism. A linear way of propagating science that has made diminutive the scientific method. Mostly, the last, most critical step: reproducing the experiment until there are no discrepancies between observations and theory.

The scientific method was the way in which amazing thinkers like Francis Bacon, Nicolaus Copernicus, and Galileo Galilei brought three-dimensional thought to science. The list of minds is not limited to them, but they had what is arguably the greatest influence on defining the way science is thought to be accountable to itself today.

In today’s world, we rarely get past the first two steps: making observations and forming hypotheses, or perspectives. Too many then neglect or willfully decline to see the observation as having more to it. We lean into intellectual laziness or a place of self-preservation to guard what makes us feel vulnerable. From there, we give way to the stronger absolute and become subjected to it. That is not the intention of liberty as our founders framed it.

The arena of ideas, even unpopular ones, could be shared by all regardless of where they were. The adversarial tones in our society began when a collective started to expect that everyone believe the way they do — when we force our ideals on one another regardless of the conduct of each person’s individual environments or communities. Perhaps the simplest but also most difficult way to practice three-dimensional thinking is to hold two opposing ideals in your mind at the same time, in order to understand them. This does not require that you agree with them, but it does require that you acknowledge their substance and seek to understand it.

In the logical world, the world of reality, the practice of absolutism is not realistic. It is linear, and has become toxic. While the concept of liberty may be as simple as either being free or not free, the exercise of freedom is much more complex than the absolutes we construct from within our liberties.

We should be free to exercise our will until it becomes an oppressive absolute on all others. We must begin to see the cube from the square.

Our United States Constitution was not just an idea of liberty or a document for governance. It was much more than those linear perspectives. It was the product of excellence in three-dimensional thought.

(The above article has been republished from my Substack newsletter. You may subscribe to my exclusive Substack content here.)

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