The Domains That Shape Our Lives

Facts or feelings, empathy or efficiency? Depends what domain you’re in

Post (3) of a four-post essay. Post (1) is here and post (2) is here.

The full essay makes up Part 4 of a broader series about language. It stands alone if that’s what you want out of your reading life, but for best results read the previous installments in the series — thisthis and this — first.

In this post I’m going to argue that the pragmatic approach to life demands flexibility and nuance. Different situations call for different blends of emotion, instinct, FACTS & LOGIC and logic’s less strict cousin, reasonableness. Here’s how I think this works in practice:

  • Life is made up of a series of different domains. These domains bleed into one another and interact with each other all the time — life’s messy — but it’s still worth treating them as separate.

  • Each domain is guided by a different set of rules.

  • Various different language games go into the rules of each domain, but every domain is fundamentally based around one language game more than the others. This game gives it its main orientation.

As I argued in my previous post, the individual’s life is largely the domain of phronesis. Most situations you encounter don’t call for data spreadsheets and the strict discipline of FACTS and LOGIC, they call for gut feelings and rules of thumb. You don’t reason out how to get to the door, you just walk there. If you are reasoning out how to get the door you’ve entered the world of OCD, which is fundamentally a category error: it applies the world of FACTS and LOGIC to everyday experiences that were never designed to be handled that way. OCD is too rational for day-to-day life.

People who live by phronesis are less concerned with strict rationality than with reasonableness — moderation, fulfillment, functionality. What behaviours make you happy, successful and useful, in the broadest senses of those words? Find out, then keep doing those things. Don’t let reason’s rigidity bamboozle you until you’ve become moralistic, or inhibited, or cautious, or enslaved by ideological certainties. You’re an individual, and the things that are most deeply true are the ones that are true for you. Go with the flow. Find whatever works, and do it.

So that’s the personal domain. Then there are highly specialised domains with specific methods and objectives — areas like maths, science, philosophy and law. Here’s where the FACTS & LOGIC language game really shines. Each of these areas has a different purpose and methodology, but they’re all extremely useful when done properly. Philosophy upends conventional language games in a constant search for more precise, accurate language. The law shines the harsh, cold light of the “outside view” on everyday experience to achieve desirable outcomes in the world. And physics and advanced mathematics may only be accessible to a few, but they have an incalculably vast impact on the many.

Still, I think turning science the method into “scientism” the worldview is another category error. Science is useful within its domain but it doesn’t provide any guidance for how to live your life, still less any motivation for right action. It does a great job of describing how life is created and maintained, but doesn’t give you any reason to want to maintain it.

As Nassim Taleb puts it in “How to be Rational About Rationality”: ‘Science is currently too incomplete to provide all answers — and says it itself. We have been so much under assault by vendors using “science” to sell products that many people, in their mind, confuse science and scientism. Science is mainly rigor.’ In other words, it’s a verb, not a noun. You do science. It’s a way of describing reality, not reality. More on this later in the language series.

What about the domain of politics? FACTS and LOGIC are often useful here too. If Asimov’s Foundation books are right that cold, hard numbers are better at predicting the actions of large groups than those of individuals — an idea that should be familiar to anyone who studies game theory — then it follows that people who govern large groups need to pay close attention to the numbers.

Some people instinctively recoil from bringing the kind of facts that “don’t care about your feelings” into politics, because they don’t like the spectacle of teary students getting “DESTROYED” by people armed with statistics-laden arguments and the ability to talk really fast. They protest that the FACTS and LOGIC crowd are applying literal-minded reason to the wrong domain. Politics should be the domain of equality, fairness, compassion and empathy. Those are the only facts that matter where human beings are concerned.

Personally, I think politics is about empathy the same way surgery is about empathy: have none of it and you shouldn’t be doing the job in the first place, but have too much of it and you’re terrified to do anything in case you hurt someone. Economics, sociology, heavy philosophy and Big Five psychological data may be inappropriately cold when applied to the individual (‘Here’s what 88% of people in your position have found useful!’), but they’re vital for analysing and fixing social problems.

Politics demands risk, compromise and a whole bunch of actions that will hurt some people and benefit others — in fact you can’t act on a large scale without hurting people. Look at taxation. Even if you think billionaires should be taxed more (which I do) you can’t deny that heavier taxes would hurt their feelings. A politician’s job is to say ‘Tough, they’ll live’ and raise their taxes anyway.

As I argued earlier, communities’ “inside views” about their own experiences matter, and need to be taken into account. But politicians also have to take a step back and apply a colder “outside view” that keeps all these inside views in as steady an equilibrium as possible. This is the only way to ensure that some voices don’t drown others out. Since FACTS and LOGIC don’t do the specifics justice, and immersing yourself in everyone’s lived experience is impossible, taking a pragmatic approach that combines a bit of both perspectives is the only way to go.

But civilisation cannot live on politics alone. What about the domain of society? As I said in the last post, it’s largely maintained through a sort of collective instrumental wisdom or phronesis — the common-sense store of traditions, sayings, and rules of thumb that have worked for large groups over time.

Sometimes your job as an individual is to internalise society’s opinions and follow advice (the outside view), especially when you’re very young and don’t understand the impact of your actions: ‘Oh, people stop being friends with me when I take every slice of cake?’ But other times you have to listen to your gut when it insists that only you know best about your own life and you have your own phronesis to develop (the inside view).

So how often do pure FACTS and LOGIC come in handy in everyday social interactions? Probably more often than they do at the individual level, where gut feeling is king, but far less often than they do at the political level, where your decisions affect large numbers of people and you have to tread very carefully.

But there’s a point where the social level and the political level come together like intersecting circles in a Venn diagram. Where the general public discusses political matters, holds public debates, forms unions and popular movements, petitions their representatives and generally becomes active in the political process. Where Ben Shapiro faces off against progressive students and Jordan Peterson debates journalists on TV.

This is the domain of what philosopher Jürgen Habermas calls the public sphere. And it’s the subject of the last post of this essay.