How much of our philosophical squabbles—intra- and inter-personal—are about the words we use to debate an issue, instead of the issue itself? See, since I read Taleb’s Skin in the Game and heard him say, essentially, Be wary of those who think in words and persuade with them I’ve become more sceptical, and, I hope, more discerning.
For example, I recently started—and quickly abandoned—a book called I Am That, by Sri Nisargadatta. It is, from what I can make out, a book about non-dualism—the transcendence of black-and-white and the perception of the ever-varying greyness of reality. It consists of conversations, or didactic dialogues, between a teacher and a student who is seeking to understand. It is hailed as a “modern spiritual classic” and has received many positive reviews. But in my eyes, its primary virtue is not the arguments it makes, but the ambiguity with which it makes them.
I once heard it uttered that art is a mirror which reflects the self. For example, in the very same story, a cynical mind can find evidence to support despair and sorrow and a joyous mind can find evidence for the cause of hope. Truly, what we see depends on how we look. So a person reading the ambiguous arguments of a book like I Am That will see the shapes of the self he most wants to see. It is because of the impenetrable clouds of confusion, where terms, meanings and consequences are debated, that a person can find exactly what they are looking for.
Such ambiguity is less possible in realms other than the literate. For example, physics and mathematics are built upon numerical rigour. A number has a specific, bounded meaning. A symbol has a definite, knowable effect on a calculation. Heck, even the word “arbitrary”—which we take to mean something of a random or whimsical nature—has purpose. An “arbitrary figure” in the realm of mathematics or physics is simply a figure that enables a calculation to proceed. Further, in the realm of the ecological, it is neither words nor numbers which are most important; what matters most is higher order effects over time.
I suppose what I mean is this: although words are my primary means of communication, I do not wish for them to remain my primary and singular method of thought. Thinking in words allows for greyness, for ambiguity, for personal interpretation. This is not always an evil. But sometimes more rigorous methods are required.