Thank God for Inconsistency!

Shockingly consistent Abraham was ready and willing to sacrifice his own son. The horrific scene is depicted in Caravaggio’s “Sacrificio de Isaac”.

Some of the most profoundly decent people I know are decent precisely because they’re inconsistent. They don’t take all of their beliefs to their logical conclusions (e.g., the devout fundamentalist who accepts and loves his gay son, and his son’s partner, even though he believes homosexuality is a sin; the devout feminist who accepts and loves her little brother even though she thinks he’s a sexist pig, etc.). By contrast, some of the most monstrous people I’ve known were monstrous precisely because they were shockingly consistent (e.g., the Jehovah’s Witness who shunned her own children when they fell away from the faith; the 18-year-old ideologue who turned in his own parents under a totalitarian regime, etc.).

Sometimes I think that inconsistency is nature’s way of dealing with the epistemological problem Nassim Nicholas Taleb refers to as domain dependence (i.e., the fact that things which are true in one context aren’t necessarily true in another). Maybe our natural tendency towards inconsistency—much like our natural tendency towards forgetting—is nature’s way of keeping us out of trouble. At other times, I suspect that inconsistency might be a way for people to live with the sociological paradox: namely, that to be a decent human being you have to treat people like they’re special, but to be a decent sociologist you have to remember that they’re not.

Just to be clear: consistency is indeed a virtue in many contexts. No doubt about that. But we should be careful not to rank it too highly on our hierarchy of virtues. Nietzsche once quipped: “Be careful lest, in casting out your demons, you cast out the best thing that is in you.” Thinking along similar lines, we might say, in light of these reflections: Be careful lest, in casting out your inconsistencies, you cast out the best thing that is in you.

—John Faithful Hamer, From Here (2016)

About John Faithful Hamer

John Faithful Hamer is a college professor who still can't swim, drive, or pay his bills on time. His sense of direction is notoriously unreliable, yet he'd love to tell you where to go. His lack of practical skills is astounding, and his inability to fix things is renowned, yet he'd love to tell you what to do. His mismanagement of time is legendary, as is his inability to remember appointments, yet he fancies himself a philosopher and would love to tell you how to live. He wouldn't survive in a state of nature, of that we can be sure; but he's doing quite well in the big city, which has always been a refuge for the ridiculous, a haven for the helpless, and a friend to the frivolous.

3 thoughts on “Thank God for Inconsistency!

  1. Taleb’s thoughts on domain dependence, the limits of particular truths, reminds me of this bit from a story I read for an English elective way back in my Berklee days (the music degree had a number of non-music requirements.)

    “At his desk the writer worked for an hour. In the end he wrote a book which he called “The Book of the Grotesque.” It was never published, but I saw it once and it made an indelible impression on my mind. The book had one central thought that is very strange and has always remained with me. By remembering it I have been able to understand many people and things that I was never able to understand before. The thought was involved but a simple statement of it would be something like this:

    That in the beginning when the world was young there were a great many thoughts but no such thing as a truth. Man made the truths himself and each truth was a composite of a great many vague thoughts. All about in the world were the truths and they were all beautiful.

    The old man had listed hundreds of the truths in his book. I will not try to tell you of all of them. There was the truth of virginity and the truth of passion, the truth of wealth and of poverty, of thrift and of profligacy, of carelessness and abandon. Hundreds and hundreds were the truths and they were all beautiful.

    And then the people came along. Each as he appeared snatched up one of the truths and some who were quite strong snatched up a dozen of them.

    It was the truths that made the people grotesques. The old man had quite an elaborate theory concerning the matter. It was his notion that the moment one of the people took one of the truths to himself, called it his truth, and tried to live his life by it, he became a grotesque and the truth he embraced became a falsehood.

    You can see for yourself how the old man, who had spent all of his life writing and was filled with words, would write hundreds of pages concerning this matter. The subject would become so big in his mind that he himself would be in danger of becoming a grotesque. He didn’t, I suppose, for the same reason that he never published the book. It was the young thing inside him that saved the old man.”

    – Sherwood Anderson, “The Book of the Grotesque”, from “Winesburg, Ohio”


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