The Journey series
I started many posts this week but didn’t like any of them. Each of my attempts failed because I had imprecise language for particular thoughts. How and when does something transition from belief to knowledge? Where is the boundary between subjective and objective truth? It struck me that our language restricts us not only in what we are able to say clearly, but also in what we are able to know and to believe. The frustration led me to go and pray. This is what came to my heart.
As a child we spend a lot of time learning the basics. We learn to count before we learn to add. We learn the alphabet before we learn to read. Once we know the basics we build on them. As a college math student I learned that nothing is difficult. Things may be complex but any problem is reducible to iterations and combinations of just a few basic principles and definitions. To understand any complex idea, it doesn’t need to be broken down to the very basics, but it must be broken to elements that are understood. At one point, I often confused sine for cosine and vice versa; that made my calculations very difficult. Until my understanding of sine and cosine conformed to everyone else’s, my answers did not agree with theirs. There was no problem with the way I used the concepts, there was a problem with which concepts I used. With sines and cosines, the problem was easy to identify and correct because each term has a very specific definition. There is nothing democratic about math; there is nothing subjective about math. My answers were wrong and I had to learn why.
What does this have to do with my failed posts?. Do objective truth, beauty, and goodness exist? Can they be recognized? In order for us to notice anything, it must be finite and be constant or recurring. It must be bound by space and present long enough for us to detect a pattern. To know something exists, it must either be observed or proven a condition for what has been observed. Since truth, beauty, and goodness are conceptual rather than physical, we will not be able to observe them empirically so we must prove them a condition for something we do observe.
Scientific examination determines discrete, measurable, and repeatable answers; always, everywhere, and for everyone. What is studied is isolated from other variables and measured over time. It’s easy to claim objective truth on that level. Observations through artistic or moral lenses, however, do not yield uniform results. They elicit analog emotions ranging from disgust to elation that are not the same for each view. Each person may have a unique response and the same person may have different responses at different times. It seems beauty and goodness reside in the experience; they aren’t integral to the thing experienced. Does this make beauty and goodness purely subjective; devoid of truth, merely opinion?
Extremes are evidence that the answer is no. No one considers Mother Teresa bad or Hitler good. No one considers the work of the Michelangelo ugly. No one stands on a mountaintop looking out at the vista without being filled with awe. No one gazes into the night sky from a dark place without being amazed by the innumerable stars. No one sees an emaciated child without feeling pity.
Beauty and goodness, when not present in the extreme, are still there but not alone. We react to the entirety; our response is tempered by our reactions other attributes of the thing observed. Our emotions are also tempered by recent experiences and expectations. When we are sad and lonely, our reaction to the same cat curling up in our lap and purring will be different than when we are all dressed up waiting to go out. In one case we will be happy for the companionship; in the second we will be upset over the hairs shed on our clothes. The goodness of the cat is still there. Our receptivity is not.
I opened this post discouraged by the lack words which precisely matched what I intended to say; words depend on context for their precise meaning. That frustration led to contemplation about the precise nature of truth, beauty, and goodness that revealed something of their nature. Just as words, when isolated, can’t be fully understood; truth, beauty, and goodness can’t be isolated and examined to find their essence. They must be experienced in the context of our life.
To wrap up this series on new metrics, we will examine goodness. Not just good we define for ourselves, what we prefer, but good that is always, everywhere, and for everyone good. For there to be such a truth, there must be something greater than us against which to measure it. There must be a standard. Something is good when it resembles that standard. The more closely it resembles the standard, the better it is and the less it resembles the standard the worse it is.
The ideal table, for example, should be sturdy and stable. One that collapses under its load or wobbles about is not a good table. Other attributes of a table may be better or worse under various uses. A 40 by 100 inch table is very good for seating ten people in a dining room, but very bad for fitting in a 60 by 90 inch kitchen nook. A folding plastic table may be better for a multi-use hall but richly finished wooden tables are better for executive board rooms. We might say, then, that sturdiness and stability suit all tables’ nature and other attributes suit each table’s purpose.
It is also true that even very good tables must be of service and complemented by other items in its environment. A dining table with chairs, dinnerware, cutlery and food is better than one upturned in the middle of a busy freeway. Most people would also agree that a factory table covered in sewing machines and cloth in a garment factory is better than one covered in cocaine, scales and plastic bags.
The table has no say in its goodness. It is designed, crafted and put to use by people. The designer can’t assign the table its nature; he only determines size, shape and material in accordance with the intended purpose. Neither can he determine the nature of the material; he must select materials that have the appropriate nature. Those crafting the table are restricted by the design and, again, by the nature of table and materials. Those using the table are restricted by the design, the skill of the crafter and, of course, the nature of table and materials.
How, then do we apply this to Business? It is the nature of business to apply labour and equipment to transform or transport resources to satisfy a desire.
Continuing with the theme of the past two weeks, this posting will examine what beauty may look like in an organization and how we might gauge it.
In the visual, musical, written, or any other art, various components must be brought together in an organized, congruent manner to produce pleasing results. The beauty captured by Bach, Beethoven, Rembrandt, Michelangelo, Da Vinci, Shakespeare, Dickens, Cecil B. DeMille and other great artist is almost universally recognized. What is it about their work and can it be captured in business?
As a contractor, I visited many sites. Some were happy and productive, producing great work; others were gloomy and accident-prone, often needing to tear down and redo much work. Reflecting on various projects, I’d like to present these thoughts on the following elements of beauty:
In last week's blog I proposed establishing metrics for truth, beauty and goodness. They are qualities that philosophers throughout the ages have identified as ends to which lesser goals should conform. This week I will examine truth.
Every business exists because an entrepreneur identifies a desire for a product or service and gathers people, capital, and resources to satisfy it. The true goal of any company is to provide its product or service. Directors determine a company’s goals and values; investors provide equipment, inventory, land, and buildings; management oversees processes and procedures; and workers provide labour. Companies track and report their progress by recording changes over time in their assets, liabilities, revenues and expenses. These are easily measured by dollar value. In accordance with this brief analysis, I propose they add, as a start, the following metrics for truth:
I follow an online magazine which has articles about old tools the author has collected, one of which is pictured here, to the left. For those unfamiliar with the tools he features, it’s often difficult to imagine any purpose such an item might have. The author describes the history of the tool’s development and production, and then relates some anecdotes about its use and its impact on people’s lives. When presented in those articles, the tools are transformed from a pile of scrap metal to something of value. But where does this value lie? It no longer lies in utility; no one using those tools could compete economically with the efficiency and effectiveness of modern industry. The value is not intrinsic to the tools; it lies in the tethers the story provides to people and means of our past. But why do we have such a fascination with the past? I believe there are three parts to the answer.
The first part is control and free will. The same ever-advancing technology that made these tools obsolete is making us obsolete. The role of people is becoming ever less critical as the society we have created evolves. Our machines and processes are taking more and more control. What we do, when we rise, where we live, and who we associate with are all determined by our work. We have become but simple drones for our economy. Economic statistics have become the primary measure of governmental effectiveness. We no longer work to live; we live to work. Money has moved from a means to an end.
The second is specialization. We, as a society, know more and more; but we, as individuals, know less and less. To reach the depths of knowledge, we must reduce the breadth. There is so much to know that, to become experts within our field, we must remain ignorant of much else. We specialize in industry also, outsourcing many sub-products and functions to companies often continents apart. Many people spend their days making products that are mere input for the next level of production. They may never know who actually uses what they produce, nor how.
The final and most important part, I believe, is because it’s not enough just to be, we must also belong. Even though we may work for huge multi-national conglomerates, we are divided into subsidiaries, associates, and departments. We may never meet our co-workers face-to-face. Today, though living closer together, we are farther apart. We go home, open the garage door with the remote, drive in and shut the door behind us; too tired to do anything but rest. Both parents work to ‘provide’. The children go to day care. Our priority has shifted from our families and friends to our jobs and our projects.
I don’t suggest abandoning the current system; it’s very efficient at what it does. I suggest that, though money is an easy metric, it shouldn’t be the primary measure of a company’s performance. Money should remain a means and we should develop metrics for truth, beauty, and goodness.
Peter T Elliott