Entertaining "Contradictory" Solutions

In my previous blog entry I raised some concerns regarding how background assumptions can subtly frame how we perceive a wide range of topics. These default settings function as powerful blind spots in our thinking, limiting our ability to imagine new possibilities. My point was that a good editor doesn’t just correctly employ the Oxford comma rule to avoid a lawsuit or “incorrectly” split infinitives in order to achieve clarity. A good editor also helps uncover those biases that creep into one’s prose and propose solutions—in other words, make good work even better.

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Side note: Despite the claims of grammatical prescriptivists like David Foster Wallace (who otherwise penned truly remarkable essays), there is no rule against split infinitives. Case in point: the meaning of “gradually” in the sentence “He elected to gradually shed the books he had collected” is only clear if it splits the infinitive (”gradually” describes the speed at which he got rid of his book collection). “Unsplitting” the infinitive raises the question of where then to put “gradually.” If you move it to the end of the sentence “gradually” winds up modifying his collecting, as in “...he had collected gradually”—but move it before the infinitive and “gradually” describes how fast he came to his decision, as in “He elected gradually to shed…”). Other attempts to place “gradually” elsewhere in the sentence just leads to awkward outcomes like “He elected to shed gradually the books…” The right solution is to do the “wrong” thing and split the infinitive (perhaps not unlike how we should more efficiently and effectively (but not “correctly”) split wood).

Certainly there are plenty of unsubtle historical examples of how debates were defined by language. Rhetorically at least the Anti-Federalists lost the battle over the ratification of the Constitution before it was even joined. The lesson that it’s not enough to be against something has not been lost in today’s political debates: it’s no accident that both sides of the abortion controversy have embraced the “pro” moniker for their position.

But the point I was making was hopefully a bit more subtle than pro and con labels: that the assumptions we come with to a discussion can blind us to new ways of thinking that were previously considered impossible, unworkable, or just plain trouble—words used to describe the notion of a horseless carriage, for instance. You don’t need to be Einstein to overcome your bias towards these default settings, but it helps (as does utilizing a good editor). And I don’t mean this snarkily at all—I really do believe we have the ability to think like Einstein.


It’s worth pausing to briefly consider how Einstein came up with his breakthrough insight that led to his theory of Special Relativity, because understanding that process is one way we can challenge our default settings. It’s certainly something I’ve thought about as an editor, because his insight was nothing more (and nothing less) that a willingness to question whether seemingly contradictory claims could not be reconciled. Needless to say, editing oftentimes requires reconciling conflicting points of view—and a good editor looks for hidden assumptions that if jettisoned could lead to a merger.

To recap Einstein’s dilemma: in one corner was Galileo’s insight (found in his Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems—the publication of which led to his famous confrontation with the Inquisition) that the laws of physics don’t change if you are standing still or moving at a constant velocity: you get the same results on board a ship moving on smooth seas at a steady speed as you would standing still on land. But in the other corner was the results of the Michelson–Morley experiment (subsequently confirmed numerous times), which revealed that the speed of light does not change one iota regardless of whether the light comes from a stationary source or one in motion.

Updating Galileo’s thought experiment from ships to trains, Einstein identified a contradiction in accepting the truth of both claims by imagining what would happen if a stationary observer saw a beam of light coming towards her from a moving train. Intuitively, its velocity should be the sum of the speed of light plus the speed of the train—but if the speed of light never changes regardless of whether its source is in motion or not, then the intuitive answer is false. On the face of it, the claims contradict each other, and one of them seemingly must be false.

Einstein’s genius was his willingness to accept the non-intuitive results—time dilation, length contraction, and the breakdown of the concept of simultaneity—that followed from reconciling both claims. While the particulars of these results need not concern us here (though they are fascinating to think about), what does merit closer consideration is what Einstein did. Because what he did—challenge assumptions and entertain the possibility of alternative solutions—is something everyone is capable of doing. We can do this by exercising a robust imagination and using our cognitive capacity to question the truth of a claim (sometimes by simply imagining the negation of a claim, as early abolitionists did when challenging the widely-accepted morality of slavery). Yet too often those default settings go unchallenged in our thinking.


Ludwig Wittgenstein offered a particularly vivid example of this tendency in his Philosophical Investigations: “If I am inclined to suppose that a mouse has come into being by spontaneous generation out of gray rags and dust, I shall do well to examine those rags very closely to see how a mouse may have hidden in them, how it may have got there and so on.  But if I am convinced that a mouse cannot come into being from these things, then this investigation will perhaps be superfluous. But first we must learn to understand what it is that opposes such an examination of details…” Why it’s challenging to examine the rags and easier to remain stuck in the same patterns of thought is something I discussed in my previous blog post, but Henry Ford was onto something when he said:“If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”

In short, what I’m suggesting is that writers don’t need faster horses; instead, they would benefit from hopping in a “horseless carriage” with an editor as thought partner and work on challenging the framework assumptions that might be holding back their writing. If you don’t believe me take another look at the most famous photograph of Einstein—the one where he’s sticking out his tongue—and examine how your assumptions change about that image when you see the whole picture.

In my next post we’ll start by looking under the hood at Peter Singer’s utilitarian argument against eating meat and see how understanding his approach might help us on our way to getting someone’s writing engine running smoothly.