The Lens Lens

DECEMBER 19, 2015

On a dark Winter night during my freshman year at Penn, I sat with Alex Wissmann at the Chipotle on campus as we discussed our life philosophies over burrito bowls. We had been introduced by a mutual friend, Dan Shipper, because we had completely opposing world-views, him a communist and me a libertarian, and Dan figured we'd have a fun time debating our stances. This was the first time we'd ever met, but we didn't waste time on small talk.

Despite being on different political teams, Wissman and I patiently peeled back each layer of our philosophical onions, and examined why our conclusions differed so greatly. If we're both men of reason, we agreed, there must be a logical flaw in one of ours' reasoning that the other should be able to point out. However, as we delved deeper and deeper, it became clear that neither of us could find fault in the other's arguments. We were both being quite logical, through and through.

Eventually, we hit upon it. At our cores, he and I had a slightly different set of axiomatic beliefs about the world. While he believed in the responsibility of smart people to figure out the optimal ways to live and work and ensure everybody live in this way optimal, I idealistically believed most people to be incredibly resourceful and it the responsibility of so-called-smart people to just get out of their way so everyone can discover the ways to live that are most optimal for them.

It was as simple as that. We just had different lenses through which we saw the world, and there was no amount of logical argument that could convince either of us away from them.

In formal logic, there are a set of axioms agreed upon by everyone, for example the Identity Law, which says that everything is equal to itself. However there are some axioms that are contended, for example the Law of Excluded Middle, which says that something is either true or false, and there is no in-between.

If you choose to adopt the Law of Excluded Middle into your system of logic, there are a whole host of things that you can prove that you couldn't if you didn't adopt it. In fact, there are some conclusions that The of Excluded Middle supports that are directly contradicted in systems without it. However, this does not make those conclusions any less valid. It all just depends on which axioms you chose to believe.

In the same way, Alex and I realized that he and I were simply coming from a different set of axioms or beliefs about the world. If I adopted his beliefs, I would arrive at his conclusions, and if he adopted my beliefs, he would arrive at my conclusions.

While it's much easier to see "the other side" of an argument as illogical (or worse), it's often much more productive to imagine those you disagree with as seeing the world through a different lens than you do. This then allows you to try to understand their lens, try it on, and see things from their perspective.

The Lens Lens

I call this view of the world, to see those you disagree with as operating under a different lens, "The Lens Lens." That is, it's the view of the world in which you don't see those you disagree with as illogical, but as operating under a different worldview than you.

Given that I'm getting recursive with my use of the word "lens," it probably makes sense to have a working definition of a lens: a lens is a way of seeing the world. It is a set of assumptions or axioms that a person holds to be self-evident, and he or she believes them without any logical backing.

The Lens Lens holds that are many different valid interpretations of the world, depending on the lenses you adopt. Under The Lens Lens, two people may believe contradictory things and both be wholly logical. Neither need be wrong nor right. (However, a person who reaches a belief from incorrect logic, no matter their lens, would still be deemed "wrong" under The Lens Lens. Unless, of course, their lens purports a different model of logic than is traditionally accepted.)

The Lens Lens is clearly valuable for empathetic reasons. When those you care about strongly disagree with you, it is often much more useful to adopt The Lens Lens, and see their point of view, than it is to argue with their conclusions.

However, in this day and age, The Lens Lens is probably the most valuable when examining the currently-polarized political spectrum. Instead of characterizing religious, gun-rights homophobes as greedy, religious and nutty, we should try to piece together their worldviews and see their side.

Instead of characterizing teachers unions as crony, bureaucratic, and selfish, we should try to understand the different beliefs their advocates hold about how the world works. In this way, we can move towards a greater understanding of each other and make strides towards solving our collective problems.

Imagine if we forced mathematicians to have televised debates about the validity of certain mathematical theorems, but each of the mathematicians was operating under a different set of axioms. Clearly, things would get very heated and very unproductive.

Growing up, I wondered why it was a "best practice" to not bring up politics in polite conversation. Now I believe I know why: the chances that a random assortment of people are all operating under the same lenses is infinitesimal, so any semblance of a logical debate is equally small.

Unfortunately, The Lens Lens doesn't really help you in these situations. It's best used in one-on-one settings with someone else who firmly believes in The Lens Lens.

The Productive-Lens Lens

Another key application of the Lens Lens is the Productive-Lens Lens, which state that while all lenses are equally valid ways to see the world, the Productive-Lens Lens contends that some lenses support more productive ways to see things.

For example, Carol Dweck proved that seeing your IQ as a malleable quality makes you smarter, thus a growth mindset is a much more productive lens than the fixed mindset, regardless of which is true in a vacuum. In fact, neither the fixed or growth mindset is "true", because both mindsets are self-fulfilling prophecies.

In the same way, I believe that the Perpetrator/Victim Lens, which we have been seeing a lot of on college campuses recently, to be an unproductive way to see the world. This lens encourages figure-pointing, shame, punishment, entitlement and only moves us further from a world where we solve actual problems.

A more productive lens, I contend, is that instead of seeing perpetrators and victims, seeing all people as generally good, but are sometimes operating under systems that could be improved. This lens then allows us try to fix these broken systems, as opposed to punishing hateful perpetrators and aiding helpless victims.

However, under the Productive-Lens Lens, you are free to disagree with my assessment that the Perpetrator/Victim Lens is unproductive. You may believe that it's a lens that's a very productive way to deal with the world's bad people and those they harm. Of course, this implies that you have a lens that purports a view of the world in which there are good people and bad people.

There is no correct answer here. Arguments for the productivity of lenses are all valid under the Productive-Lens Lens.

One line of argumentation that I find very unproductive is when someone vehemently believes in the inherent correctness of their lens. In this way, The Lens Lens itself could be considered a productive lens under The Productive-Lens Lens.