Intellectual Integrity

This is the first in a series of essays I intend to write on the nature of the creative process. While I recognize my own shortcomings as a thinker, I have ofttimes been stunned by the elementary mistakes made by some people. There are so many complex ways to screw up good thinking, why do people have to blow it at the simplest levels?

I hope to present a practical, no-nonsense approach to the process of thinking. The toughest challenge in writing these essays, I reckon, will be avoiding homilies.

At first glance, a discourse on clear thinking may seem out of place in a journal devoted to interactive entertainment design. Yet, I have witnessed the decision-making processes of a great many individuals in this industry, and I have come to realize that there’s a lot of flawed thinking out there. I’m not complaining that people are sometimes wrong; we all make mistakes at times. The problem I’m tackling is with the thought processes that go on. Poor thinking often leads to wrong conclusions. As designers, we simply can’t afford to make those kinds of mistakes. Hence these essays.

The first and most important factor in clear thinking is absolute integrity. Good thinking is tough, hard work, easily distorted by a wide variety of bad habits. Intellectual integrity is the only defense against the many internal demons that would turn us away from the truth. It only takes one failure of integrity to corrupt one’s thinking. This is why integrity the absolute dedication to truth is essential to clear thought.

Most people use a narrow definition of integrity. The common and inadequate -- definition of integrity applies only to relationships with other people, and then only to the truth value of explicit declarations. Joe Typical figures that, so long as he never tells an outright lie, then he has preserved his integrity. This is the "social" definition of integrity: if nobody can ever prove that I lack integrity, then I must have it. Innocent until proven guilty.

This works fine if your only concern is how you appear to other people. It permits a variety of deceitful behaviors, such as allowing another person to continue in a mistaken belief, or failing to tell someone something that they should know. Most people engage in such behaviors.

The reasoning used to justify such behavior is destructive to clear thinking. It is impossible to engage in deceptive behavior without in some way believing the untruth in some corner of your mind. He who innocently shrugs his shoulders and mumbles, "Gee, isn’t it sad that somebody would have told her that" creates a tiny fantasy world in which he truly is innocent. To say it, you must first conceive it, and to conceive it, you must erect the mental construction somewhere in your mind. But this little false-fantasy contradicts what you know to be true, so you must isolate the false-fantasy from the "real world" portion of your mind. You must build a little wall to seal off the falsehood. Every time you tell or even think anything less than the absolute truth, you create a little wall in your mind, and then you must maintain that wall for as long as the consequences of the falsehood might come back to you. After a while, your mind is full of walls. How can you think clearly with such a cluttered mind? Integrity is not for the benefit of others it is for your own benefit. It smooths the path to the truth.

This is only the most obvious example of the value of integrity. Mankind has invented many more subtle crimes against Truth; addressing these crimes individually will be the stuff of future essays.

There really is such a thing as Truth with a capital "T", and getting closer to it takes dedication. That’s the way of all things. If you want Money (with a capital "M") you have to be absolutely dedicated to the pursuit of money and make no compromises in its pursuit (and we have plenty of people like that in our industry.) If you want Truth, then you have to be absolutely dedicated to its pursuit, and integrity is the measure of how dedicated a person is to that pursuit. Integrity is to Truth as greed is to Money. Just as the seeker of Money will make enemies and step on toes in pursuit of wealth, so too will the seeker of Truth step on toes and make enemies. They killed Socrates. What do you want, Truth or Popularity?

One of the ways in which a lack of integrity makes itself manifest is in the ready acceptance of beliefs which have desirable consequences, but for which there is little objective justification. Belief in reincarnation provides a good example. We all fear the oblivion of death, but if we are to be reincarnated, then death is subverted. Reincarnation eliminates the psychological terrors of death, and this in turn creates a powerful incentive to believe in reincarnation. To believe in reincarnation out of a fear of death belies a failure of intellectual integrity. It is not my place, of course, to judge any other person; I cannot know what animates another person’s beliefs, so I will not declare that any belief in reincarnation is necessarily proof of low intellectual integrity. I would not even say that it suggests as much. This is a question each of us must answer privately.

A more pertinent example of such a failure comes from wishful thinking, something that permeates our industry. I have noticed a dogged refusal to accept unpleasant hypotheses from some of my colleagues. They want to think only optimistic thoughts. This surprises me; I am just as comfortable with pessimistic thoughts as with optimistic ones. Some of my colleagues will reject a proposal because it is pessimistic. They deplore such thinking as "gloom and doom" thinking. In another time, and another place, they would have used the term "defeatist". It’s as if our industry elevates optimism to the status of dogma.

I can understand part of this. The whole Silicon Valley / high technology / startup company gestalt is founded on a bold optimism that the future is made by brave entrepreneurs who refuse to accept failure. But it can also lead to a blindness that defies understanding. Atari went down in flames with the band playing and all flags flying. So did Next, and Osborne Computers, and countless other examples.

Intellectual integrity demands that we give due consideration to the most unpleasant of hypotheses. We must not balk at entertaining ideas that make us look bad, or suggest a dark future. Intellectual integrity is a kind of internalized First Amendment, requiring us to hear out every idea, no matter how unpleasant it may be.

Another example comes from misplaced reliance on intuition. I consider intuition to be one of the highest forms of human thinking, on a plane with wisdom, a notch above judgement, and two notches above logic. It is the ability to make decisions with very little in the way of direct evidence, but lots of indirect evidence. When exercised properly (and I quickly acknowledge my own personal weakness here), intuition is powerful stuff. On the other hand, some people rely on intuition when logic would suffice. I have seen a few people stand by their intuitions even when presented with firm logical contradictory evidence. This too is a failure of intellectual integrity.

Integrity is not like virginity; each of us carries it in greater or lesser degree. I know a few people who have impressed me with the magnitude of their integrity. Most people, I suspect, have long since compromised their integrity in pursuit of other objectives. This doesn’t make them bad people. It just makes them bad thinkers.