Jimmy Breck-McKye

A lazy programmer

The Augur's Fallacy

Recently, I’ve been examining how everyday fallacies can contribute to stress, our worry and our turmoil. One I’ve spotted of my own is something I call the ‘Augur’s Fallacy’.

Here’s a (purely hypothetical) example of how it goes:

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I MUST enjoy writing this essay, so that I discover a love for writing;
I MUST do that, so that I begin writing every day;
I MUST do that, so that I can eventually become a journalist / writer / vaguely defined wordy type...
I MUST do that, so that I can eventually complete some unspecified GREAT WORK;
I MUST do that, otherwise what's the point of it all?

Writing an essay – something I might do on a whim, for no reason except honest excitement about a subject, an urge to express myself – has now become a battle for the future – in fact, the very purpose of my life! What’s worse, because I’ve defined ‘success’ and ‘failure’ in terms of ‘pleasure’, the stress and pressure this thinking inflicts would doom me to fail, right from the start.

Talk about self-defeating…

I haven’t found a term for this fallacy in any of the reading I’ve done so far. So I’ve been so bold as to christen it “The Augur’s Fallacy”. An augur is a fortune-teller; augury is using natural signs – like the stars and weather, say – to foretell the future in great and specific detail. It’s superstition – the idea that a child born during a meteor shower is fated to a violent death, or that if the groundhog won’t leave it’s nest, Punxatawny is doomed to another six weeks of winter. Some minor sign in the present now vividly portends my life’s future.

Even though I know this line of reasoning is absurd, that’s never quite enough to banish the idea. Despite all my best efforts, when life leaves me frayed, it can reemerge – an unbidden ghost clinging to my shoulder, interrogating my thoughts and feelings to check that all is perfectly following its ‘grand plan’ towards some idealised, speculative future.

Enough is enough. But how do we even begin to overthrow it? How do we take arms against something so fundamental, so vast, yet incorporeal and abstract as the very way we think?

Taking it apart

Cognitive behavioural therapy tells us that we can all gain by examining our internal monologues for thinking traps – particular distortions of perception that lead us to stress, unhappiness, and at worse even anxiety and depression. To exorcise the Augur’s Fallacy, then, we must examine its process, and see what traps could be involved at each step:

Fallacy: “One stands for all”

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I MUST enjoy writing this essay, so that I discover a love for writing.

“Enjoying one essay would not mean that I loved writing, so why would not enjoying writing one essay mean I couldn’t enjoy writing others? Perhaps the subject simply isn’t as engaging as I’d thought. Perhaps my idea has fizzled out on closer examination. Perhaps I enjoy expressing myself, but find composition a little tricky, and could benefit from some more practice first? Perhaps I’m not enjoying this because I just don’t fancy it right now?” All are examples of ways we might dispute the fallacy.

Fallacy: “There’s only one way and one time to achieve this goal”

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I MUST do that, so that I begin writing every day;
I MUST do that, so that I can become a journalist

“I could become a writer, not because I simply love writing, but because I’m impassioned by a particular subject. I could become a writer later in life, when I have much more to say. I could become a writer by some indirect route, and writing could itself lead me to some other interest I’d never even considered.”

Again – the goal is to try and find a more reasonable, more balanced interpretation of affairs. It is not to simply gainsay a negative delusion with a positive one – “I am destined to become a writer someday!”. This exercise cannot work unless the alternative thought is convincing, and the optimism that leaps from spire to spire is no less harmful than the pessimism that fortresses itself in crossed arms. Try simply to answer the assertion as though you were speaking to an old friend – with objectivity and compassion.

Fallacy: “But I -know- I want this goal”

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I MUST do that, so that I can eventually complete some unspecified GREAT WORK;

Humans are universally awful at guessing what they want. Haven’t we all heard of so many lawyers, waking up at thirty in a career they absolutely hate? How many people finally snatch their ‘dream job’ only to discover it’s really nothing they expected? How many people spend their years chasing a dream – then discover how much they’ve changed in the meantime? Most human beings discover their vocations by accident, not by design.

The path to happiness is less like tunneling towards a cross on map than like sailing the oceans in search of new lands: trying things out, taking small risks, making connections and happy accidents happen until a surprising and unique opportunity presents itself.

Fallacy: “What I want, is really what I want”

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I MUST do that, otherwise what's the point of it all?

I might say, in this example, that I aspire to become a writer. But why? Because I earnestly love to research, interpret, and express as simply as possible? Because I have a message I simply must relay to the world? Or to try and feel ‘impressive’, and stop myself feeling inadequate whenever I compare myself to high-flying acquaintances?

We must examine our goals rigorously, and be sure that they serve intrinsic goals – love for a kind of work; a distinct and ethical purpose – rather than extrinsic goals, like social validation, or trying to fill some parasitic hole in our psyche. Because only the former is truly sustainable in the long term: if we seek a goal just to impress our friends or win the approval of some distant parent, it is obvious that whatever we achieve shall never be enough.

Putting it back together

Once we understand the way the Augur’s Fallacy work, our job is to practice a kind of rational self-examination – writing down the process of our thoughts, then poring over them for possible distortions. We then write in alternative interpretations that we feel are more realistic and forgiving of the messy nature of reality. As we do this, time after time, we train ourselves to spot these errors when they emerge in the first place.

Essentially this is the bedrock of CBT – we learn to spot thinking traps, so we can later intercept them as and when they bubble into our minds. If you experience the Augur’s Fallacy as I do, banishing it is a tremendous liberation – a chance to finally live life in the moment.

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