The Philosophy of "Zero to One"—Part 2
My interpretation of key points in Chapter 1 of Peter Thiel's book on startups
This is a continuation of a series in the Book Club section. Part 1 of the series, which covers the Preface of the book, is here.
“An unbelieved truth can hurt a man much more than a lie.” —John Steinbeck
Chapter 1: The Challenge of the Future
“What important truth do very few people agree with you on?” This is Peter Thiel’s famous interview question, which he shares in the first chapter of his book Zero to One.
How would you answer it? I encourage you to share your answer in our new group thread, which you can find here. I’d love to hear.
What’s an “important” truth, though?
Are we reasoning from the universal to the particular (“We are in a Disembodied Content Bubble typified by everyone needing to start a new podcast; therefore…) or the particular to the universal (I am convinced that Jason, despite everyone else thinking that he’s a great guy, is a narcissistic ass…; or “Peter Thiel’s book Zero to One: Notes on Startups, is not really about startups”…)?
Also, there are different kinds of truths—and some truths are more important than others. This is why Thiel is asking about important truths.
But what does that mean? Metaphysical truths? First principles? Anthropological truths? Truths about an industry or underlying market fundamentals? Truths about how the world works? (For this last one, perhaps some of us could have answered: “Most people believe desire is individual, but it is interdividual, and is usually or maybe even always generated through mimesis.” But if someone gave me this answer today, I would say: “Too many people now know that…”)
How many secrets do you believe are left in the world that are given to you to know? (I admit there is a fair charge of gnosticism leveled against Girard because of questions like this from his most famous student, and/or because the name of his most famous book was nothing other than Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World—but I’d argue that this critique misunderstands Girard. But that is an essay for another day.)
The question of truth is never clearly defined in Zero to One. It is simply taken for granted.
Athens, Jerusalem, and Silicon Valley, on the whole, conceive of truth in different ways. (This is part of what I call the Three City Problem.) In Athens, rationalism (leading to scientism) is most prominent. In Jerusalem, people believe that there are some truths not accessible to reason alone; they must be revealed, and faith is the only entry point to these revealed truths which do not contradict reason but lie beyond it. And Silicon Valley is largely powered by a Peircean pragmatism or Randian Objectivism: what’s true is what works.
These three cities and their way of approaching truth are in tension. So it would help to define, before we start, what kind of truth we’re talking about.
I believe that the most important truths for humanity to discover right now are anthropological truths. This is by no means the only domain of truth that is important—but it happens to be our current arena of battle.
Back to the text of our book.
Thiel admits that his interview question about rare truths is an extremely hard question to answer: “It’s intellectually difficult because the knowledge that everyone is taught in school is by definition agreed upon,” he writes.
In school, truth is socially mediated—it is “peer reviewed”. But as we all know, there are many things that are socially-mediated and peer-reviewed which are absolutely wrong.
The idea of socially-mediated knowledge is the general gist of the book The Constitution of Knowledge: A Defense of Truth by Jonathan Rauch, which I recently learned about. The book is about, in Rauch’s own words, a process undertaken by liberal democracy in the eighteenth century which resulted in a “social system for turning disagreement into truth.”
Thiel would obviously reject the notion that a “social system” magically weaves truth out of disagreement, and in fact is more likely to result in a large network of convenient lies.
As for the interview question, Thiel gives some examples of bad answers:
“Our educational system is broken and urgently needs to be fixed.”
“America is exceptional.”
“There is no God.”
Many people already believe the first two statements. The third simply takes a side in a familiar debate. A good answer, he says, takes the following form: Most people in x, but the truth is the opposite of x.
It’s not immediately clear to me why the truth has to be the opposite of x. Why can’t the truth simply be something slightly different than what everyone else believes is true? Sometimes, a small difference in the truth means the different between the life and death—imagine, for instance, everyone believing that the most effective formula for a medicine were X, but the truth were X-1. The truth need not be the opposite; but it can still be just as rare.
So I reject Thiel’s notion that the “opposite” distinction is the most important part of this question. The answer could lie anywhere. It’s the truth we’re after; not contrarianism.
Thiel later gives his own answer to the question he asks in interviews:
“Most people think the future of the world will be defined by globalization, but the truth is that technology matters more.”
His statement already seems out of date. The book was written in 2014. Today, “most people” do not still believe that the future of the world will be defined by globalization. I’m not even sure that was true eight years ago. If it were, I don’t think a candidate running on a nationalist platform would have won in 2016. There were already plenty of people skeptical about the promises of globalization.
René Girard wrote:
“So long as globalization was slow in coming, everyone hoped and prayed that it would come soon. The unity of the world's nations was one of the great triumphalist themes of modernism. World's fairs were staged in its honor, one after another. Now that globalization is here, however, it arouses more anxiety than pride. The erasing of differences may not portend the era of universal reconciliation that everyone confidently expected.”
Now, let’s look at the future.
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