Even though folk wisdom declares that “what goes up must come down”—e.g., unemployment rates, real estate values, global temperatures, skirt lengths and stock prices, there are a lot of folks who disagree, and would dilute that claim into a blander “what goes up can come down”.

Or they may take a robustly confident opposite stance and assert that, “Some things, e.g., my stocks, having gone up, will never come down!” [Although they will allow for minor dips in normal market oscillations, a plunge to initial, lowest values is, for them, somehow inconceivable.]

Who’s right and how?

Evidence, Definitions, Superstition or Ideology?

What makes these differences important is that crucial policy and personal decisions and their outcomes can hinge on which camp decision-makers squat in and whether they believe what they believe because of general concepts, views about those concepts, assumed definitions or because of evidence, superstition or specific dogmas, e.g., political-economic ideology.

For example, if a Fortune 500 company CEO believes on purely conceptual or superstitious grounds that what goes up must come down, he may sell off huge chunks of his well-performing company stock as a precaution, and thereby trigger panic selling that makes his maxim and prediction a self-fulfilling prophecy.

As a more telling illustration, the blood spilled and havoc wrought on this planet by the belief that “for every in-group there must be an out-group” [which fails to distinguish the alleged necessity of both concepts with alleged necessity of both actual groups] should suffice.

Pedaling into Deep Cyclist Trouble

Among those in the main “what goes up must come down” camp is a faction that also insists that “what comes down must go up”.  Call them the “cyclists”, among whose ranks are luminary economists such as Nikolai Kondratieff, the early Soviet-era Russian economist whose eerily accurate predictions regarding what he identified as centuries-long “K-Wave” cycles of war and peace, inflation and deflation, of civil rights movements and a raft of other momentous things got him executed in a gulag in 1938.

Why?—for daring to disagree with the hard-line orthodox Marxists who insisted that capitalism is doomed to plunge into historical oblivion—the “dustbin of history”, rather than endlessly rise from the ashes of equally endlessly, if not foolishly, repeated recessions and depressions, like one very tough, yet strangely myopic Phoenix that manages and dares to fly in the face of Marxist ideology.

Dangerous Dichotomies

You are very likely to have firm views about the ups and downs of something very important, e.g., hiring peaks and troughs, seasonal or otherwise; or your romantic relationships. That’s fine, so long as it is evidence-based. There’s no problem with that, e.g., with trusting the charts.

However, if your stance is based on your [mis]understanding of general concepts, superstition or on a dogmatic ideology, things can get quite wobbly—and not just in connection with business and economics.

Consider, for example, the incalculable damage done to relationships, careers and knees through adherence to the popular doctrinaire doctrine of “no pain, no gain”—an analogue of “no up without a down” [or vice versa], as though the relationship between pain and gain was somehow assured by the mere definition of these concepts, rather than by careful scientific investigation and despite commonsense experience of many gains without pains, e.g., enjoying a sunset stroll along a beach, winning a lottery, falling in love and staying in it, having brilliant flashes of engineering genius and getting it all right on the first try.

Insisting, contrary to or without regard for the evidence, that gain presupposes rather than evades pain, is much like the Marxist insistence that “what goes up in capitalism must come down”—and fall all the way to a revolutionary comeuppance and total, permanent collapse.

The correlative mantra, “There is no pleasure without pain”, is gospel for most couples married more than a week and for merger and acquisition lawyers rationalizing mass terminations. But, is it true?

Prior to that question are two, more fundamental ones, to be asked of the notion that “what goes up must come down” and the like: These questions are “What does that mean?” and “Why does it mean that?”

The Anatomy of Ups and Downs

To see the importance and relevance of those two latter questions, let’s revert to the original, debated dichotomy of “up” vs. “down” and use a specific example, such as “Every job market has its ups and downs” or “All marriages have their ups and downs.”  Begin the analysis with “What does that mean?”

Is it a well-researched and confirmed empirical claim about job markets and marriages? Or is it a definition-based truism of some sort, much as “for every inside there’s an outside”—which actually is not true for complex mathematical “objects” such as the famous one-sided “Klein bottle” [shown here and in animation at the foregoing link] that has no inside, no outside, no volume, or, alternatively has only one of these, like the equally famous one-sided Möbius strip.

Consider this following “proof” that all jobs, marriages and economies must or do have downs if they have ups:

“A hill that has only a path up is inconceivable. Marriage, jobs and economies are our biggest hills and therefore must have their downs.” End of proof.

Ah, but what exactly has been proved here? Only the existence of a path, not of its being taken. Moreover, the metaphor or illustration of a hill begs the question about the terrain and topography. Maybe your job, marriage and economy all have, or at least can have, no tilt, slope or trajectory—instead, just a pleasant homeostatic flat and equable status quo, preserved indefinitely. And if these have all taken off and upward like a rocket, why must the trajectory be round trip [if space-time does not curve back upon itself]?

These criticisms should be obvious; but metaphors and their associated logic, flawed or not, can be very seductive. Compared with other bogus inferences from paired opposites—i.e., dichotomies, inferences from “up” vs. “down” are perhaps the most forgivable, because it seems that “up” cannot be conceived apart from “down” [but brace yourself for the contrary view, below].

That’s what makes “what goes up must come down”, when alleged of unemployment rates, at least initially plausible, if not irresistibly seductive.

Other such “pairs of opposition” come to mind. For example, “love” vs. “hate”, “in-group vs. out-group”, “life” vs. “death”, “pain” vs. “gain”, “joy” vs. “sorrow”.

Countless people believe that “to experience love, you must experience hate”—or that at least you must understand hate, that “life is a death sentence”, “no pain, no gain”, “there is no joy without sorrow”—meaning either that “there is no concept of joy without the concept of sorrow”, “there is no experience of joy without the experience of sorrow” or “there can be no understanding of joy without an understanding of sorrow”.

The problem is that those beliefs are at best confused, at worst rubbish, unless and only when supported by real evidence and in very specific situations, rather than universally.

Start with the confusion: Almost always, there is a confusion of “contrasts” and “complements” or “contraries” and “contradictories” as “opposites”. Somehow, the “opposite” of love is taken to be “hate”, as opposed to the true opposite, which is “non-love”. Why is the latter, rather than hate, the true opposite? Because nothing can be love and non-love, yet everything must be one or the other. 

This is not true for hate, since not being love does not mean being hate, e.g., could be sorrow, pride, a cigarette, clouds or the number 4, as examples of things in the “set” containing everything that is “non-love”.

All of these presumed pairs of “opposites” misleadingly suggest a “unity of opposites”: “up” requires “down”, “love” requires “hate”, “pain” requires “gain”, “joy” requires “sorrow”—all such pairs fused as experiences and concepts. The conceptual technique employed is very, very subtle and is at the heart of one version of what is called “deconstructionism”.

That version can be expressed in one sentence: “Opposites presuppose each other.”  For example, on this deconstructionist view and in some sense, “life” and “death”, as opposites, actually presuppose each other: “There is no life without death; from death springs life.”

But, the opposite of black is not white; it’s non-black. Nothing can be both black and white all over; but it might be neither, e.g., green. Likewise, the opposite of life is non-life, rather than death.

What this means is that “there is no joy without sorrow” or “no pain, no gain” are simply not true on any interpretation, except one based on factual evidence regarding specific cases in which they happened to correlate.

That’s because the concept or experience of joy does not require the concept or the experience of sorrow to be understood or for the experience to occur. To argue otherwise is tantamount to arguing that, the very first time a living desert creature slithered up a slope, it could not have experienced it without having had a prior experience or understanding of slithering down, not to mention without eventually and necessarily having a return trip.

This kind of fallacious thinking is similar to groundless optimism or pessimism about the direction of unemployment rates, if either is based purely on an interpretation of the concepts of “up” and “down”, rather than on evidence.

Now, imagine that creature was us, but also endowed with the ability to conceptualize “up”, before making the return trip down. The concept and the experience of “up” would have been independent of any grasp of “down”—unless you believe these are, as a pair, hard-wired into our brains as pre-recognized and pre-conceptualized.

What all of this means is that there is no necessary inevitable opposition or experiential connection between any one concept in these pairs with its counterpart—apart from what for some, but not all, people, systems, etc., are their psychological or systemic fusion or mutual exclusion.

But, as always, some will disagree with my analysis, and give it a thumbs down, since they will claim “there are two sides to every story”.

…unless it’s written on a Möbius strip.

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