Certainty and Reality

“Blind certainty, a close-mindedness that amounts to an imprisonment so total that the prisoner doesn’t even know he’s locked up.”

– David Foster Wallace

Transcript here for those who prefer text to audio.

Over the past year I’ve lost certainty and confidence in my belief system. Instead I have found inadequacy, doubt, and all too often, a gaping void of knowing. Realizing my political, social, and personal beliefs were made of unexamined assumptions destabilized my understanding of how to know anything. It also began a process of discovery and creation through which I learned to embrace a few great and humbling lessons, which remain open to correction by reality in a way my beliefs never were.

Lesson One: Confidence & Certainty ≠ Truth

Judging a book by its cover or a statement by its speaker is completely fine, unless you want to know whether the book is good or the statement is valid. The level of confidence and certainty of a speaker, whether myself or someone else, does not have an inherent connection to the validity of what they say. Judging a claim based on evidence rather than charisma or congruence with other beliefs really helps cut through the BS. Many people agree with this concept, but forget it applies to them too. It’s hard to face up to our own ill-construed beliefs.

For example, I was raised in a politically and socially liberal household, and George W. Bush was a favorite butt of jokes. I remember gaily repeating a story of how the president had visited a supermarket recently and discovered barcode scanners; I thought this a perfect demonstration of our dumb and out of touch president. You can read more about the story here, but regardless of the facts of W’s presidency, this story isn’t just inaccurate–it isn’t even about W. The story featured his father. I hear this kind of “reasoning via dumb stories” repeated ad nauseum across the political spectrum by people who seem to be adults.

It is difficult to discover the truth of something for yourself. We depend on experts for most data gathering because of simple time and resource limitations to gathering frontline data about, say, climate change. There are ways to get around our inevitable biases, like intentionally looking at sources of information that are likely to disprove our hypotheses or beliefs, and questioning our own motives by asking ourselves why we want something to be true or false.

So the question you should be asking is, how can I know if this is true? How can I know if it’s true that certainty and confidence aren’t a good proxy for validity? That’s a great question. Keep asking it until you know.

Lesson Two: Choose Beliefs That Create the World You Want to See

Without my old certainty, when I set out to form a conclusion, I can end up like a bird circling prey without ever descending to attack. Part of this is knowing that any belief I choose will be necessarily limited, partial, and incomplete. However, functioning without coherent beliefs isn’t a viable alternative.

This is where “functional” beliefs come in. In my first encounters with Buddhism in my adult life, I realized that I didn’t need to figure out whether the beliefs it proposed were “true”. I only needed to see whether holding them created more of the freedom I was looking for. And it did; for example, seeing people as “wielded by their beliefs” made me a better person in the context of my own life and my relationships with others because it elicited compassion rather than anger when people did things I thought were bad or wrong.

As my doubt has increased and my confidence decreased, functional beliefs have become increasingly important. Confidence often functions like a guardrail that keeps behavior in a certain groove, and without it, I am prone to settling comfortably into a sense of inadequacy that doesn’t help me create the kind of life I want to live. Here’s an example of a functional belief I use for this:

“You can reach into the cookie jar, or you can reach into the jar of f%#!”.

– David Goggins

This basically refers to how you orient your mind. When the going gets tough, you can call on internal resources that provide support and sustenance–i.e., the cookie jar. For me, this includes times I’ve experienced deep flow, people who have inspired me, accomplishments I have fought for, and hard times I made it through. I keep a list of these on a notecard underneath my computer for easy access, and they regulate my decisions and actions on a personal level. This is wonderful for me personally, but…

We also need beliefs that help govern the functioning of society, which generally are values-based. Here’s an exercise for generating guiding beliefs of a moral or values-based variety. Imagine the kind of world you would like to live in, and how people would act in that world. What values would guide their decisions? Then YOU act like that. There a many ways this can go wrong–we can act a certain way in hopes other will act that way, and then get mad when they don’t; we can choose values that don’t actually lead to the outcomes we’re seeking; we can become self-righteous and indignant around those who haven’t chosen the same values. History is a good teacher.

One belief I’ve had to work on a lot is: “Attempting to control the world is the best way to get what I want.” Wrong. I’ve had much more success releasing my vise grip.

Lesson Three: All Choices Come With A Sacrifice

In the 4th grade I wrote a short opinion piece about choices. It went something like this:

As far as I can tell, it is–especially when it comes to things that require long-term effort and dedication. It’s worthwhile to be aware of the nature of the sacrifices you accept, lest you come to resent them (and the choices they came along with) later. As an idealist, I can forget to look at the dark side of the coin. I always find out at some point, usually in great detail, what that dark side looks like.

In another vein, there’s also the sacrifice of any given stance. Nobody gets off free. Each position is based in chosen or preferred values, and prioritizes those values above others. The bullet you bite is the list of values that don’t figure into your position, and they will always be a weak spot for your case.

In the end, it’s not a set of beliefs that guide so much as an enduring philosophy or a functional process for creating hypotheses and testing them against reality. The hard work is getting to the point at which you become hungry to truly test your beliefs. Only then does genuine learning blossom.

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