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The journey to doubt

P. Thomson

The instructions say to turn the knob anti-clockwise. Doing so is meant to slowly run the oven’s clock forward. The display for the time is meant to be found on the front of the oven, but you can’t see it. Nor do the figures on the dial match up with those shown in the picture. This is because the instructions in your hand are for an oven, while you’re trying to twist the dials on your washing machine.

The objective reality of our world is a lot like that washing machine. We all go about trying to operate it with the instructions we each have in hand: our mental models of the world. And each person’s instructions will vary, owing to the understanding of the world they’ve formed through their parents, peers and experiences.

All those models though, will be incomplete. Looking out at the world you can see every person has their own approach, some of which seem demonstrably inadequate to us. When a person’s perception of the world is out of alignment with the nature of being, you can see that things don’t work for them, or for the people around them. We must, each of us, decide whether we’re as fallible as every other person we meet, or if we’re specially privileged to true knowledge of the world.

In the latter case, you might as well stop reading now; if you know everything already, nothing I can write can change your mind. If you’re in the former category, know you’re not alone. There is a grand tradition of thinkers of which you are, knowingly or unknowingly, a part. Academic skepticism (named after the defenders of this approach, Arcesilaus (315–240 BCE) and Carneades (217–128 BCE) who were both heads of Plato’s Academy) argued that true knowledge is impossible, and recommended suspending judgement of others for the sake of peace of mind. Unlike their contemporary sceptical schools, the Academics thought it was likely that some beliefs were more reasonable or probable than others.

Some 1700 years later, René Descartes (1596–1650) the famous French philosopher noted in his Meditations on first Philosophy that in his youth, he had accepted “many false opinions for true”. Subsequently, Descartes reasoned, the rest of the knowledge he had gained since his youth (itself based upon those demonstrably untrue opinions) was also in doubt. And so, Descartes systematically interrogated his own beliefs with the aim of finding knowledge that he could not disprove. Such knowledge would then form the bedrock of his new belief system, rooted in the truth. Descartes went as far as to suggest that we could be the toys of a demon, and that all our senses were lies made by the monster, this idea clearly inspired the film The Matrix. Descartes’s most famous discovery from this investigation was the supposition that even if we were being tricked by some all-powerful malevolent entity, that our thoughts at least must be our own. Hence, “cogito ergo sum,” or, I think therefore I am.

Carl Jung (1875–1961), 20th century Swiss psychiatrist and psychoanalyst, wrote that “The test of a firm conviction is its elasticity and flexibility; like every other exalted truth it thrives best on the admission of its errors”. In other words, if what you’re after is the truth, the best way to approach that is to be flexible in your beliefs and be receptive to the possibility that you’re wrong.

The problem with Jung’s approach is that it feels so damn good to win an argument. You all know what I’m talking about when I say that. Imagine that you’re arguing with an enemy, it’s a heated exchange, there are others watching. They say something inarticulate that you could easily misinterpret to make them seem foolish to the assembled crowd. You have a few choices. The first choice, pounce on them, rip their throat out with your words, win the argument. The second choice, help them to formulate what they were saying. Find out what they were trying to get at. If you accept the possibility that you’re wrong, then you accept the possibility that the person you’re conversing with has something important to say. Something important for you to know! The brilliance of the second approach is that if you’re convinced, you needn’t abandon your entire mental model of the world. Quite the opposite: it might help you shore up a few parts of your structure that were in disrepair.

It can be overwhelmingly appealing to think about your enemies as purely malevolently motivated. In Australian public political discourse this is often the case. The right are seen as cold and callous, the left are seen as wild and unrealistically idealistic, and the center are seen as cowardly fence-sitters. In truth, each position is composed of living, breathing, loving, thinking people like yourself. They are all, in their own ways, trying to do what they think is best for the world. Listen to your enemies, especially if it makes you grind your teeth to do so. Find out what their real motivations are, rather than relying on stereotypes or strawman arguments.

It’s hard to listen to your enemies, but the most valuable prizes always lie in the most confronting places. In the story of King Arthur, knights searching for the holy grail enter the forest at the point that looks darkest to each of them, individually; the most important knowledge for you to understand is exactly the knowledge that you don’t have any interest in understanding at all.

Now, back to the analogy we started with. We’re all carrying around inadequate concepts of the world. To some degree we’re all trying to work the washing machine with the oven instructions. With the advent of the internet we’re more capable than ever of living lives in digital bubbles, away from any challenging and contradictory information or argument. So, the question is, do you want to be right, or do you just want to feel like you are?

Take all this advice with a grain of salt, however. I could be wrong.