Out of a living silence

A contemplative shares thoughts that emerge in moments of quiet reflection

Taking precautions against certainty

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A conception of the world arises in you somehow, no matter how. Is it true or not? you ask.
It might be true somewhere, you say, for it is not self-contradictory.
It may be true, you continue, even here and now.
It is fit to be true, it would be well if it were true, it ought to be true, you presently feel.
It must be true, something persuasive in you whispers next; and then—as a final result—
It shall be held for true, you decide; it shall be as if true, for you.
And your acting thus may in certain special cases be a means of making it securely true in the end.

The steps outlined above by William James in his collection of lectures entitled A Pluralistic Universe suggest, as he goes on to explain, that we human beings arrive at convictions through a series of steps that are not at all logical. Rather than arriving at our convictions through a series of logical steps, he says, we all tend to climb what he calls the “faith ladder” to a psychological sense of certainty. We become sure that what make makes sense to us, given our own private experiences and the ways we have been indoctrinated, must be true.

The next step after that is often to raise the alarm that those to whom different conclusions make more sense must be in the wrong, and therefore are in need of being corrected. In the most drastic cases, those who prove themselves to be incorrigible and who persist in their erroneous thinking may come to be deemed dangerous and in need of being eliminated. It takes little familiarity with human history to see how much physical injury and death have been inflicted by some people on others out of a conviction that the victims of the violence were holding dangerous views. The irony of the act of inflicting violence on people who are seen as dangerous rarely manifests itself to those who are themselves victims of their own sense of certainty.

What precautions can one take against becoming certain that one is right? There are a few that come to mind. Perhaps you can think of more.

  • Be careful of the company you keep. We all have the tendency to keep company with people who agree with us on most matters that we think are important. This no doubt leads to pleasant social interactions, but it is not the best way to guard oneself against a false sense of security in one’s convictions. Better is to seek the company of a variety of people with different backgrounds and to listen carefully to their accounts of what they have experienced and how they have interpreted their experiences.
  • Read widely and actively seek out a diversity of perspectives from the news and opinion media. If you find yourself agreeing with most of what you see on Fox News, try watching Bill Moyers or Now on PBS, or listen to Amy Goodman on NPR. Conversely, if you watch mostly PBS and listen to NPR, broaden your horizons by taking in something like Glenn Beck on Fox News. Read both The National Review and The New Republic. Rather than taking sides on the conflict in the Middle East, seek out both al-Jazeerah and Haaretz.
  • Actively seek religious diversity. If your inclination is to stay away from organized religion, try going to a mosque, a church, a synagogue, or a Buddhist or a Hindu temple. Talk to people. Find out what is important to them. Ask questions. If your habit is to go to religious services regularly, try going to the services of a religious organization that promotes views different from your own. Or talk to someone whom you know or suspect to be an atheist or an agnostic. You have nothing to lose but your prejudices and your fearful ignorance.
  • Take some courses at a local adult education program or a community college or a university. Learn something new. Look into something you never even knew existed before.
  • Try reading some William James. He wrote so many books and essays that it may be difficult to know where to begin. Fortunately, it does not really matter. Everything he wrote is full of intelligence and insight, and he was an excellent stylist. If you get nothing else out of it, you are likely to get some joy out of reading beautifully written English (often liberally sprinkled with German, French, Latin and Greek words and expressions, because he respects your intelligence and knows you occasionally like to read something besides Surfing the Web for Dummies).

Written by Richard P. Hayes (Dayāmati Dharmacārin)

Friday, August 14, 2009 at 13:03

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