Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Can You Trust Yourself? Searching for certainty, a needle in a haystack.

Suppose you are listening half-attentively to a speech. Suddenly the speaker says something that catches your full attention. It sounded like, “I’m for every school child learning to practice cannibalism.” Wouldn’t you ever ask someone, “Did I hear him right?”

If you were absolutely sure of your senses, our most basic means of connecting with the world, why would you ask such a question? It’s because we know from experience that even our eyes and ears can fail us. We are not infrequently unsure of what we have seen, heard, felt, tasted smelled. (Remember that first time you smelled something you found out later to be cheese curls spilled into your sofa?)

The situation gets worse when we have to rely on another person’s eyes and ears (or tongue, skin or nose). Our senses can’t literally lie to us. But other people can.

And as the group gets bigger, the more a message gets garbled, unless we take great care to set up a method of verification. Most of the time we get our information from whispering down the lane, or newpapers, TV and other contaminated sources.

Here is where a lot of people make either of two mistakes:
1. They shrink back from action for fear of doing wrong; or

2. They confuse the very useful distinction between intellectual doubt and commitment.

It is one of life’s many tragedies that we sometimes, quite unintentionally, do wrong. But, to paraphrase Immanuel Kant, the only good thing is a good intention. So intend well, and act!

Intellectual doubt is the main tool of the intelligent person. Doubt because you can. It can help you avoid the common, everyday kind of mistake. But don’t let it contaminate your commitments, if overall you find them to be of value to you. The best of commitments allows you your doubts and offers you more to come back to. Nothing’s perfect.

To examine these issues further, see Questionable Assumptions in Social Decision Making

--- EGR