How sure are you that you're not the bad guy in the story?
Ultimately, we are faith-based organisms. There is no getting around this fact. I'm speaking here about faith in the general sense. For example, I can have faith in science and reason. To act on your inner truths is to have faith that they will not lead you astray, at least not too far. To be a nihilist is to take it on faith that the world is meaningless, so anything goes. The religious man takes his faith on faith, as does the rationalist of his professed ideals of Science and Reason. Interrogate any idea deep enough, wrote William James in an essay entitled "The Will to Believe", and ultimately its foundation lies on faith. We cannot escape this, and to hide from our nature or to deny its existence is to hamstring our ability to move through the world. We cannot engage with the world effectively if we do not have reasonably accurate information about it and about ourselves. And of course, the basic human process is to gradually update this model to be more accurate and ultimately spin a more convincing and useful narrative about the world. So we must recognize and accept that faith (or unprovable belief, if you will) rules our experience.
Yet this creates a problem we're all familiar with. Unquestioned faith breeds extremists, and not just in religion. Question scientific progress and watch someone who prides themself on being rational lose their cool. Of course there's a difference of degree in that example and someone extreme enough to inflict violence on another in the name of the beliefs, but it is exactly that, a difference of degree. Extremists in any camp seem to be more similar than dissimilar. Take Hitler and Stalin, supposedly ideologically opposed but whose brutal regimes were quite similar. For an extremist, the ends justify any sort of terrible means. For that reason alone extremism should be extremely disturbing to anyone, hence the above question. How sure can we be that, in our own personal brands of extremism, we are not the bad guy?
Worse, extremism is simply not an effectively strategy on a personal level for interacting with the world. An extremist is intolerant. Because they immediately discard or discount anything that does not fit into their worldview, they can never update their mental model based on the feedback we all receive, all the time, from the daily acts of living. As a result, their life force that comes from contextually-relevant expression is blocked and stagnant. They are perpetually frustrated that the world is not working the way it is supposed to. Ever notice how extremists are seemingly always angry? All their energy is devoted to maintaining a context that perpetually reinforces their stagnant worldview. Again, we all do this. It's human nature, but it's also human nature to find a balance between stability and change, order and chaos. Faith taken to an extreme impedes our ability to interact with the world. So too does the opposite of faith, skepticism. When we perpetually operate as a skeptic, or cynic, or ironic, we are paralyzed into inaction. Like it or not, we humans are defined by what we do and don't do. Look at what a man repeatedly does, and we have a pretty good measure of who he is. If we don't make choices, they are made for us. Silence IS consent, despite the (extremist) backlash against those who espouse this view. Of course, we should ask ourselves why so many in our society do not feel they can make their voices heard.
In the same essay I mentioned above, James explains why what we believe in is so central to how we live and who we are. For James, being a skeptic is an untenable position because, in our skepticism, we are simply defaulting to a fear (i.e. belief) that being duped is the worst calamity that could befall us. Of course, sometimes we are fully justified in waiting while we collect more information for choices that are not immediate or real. Unfortunately, we are rarely in a position where we have perfect information or a complete picture of what is going on before action is required of us. Faith fills in the gaps. We know that John has paid his debts in the past, but we take it on faith that he will pay back the $500 we loaned him. That faith in John is never real if we never loan him the money. For a belief or for faith to be real, it has to be tested, and William James writes that "the maximum of liveness in a hypothesis means willingness to act irrevocably. Practically, that means belief; but there is some believing tendency wherever there is willingness to act at all." I can say all I want that I believe that Pluto is really a giant orb of cheese, and I will almost certainly never be called to act upon that belief in any meaningful way. But if I believe that voting in a presidential election in the United States doesn't matter if you are not in a swing-state, then that belief has a real effect on my behavior, at least every four years, with consequences that far outlast those four years. To live is to act, and our actions are determined by our faith, or lack of faith. It's easy and hip to be the ironic skeptic that can never be pinned down on a belief. Yet to default constantly to skepticism or cynicism can easily become moral cowardice. The moment to moment choice we make between faith and skepticism is easy to overlook but central to how we live our lives. It is the difference between invigorating action and paralyzing doubt masquerading as detached coolness. From there, everything else unfolds.
So on both extremes, skepticism and faith, we find trouble: inaction and passivity on one hand, extremism on the other. The resolution is in playing with the tension between the two. We are always acting with faith in something, and that faith implies that we can also doubt that faith. Fighting with the doubt only paralyzes further, and fervently ignoring it can only create a zealot. Anyone incapable of humbly acknowledging that doubt is lying or fooling themselves. The doubt never goes away, because to have faith implies that we also have its opposite. On reflection, we shouldn’t want it to go away, either. The resolution is simply to embrace it, and even widen it. We must glorify our doubt until it expands into something that helps us live better. Act with faith, and temper it with doubt, the same way that steel is tempered to make it stronger (less brittle), more flexible, and more useful.
Hence the useful question: What if there were even an infinitesimally small chance that my faith was misguided? What if, without realizing it, I was the bad guy in the story?
This isn't such a far-fetched question. Think of the atrocities that have been and still are being committed in the name of religion, as one example. My guess is that many of the people we think of as evil, and that surely committed evil acts, thought they were doing good, in their own twisted way. Ultimately we rely on the feedback from those around us to calibrate our actions. We can have very little conception of the impacts of our actions beyond those we interact with on a daily basis. And we all seek, to varying extents, people who think, act, and live in the same broad strokes as us. Indeed, one of the dangers of living in an increasingly interconnected and complex world is that increasing amounts of our actions have results outside of our capacity to experience them. If I pollute my stream, I can see the effect. If I buy from a company polluting a stream 500 miles away, it is much more difficult for me to care. And more than ever, we can surround ourselves only with the information and opinions we want to hear. It is rare to find someone willing and able to provide, or take, honest feedback on how we show up in the world. Without honest feedback that regularly challenges our beliefs, we lose our tempering sense of doubt.
Lobotomy was an accepted practice in the early part of the twentieth century, and reading some of the accounts of how they were done and what their effects were is positively chilling. For a frontal lobe lobotomy, the physician took a literal ice pick, inserted it into the eye socket in the direction of the frontal lobe, and with one stroke turned their patient into a walking dead. I've read somewhere that one day, chemotherapy will likely be viewed as lobotomy is today. The cherished practices of our time will eventually become proof of the enlightenment of future generations. We should keep this in mind when we harshly judge the decisions and actions of the past with the standards of today. Whatever the future is that we face, however, the need for each individual to act with responsible freedom will not disappear or regress. Our consciousness, collectively and individually, cannot retrograde. Ignorance is no longer a valid excuse. Faith in oneself, a faith tempered by doubt, is the only way forward. A healthy, existential doubt. Act, but in such a way that allows that you might be wrong.
Like any belief, believing that we might be wrong changes the way we interact with the world. Simply entertaining doubt makes us conscious and aware of the actions we take and what impact they have. We might begin to see consequences, good or bad, that we hadn't considered before. We might seek feedback in various forms to get a more accurate picture of ourselves and our effect on our context. When we are more aware of how we habitually, automatically, or instinctually move through the world, we can consider how we might channel our natural energies, instincts, and emotions in different ways.
Doubt can prove an antidote to barbarism. We might ask, what massacres and atrocities have been committed in the name of unquestioned faith throughout history, and how can I be sure that I am not about to commit one myself? If I read about this in a history book one hundred years from now, or one thousand years, what would I think? Perhaps this might function as a regular spell-check for our actions.
It is humbling to realize that everything we hold true and dear could be wrong. Perhaps we would feel more compassion for our fellow man, who, like us, is struggling to navigate a world that only grows more complex and ambiguous as time goes on. We're all in it together, trying to live our lives in our own fashion, trying to make the best of things in the face of the sadness and suffering of our own existence and inevitable demise, struggling with our doubts. Respect, decency, and courtesy suddenly seem like the least we can do, and heroic in an everyday sort of way. We might become more humanistic, more united, in our mutual questioning of the world. Not everyone will like us, nor should we aim for that. But certainly we can try our best to have those we know speak well of us after we are gone.
When we doubt, we can drop pretense. Because we don't have to be 100% sure, we don't have anything to prove, and nothing to convince others of. And how can someone else attack us when there is nothing there for them to attack? They could be right. Until you know, all you can do is what seems right based on who you are, what you know, and the impact it will have on others. Doubt requires that we give up our mania for controlling others. Perhaps this will be seen as an invitation to appease those who outright refuse to agree on a common base of facts and causal relations. Several examples of public policy come to mind, as do various conspiracy theories. I do not intend this idea to be used as such an invitation. At the same time, no progress can be made if we cannot even have a conversation with each other about our differing views, as is often the case today. Doubt bespeaks the need for conversation rather than radicalizing preaching.
Healthy, existential doubt requires that we embrace our own experience, culture, and worldview while remaining open to those being updated through the course of our engagement with the world. To move purposefully, individually and culturally, we must act on the best beliefs we have at the moment. To do otherwise is to stagnate and lose our sense of ourselves. We have made mistakes and done terrible things. But they are our mistakes and they have made us who we are. They aren't going anywhere, so we must own them without excusing them. We can get nowhere without accepting how we got here, now. All we can do is get on with our lives to the best of our ability. But because our fundamental beliefs guiding our actions could be wrong, we are constantly reflecting on our actions and striving to find a more accurate and useful model of the world that allows us to interact more effectively.
It is easy to look at the extremism in the world and think that it is someone else's problem. American politics is an easy example that comes to mind. And it is certainly not just conservative politicians. Liberal politicians are militant about their own issues, including their reaction to the right. But our politicians are simply a mirror. We do not trust our politicians, we do not trust ourselves. I think one reason we love conspiracy theories so much- even when I trash them I get a vicarious thrill out of entertaining the possibility of them- is because they remove us from the equation. If everything going on is really being controlled by an elite few behind the scenes, we are effectively off the hook. And while there are certainly bad people, it is also certain that all of us are capable of doing wrong or even more simply capable of misjudging the consequences of our actions. It is merely a question of how much those consequences can ripple out to others. If I make a mistake, it won't affect a fraction of the people affected by the mistake of, say, a head of state. We cling for whatever security we can find in seemingly turbulent times, and it is comforting to cling to the certainty of either conspiracy theories or critical defeatism. Unsure, tense, we clamp down our minds the same way we tense our bodies when we are frightened or worried. Embracing our doubt may be the surest way to a purposeful peace, to action guided by principle and informed by pragmatism.
Peace and security will come only from within: did I do what was possible where I was at? Were my intentions pure? Did I act with honesty and without guile and manipulation? For it is not selfishness we should abhor. We all have needs and desires. Anyone else is free to fulfill our needs and desires, provided both parties willingly and knowingly agree to the conditions. It is manipulation we should abhor, and dishonesty about what we want and what we are willing to do to get it. At the point that we lie, mislead, and manipulate, we are robbing the other of their ability to make a free and honest choice of their own. Honesty and sincerity is the best policy, and we kid ourselves when we think we lie to protect others. We lie to protect ourselves and avoid a difficult conversation.
Yet we must doubt even this certainty in our inner peace. The more expansive our doubt, the more we grow in turn as men and women. There will only ever be a restless comfort, born of the nakedness, the innocence of this posture, of knowing that we will never know if we acted well. It frees us, in a way, to simply do as we must in each moment. Only by embracing the tension that is doubt and relaxing anyway do we free ourselves to act in the moment. Because the moments when free will is important are the difficult, ambiguous decisions. It is easy to make the right choice when it is easy, and so it requires no exercise of will. When it’s easy, who’s to say you’re the one deciding, anyway? It is like a stone thinking it decided to fall from the top of the cliff to the bottom. Of course I can jump up and down right now to prove I am free, but that exercise of will is meaningless because it is in relationship to nothing else. Difficulty is necessary for the meaningful exercise of will, and it is the same difficulty that engages our entire organism and deepens our awareness, and ultimately leads to mastery. This is no coincidence. But the difficulty usually arises from the ambiguity of the situation that faces us, a situation that is not black and white. We don’t know what the best decision is. We don’t know what the outcomes will be. Perhaps we must face something terrifying and uncomfortable, and even though we know we must do it, we don’t know who we will be on the other side. In the end, no one can tell us whether or not we made the right decision. Of course, to proceed as a society we must agree upon certain things that are prohibited: stealing, killing, assault, etc. But even then, there are contexts where these actions are understandable and sometimes even lauded. We can only act in the best way we can, make the most of often bad circumstances and choices, recalibrate from the experience to continue moving forward, and try to find meaning, peace, and beauty in living our values as well as in the doubt that it could all be in vain.
...sees much and knows much