(About a 9 minute read)
Charlie’s father, Benjamin, wanted Charlie to grow up fully capable of thinking calmly and rationally while under stress. To make sure that Charlie actually did mature into a man able to think with great clarity while under stress, Benjamin decided to play cards with his young son at least once a week.
Benjamin reasoned that Charlie would learn logical reasoning from “counting his opponent’s hand”; that is, from employing logic to discern which cards his opponent held. It is said that, when Benjamin told Charlie of his plans, eight year old Charlie was overjoyed that his father wanted to devote time just to him, and to him alone.
Little was Charlie prepared for the reality of those card games.
Benjamin, you see, had not told Charlie of his fiendish plans to turn their card games into hell on earth for his young son in order to teach him, not just logical reasoning, but logical reasoning while under stress. When Charlie showed up to play, he soon discovered that his farther had purchased an all-too-generous supply of the strongest, most vile, most stinking cigars he could find on the market.
“Concentrate, Boy! Concentrate! You must concentrate!” Benjamin would say while every few minutes blowing smoke directly into Charlies’ face. And it didn’t end there, either, for Benjamin made a point of keeping Charlie up way past his bedtime, until Charlie would simply collapse, and could no longer be shaken awake.*
Naturally, Charles Sanders Peirce grew up to become
a traveling “No Smoking on Our Premises” sign painter perhaps America’s greatest philosopher and logician, an innovator in mathematics, statistics, philosophy, research methodology, and various sciences.
Doubt and Belief
In 1877, the magazine, Popular Science Monthly, published a short article by Peirce entitled, “The Fixation of Belief”. Two months later, the same magazine published, “Snoring, and How to Stop it”. That article was by Wyeth, though, and had nothing to do with Peirce or his ideas. However, in 1878, the magazine got around to publishing, “How to Make Our Ideas Clear”, which was by Peirce. Together, the two articles by him laid the initial foundation for what became the philosophical school of American Pragmatism.
In the first article, Peirce took a close look at the psychology of belief. Now, the opposite of belief is doubt, and Peirce was just as aware as any of us that doubt is typically an emotionally uncomfortable state to be in. He argued that, because doubt was uncomfortable, we humans naturally try to escape from it into belief — a much more emotionally comfortable state for us. And we seek not only a belief, but a firm belief.
Peirce next argued that it was misleading to say our species seeks truth, when in reality we are content with any belief that we are able to firmly hold, whether it’s true or not.
That, of course, was too large of a lump for many people to swallow. The common wisdom of the day was that humans — at least some of us — nobly pursued not merely a firm belief, but a true belief. Yet, there stood the appalling Peirce, stubbornly insisting that we seek to escape doubt, instead of seek to find truth.
Two Reasons to Value Uncertainty
Whether or not we humans ever seek truth might be an open question for many of us, but I think it’s pretty evident that (1) doubt is usually an emotionally uncomfortable state, and that (2) we usually try to escape from it into a belief, the firmer the better. Most of us seem to enjoy doubt or uncertainty about as much as we would enjoy a vigorous sandpaper massage. Few of us see it as the 14th century monk, Kenko, did, who wrote, “Uncertainty is the most precious thing in life”.
Moreover, I think Peirce was also right that, when we have a firm belief about something, we tend to stop challenging it. For instance, I was once of the firm belief that solipsism was logically unassailable. I arrived at that view decades ago, and for decades I looked no further into it.
To be sure, I did derive some ideas from it during those decades. And while some people might consider those ideas to be “further explorations of solipsism”, I myself don’t because none of those alleged “further explorations” challenged the basic notion of solipsism.
Only recently did I delve into it again. And that was mainly by stumbling my way into taking a fresh look at it. It wasn’t something I would have done had it not been for a series of special circumstances. Having taken a second look, however, I have come to doubt that solipsism is logically unassailable.
I have yet to fully evaluate solipsism so it is possible that I might yet return to a belief that it is logically unassailable. However, if I do, it will be a much more fully informed belief than the one I had before. The thing is, when we think we know something, we usually stop looking into it — really looking into it — and that sometimes means we stop short of any great insight.
Thus, it seems to me that one of the ways in which uncertainty can be “precious” is by motivating us look deeper, which is not always a bad thing. Everyone of us, I’ll wager, harbors a whole lot of beliefs — and not always intellectual beliefs — that ought for our own sake to be given a good shaking now and then. Even if we end up retaining the belief, we are likely to come back with a richer, more accurate understanding of it.
A second way uncertainty might be valuable to us is in “keeping us young and flexible”, so to speak.
Back in early March, I wrote a post explaining how our firmly held beliefs about who and what we are can lead us into limiting and restricting ourselves such that “we become one of those nearly ossified people who — perhaps even by an early age — has more or less ceased to develop and grow in any significant degree or way”. This can have a devastating effect on the quality of our lives. As the saying goes, “Some people die at 25, but are buried at 75”.
How Best to Become Uncertain
Yet, how can one overcome such ossification?
As you might by now suspect, I believe it is best to overcome it by uncertainty. Yet, that is not often an easy thing to do. An attempt to create doubt about our beliefs through some sort of contrived and artificial speculation that they might be false seems to me as likely to produce real results as burning a match three feet from an ice cube is likely to thaw it. What is needed more than mere speculation is a genuine reality check.
There seem to me at least two ways of checking a belief against reality. Basically, to either do it yourself, or to get help. Doing it yourself is the least effective of the two ways, in large part because each of us is prone to error — and even delusion. If one must rely on this route, it’s probably a good idea to do things like keep a daily journal in which you note any events or other things that challenge the beliefs you wish to genuinely question.
But perhaps the best reality checkers for us are our friends or trusted other people. Among “trusted other people”, I am including books, articles, podcasts, and so forth by authors you trust, in addition to people you might actually have some form of contact with. [Note to frequent Café Philos commentator Teresums: The category of “friends”, however, does not include your imaginary friend, Wildfire, the Rainbow Colored Unicorn.] Other people, though just as prone to error and delusion as ourselves, often are not prone to precisely the same errors and delusions. Hence, they might see things we don’t (and vice versa).
Truth is Often Hesitant, Uncertain
Peirce was extraordinarily prolific, but published only a fraction of his ideas and insights during his lifetime. For instance, on at least one occasion, he created a whole multi-variable logic, then tossed his papers on it into a desk drawer, and apparently forgot about them — leaving his work to be re-invented decades after his death by other logicians.
To put it a little simplistically, a multi-variable logic is a logic that goes beyond just the binary values of “true” and “false” to include a potentially infinite number of other values. Think of those others as varying states of uncertainty, as “maybes”. For there are times when, instead of seeing things as either true or false, it is best to see them as, say: true, maybe true, maybe false, and false. In fact, I think that’s the case with most things in life.
So often, the deeper you get into something, the more obvious it becomes to you that the truth of it is uncertain. There are almost always far more ways in which any notion we might have about reality — including the reality of ourselves — can be wrong than there are ways in which it can be right. Add to that other facts, such as we don’t know everything (hence, most anything is possible), we are born with innate cognitive biases that tend to skew our thinking, and sometimes we just goof up even under the best of conditions. The list could go on and on. In the end, one is so often wisest when one treats the truth as uncertain.
Glorious Summary and Rousing Call to Action!
Two of possibly many ways in which uncertainty can benefit us are by motivating us to probe for ever deeper insights into things, and by helping to prevent or overcome the natural human tendency to become emotionally and mentally inflexible, closed off to new ideas, ways of doing things, and life adventures. Of course, there are also downsides to uncertainty.
Besides the fact that uncertainty can be emotionally uncomfortable, it can also cause us to hesitate to act when we very much need to act. That can be a huge issue at times, but rather than address it here, I am going to save any discussion of it for another post.
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- Most of the story of Peirce’s father, but not all of it, was told to me by my professor, William Davenport, who as a graduate student, was one of just three such students allowed to study Peirce’s collected, but unpublished papers. Davenport said his version of the story came from Peirce’s writings, but I don’t recall now whether from his published or unpublished writings.