"Nothing is certain except death and taxes." Two and a quarter centuries ago, almost to the day, Benjamin Franklin shared this wisdom with a French colleague. Evidently things have changed significantly since 1789. Nowadays folks seem to be certain about almost everything. Just ask 'em.
A few weeks ago, I had occasion to hear neurologist, Robert Burton interviewed on the topic of his newest book: On Being Certain: Believing you are right, even when you're not! The chat was a portion of a program examining 'the moral high ground'; and Burton's particular piece was built around the possible neurological bases for these highly compelling feelings of certainty by which we seem so possessed.
I've always found myself somewhere between amusement and bewilderment -- but never surprised -- when listening to the 'data' that creationists trot out when defending their view that the planet is some 6,000 years old -- predicated on nothing more (at least originally) than the collected writings found in a single book. Even a good wrap in the noggin with a Tyrannosaurus Rex shin bone doesn't seem to knock much sense into them. Most of we 'rational' folk are not particularly surprised by either the arguments or the rabid expression of same flowing from the fundamentalist's mouth. There is just no question. These are absolutes. Again, just ask 'em. (On second thought, unless you've got some considerable time to waste, don't bother!) Or take your common garden cult member. End of the world: sure -- have another glass of Kool Aid and get ready for lift off. Or, having put my time in consulting on a small psychiatric unit, one was not especially nonplussed by the firmness of some residents' belief that the radio was monitoring their conversations and thoughts; or that that injection would, without question, turn them to wood (bet you didn't know that pretty panelling was actually called 'knutty pine'.)
News flash! Certainty is not the exclusive province of the fringe dwellers of our world. Scratch any advocate, litigant, short-changed shopper, any adolescent, preacher, car owner, feuding spouse, political party lobbyist, or angry neighbor and you'll find, just below the surface, adamant belief in one's being right about something or other. So much for death and taxes.
Take for instance the radical shift our thought processes undergo as we make near any decision of moment in our lives. About half a century ago, a psychologist name Leon Festinger floated his theory of Cognitive Dissonance. Imagine going car shopping. You probably have some idea of what you want to buy -- but that only narrows it down to, say Toyota, Honda, and Hyundai. You consult Consumer Reports (bad on Hyundai for lying about their fuel economy; shame on Toyota for selling those sticky gas pedals) -- and Honda pulls a little ahead of the pack. But wait, your neighbor has been a devoted Toyota owner for decades and you've never heard him complain; let alone drive through the garage door before it's fully open. But Hyundai is getting rave reviews. OK, close your eyes and jump. In the driveway now sits a shiny, new Hyundai Santa Fe. That's when Leon's theory kicks into full gear (so to speak). We immediately become fans only of the good press around our most recent purchase; and we absolutely covet every little hint of weakness, flaw, or failed performance rating of the 'bad guys' (that would be Honda and Toyota). We are in the process of reducing our cognitive dissonance, our mental split around what we've just done. We are in the throes of convincing ourselves that we've made the most logically correct, rational, and fully evidence-based choice. We become increasingly certain of our position. It matters little that mere days before we waffled and compared, test drove and talked -- utterly at sea over which was the better vehicle! We are now 100% sure of our decision, based on little more than, well . . . our need to be certain.
Back to Dr. Burton. As if our psychological inclinations weren't enough of a problem, the good doctor adds a whole other layer of challenge: our brain itself works to dig the 'hole of certainty' a little deeper. His review indicates that not only do we struggle to reduce our split psyche (a la Festinger); but that when we adopt an entrenched, highly committed (dare I say rigid and unyielding!) position, our brain responds in a way similar to eating a large bag of Ken's best French Fries or chowing down on a Scooper's triple chocolate brownie waffle cone. In short, it acts like we've just given it a treat of the week! The 'pleasure zones' light up like a Christmas tree.
Be it Robert Burton, Bertram Russell, or John Stuart Mill, restoring a little balance, a little equanimity to these extreme positions can only be a good thing. Russell's summary observance was that most of the evils man has wrought against man can be traced to feeling quite certain about something that, in fact, was false. Doesn't take a lot of imagination to fill in some pretty compelling and gut-wrenching examples of this statement!
Mr. Mill believed that people benefit from listening to the points of views of others; ones that are different from our own. He maintained that it was not about convincing the other or having them change their mind; it was about remaining open ourselves. Far from undermining our perspective, this opening compels us to remember the roots or grounds of our opinion or belief -- the very reasons we adopted the position in the first place. Otherwise we behave 'mindlessly', responding from a rote, well-rehearsed, and automatic position without intention, choice, or consideration. If this all sounds very close to the tenets that underpin a mindfulness practice, it's no coincidence. I know that for sure!