Abandoning Old Beliefs

We can never be 100% certain about anything, but sometimes the amount of uncertainty is so small that it is not worth considering. But, how do you get to that level of uncertainty, the level where we are confident about our knowledge?

In many cases, we can take our cues from science. By science, I do not mean what many people think when they hear the word “science.” I do not mean the body of facts accumulated by scientists over the centuries. I mean the method of science.

In his article, “Why Do Many Reasonable People Doubt Science?” Joel Achenbach writes,

In this bewildering world we have to decide what to believe and how to act on that. In principle that’s what science is for. “Science is not a body of facts,” says geophysicist Marcia McNutt, who once headed the U.S. Geological Survey and is now editor of Science, the prestigious journal. “Science is a method for deciding whether what we choose to believe has a basis in the laws of nature or not.” But that method doesn’t come naturally to most of us. And so we run into trouble, again and again.

Understanding the way the world works often requires that we abandon ideas that common sense may tell us is true, but are at odds with the laws of nature. This is extremely difficult to do. We all are prone to make up our minds, and then twist any new facts to fit what we already believe.

Even for scientists, the scientific method is a hard discipline. Like the rest of us, they’re vulnerable to what they call confirmation bias—the tendency to look for and see only evidence that confirms what they already believe.

To make matters worse, science often reveals things we once thought were true to be true no longer.

“Science will find the truth,” [Francis] Collins says. “It may get it wrong the first time and maybe the second time, but ultimately it will find the truth.” That provisional quality of science is another thing a lot of people have trouble with.

What does this mean for a non-scientist trying to change the world? Be willing to abandon old beliefs. Be willing to change your mind when you acquire new information or when humanity’s understanding of something changes.

Or you can even go so far as abandoning all of your old beliefs and acquiring new ones only through thoughtful consideration. It’s incredibly difficult to do, as it requires ego suspension as well as critical thinking. But until you can identify your own biases and flaws in the ways you think, you will never be able to see the world as it actually is.

Total Certainty

I had a teacher in high school who once tried to blow our minds by telling us we could never be 100% certain of anything. Many kids tried to confound him, by stating their certainty that the chair they were sitting in was really there, or that they knew that they were alive. Inevitably, the teacher was able to dismiss their absolute certainty by asking them how they knew, or telling them to prove it, or suggesting that perhaps it was all an illusion.

Then one kid raised his hand and said, “I am 100% certain that something exists.” Rather than asking the student to define existence, the teacher smiled and said, “But it could all be an illusion.” The student replied, “Then the illusion exists.”

The teacher was speechless. And then he changed the subject.

I am not a logician, and have no idea if the student’s argument had any merit. What I do know is that both teacher and student offered me a lesson.

The teacher taught me that we truly cannot be certain of anything. Our knowledge is always necessarily incomplete.

The student taught me that, at some point, that uncertainty is no longer worth considering.

When I talk about seeing the world as it really is, I mean it in this way. Seeing it as it is, to the best of our human abilities. There will always be uncertainty, but at some point we have to act.

Change the World

This is a blog for people who want to change the world.

If you want to change the world in a big way like ending world hunger, or in a small way like starting a new initiative at work, you need to know how the world works. You need to be able to see the world as it is.

I don’t advocate a specific type of change, be it political, religious, or otherwise. Instead, I will give you the tools to learn to see the world as it actually is, how it currently functions, so you can understand where the change needs to happen and how to effect your change.

I will help you learn to think, recognize your own biases (we all have them), and form a clear picture of your world.

If you want to change the world, join me.