Opinions and the illusion of certainty

License: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/deed.en

Photography: Jorge Royan, Argentina

Perhaps one of the great current clichés, and one which we come across daily in the media, is that back-handed utterance ‘they’re entitled to their opinion’. It almost sounds as if the opinion holder should be grateful for not being denied their thought processes and the liberty of free expression. What’s implied by the phrase is a sense of tolerance and open-mindedness, yet simultaneously it’s insinuated that the other is misguided. The issuer of the cliché at once seeks to establish themselves as liberal minded, tolerant and right thinking. Politicians communicate relentlessly with sub-text in this way, their odious pursuit of one-upmanship being forged in a stock-in-trade Orwellian double-speak.

In a similar vein, many of us at times distort language and opine so as to manipulate by suggestion. We may subtly disparage the views of others, and seek covertly to impose our own in their place. The ether-borne caterwaul of subjective frothery screeches at us daily on forums and in the blogosphere. Everyone must have their say, to offer up their cherished opinions to an overwhelmingly indifferent world – just as I do here. That’s not to say that influences fail to be exerted in this labyrinthine process; they of course are. Yet most of the consciousness shifting is infinitesimal, such that we may wonder quite why it is that we take proceedings so incredibly seriously; but still, we do just that.

I think we can say that there are broadly two primary motives attached to the process of opinion manipulation. In the first, there’s the attempt to gain some material advantage in the external world – the power-seeking politician, the greedy marketeer, the status-seeking careerist, and so on. Then there’s the purely egocentric motivation of wanting to demonstrate our correctness so as to feel more secure in our personal identity. Here, we aim to build upon a personal narrative in which we come to regard ourselves as inherently perspicacious and savvy. Whether or not this lofty appraisal is shared, it’s our embedded belief in it that counts. As long as we have the illusion of certainty in our ideas, then all is well.

And that phrase is really the nub of it – ‘the illusion of certainty’. This is what generates the fiery passions that so often arise when, in the company of others, we take our (and their) opinions too seriously. Why does debate become ‘heated’; what do we gain by adding a feverish overlay? When observing this in action, we find the overheating debater tends to come across as less plausible, as somehow trying a little too hard to be convincing. We see in them a flaming of the passions which appear to serve as a propellant only for their own sense of certainty; all of which suggests they’re not quite as certain as they project themselves to be. Religious fundamentalists tend frequently to behave in this way.

Almost all certainty and perceptions of correctness are partially illusory – an unfashionable viewpoint, relativism being rather frowned upon in some circles. This deriding dismissal allies with humanist and meliorist tendencies: the belief in humankind’s progressive power to induce improvement in the state of the natural world. Such thinking might imply that the opining of the human mind – a function of the brain of a species of Great Ape – could at times exert a supra-natural capacity. And yet here we are, two centuries away from environmental catastrophe and far closer still to global economic collapse. So has our consensus of opinion led to any certainty of progress, or any proven correctness?

As a collective, the illusion of certainty in our best shared opinions has demonstrably failed us, and continues to do so in ever-threatening ways. On the level of the individual, we see a similar propensity to assume certainty where there is none and so persist in manipulating others with fallacious self-validations – illusions of our own correctness. We fear that should we appear uncertain, to doubt and to waver, then we’ll be judged as inadequate, as not capable of apprehending the obvious. And so we jump to form opinions and adopt them in belief, then defending those ideas with fervour. And should the evidence stack up against us in time, we quietly withdraw the belief, safely away from others’ notice.

Opinions, beliefs, certainties – these are all thoughts that we identify with egoically. That means we take these thoughts to be ‘mine’, as essential to my ‘self’, and as formed by ‘me’. But for this identification, they’re largely harmless, merely stuff floating through and recurring within the mind. We may notice their reiteration, yet there need be no egocentric attachment involved such that we feel defensive of them, needing to sustain and validate their appearance as if it were essential. Many people live in fear of being proven wrong in their opinions; they take great care to qualify and make watertight whatever they say. For them it’s as if to err is taboo, to be proven fallible, to be proven human.

If we suffer from this deadening attachment to our opinions, remedies may include speaking less guardedly, or at times acknowledging uncertainty and an absence of a definitive view. In not constantly and zealously asserting our supposed certainties, we become approachable and more pleasant to engage with. We see that the former imposition of our imagined correctness had created barriers as the egoical self stood alone on one side of an imaginary fence. If we just try sitting on it now and again, or even leaping over it occasionally, we find it’s not as uncomfortable as we’d thought. The illusion of certainty is seen to be just that, a pipe-dream of infallibility that fooled no-one but ourselves.

34 thoughts on “Opinions and the illusion of certainty

  1. Great thought-provoking post. It’s funny because I often notice that my (our?) culture puts so much emphasis on the individual and defining ourselves by certain means (job, ideas, possessions, location, etc.) that approaching a situation without these ‘indicators’ (baggage) can be difficult. I know I’m me, or this, outside of the fact that I’m 35 and currently not working, but being strong when someone hears this and their jaw drops can sometimes be difficult. I guess this comes from ideas of ‘certainty’ of what a 35 year old man ‘should’ be doing, and maybe that person’s own insecurity outside of that definition..? What do you think?

    • Many thanks for your kind words – I truly do appreciate you letting me know, and for contributing here.

      I’m all too familiar with the phenomenon you describe of being judged by one’s working status. I think you’re on the right track with what you say on this – that these judgements are very largely projections of the others’ insecurities.

      When I semi-retired at your age, people around me were rashly judgemental as to my decision. I went ‘against the stream’ so to speak, and this was interpreted as a failure to endorse the others’ work ethic, and to challenge their perception of what form my life should take. The same thing happened when as a young man I became deeply engaged in Buddhism – I was sometimes derided, and very often people were condescending, feigning a sardonic tolerance which in fact was passive aggressive.

      We seek validations that our opinions – even on how others’ should lead their lives – are somehow unimpeachable and inarguably correct. If not that, we become insecure when others’ demonstrate a counter-view. I’ve no idea if that will ever change, though I do feel it’s good that as a society we’re moving away from our rigid ideas of linear career paths.

      I’m sure you know what your responsibilities (if any), to others are. My own view is that as long as we meet these personal obligations to others, then we are free to live exactly as we wish. Only we ourselves have an intuitive sense of the course our life should take at any point in time. I feel it’s more important to listen to our instincts rather than the unthinking judgements of others.

      With gratitude and respect, Hariod.

      • Thank you for this response Hariod. Your words are helpful, firstly in that they help to reassure me that that the decisions I’ve made over the past 8 months re: career and lifestyle, are okay. I know this deep down, but it often feels like I have to justify myself to people who ‘can’t understand’ why I’m doing what I’m doing. Your response also gives me a different frame of reference to validate my choices. Am I fulfilling the responsibilities I have to others? My answer to this question is yes, and I’m doing this independently too, so I don’t have anyone to answer to but myself. Thanks again. I’m really glad we’ve connected.

        • I too am glad we’ve connected; truly I am. I’ve no doubt that in our exchanging of ideas in future we can glean insights in a mutually reciprocal way. After your first comment I visited your site and was fascinated by the articles you wrote on Indian culture. I’ve never been there myself, though feel connected through books I’ve read and through my appreciation of ancient Indian philosophy. Your travels and subsequent documentation of them provided me with a feel for life on the ground there; and if I may say so, you write very eloquently too.

          With gratitude and respect, Hariod.

  2. Dear Hariod,

    I am pleased to have found your blog, or perhaps you found mine? Either way, your writing interests me.

    From my own experience, the more I need to convince myself of an opinion I think is mine, the more I need to convince you. If I am not up to the challenge, and cannot defend an idea I hold dearly through love of the idea, there’s a good chance I am not convinced of the idea anyway.

    Sadly, I agree that in some cases, as in the case of modern culture armed with a technology that speaks louder than your neighhbor, for instance, mediated opinions held by people who represent political or corporate interests, there is often abuse of status, power and influence when promoting an idea or opinion. Anyone outside of their sphere can never be too vigilant, aware and attentive as to the source of popular opinions.

    Thank you for sharing such rich, heartfelt stuff here.

    Debra.

    • Dear Debra,

      Thank you so much for being so gracious as to express your thoughts on this article, and also for your kind and generous words; I truly appreciate it. I am very new to the business of blog writing, having begun just four months ago; and so positive feedback, and more importantly an exchange of views, are both things that help me on my way and tell me where I’m getting it wrong. Thank you.

      I cannot say I am too familiar with your site, though I have visited on a handful of occasions, and as a consequence, subscribed for notifications. Only last night in fact, I traced a link from your site to that of Bernardo Kastrup; though quite how I initially became aware of your own site I am not certain – quite possibly it was via Maren. I have been toying with a post which may allude to panexperientialism/panpsychism, and hence the interest in Bernardo’s work.

      I certainly agree with what you describe as your own experience Debra, in that the insistence upon asserting one’s own views often demonstrates traces, at least, of doubt and wavering. The proselytising of the religious fundamentalists amongst us perhaps being the most ubiquitous category of this phenomenon.

      For myself, I sometimes play Devil’s Advocate as a means of testing my own and others’ ideas, whilst being careful to avoid argumentation, which is never my intent. Perhaps you will see me playing the contrarian here and there on sites we mutually visit; though there is always the possibility that this may not be taken in good spirit – we’ll see. I recently went on Maren’s site as a virtual stranger and left the terse comment ‘You’re nuts’, after a woo-like post. You can guess her response no doubt: deliciously warm.

      With much gratitude for presenting here Debra, and for your own work too of course, which I greatly respect.

      Hariod.

    • You appear to have the capacity to say in a dozen words what it takes me to do in nine hundred sir.

      Very many thanks for reading this article and for engaging with a comment; I truly appreciate it.

      Hariod.

  3. I like to play the Devil’s advocate to see how things play out, but I just can’t get into this emotional clinging to ideas that I saw every day in my philosophy classes. Don’t people realize how un-philosophical that is?

    Well, you, my dear sir, have been so polite in our discussions and that has made for some very pleasant interactions.

    • It would seem then, that we advocates for the horned one share in a tendency to mild-mannered and courteous contrarianism; your own examples of which being deliciously well-informed into the bargain, and most welcome too.

      Hariod. ❤

  4. Hariod,

    I saw your comment upon Brad’s post and noted that you are a little under the weather with flu. So I’m dropping in to wish you a speedy recovery. I also wanted to browse around your blog this wet afternoon and came upon this post which caught my eye as it had mention of ‘illusion’ in the title. 🙂 Just having re-posted a poem with the same word in the title then naturally it caught my attention.

    I loved reading your thoughts; you are so correct as you speak about opinions and belief systems. We so often just fall into the norm of following our parents and cultural communities. We have to be brave if we stand up and form another opinion based upon information gathered. Each opinion is just that, it’s our perception – a view point based upon the information presented and absorbed. Even our opinions may be seen as incorrect as others form a differing view based upon their ideas of what is right or wrong within their perception of life. The bottom line is that there are no right or wrong views. We all hold various opinions as we add colour to a subject and given that our emotions often will tend to enhance a certain quality.

    It’s like the news media at the moment, presenting their opinions as truths – facts often distorted to make headlines. And we are repeatedly being manipulated into forming opinions based on those of others.

    Great post! And I enjoyed waffling away my thoughts and opinions Hariod! xxx

    • Dearest Sue,

      How very thoughtful of you to drop by and offer a sympathetic word as I do battle with influenza; it really is very kind of you, and indicative of the sweet nature I know you possess. Thank you also for adding a much valued contribution and for eloquently expressing your own views on this subject – your thoughts and opinions are far too deserving to be labelled merely as ‘waffling’ Sue, and today’s resurrection of your wonderful work ‘The Ethers of Illusion’ bears testament to this. You are an artist in so many ways Sue, and I greatly appreciate your presence and contributions here.

      With much gratitude and respect as ever.

      Hariod. ❤

  5. I am always in search of better understanding. I enjoyed reading this post and have gained from doing so. The purpose of my blog is to reinforce my understanding of the nature of things. If someone finds my writing helps them that is wonderful. To improve myself is a full time occupation. If I succeed the world will automatically benefit. _/\_

  6. My touchstone is to notice how easy or difficult it is to listen to others. When my mind is racing ahead, thinking of ways to turn a conversation around to me, my turn, and my needs — it’s time to take a step back, be alone, quiet, and, as you so eloquently point out, face the illusion with which certainty presents itself. Other people are interesting when my own need to be right is fed, watered, and acknowledged for the simple hunger it is, rather than the universal certainty it wants to be.

    Lovely post. I appreciate your remedies. Try to speak unguardedly — what a conundrum and a challenge.

    Curious — where does the “two centuries from environmental catastrophe” come from? Also, who are the “advocates for the horned one”?

    • I think you’ve completely nailed it describing the internal process which compulsively seeks to assert our view over another’s. It can be as if we continue nuancing our signs of engagement – nods, lip flexing and eyebrow movements – whilst all but closing down the listening function and rabidly garnering together our cherished point of view. Your gardening analogy fits perfectly the attitude of wanting our self-centric views validated; and how alluring it is to have someone express interest in us whilst endorsing our perspectives – they in turn become objects of fascination for us.

      When, in closing this piece, I wrote of speaking less guardedly, I primarily meant bypassing protracted, premeditated thinking and responding in a more instinctual and naturally reflexive way. It can be quite risky to do this, and feel it should be avoided if one feels anything other than entirely comfortable in the other’s company, as undisclosed discomfiture has an unfortunate way of finding its release in our utterances – the source of so much comic material of course. The method you describe is by far the safer alternative, and perhaps ought be the default mechanism.

      I have been trying to recall where I got the notion of our being “two centuries from environmental catastrophe” and cannot give you a firm source due to a year having lapsed since I wrote this piece, though it may very well have been James Lovelock. What would you think yourself; is that too long a timeframe or have I overstated the case in any event? I used the phrase “advocates for the horned one”, in responding to Tina in the comments here when she had spoken of playing Devils Advocate, as we both tend to do at times.

      Very many thanks for your interest, and do please let me know your response on the environmental issue.

      Hariod.

  7. Ha! The words “Devils Advocate” caught my eye while scrolling through the responses. I did a search for the words after writing a reply to see who was advocating for the devil — and still missed the reference. Funny.

    On the two hundred years: Who knows? If we continue on our present, short term, unispecies-centred (i.e. human-centred) rather than nature-centred path, probably not that long.

    It is possible that many people will wake up to the idea that all civilizations are mythical kingdoms. Our kingdoms flourish as long as the natural environment that supports them functions; then they fall. If we wake up to our small place in the universe, and learn to live without our grandiosity, humans might be around for a lot longer.

    More likely, we will continue blundering on – “children playing with bombs” as one writer put it. We will probably cling to our illusions of certainty. [Grand concept, thank you.] There will be population crashes, mostly among the more vulnerable people, followed by spasms of reform, followed by more disasters. We will hasten our own demise. Probably. But maybe not.

    Cheers.

    • Thank you so much for your informed response; I appreciate it. You offer a ray of hope, albeit a faint one, and which sadly I cannot as yet share with any degree of confidence – perhaps I have simply gotten too old and cynical, or listened to Chris Hedges rather more than I ought to have. Then again, you are clearly more informed on these matters than I am, so I will do my best to hold faith in humankind, if not in our political masters.

      All best wishes,

      Hariod.

      • Me? Informed? Pontificater and heavy reader, yes, but informed? Hmm. In any event, we’re much on the same page. You give us 200 years. That’s pretty generous, considering. Cheers.

  8. “The ether-borne caterwaul of subjective frothery screeches at us daily on forums and in the blogosphere.” – I love that. Perfectly put, the whole piece I mean. I’ve read it before, but didn’t comment, and having thrown a pebble into your pool once again, this being the ripple I sailed away on, I wanted to tell you that. One of the things that I enjoy about your blog Hariod, is that it feels as though there’s no time frame. Nothing has to be old or new, one can come across any entry at all, and it never feels like something left behind. It just is, and therefore is of the moment, which is perfect when you think about it. Very, very few blogs can have the same said of them. I can only think of one other in fact, and they are nuts. Good nuts though. Like cashews. The sun shines here H.

    – Sonmi Cloud balancer. ❤

    • Thank you Sonmi, for such a generous reflection; I barely know how to respond and confess you make it rather hard for me with your uplifting support. And I am flattered that you have come once again; nothing pleases me as much but that you would do so. As to timelessness and all that, then that too is a most welcome compliment – might I suggest a praise of sorts? – yet nothing belongs to us, and the thoughts belong only to themselves; I merely give them their head. I daresay you do a lot of that yourself. The process is generally preceded by preparatory exercises, and which can at times feel as if tugging a papier-mâché cactus along the tumbleweed-strewn terrain of an old Western, yet when the shooting starts, hands clasped, then much as I may tug, still nothing comes beyond thoughts purely of their own volition. And just to finish, it is as well that you like me nuts, for I have always been that way in truth.

      With love and gratitude, Hariod. ❤

  9. Have I missed a post, Hariod? This is wholly unacceptable! I realize I probably have a few more to read before I discover your site fully here. As Sonmi said, they are timeless pieces, relevant whenever we find them.

    I enjoyed this very much, and it was superbly written. Had Sonmi not already taken that one quote down off the wall I might have done the same. One thing I wanted to add here is that another benefit of being open about ‘the illusion of certainty’ is that as we become comfortable with this, and drop the need to be right in the way of castle walls and mountain cliffs, then our engagements with one another can become opportunities for discovery. We may first reveal a new way of seeing something, and then we also may have moments in which both participants discover something unexpected – something sneaks into and through us. A bit of wisdom jumps emerges. But this can only occur if the rigidity of thought and belief – the need to be certain as if that is in and of itself something admirable – has been set aside.

    The other point I would make is that there is a type of certainty we do ‘need’ to attain to if we are to be comfortable with all these worldly uncertainties in which we abide, and that is the certainty of our being. I say it this way as I hope it is consistent with your own terminology. There is a bedrock down there that is the only certainty we might say is rightfully ours, and that so long as we question that one we ply ourselves against all the rest as if they were shipwrecked boards drifting at sea. If we lose touch with the certainty of being, that we belong to that if you will, then we strive for certainty where it cannot be found and so find ourselves locked in these contentious and frothing debates that take us nowhere.

    A very, very well written piece, Hariod. I should have skipped my own this Sunday, and reblogged this one!

    Blessings,

    Michael.

    • Hello Michael,

      No my friend, you have not missed any articles at all since you first most generously expressed an interest in my offerings here. This piece was written and published 18 months ago in May of last year, and so was a very early effort. I am only posting once a month now, or actually, just ten times a year. I think that is enough for me as things currently stand, and as my efforts can be quite challenging to decipher (or so it would appear from some commenters), it seems unreasonable to inflict too much of the same on those kind enough to indulge me. Also, I tend to enjoy the reading and commenting side of blogging far more than I initially had thought might be the case; and this has been tremendous in terms of broadening my take on both what I want to do here, and of course in learning from those others and engaging with them. That is really the effect you allude to in your second paragraph of course. And yes, whatever we are amidst the plethora of sensory data, memories and projections, something immutable remains in presence – a kind of sanctuary where a stability beyond the movement of thought can always be accessed; the silence amidst the noise; the formless amongst the forms; the fullness in the emptiness; the wisdom without the words.

      Thank you as always for your presence and ever-generous spirit Michael,

      Hariod.

  10. But, my dear Hariod, I am absolutely convinced that people should be (I use the dreaded word, ‘should,’) concerned about others. And that is the intention of all my thought, speech and writings. Subtly or otherwise, I am trying to trying to bring people about on this. Would appreciate your comments. Regards.

  11. Your post was a very interesting one, Hariod. Like most people, I live my life with differing degrees of certainty about my opinions, beliefs, and so on. There are a number of things I’d be extremely surprised to discover I was mistaken about, but claiming absolute unshakable certainty about any of them is a step too far for me.

    I have many vices, but terror at being proven wrong is not generally one of them. I’ve had a great deal of experience in this area so I’ve learned to live with it.

    • Thankyou very much for your interest and supportive, encouraging reflection, Bun; I appreciate both greatly.

      Like myself, then, you appear to be a Relativist when it comes to personally held views. As to beliefs, then I must say I’m not entirely certain that I hold any at all – I’m even relativistic when it comes to my belief regarding my beliefs! I am happy to accept a moral dimension, though; not in having a belief in the objective existence of moral ideas, which seems absurd, but as a pragmatic template for living harmlessly and contentedly. It’s not as if I have a checklist to guide me ethically, but in time this moral dimension just seemed to get subsumed within daily living, as I think it does for the majority of us. Can I say ‘majority’ – perhaps that’s a step too far.

      And yes, it’s always wise being open to one’s own fallibility, a disposition which, as with for yourself, was one that came about through many of life’s challenging lessons – the arrogance of my certainties slowly being eroded through a series of, at times brutal, encounters with those more advanced in reason and understanding. Oh well!

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