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.