There Isn’t a Practical Reason for Believing What Isn’t True [Two-Minute Mentor #8]

When making decisions, relying entirely on intuitions, gut feelings, and anecdotal validations to justify your beliefs is not a sound rationale to trust your assessments, but to be suspicious of them. The British-American critic Christopher Hitchens (1949–2011) translated the Latin dictum “Quod gratis asseritur, gratis negatur” and famously said, “That which can be asserted without evidence, can be dismissed without evidence.”

It’s not sensible to hold a belief unless you have good reason for doing so. Neither is it sensible to cling to a belief because you believe it is useful and not because you think it is true.

Rational Investigation of One's Beliefs and Judgments Until you can organize the relevant evidence and determine whether a belief is true or isn’t, you should suspend your judgment.

Promoting the importance of rational investigation of one’s beliefs and judgments, the venerated Hindu mystic Swami Vivekananda (1863–1902) once said, “Do not believe in a thing because you have read about it in a book. Do not believe in a thing because another man has said it was true. … Do not believe in words because they are hallowed by tradition. … Find out the truth for yourself. Reason it out. … That is realization.”

Only a charlatan trusts in his beliefs without evidence—if his beliefs tell him that something is true, that’s good reason enough for him to think that it’s true.

Idea for Impact: One’s intellectual integrity lies not in what one thinks but in how one validates what one thinks.

This Trick Can Relieve Your Anxiety: “What’s the worst that can happen?”

I’ve previously written about how a great many of life’s anticipated misfortunes, adversities, trials and tribulations will never come to pass. Much of your worrying is ultimately fruitless and anger is often pointless.

Today, I shall discuss a technique you can use to let go of anxiety.

Bertrand Russell: Nothing that happens to oneself has any cosmic importance

The Remedial Benefits of Deliberating, “What’s the Worst That Could Happen?”

When you face anxiety, nervousness, fear, or worry, try the following technique: imagine all possible negative consequences of the situation you are confronting. Then, conceive of the worst outcome, even if there’s little chance events will turn out that way—imagine everything that could go wrong, in the worst possible way. Envision the worst outcomes.

When you exaggerate your fears and imagine the worst thing that could happen, you make your impending fears look unreasonable. You will realize that even the worst possible scenario isn’t so terrible after all. Often, this deliberation—and your sense of humor—usually restores your perspective on the anxiety you’re facing. You’ll realize that, at the worst, nothing that could happen to you is ultimately that significant.

'The Conquest of Happiness' by Bertrand Russell (ISBN 0871401622) Bertrand Russell, one of the west’s great intellectuals, was an advocate of this ploy. In The Conquest of Happiness, this extraordinary mathematician and brilliant philosopher asserts that happiness is in no way a passive endeavor, but a condition that takes a lot of work. Discussing how to avoid worry through the cultivation of right attitudes, Russell wrote,

A process … can be adopted with regard to anxieties. When some misfortune threatens, consider seriously and deliberately what is the very worst that could possibly happen. Having looked this possible misfortune in the face, give yourself sound reasons for thinking that after all it would be no such very terrible disaster. Such reasons always exist, since at the worst nothing that happens to oneself has any cosmic importance. When you have looked for some time steadily at the worst possibility and have said to yourself with real conviction, “Well, after all, that would not matter so very much,” you will find that your worry diminishes to a quite extraordinary extent. It may be necessary to repeat the process a few times, but in the end, if you have shirked nothing in facing the worse possible issue, you will find that your worry disappears altogether and is replaced by a kind of exhilaration.

To Get Rid of Anxiety, You Must First Embrace it

This Trick Can Relieve Your Anxiety: What's the Worst That Could Happen Russell’s method of overcoming anxiety and worry hints at the Stoic practice of “premeditatio malorum”—contemplating potential misfortunes in advance and reinstating emotional calm through positive affirmations. This classic technique of the Hellenistic world in due course laid the foundation for exposure therapy where anxiety is treated via exposure to stressful events either in vitro (in the laboratory of the mind) or in vivo (in real life.) Russell provides this explanation of exposure therapy:

Worry is a form of fear, and all forms of fear produce fatigue. A man who has learned not to feel fear will find the fatigue of daily life enormously diminished. … The proper course with every kind of fear is to think about it rationally and calmly, but with great concentration, until it has been completely familiar.

Idea for Impact: When confronting your fears, denial is never a wise strategy, positive action is!

The Roman lyric poet Horace advocated, “remember to keep a calm and balanced mind in the face of adversity” (loosely translated from the Latin “aequam memento rebus in arduis servare mentem” in Odes, II, 3.)

When faced with potential adversity or anticipated worry, try imagining the worst thing that could happen. This strategy for approaching your worries can help you to maintain an assertive, self-determining attitude even in the presence of very real and serious fears and threats.

Bertrand Russell’s Ten Commandments of Honest Thought and Discourse

The celebrated British mathematician, logician, and political activist Bertrand Russell (1872–1970) is one of the most widely read philosophers of the 20th century.

As a lifelong patron of lost causes, Russell published an essay titled “The best answer to fanaticism: Liberalism” in the 16-December-1951 issue of The New York Times. In this essay, he supported liberalism—the political philosophy founded on the importance of human individuality and equality, and a restraint of the stern grip of law and authority.

A tireless champion of morality and reason that he was, Russell wrote in this essay, “the essence of the liberal outlook is a belief that men should be free to question anything if they can support their questioning by solid arguments.”

Bertrand Russell's Ten Commandments of Honest Thought and Discourse

Bertrand Russell’s Decalogue of Critical Thinking

Beyond political philosophy and classical liberalism, this essay is famous for Russell’s vision for honest thought and discourse. Here is that thought-provoking list in full form—worth reading and practicing.

Perhaps the essence of the Liberal outlook could be summed up in a new decalogue, not intended to replace the old one but only to supplement it. The Ten Commandments that, as a teacher, I should wish to promulgate, might be set forth as follows:

  1. Do not feel absolutely certain of anything.
  2. Do not think it worthwhile to produce belief by concealing evidence, for the evidence is sure to come to light.
  3. Never try to discourage thinking, for you are sure to succeed.
  4. When you meet with opposition, even if it should be from your husband or your children, endeavor to overcome it by argument and not by authority, for a victory dependent upon authority is unreal and illusory.
  5. Have no respect for the authority of others, for there are always contrary authorities to be found.
  6. Do not use power to suppress opinions you think pernicious, for if you do the opinions will suppress you.
  7. Do not fear to be eccentric in opinion, for every opinion now accepted was once eccentric.
  8. Find more pleasure in intelligent dissent than in passive agreement, for, if you value intelligence as you should, the former implies a deeper agreement than the latter.
  9. Be scrupulously truthful, even when truth is inconvenient, for it is more inconvenient when you try to conceal it.
  10. Do not feel envious of the happiness of those who live in a fool’s paradise, for only a fool will think that it is happiness.

Nothing Deserves Certainty

Bertrand Russell on Certainty and Self-Doubts

In a 1960 TV interview, celebrated British mathematician and philosopher Bertrand Russell said,

I think nobody should be certain of anything. If you’re certain, you’re certainly wrong because nothing deserves certainty. So one ought to hold all one’s beliefs with a certain element of doubt, and one ought to be able to act vigorously in spite of the doubt. … One has in practical life to act upon probabilities, and what I should look to philosophy to do is to encourage people to act with vigor without complete certainty.

Intellectual Censorship

It’s regrettable that many ideas imprinted into the soft putty of an unformed mind sometimes remain there forever. Many people seem to believe the very first thing they’re told and stick with it for the rest of their life. What’s worse, they are often willing to defend that position to their death. They engage in intellectual censorship: not only do their core beliefs remain unexamined, but also any attempt to challenge their beliefs is taken as a grievous insult. They don’t realize that the suppression of opposing viewpoints doesn’t add credibility to an argument.

One reason could be laziness. In On Being Certain, Robert Burton highlights the neuroscience behind the discrepancies between genuine certainty and the feeling of certainty. Arguing that certainty is an emotion just like anger, passion, or sorrow, Burton provides summaries of many studies that show that people’s certainty about their beliefs is an emotional response that is distinct from how they process those beliefs. Consequently, once they develop a “that’s right” disposition about a subject matter, their brain subconsciously protects them from wasting its processing effort on problems for which they have already found a solution that they believe is good enough. In other words, their cerebral laziness subconsciously leads them to “do less” by simply embracing certainty rather than reexamining their assumptions.

Intellectual Censorship and Intellectual Arrogance

Intellectual Arrogance and Philosophical Idolatry

One outcome of feeling certain is intellectual arrogance. People who live by the illusion of their own self-sufficiency will shut their arrogant minds to alternative perspectives and even turn hostile towards those who possess or produce new ideas, since they regard their own truths as absolute without the need for alternative viewpoints or even amplification of their own convictions. On the other hand, people who recognize their limitations will necessarily feel modest about themselves and be enthusiastic to broaden their points of view. They actively seek differing viewpoints with compassion and gratitude and seek to cross-examine their convictions, strengthen them, explore alternative viewpoints, and perhaps discover new truths.

The 16th century English philosopher Francis Bacon wrote (per The New Organon and Related Writings,)

The human understanding when it has once adopted an opinion draws all things else to support and agree with it. And though there be a greater number and weight of instances to be found on the other side, yet these it either neglects and despises, or else by some distinction sets aside and rejects, in order that by this great and pernicious predetermination the authority of its former conclusion may remain inviolate.

The 19th Century British political philosopher John Stuart Mill actively advocated understanding every side of an argument because he wanted to “see that no scattered particles of important truth are buried and lost in the ruins of exploded error.” Mill explained in Early Essays:

Every prejudice, which has long and extensively prevailed among the educated and intelligent, must certainly be borne out by some strong appearance of evidence; and when it is found that the evidence does not prove the received conclusion, it is of the highest importance to see what it does prove. If this be thought not worth inquiring into, an error conformable to appearances is often merely exchanged for an error contrary to appearances; while, even if the result be truth, it is paradoxical truth, and will have difficulty in obtaining credence while the false appearances remain.

Uncertainty is a Fundamental Tenet of Thinking, Discovery, and Invention

Speaking of the virtues of uncertainty and doubt in the scientific and unscientific methods of questioning, experimenting, and understanding, the celebrated physicist Richard Feynman said in The Meaning of It All,

This experience with doubt and uncertainty is important. I believe that it is of very great value, and one that extends beyond the sciences. I believe that to solve any problem that has never been solved before, you have to leave the door to the unknown ajar. You have to permit the possibility that you do not have it exactly right. Otherwise, if you have made up your mind already, you might not solve it.

When the scientist tells you he does not know the answer, he is an ignorant man. When he tells you he has a hunch about how it is going to work, he is uncertain about it. When he is pretty sure of how it is going to work, and he tells you, “This is the way it’s going to work, I’ll bet,” he still is in some doubt. And it is of paramount importance, in order to make progress, that we recognize this ignorance and this doubt. Because we have the doubt, we then propose looking in new directions for new ideas. The rate of the development of science is not the rate at which you make observations alone but, much more important, the rate at which you create new things to test.

If we were not able or did not desire to look in any new direction, if we did not have a doubt or recognize ignorance, we would not get any new ideas. There would be nothing worth checking, because we would know what is true. So what we call scientific knowledge today is a body of statements of varying degrees of certainty. Some of them are most unsure; some of them are nearly sure; but none is absolutely certain. Scientists are used to this.

Reiterating the virtues of uncertainty in a discussion of the thought process of the French Renaissance philosopher Michel de Montaigne, author Nassim Nicholas Taleb writes in Fooled by Randomness (see my summary of this book):

It certainly takes bravery to remain skeptical; it takes inordinate courage to introspect, to confront oneself, to accept one’s limitations— scientists are seeing more and more evidence that we are specifically designed by mother nature to fool ourselves.

And British naturalist Charles Darwin wrote in his Autobiography,

As far as I can judge, I am not apt to follow blindly the lead of other men. I have steadily endeavoured to keep my mind free so as to give up any hypothesis, however much beloved (and I cannot resist forming one on every subject), as soon as facts are shown to be opposed to it.

Nothing Deserves Certainty

It’s a Narrow Mind that Stays Rooted in One Spot

The American jurist Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. wrote in Ideals and Doubts, “To have doubted one’s own first principles is the mark of a civilized man.”

An important characteristic of an educated person is an inquiring mind and the pursuit of intellectual growth. People of sound conviction have nothing to fear from civil debates and are willing to throw a wide net in exploring their own beliefs. They are ready to give up the refuge of a false dogma. They have no fear of meeting minds that may be sharply different from their own. Seek alternative—even opposing—perspectives to broaden your perspectives and persistently examine your biases and prejudices.

Charlie Munger, the widely respected vice-chairman of Berkshire Hathaway, constantly reminds us that one of our utmost intellectual duties is to scrutinize our most cherished ideas as ruthlessly and as intellectually as we can—something that’s hard to do.

Idea for Impact: Expose Yourself to Alternate Viewpoints and Grow Intellectually

If you earnestly survey an opposing viewpoint and find it is still erroneous, you have the satisfaction of knowing that your views withstood intellectual scrutiny. Alternatively, if you determine that another viewpoint is partly or wholly right, you have the equal satisfaction of softening your rigid position, setting your opinions right, and feeling smarter for not succumbing to your ego’s demand to cling to a sense of certainty. The German writer and philosopher Johann Wolfgang von Goethe once wrote, “Let no one be ashamed to say yes today if yesterday he said no. Alternatively, to say no today if yesterday he said yes. For that is life. Never to have changed—what a pitiable thing of which to boast.”

By all means, dismiss ideas if you find that they lack coherence, evidence, or argumentative power—but don’t dismiss ideas merely because they disagree with your existing viewpoints. As the French writer and philosopher Voltaire said, “Doubt is not a pleasant condition, but certainty is absurd.”