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Alternative Culture Articles

August 1, 2001

The Dangers of Being Certain
By Royce Carlson

In this incredibly complex and chaotic world we have a strong innate desire to be sure of things. We want a rock to hold onto in the sea of incomprehensible forces that move us. Because of this fear of uncertainty we create belief systems that put the world in order so we can feel comfortable. We become sure of our beliefs. This tendency is limiting at best and dangerous at worst.

First of all, we already come into the world with a limited capacity to perceive what is going on around us. Our eyes only take in a small part of the spectrum of light. Our ears hear a limited range of sound and our other senses are limited as well. Add to this the limitation of language and culture.

As we grow, we begin to think in words. Our spoken language limits what can be thought about and how it can be thought about. Thereís an old adage about how Eskimos have a hundred different words for snow. They can think about snow in much greater differentiation because they have more words for it. If there are no words to describe something, we canít think about it very easily. In addition, as we assimilate the culture we are raised in, we begin to structure our perception of the world in accordance with the norms of our particular culture to the exclusion of other ways of thinking. If you are sick, for example, it is totally normal to think about seeing a doctor. This is not true from other cultural perspectives. In some cultures it would be totally normal to seek out a shaman to exorcise the spirits that are making you sick.

Given that we are experiencing the world through the filters of limited sensory input, the limited potential of our native language, and the limited perspective of our native culture, it is amazing that we believe we can think about the world objectively let alone be sure of anything. But this is what we want Ė to be certain.

Certainty helps us become passionate. It helps us get wound up to right injustices or try to convert people to our beliefs. The problem is, we have incomplete information, maybe even wrong information. And, to top it all off, we get irate if our tenuous belief systems are challenged.

When we adopt belief systems, they become structures through which we experience the world. Events and experiences that fit the belief system are used to reinforce it and experiences that contradict or are outside of the belief system are either ignored or denied. This makes the belief system self-reinforcing to the detriment of knowledge and reality. If, for some reason, a person is bombarded with information and experiences that contradict their beliefs, this usually creates a crisis. The attachment to beliefs can be so strong that when a person understands that their beliefs are limited or wrong, they can have nervous breakdowns or even commit suicide.

We cannot help but try to make sense of our experiences. Our brains are built to create world views that work for us. This is what humans do. If our desire to know the truth and expand our range of experience is strong enough, we must come up with something. How can we create a belief system that is flexible and corresponds with the greatest diversity of phenomena?

My answer is to embrace uncertainty. The world is a vast mystery, full of amazing complexity and wondrous phenomena. Why not celebrate it? Adopt a belief system that works for you but donít hold on too tightly. Accept that you may be wrong. Make your beliefs preferences rather than necessities. Whenever you experience something that does not fit your world view, drop your world view, not the experience. It is only in this way can you truly open yourself to more of what is really going on out there instead of what you think is going on. Avoid the dangers of being certain by becoming comfortable with uncertainty, complexity, and the apparent chaos in which we swim.

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Royce Carlson