Being curious is a great quality to have, but it can lead to all sorts of headaches.
For one, being curious about the “wrong” ideas or people can be a fast and reliable way to get in trouble. As unfortunate as that sounds, it is a sad reality of the world today. In any case, this is not what this post is going to be about…
Instead, this post is about the other main way curiosity can hurt. The one that is internal and not imposed from the outside.
More precisely, this post is about the discomfortable feeling of cognitive dissonance and how wrestling with contradictory ideas can produce much confusion and anxiety.
Growing up, the way I arrived at my belief system was through the traditional common-sense approach. Namely, there was the world and then there was me. My desire to know ultimately translated into a longing for finding out the facts about the world and storing them in my head.
The problem was, it’s hard to know what’s a fact and what is not. There are so many claims about the world out there, it’s hard to keep up, let alone verify them all. Not to mention the nasty problem of tastes, preferences, opinions, and values. It might be obvious that vanilla vs. chocolate is a personal preference, but how many of such preferences lie implicitly at the core of sophisticated philosophies and systems of thought?
Of course, the natural answer (pun intended) to the above was science. Careful experimentation and exquisite theorization promised to reveal the relevant facts about the universe.
Yet, there were problems.
To begin with, science itself is always self-correcting. Even good theories get revised and improved and new knowledge always gets added on.
While on one side that is amazing, on another it means that the ‘facts’ I know today might turn out to be, well, not really facts after all.
Moreover, science simply does not cover every important question about life.
By now it has become a cliche to talk about science’s inability to discover and explain the values we hold and live by. In my curiosity, I had to face this limitation time and time again.
But it was not just the firm establishment of values that I found science lacking in. Put simply, science, even when it could in principle investigate a question, does not always do so.
Sometimes this is down to insufficient funding leading to fewer opportunities for professional scientists. In the end, no human activity can escape the laws of economics and science too has to prioritize its pursuits. Inevitably, many questions are never properly investigated or answered. In this category lie many practical questions, but also fringe ones that are of interest to few or go against political correctness and other ideological limitations. (e.g. critically exploring Christianity in Medieval times or questions of race and/or sex today; every age has its sacred views that shall never stand criticized)
Perhaps the most important of the fringe questions are the ones that directly pertain to each of us as individuals. Popular culture makes it clear: one must know his/her body, examine his/her beliefs, analyze his/her strengths and weaknesses.
While scientific methods could in principle be applied to all of those questions, there are barriers to knowledge for even the most curious among us. Things like lack of time, equipment, proper methodical training and the frequent almost inherent loneliness of self-study can mean that many questions are doomed to only receive answers from non-scientific or non-personalized theories. (e.g. internet forums, friends’ and personal experience, etc.)
Ultimately, going the way of science is great, but one still has to answer questions like “what’s the career that would make me happiest”, “should I marry and if so, whom”, “what’s the meaning of it all”, etc.
As hinted above, adopting a scientific mindset and exploring on your own might help for some of those. Yet life is literally too short to apply high scientific rigor to everything. Moreover, it’s not clear to me exactly how one solves the many ethical puzzles that spring up from trying to scientifically investigate human behavior…
In any case, even if one could surmount most the obstacles, there are some questions, like those of meaning, that do not seem scientifically tractable even in principle. Nevertheless, it seems like those questions still matter and we should not simply give up on them.
Of course, in such a pursuit of non-scientific knowledge, the obvious cost one has to pay is to let go of science as the one and only true way towards the acquisition of knowledge. A cost which I personally am willing to pay on philosophical grounds if nothing else. Science ultimately relies on induction, the whole logic of which seems fundamentally unjustified.
Yet, science clearly works. But that is no reason to rely on it to the exclusion of everything else that could work at times just as well!
As a result, my curiosity has lead me to open my intellectual flood gates towards all sorts of methodologies, mythologies, ideologies, philosophies and approaches.
And herein lies the problem.
It is impossible to try and seek knowledge from different sources and not end up haunted by an endless number of contradictions.
To take one familiar example, atheists and religious people have been battling for centuries over the question of God. Their argument alone has produced countless apparent contradictions between the claims of religion and those of science.
In a way, the above state of affairs is representative for many other pairs of beliefs. Even within science, there are theories that contradict each other — quantum mechanics and general relativity famously predict contradictory results in similar physical environments.
So, wherever one looks, one sees competing contradictory beliefs all vying for attention. If there is one truth, such beliefs cannot all be right.
Put differently, we cannot have all of religion with all of science and all of philosophy. Opposing ideologies cannot ultimately unify and become one within reality.
Either there are gods or there aren’t any.
Either everything is made of matter or it isn’t.
Either we are small and insignificant or we are aren’t.
Either what quantum mechanics predicts is right or it isn’t.
Ditto for general relativity.
It cannot be both.
We don’t expect reality to ever check “all of the above”.
So, what’s really the problem? Why don’t we just find out the truth about God, matter, our significance, physics and everything else?
In some sense, that’s what we are doing. But in the process, we have to deal with our temporary ignorance. And so, we have to keep our options open. If we don’t know which of two conflicting theories is right, we shouldn’t make up an answer. We should believe both, as long as they are useful.
I used to feel great discomfort from living in multiple different worlds at the same time.
For example, one moment I would judge moral actions from the point of view of utilitarianism. The other, from the point of view of Christianity. Finally, I would despair and decide it’s all relative and there was no point to the question in the first place.
Each of those theories worked for me at different times, but they couldn’t all be right simultaneously. Thus I knew I was believing something false most of the time. That was highly distressing.
Naturally, similar distress was caused by all kinds of other questions and not merely a few select philosophical riddles.
For example, I have long been highly skeptical of many of the self-help articles, books, concepts and ideas.
For instance, let’s take the modern avalanche of claims like money doesn’t matter; positivity is all it takes to succeed; non-stop hard work is how one gets to the top; relationships are the base of success, etc.
Clearly, those are at best an exaggerated and overstated over-simplified truth about life. At worst, they are non-sense.
After all, for every advice such as “to succeed, money doesn’t really matter” there is the opposite advice of “before starting anything new, make sure you have shelter and food on the table”; for every “work hard and hustle non-stop” there is “work smart, outsource and enjoy your life”; for every “positivity is everything” there is “always watch out for the dangers ahead”.
The crucial insight for me was that each advice in a pair could, at least in some sense, justifiably be seen as true. True at different times, for different people, serving different goals. Yet, true nonetheless.
But if there is ultimately just one truth, why the contradictions then? The cynic in me says because contrarian and simple advice sells. But there is also the reality of the limitations inherent to human knowledge, experience and language…
Simply put, we don’t always know all the footnotes an idea might necessitate. And even when do, words might not suffice to express all the nuance and judgement that make up any such knowledge. (Elon Musk might know pretty well when to persevere and when to give up on a project, but that doesn’t mean he can put his wisdom into coherent and non-contradictory words)
Ultimately, as far as I am concerned, the answer is to embrace the contradictions and hone your judgement so you can decide better when to apply one principle and when to apply its opposite.
As I hinted in the lead up above, my main criterion by which I judge beliefs has slowly become “does it work”.
A while back I was introduced to the American pragmatists, a philosophical school that saw truth as intricately linked with utility. Summarized in one sentence, the gist of their thought runs something like: a belief is true only in so far as it works.
The idea almost immediately resonated with me for many reasons.
Firstly, pragmatism makes sense of science. Briefly put, pragmatism allows us to say: induction works so it’s ok if we applied it in science. In other words, there might not be any good reason to suppose regularities in nature, but doing so helps us build rockets and keep people alive for longer, so let’s assume nature is nice and let’s do some science.
Secondly, pragmatism makes sense of contradictions. The more I began to think along pragmatist lines, the freer I felt in applying different philosophies and ways of thinking to my life. I started asking myself: so what if Christianity contradicts with atheism? And I started answering: as long as an idea works, I shouldn’t and I won’t ignore it. Not only that, but I won’t feel guilty doing so either. Following such a process, the combined belief I eventually arrive at might seem contradictory. Yet, it will work and that’s all that ultimately matters.
(As an aside, and an example of why even the smartest of us already do something like pragmatism, consider the following. Many scientifically minded people today reject the notion of free will and yet they still use the notions of agency and responsibility nonetheless. Frankly speaking, the case against free will is strong and there are often times when I am also tempted to reject free will myself. Nonetheless, I don’t feel too naughty for not immediately dropping all seemingly contradictory notions — after all, they are useful too!)
As a consequence, pragmatism makes sense of all kinds of non-sense as long as it’s useful. Stupid self-help sayings might not be the greatest piece of advice, but as far as they go, they are better than nothing. Buddhist koans are also fine if they lead to enlightenment. The Bible is good as long it results in greater wellbeing. Ditto for science.
Thirdly, pragmatism allows me to stay more impartial in heated discussions. I can look at both sides of an argument and see that they both work. Without the insistence that only one side must be right, I can accept both and apply judgement to different situations. In this way, pragmatism is like the ultimate anti-ideology because it is always willing to recognize the potential for utility of the other side, at least in principle.
Finally, pragmatism allowed me to finally escape the annoying problem of skepticism.
Most normal (i.e. not me) people are rarely concerned with whether the world is real. After all, the world seems real enough. Yet, the hidden assumptions here are something I have always been annoyed by.
Before pragmatism, truth was about knowing the world directly, something only possible if one could was certain there was a world out there in the first place. Seeming real enough did not work. The truth was one — either there was a world or there was not.
Ironically, the pragmatist attitude to such questions mirrors the one espoused by normal people. Namely, seeming real enough is fine. There might not be a real world out there. Our senses might be fooling us. We could be in a simulation. Yet, thinking there is a world out there seems to work pretty fine so who really cares if there is a world?!
Pragmatism works. So, pragmatism must be true. (Right? 😉)
The point above is not that pragmatism automatically solves all intellectual problems.
Rather, the point is that, at least for me, pragmatism solved some problems. Moreover, it let me live in peace with the many contradictions that used to formerly distress me.
(And by the way, there are fascinating arguments against pragmatism too. And truth be told, pragmatism can have some pretty counterintuitive consequences besides its many charms. What can I say, philosophy is fun.)
Whatever the ultimate truth might turn out to be, the upshot of the above discussion is simple: sometimes the best we can do is achieve a contradiction. Therefore, we shouldn’t discard one way of thinking about the world (e.g. religion or one particular philosophy) because of another, seemingly contradictory one (e.g. science or an opposite philosophy).
If you are anything like me, adopting a similar pragmatist attitude would help you attain greater inner peace. You no longer have to lose your mind if you hear a contradictory advice and, God forbid, it dares to actually work. And frankly, why would you? After all, the world is complicated and, unsurprisingly, it can be hard to describe in a sentence…
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