In the film “Awakenings” there is one particularly chilling scene where the young doctor investigating a group of catatonic patients goes to consult with an older expert on these cases. After learning more about the history of the patients in question –– how for over 30 years they had been cut off from the world and locked within their own shells as a result of a disease they had suffered –– the young doctor (Oliver Sachs’ persona, played by Robin Williams) comments somewhat rhetorically, “I wonder what if feels like to be them.”
The older doctor replied with professional confidence, asserting that they had no feelings because, “the disease did not spare any higher cognitive functions.”
“How do you know?” the young doctor asks.
“Because the alternative is too horrible to contemplate.”
As the film goes on it then becomes clear that these patients’ higher cognitive functions really were not entirely destroyed by the disease after all, but the horror of their life was not entirely as the older doctor would have expected either.
How many things do you and I “know” for sure because we find “the alternative too horrible to contemplate”? This is what I would call existential verification: deciding that something is true because it comforts us to think so; it helps us make sense of our existence. It is a far more common phenomenon than any of us really care to admit, and the fundamental question is what do we do about it?
In the film example given above the older doctor was never directly confronted with his error. How might he have related to it if he had? It probably would have made his life very uncomfortable and caused him to wonder what other poor judgment calls he might have made just because of personal cognitive comfort concerns over the years; but it probably would not have crushed him, in that it wouldn’t have called his whole life’s work into question. Contrast that with the case of the poor butler in Kazuo Ishiguro’s tender story, Remains of the Day, where his primary accomplishment in life –– his outstanding service to a Nazi sympathizing English lord –– had the effect of enabling Nazi Germany to continue a policy of appeasement and manipulation in its relations with Britain for some years into the 1930s. Could he admit to himself that his former employer deserved the historical disgrace that fell upon him, and that his own work had made the world a worse place rather than a better one? In the end, no he couldn’t. It is difficult to imagine that many of us could.
Kierkegaard speaks of the purpose of philosophy being to enable us to find a purpose “worth living and dying for.” Daniel Dennett claims that the key to happiness is “finding a cause greater than yourself and dedicating your life to it.” We all do the best we can when it comes to choosing such causes and purposes, but in the end the purpose itself invariably becomes more important to its followers than how rationally certain we can be about our chosen purpose in life.
This is true with regard to ideological issues ranging from political liberation struggles to environmental protection initiatives to education promotion programs to battles against infectious diseases. People become committed to these causes, and many times the world is better for them, but in the process they become unable to tolerate the suggestion that some of the premises on which their cause is based may be mistaken, or that the unintended negative effects of their efforts may be worse than the evils they have set out to fight against. This is tragic really, because good people can thus become locked into patterns of destructive defensive reaction.
Nowhere is this more true than in the area of religious conviction. Religion in general is such an incredibly powerful force in the world because it enables people to follow a particular direction with complete certainty and devotion for generation after generation, regardless of how much evidence there may be as to the error of their ways. It has been said that there is no act so horrible that it cannot be justified by religious means. Yet it is just as accurate a generalization to say that the starting purpose of all of these religious motivations is an effort to harmonize oneself with the ultimate powers of the universe and to find ways to serve a virtuous cause greater than oneself. So how can we preserve the noble goals and ambitions of these happy idealists while at the same time limiting the destructive potential inherent in their existential certainty?
I have no silver bullets for this one, but I do have a few practical suggestions. To start with, we have to remember that not everyone can be saved from themselves. Some people’s existential commitments to their chosen beliefs are more important to them than life itself –– their own or anyone else’s. Whether or not you consider them evil in this regard (and I recommend against it wherever possible), sometimes the best thing to do is to protect yourself and the rest of the world from these ideological fundamentalists by what ever means are at your disposal. Never trust someone who is committed heart and soul, beyond a capacity for reason, to an ideology you don’t share, particularly if it involves destroying those who disagree with it.
That being said, not all zealous ideologues are harmful or dangerous. Almost all of them have some honest reason for believing that they are on the right side and they are doing good, even if they are fundamentally blind and stupid in other respects. Yes, in a different setting they could easily have been Hitler Youth (or Putin’s contemporary equivalent) and they would have done lots of evil things, but for now they’re not generally doing anything worse than talking nonsense. No, they aren’t thinking carefully enough about things, but most people actually don’t. Just because they can’t be trusted doesn’t mean you have to go do something to stomp them out. If you automatically go on the attack against all who don’t share your beliefs, you are really no morally better than they are; probably considerably worse.
Beyond that, you might be surprised by how reasonable some people are capable of being sometimes. Even those who have been thoroughly indoctrinated and even brainwashed to believe whole heartedly in the most extreme dogmas, if you can make them feel emotionally safe without reference to their pet beliefs, and if you can sincerely ask them to explain some of the more inconsistent things about their beliefs –– respectfully, but still being honestly and persistently critical of weak arguments and explanations –– you might be surprised at how much rational thought they are capable of. Even if you know that you won’t be able to talk sense into all those who embrace wild beliefs, don’t go about thinking, “She believes in X, therefore she must be impossible to reason with.”
And above all, avoid being a hypocrite when it comes to accusing others of being closed-minded. No matter how obvious to you the logic and basic premises of your own belief are, if you can’t see how someone else could sincerely disagree with you and still be a good, honest and intelligent person, odds are you are very closed-minded. You need to be able to look at the grounds of your own belief just as critically as you look at the grounds of the next person’s. If you discover that the only reason you believe something is because for one reason or another you are scared not to believe it, it’s probably time to do some re-thinking. That isn’t to say that you have to forsake all of your traditional and provisional beliefs just because not everyone agrees with them; just if you want to be a morally better person than the average Nazi you have to accept the possibility that you are in error and be willing to reason with those who disagree with you without getting upset with them for disagreeing.
It is true that the most enviably happy people in the world are those who are able to promote what they believe in without having to get defensive and without having to feel conflicted about it. Mother Theresa, for instance, was an incredibly happy woman in the sense of being completely satisfied with her place in the world and completely at peace with herself. I believe she was fundamentally wrong about many things, but that didn’t stop her from being a wonderfully happy person who did a lot of good in the world. I would say the same for the Dalai Lama, Mahatma Gandhi, Vaclav Havel and my own mother. All of these exemplary individuals have stood up in defense of their personal beliefs in spite of intense opposition –– deep personal suffering even –– without taking any of that personally. Any of them could be accused of being misguided, and it is a logical impossibility that all of their world views are correct, but anyone who would deny that the world is a better place because of each of these people –– or deny that overall each of them has lived a fundamentally happy and successful life –– is just plain wrong (and I’d be happy to argue out the case for any of them if someone wants to challenge me on one or two of them). Needless to say, I don’t want to take that away from any of them. What I’d ideally like to do is bring an end to the sort of unthinking existential commitment that turns some people into terrorists, “tea partiers,” tyrants or worse. Sometimes the line between these phenomena is not easy to draw.
I’d suggest that besides being rational about choosing what we commit ourselves to and remaining open to the possibilities of our own mistakes (both easier said than done) the best we can do is to prioritize spirituality over certainty. Rather than trying to take comfort in the power of our own ideas, we can take comfort in being able to deeply connect with something beyond ourselves –– our environment and other people in particular. That doesn’t mean that we should forsake our beliefs in the face of social pressure or that we ignore all of the problems we see around us. It means we basically say to our opponents, “I still don’t think you’re right on this one, but there are more important things than proving that I’m right and you’re wrong. There’s life out there for us to appreciate together.”
As a monotheist I believe that there are certain things only God knows, and he ain’t telling. We don’t know what the purpose is behind so many random things that happen. We don’t know how and when this world will end. We don’t know who will ultimately get into heaven. Those who claim to have final answers on these matters are either bluffing or crazy. Meanwhile those who don’t believe in one God out there in charge of the whole ball of wax have even less to be sure of than I do. The point is to learn to live with our uncertainties –– daring to believe that there is purpose in our lives, but also daring to believe we could just be wrong about many of the details, but that’s OK because we’re all part of something bigger than ourselves.
I can see where this might come off as empty platitudes, but I’m afraid that’s the best I can do for now no this one. Like I said, I have no silver bullets here. Even so, I hope this encourages honest self-evaluation and dialogue about how we decide that we know things for sure. So if you have some better ideas on the matter don’t hesitate to share them with me.