Doubt Yourself (Week 3 of Wisdom)- Unearned Wisdom

The comedian Tim Minchin said, in a somber graduation speech, “opinions are like assholes, everyone has one. But unlike assholes, they should be constantly and meticulously examined.”

There is a certain amount of conceit necessary in life. If you are too humble, too self-aware, then you will play it too safe. But the opposite is even more dangerous. When you are oblivious to your own errors, then you find yourself fighting battles that were never yours to fight. It’s easy to see how this happens today. In politics, we see the polarization of opinions, between the “left” and the “right.” And magically, each party succeeds in pulling sympathizers to their cause, by promoting slogans and idealisms that represent their value systems and will lead to their collectively shared visions of the future.

But these sympathizers have no idea why they are rooting for one side or another. It is often out of self-interest, but it is sometimes an arbitrary by-product of something they had no control of. This may be their temperament or upbringing or value-system. They act as if they own these beliefs, or that specific political candidate speaks to them personally, but really, these are only illusions.

No matter how you think about it, ardently defending your political beliefs to others is a ridiculous thing to do. If you think that you are arguing for the truth, then you must be conceited enough to think that you are in possession of the truth, which is unlikely given how amazingly ignorant each person is about the world.

Consider how much information exists that is relevant to the subject, and consider how little you know. And consider that some people know more than you do, and others know more than they do. Now, imagine that you were watching an online debate between two people about economic policy: someone who knew 40 percent more than you did and someone who knew 175 percent more than you did. They argued about who was right between Sanders and Biden, on how to manage the economy.

It so happen that you have the same opinion as the guy who has 175 percent more information than you do. Now, you are now more confident in your opinion, because as you listen them argue (perhaps on Twitter), you are emboldened into believing that you are perhaps wiser than you think.

The more knowledgeable guy has so many facts that he was able to overwhelm the other guy with, it wasn’t even a contest. Perhaps now you even feel silly for watching the debate in the first place — you should have been secure enough in your own opinion all along.

Now imagine, that a few days later, you log into Twitter, and you see another debate unfold, but this time, the guy who knew 175 percent more information than you do about economics debated someone who knew 1400 percent more information than you do about economics. This time, you felt like an idiot, because none of the arguments you believed stood the test of real scrutiny. And there were so many facts that you hadn’t considered.

The point of this example is to show that something like this could constantly happen to you. And if it could only happen a handful of times, that should be enough to convince you to never be too sure about what you believe in. If people who know more than you and are smarter than you disagree about fundamental ideas, then it is very likely that you are nowhere near knowing how ignorant you are about topic.

It is hard for most people to admit this to themselves because of pride. But once you let go of pride, it becomes much easier to accept your ignorance, and to see the futility of being attached to political positions.

If you are arguing out of self-interest, then consider the futility of what you are trying to accomplish. You are simply engaged in a fruitless pursuit whereby you are trying to convert someone else towards a belief system or ideology that serves your personal interest (and they are probably doing the same).

The point is not to avoid arguments. There is nothing wrong with sharing your opinion, and learning from the other person. But doing so with unshakable confidence is dishonest, and doing so with the intent of converting them to your worldview is silly.

If you wanted to argue, what ensues are endless hours wasted in spats between people who each claim to be morally superior to the other. Not only is this a waste of time, it is absurd.

When you believe in an idea so strongly, then you must be suspicious of yourself, it is probably serving as a kind of defense mechanism. And if you think you know the truth, while others are missing it, then you are arrogant and unrealistic. Finally, if you thought that someone else knows the truth, some leader or political candidate, and you trusted them, then you are like a child, and not in a good way.

We are all like children who first repeat the unquestionable “truth” told to us by our grandmothers, then the “truth” told to us by our teachers, and then, when we become older, the “truth” told to us by prominent people.

-Ralph Waldo Emerson

We are left with only one way forward that is the least embarrassing, and this is to constantly re-examine the way you think about the world. It is only by being skeptical towards yourself that you can have conversations with others where you are not simply waiting for their turn to speak.

But this is hard to do, because we have a strong ego. Admitting our own ignorance is a death blow to the ego, and most of us are too weak to allow that to happen.

Originally published at on March 31, 2020.