I’ve looked at life from both sides now
From up and down, and still somehow
It’s life’s illusions I recall
I really don’t know life at all
— Joni Mitchell
This is a situation we all find ourselves in: we sincerely hold strong moral beliefs on topics about which we are almost completely ignorant. Knowledge about difficult empirical questions has become so utterly irrelevant to whether we feel entitled to our opinions, often we do not even notice our own dramatic ignorance. In lieu of the facts we have not bothered to learn, we go to dazzling lengths to justify our opinions with ideology.
…If we do not bother to acquaint ourselves with the most basic facts, to expose ourselves openly to people with whom we are inclined to disagree, and especially to those who have thought the longest and hardest about these topics, then we are not entitled to any opinion. As J.S. Mill wrote in On Liberty, “He who knows only his own side of the case knows little of that.” For most of us, the only defensible attitude on most issues is perfect agnosticism. The problem is, we have little tolerance for agnosticism.
When the first waves of a newly-invigorated political correctness began cresting a few years ago, I had to endure tiresome kibitzing from one reader in particular who had appointed himself the shepherd responsible for making sure I didn’t wander beyond the ideological boundaries of the left-wing pasture. And while I have certainly learned to understand and appreciate much conservative thought, the primary lesson I took then, and still hold to now, was about recognizing the importance of epistemological agnosticism. Partisan issues and arguments will come and go, but try to interrupt your own self-awarded triumphs to whisper to yourself like a Roman public slave, “Remember, you might be wrong.”
It is certainly a strenuous exercise in humility to admit how little we actually know about any given topic, but the task is made even more difficult by how much our social status depends on our being willing to accept a popular narrative in place of knowledge. Questioning the sociopolitical myths that give our social lives meaning doesn’t deliver just a blow to our egos, something that can be borne privately, but a visible loss of respect from our peers. Skepticism toward fundamental tribal narratives will be about as well-received as oozing sores and coughing up blood. Whatever you’ve got may be catching; best to put you in quarantine. And while we all like to think of ourselves as rational animals with scientific mindsets, we still end up accepting most of our knowledge as provisional, based on such unquantifiable measures as trust — “this may or may not be true, but I don’t have time or energy to do all the necessary research, and I generally trust/distrust the people saying it.” What made my own experience so disorienting was having to admit that I no longer had good reason to trust viewpoints I had blithely accepted for so long. We change our minds on particular facts all the time with no harm to our self-image, but questioning the very basis upon which we determine what is or is not a fact can induce intellectual vertigo.
Still, however humbling it may be, it’s also liberating to no longer feel the pressure to affirm this or that narrative in order to remain in good standing with the in-group. I still wrestle with the difficulty of existing here, in an environment like social media, in which the neverending din of loud, half-baked opinions constitutes the very fabric of reality, rather than retreating into a studious silence, but it’s comforting to remember that Lao-tzu was also made fun of by Po Chu-i for saying “Those who speak do not know; those who know do not speak,” and proceeding to elaborate on that theme for another five thousand words. ♫ Hypocrites like us deserve a little trust along the way…♫