Here’s a little essay that’s been perking in my head for a while—I’m still not certain about it. It’s an offshoot of my recent post, “Statements or Questions?,” where I raised the possibility of uncertainty being a good thing. I’ll even suggest it is sometimes superior to certainty, something that’s certain to raise the ire of the certain ones amongst us.
Just to get you really on the defensive, here are the points I’ll address in this ditty:
- Opinions are not facts.
- Beliefs are like opinions.
- Danger resides in thinking your opinions or beliefs are facts.
- Because you don’t think or believe like I do, doesn’t mean either of us is necessarily wrong.
- Certainty in politics and religion may be harmful to your health and the health of others.
Opinions are not facts. Opinions are debatable; facts are not. When you’re asked to complete any sort of survey asking what you think about something, you don’t have to look for or worry about the “right” answer. On the other hand, if you’re asked to provide facts—things like your birthday, your height and weight, where you attended first grade, or the name of your dog—they are not debatable.
Beliefs are like opinions. See above. Psychologists may split hairs on the differences between these two terms, but I’m not a psychologist. In general, opinions are easier to change than beliefs, but still they are not facts.
Danger resides in thinking your opinions or beliefs are facts. There is the possibility that you’re dead wrong. An obvious example is if you believe the world is flat (Thomas Friedman excepted here), you’re wrong. If you think your candidate for office is morally superior to the opposing candidate, I hate to break the news to you that such an idea fails to reach the level of a fact. (I think I know some exceptions to this position, but the possibility remains that I could be wrong.)
Because you don’t think or believe like I do, doesn’t mean either of us is necessarily wrong. One of us may be right, but both of us may be wrong. I chuckled at this item in a list of insults someone sent me, “If I agreed with you, we’d both be wrong.” I haven’t used that insult yet, but it’s tempting sometimes. Political and religious extremism run the risk of being terribly wrong because, by definition, extremism is out of the mainstream of human thought and reasoning.
Certainty in politics and religion may be harmful to your health and the health of others. Here’s where I go way out on a limb, but this wouldn’t be the first time. Political beliefs can be strange, dangerous, and contrary to the public interest. This is especially so when self-interest is the guiding political principle, or when the interests of a particular group override the public good.
Every religion on earth is a minority group. So there’s great risk in thinking and behaving as though any religion but yours is inferior. But religious wars do serve the purpose of limiting over-population—a serious problem for the world and, really, for each of us. This may sound like a flip comment, but it’s factually true. Count up the bodies.
In discussing this post in draft form with some friends in the Writers’ League of Texas, one of them recommended a book I had not heard of by Robert Burton. It’s titled, On Being Certain: Believing You Are Right Even When You’re Not. I’ll get a copy.
I could go on, but you get the idea.