« Benefits of blogging and bitching | Main | Diving off the dock of fundamentalism »

May 25, 2008


Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

Brian - this is a sincere question :

Wherein lies the problem in being wrong about what we think we know?

Take your dog for a long walk and enjoy.

But Brian,

I wonder why did you need to read this book in order to realize that? Would simply looking over the years around or the internet lead to the same conclusion(s)? We meet and talk to different people and they will all swear on the certainty that comes with their feelings or insights. Right-wing Christians will assure you of one thing; Tao and Tucson of another from their insights; some devotees of some sects will tell you they had (an) unmistakable experience(s) and now they know. But somehow, when you look attentively on their accounts and narratives, after factoring for the fact that they naturally speak through structures and processes of thoughts that naturally lead to distinctions, differences and utmost (self-)deceptions, you are still left with profound contradictions. Thus, their feeling of certainty or knowing, and their preaching about the certainty they possess(sic), is not tantamount to much.

Or, have you not ever experienced before these feeling only to realize later that whatever you felt you knew did not turn out to be quite to be what you thought it was or would be?

Brian: "Because we only know what pops out of the hidden layer into our conscious awareness. We can't know how the incoming data were manipulated by the hidden layer.
Thus those moments of intuitive, mystical, spiritual, unitive insight, where we feel "Ah, so this is what life is all about!" – those moments also are states of knowing that pop out of the hidden layer."

Nothing really new here: Spinoza noticed it 350 years—despite the fact that idea of the unconscious still had to emergence as a (quasi-)scientific paradigm.

"Men are deceived in that they think themselves free, i.e. they think that, of their own free will, they can either do a thing or forbear doing it, an opinion which consists only in this, that they are conscious of their actions and ignorant of the causes by which they are determined. This then, is their idea of freedom—that they do not now any cause of their actions." (The Ethics, 2p35s)

Or does Burton refer to Arthur Koestler (The act of creation) which has also explored some that stuff more than 50 years ago?

Poorbear: What is wrong with thinking that you know that cars cannot hit you on the road? The answer is simple: most likely suffering, dukkha, dis-sease, pain, etc. whatever you call it; for you and others.

Dear Brian,

don't mind my previous comment; after fully waking up and drinking my coffee I realized that my remarks resulted from a too quick and thus superficial reading of your post; they are probably irrelevant for the issues you highlighted.

Dear the elephant,

With some dis-ease, I point out that in the last line of your citation from Spinoza, "now" --> "know."

Clearing up an opportunity for some misinterpretation here might be preferable. I hope you will not follow the example that some egotists commenting to this blog have done, of claiming: I am a sage - I never look back. Such just causes dukkha.

Robert Paul Howard

Dear Robert

Thank you for pointing the typo.

"I hope you will not follow the example that some egotists commenting to this blog have done, of claiming: I am a sage - I never look back. Such just causes dukkha."
I surely hope I would never follow such example! :)

Actually, in a certain stream of the Zen tradition, never looking back is a good sign of delusion, may be "being too certain" of his/her own wisdom ... :). And most likely a sign that the said 'sage' is probably incapable to 'look back', still entirely involved in the imaginational nature of his/her own mind.

Here is what I think is a really nice story from the zen tradition (copied and pasted from a Teisho by John Tarrant (but the story is not his) that illustrates this issue

Hsiang-yen [eventually became] an old Chinese teacher, probably around the Ninth Century of our era… He was an intellectual, intelligent person who studied with Kway-shan (sp?) who was a great teacher of his era. He really couldn't quite grasp what his teacher was saying. He had a conversation with his teacher and his teacher said, "Well, you're very smart but you don't understand life… His teacher said, "I could tell you, but afterwards you would blame me for it."
He gave up … He decided, "I will just live a
simple life and I will go and keep the garden around the tomb and live a life that has some sort of simple reverence and piety,
although I know it's not the real life. I just can't do any better. He did that for years. (I'm not sure how long.) But
for quite some time he was there and just living a very simple life. He had given up trying to walk The Way in the way in he
had originally intended to.
… He was sweeping the garden one day and
a stone flew up from his broom and hit a bamboo and went "tock"…

He composed a poem, and the poem was
“One tock! and I have forgotten all that I knew.”
No artificial discipline was ever needed. (no effort)
In every movement, I uphold the ancient Way
No discipline is ever needed.
In every movement, I uphold the ancient Way.
Wherever I walk, no traces are left,
and my senses are not fettered by rules of conduct.
Everywhere those who have found this truth
declare it to be the best.

So he went along to his teacher, who was pleased, but his teacher had a great student called Yang-shan who said, "Bah! I don't believe this. I'm not sure your experience is real."

So Yang-san pressed him, this newly enlightened person who was so
pleased with what he could see, his enlightenment, and asked him
for something more. Hsiang-yen immediately came out with another
poem, he said
Last year's poverty was not true poverty.
(Last year I thought I was poor, but I was only miserable.)
this year is the real thing.
(I thought I was blind before, but now I am really blind.)
Last year a fine gimlet could find a place;
this year even the gimlet is gone.

Yang-shan was a kind of hard person to please and said, "Well,that's really as good as the buddha, but it's not really as good as zen." He was sort of pushing. He wasn't completely sure that this person was the real thing. Hsiang-yen didn't have a fit or anything, he just gave him another poem and he said,

I have a single potential;
that can be seen in a blink of an eye.
If you still don't understand,
call the newest person in the zendo and ask him about it.

And with this Yang-shan was happy.

from: http://www.boundlesswayzen.org/teishos/tarrantteisho/tarrant-mumonkan5.html

poohbear, you ask "what's the problem in being wrong with what we think we know?" Gosh, what a question. Let me count a few ways...

(1) A doctor makes a snap diagnosis, because it's so obvious the skin problem isn't cancer. Doesn't seek another opinion. Patient dies.

(2) Religious zealots blow other people up because they're sure they know what God wants them to do.

(3) Social problems (climate change, stem cell research, same sex marriage, abortion) aren't addressed in any sort of systematic, rational way because rigid positions are taken, one side or the other (or both) being absolutely convinced of the rightness of their position.

Unwarranted rigidity, "fundamentalism" in a word, creates all sorts of personal, interpersonal, and social problems. Burton starts off his book with:

"Certainty is everywhere. Fundamentalism is in full bloom. Legions of authorities cloaked in total conviction tell us why we should invade country X, ban 'The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn' in schools, or eat stewed tomatoes; how much brain damage is necessary to justify a plea of diminished capacity; the precise moment when a sperm and an egg must be treated as a human being; and why the stock market will eventually revert to historical returns. A public change of mind is national news.

...A stance of absolute certainty that precludes consideration of alternative opinions has always struck me as fundamentally wrong. But such accusations are meaningless without the backing of hard science. So I have set out to provide a scientific basis for challenging our belief in certainty."

It's not being wrong that's the problem. It's believing that you can't be wrong. This is a huge problem that all us are prone to in one way or another, because we're hard wired for it.

We could be at cross purposes.
I don't disagree with your reply, but it's all about other people, whereas my initial comment about not being too fussed about whether we're wrong or right was about the likes of you and me - hopefully people who live and let live.

My comment encompassed notions of things like Big Bang theory or notions of transcendence of time and space. Whatever I think I know about these things - I don't mind if I'm wrong. Nobody gets hurt if I'm wrong. I'm neither certain nor confident about many things, nor do I feel the need to be so. My life unfolds by itself whether I be certain or uncertain. It all feels OK.

poohbear, we're not at cross purposes, because I agree with you -- now that I better understand what you meant in your original comment.

We're just in different minds, different brains, different consciousnesses. The words that come out of your mind go into mine, get manipulated by that "hidden layer" Burton talks about, and out pops an understanding that is mine -- not yours.

Anyway, I like your paean to uncertainty. We were just speaking about this in my Tai Chi class. I brought up the message of "On Being Certain" and related it to Chuang Tzu and Taoism.

Yu...wander. What else can we do? Religions offer up a path. Taoism offers up wandering on the wayless Way. Like you, I'm comfortable with wandering uncertainly, pretty much. Not all the time, but mostly.

You're right: people who recognize their uncertainty and potential wrongness usually do no or little harm. It's those who are convinced they are right who end up doing the most wrong.

Some may find of interest what the following 'philosophers' have to say on the subject of 'knowledge' and knowing.

Socrates’ last words on His death bed (purported in some accounts) have him famously stating: “The ONLY thing I know for certain is that I know nothing.”

Master Lao-tzu says:

“My words are very easy to know, and very easy to practice; but there is no one in the world who is able to know and able to practice them.

There is an originating and all-comprehending ‘principle’ in my words, and an authoritative law for the things which I enforce. It is because they do not know this principle, that men do not know me.

They who know me are few, and I am on that account the more to be prized. It is thus that the sage wears a poor garb of hair cloth, while he carries his signet of jade in his bosom.

To know and yet think we do not know is the highest attainment; not to know and yet think we do know is a disease.

It is simply by being pained at the thought of having this disease that we are preserved from it.

The sage has not the disease.

He knows the pain that would be inseparable from it, and therefore he does not entertain it.”

The Tao-te Ching (Chapter 70 & 71)

elephant says:

"We meet and talk to different people and they will all swear on the certainty that comes with their feelings or insights. ... Christians will assure you of one thing; Tao and Tucson of another from their insights ... and now they know."

-- Somehow you still do not understand my views Elephant. I don't have any such "certainty" or "insights" as you claim that I do, nor do I "swear" on anything. I also don't "assure" anyone of anything, nor do I "know" anything. So please refrain from saying otherwise about me.

elephant also said: "But somehow, when you look attentively on their accounts and narratives ... naturally lead to distinctions, differences and utmost self-deceptions, you are still left with profound contradictions."

-- I have no such "account" or "narrative", no "self-deceptions", and no such "profound contradictions" as you have asserted. I live a rather simple life of presence here and now, and I carry little or no mental, spiriual, or philosophical baggage. So don't keep trying to pigeon-hole me. Thank you.

None of this seems strange to me. I remember for myself, and have seen in others the paralysis of indecision. There have been many times I simply could not think of a next action.

I have also had the experience of complete ambivalence: knowing I am right, and know I am completely wrong. "Ambivalence" means feeling two ways, and that is really important because it is how I feel about what I may or may not know that really drives my actions.

Burton talks about the "feeling of knowing". I would say that you are trying to measure the tone of music with an apple: there is no scientific proof that we have any feelings at all. There is no "hidden layer": this is a convenient fiction that each of us uses to make believe we are experiencig somethings in common. Just read tAo: nothing could be further from the...

Oh! And! Therefore, there are distinctly different kinds of passion.

For some reason that idea thrills me.

Is that a knowing of feeling?

Verify your Comment

Previewing your Comment

This is only a preview. Your comment has not yet been posted.

Your comment could not be posted. Error type:
Your comment has been posted. Post another comment

The letters and numbers you entered did not match the image. Please try again.

As a final step before posting your comment, enter the letters and numbers you see in the image below. This prevents automated programs from posting comments.

Having trouble reading this image? View an alternate.


Post a comment

Your Information

(Name is required. Email address will not be displayed with the comment.)


  • Welcome to the Church of the Churchless. If this is your first visit, click on "About this site--start here" in the Categories section below.
  • HinesSight
    Visit my other weblog, HinesSight, for a broader view of what's happening in the world of your Church unpastor, his wife, and dog.
  • BrianHines.com
    Take a look at my web site, which contains information about a subject of great interest to me: me.
  • Twitter with me
    Join Twitter and follow my tweets about whatever.
  • I Hate Church of the Churchless
    Can't stand this blog? Believe the guy behind it is an idiot? Rant away on our anti-site.