If you are absolutely sure of something, then you are absolutely wrong. I read that declaration in Bertrand Russell when I was a kid and it deflated, like a decrepit tire, many of my cherished certainties. Let me do you a favor and pass on the same disillusionment to you. The chances are: a half-witted lawyer can easily punch six holes in your testimony about the street accident; your boss simply didn’t think your work up to the par, expecting greater diligence from you; there is no reservation in your name in paradise, not even a one-room studio – if the hereafter has a dubious place such as paradise at all.
I have never been able to let go of a phrase I read in Aldous Huxley who spoke of “that infinitely complex and mysterious thing called absolute reality.” What is the reality of the antique chair I am sitting on? Is it simply a construct of wood and fabric? A literate schoolboy today can drive a hole through that view. He will talk of particles and atoms and energy and motion, and leave me hopelessly confounded. Somebody knowledgeable can also tell me that I understand nothing of the chair unless I perceive its complex design. Perhaps a master craftsman of India made the blueprint and a rotund Maharaja modified it to adapt to a royal tradition. Its very history, from the princely warehouse to an auctioneer to my plebean abode in the US, perhaps lends another layer of mystery to this chair. To pretend that I know and understand all about this chair would be pathetically false.
Now Daniel Kahneman, the psychologist who performed the neat trick of winning the Nobel Prize for economics, drives a large truck through our notion of absolute certainty. With a great variety of experiments, Kahneman demonstrates that there is a huge difference between what we experience and what we remember. We think we remember the experience, but in fact we remember only some small parts of that experience that give a partial and misleading recall of the experience. Our mind has a hard time remembering the whole experience, its many details, and it uses a short-cut by remembering mostly two things: something that was striking and something that happened at the end. If you ate and drank in a restaurant for three hours, all you remember is that the waiter was very polite and the dessert he served as his last flourish was excellent. You will judge the entire dining experience superlative because the ‘peak’ and ‘end’ experiences were good, despite the fact that the five-course dinner, including the main dish, was mediocre.
You realize how disastrous can be the effect of the trick your mind habitually plays on your judgment. You think you went to a good college only because in the final year you encountered a kind and helpful professor. The standard of the college was otherwise pathetic. Or you think your father was a great person because in the last year of his life he bequeathed all his assets to you, dispossessing his eldest son. You overlook that he was a petty, peeved man who did great injustice to your elder brother. Perhaps the fact that you were a beneficiary in both cases colors your judgment, but a major factor in either case was the key experience in the final phases.
The fact is that our mind is not an impartial umpire but a tendentious observer. It tricks us into conclusions that are false and misleading – unless we are alert to its treacherous nature and guard against it. A very perceptive friend once told me, “When I say I love my wife, what does it really mean? It certainly does not mean that I love her all the time, always at fever pitch, to the fullest extent. More likely, it means that I adore her 30 percent of the time, I like her 40 percent of the time, I find her reasonably pleasant 20 percent of the time, I regard her tolerable 7 percent of the time and 3 percent of the time I think her quite insufferable. My so-called love for her is not a universal soaring sentiment at all, but the weighted average of all these different feelings that I have for her at different times.”
The fact is that we are not and cannot be sure of many things about which we pretend to a degree of certainty. That pretension is to give ourselves some comfort. We like to believe that we have certainty about our political, religious and social views, which are often half-baked notions we have imbibed from dubious sources. It makes the world a simpler, clearer, more reassuring place.
But, surely, that is a weakling’s craving for mental peace and comfort. The stronger man abandons such pretension and faces the uncertainty of life. Camus said, “I will not bow to ask of a cross the peace to which my weakness beckons me.” Let us hope a few of us will choose truth over comfort.