All humans are believers; we all take important parts, if not all, of our worldview on faith. “Not me, I’m rational, I demand evidence for what I believe,” says the Enlightenment Man. But the Enlightenment Man is no exception. He gets his ideas from authorities; historians, scientists or other human beings, such as teachers or various experts.
Even the evidence examined or the records the historian chooses to reference are filtered through the researchers own worldview. Can historians be wrong? Can scientists be wrong? Can other teachers and experts be wrong? Can I be wrong?
We know all of these sources can be wrong, but that admission leaves us feeling awash in a sea of uncertainty and disoriented. We want to be right, dang it! Having briefly stared into the abyss of uncertainty, we turn our back on it and willfully convince ourselves that we do KNOW after all. We simply plan detours around that abyss in the future. In fact, the more frightened we were by the glimpse into the abyss, the more vehemently we insist we DO KNOW. We will attack or maybe even kill those who challenge our assumptions.
Some brave souls who have a high tolerance for uncertainty can bear the admission that they do not know. Some may even begin to laugh at their own silliness in thinking they did know. A few will find the adventure liberating. “O.K. I don’t know, but I insist it is rational to believe things anyway, based on my best understanding of the probability of a thing being right.”
This position makes sense, is honest and opens up the mind to new information. How rare is that? Increasingly rare in times of a high fear factor. The economy crashed, bloody, unjustified wars were fought (and lamely defended as justified after all) then and now conspiracy theories circulate like wildfire. People are frightened and when people are frightened, they naturally crave certainty. They close their minds because open minds are no help when faced with an existential threat. You do not debate the predatory habits of the saber tooth tiger as it rushes across the savannah with its steady gaze…on you.
So are humans just hopelessly cowardly and stupid? Not at all. Human beings are clever, complex and adaptable. Otherwise we relatively small, relatively slow, relatively defenseless (and tasty) creatures would have died out long ago. Some ancestors somewhere opened their minds enough to devise new methods of protection, new lands to migrate to as the Ice Age descended, new ways to stay alive. No doubt they were opposed by the more frightened tribe members who insisted they must do things as they had always been done, that they must change nothing, because what they had always done was KNOWN.
But the world changes, bit by bit as time travels on. It always has and it always will. Those who can admit they don’t know everything, that can be open to new ideas, that can sharpen a stone and mount it on a straight stick to fend off saber-toothed tigers, that can convince the tribe to move to a sheltered cave in a new land before the world freezes over and look around clear-eyed and clear-headed for new resources, for new ways of staying alive-will survive and thrive. The close-minded, those who KNEW things should stay the same as they had always been, froze to death on the savannah and their bones were scavenged by saber-toothed tigers which, unlike the humans, were incapable of imagining a different life-and also became extinct.
We live on, not because we KNOW. We do not know. We live on because we have the ability to imagine; an essential human quality that should be more valued and encouraged.
“Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand.” Albert Einstein