“We’d like the answer to life, the universe and everything. We’d really like an answer. Something simple.” Douglas Adams, Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy
I was afflicted with the western quest for certainty most of my life. The quest for certainty is why we quote authorities, spout talking points and print bumper stickers. The very worst place to go to satisfy this quest is to the study of philosophy. Rene Descartes, the father of modern philosophy said, “There is nothing so strange and so unbelievable that it has not been said by one philosopher or another.”
When I became a Christian at age 22, I thought I had found it. It was in the Bible, so I began an intense study of that. The Bible is actually 60 plus books of poetry, prophecy and chronicles, employing every literary device known to man. Much is obviously metaphorical. How much? I don’t know. Where’s the certainty? Maybe the experts knew.
After a sermon by a preacher who, using the same Bible as all other preachers, came to conclusions that differed from previous preachers I had heard, I was confused. I asked my regular pastor about this. Now pastors are human beings subject to the same foibles as any group of human beings. My pastor was an all-right guy.
“Why do preachers sometimes contradict each other?” I asked. “Because we’re sometimes wrong,” he answered. “Sometimes dead wrong, sometimes only partly wrong, but often we are right-or try to be.” Observing my furrowed brow, he said, “Look, it’s the same with anything you hear. Just chew up the cane and spit out the stalks.”
“Chew up the cane and spit out the stalks” is an excellent downhome guide to critical thinking. We grow sugar cane in the south, which looks a little like tall cornstalks in the field. We harvest it, grind it and boil it down to syrup. Kids like to grab a piece of cane and chew on it, because it’s sweet. They bite it, chew it up, swallow the good juice and spit out the stalks.
When a new idea comes along, it is wise to chew it up, keep the good parts and spit out the rest. Don’t reject a new idea outright (being close-minded) and don’t just swallow the whole stalk (being gullible). Chew on it and reject the bad parts.
Philosophy can prove, using logic, that we don’t really know anything. We get whatever we think we know from the testimony of others or from sense experience, both of which can be wrong. Although we don’t really know anything, we choose to believe many things and we base it on probabilities as we see them. This is fine, really, and in fact the only thing we can do lest we become paralyzed by skepticism. “I’m awake. But wait, am I really awake? Maybe I’m dreaming I’m awake…” You get the picture.
Since we choose to believe things based on probabilities and we have been wrong in the past, we should avoid dogmatic pronouncements. The dogmatist doesn’t know either, he’s just whistling in the wind of uncertainty. The more uncertain he is, the louder he whistles.
The day I accepted this, I laughed at my own certainty quest. I don’t know everything! I will never know everything. And that’s all right. I can get closer and closer, though if I
CHEW UP THE CANE AND SPIT OUT THE STALKS.