Openness of Thought—Doubting Conviction

Words: Creative and Limiting

Recently I was discussing with a friend my failed aspirations to be a writer. I have a complex relationship with words. On the one hand they are an art form capable of extending, composing, and in some sense creating the world of our perceptions. On the other hand, they often tend to confine, reduce, limit, and damn us to live within a tinny parody of our fullest experience.

In sharing some of my past writing I came across this old exercise which surprised me for having voiced exactly this concern.

Exercise: Write as if God can only hear you if you're writing

Can you hear me now as I revert to word?

Why is it only in the intentionality of words

Made explicit, visible, naked in their black and whiteness,

When all shades of hope are rendered in striking contrast

When doubt is pared away with commas and end stops,

When all the pallid, wobbling fat of honest uncertainty

Is cut off, and the muscle sharpened like a blade of contemptuous

Certainty and conviction, all artificial in its exactness and precision,

Why is it only then that you can hear me?

When we “compose our thoughts” we sift through the raw material of our thoughts and feelings and shape them in an attempt to focus them into a form that is easier to convey and understand. And all too often, once we have finished this process and produced a few statements about something, our sense of perception changes to back this limited meaning as if it were complete and essential. It becomes a part of our personal canon of being. But what if when we filtered through that raw material we weren’t quite capable in that moment of being completely honest with ourselves? What if we filtered based on convention, or fear, or some real need for our words to be acceptable to our audience, even if in the sense of an acceptable argument against their own perspectives?

Unstable Conviction

For he that wavereth is like a wave of the sea driven with the wind and tossed…. A double minded man is unstable in all his ways.

—Epistle of James

I used to flog myself with this thought. We are taught and constantly encouraged to be absolute in our convictions. But what if these convictions are formed out of an experience of fear or subjugation or compulsion? What if doubt and uncertainty are our most honest offerings?

I seem, then, in just this little thing to be wiser than this man at any rate, that what I do not know I do not think I know either.”

—Plato’s Socrates, from Apology of Socrates.

Learning Means Questioning

How is it that he doesn’t understand… that the accumulation of a great quantity of senselessness in a notebook1 will never arrive at any sense, that facts don’t exist until a man puts something of his own into them, some share of whimsical human genius, something of the fantastic.

—Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak

When learning something new, there’s often a lot of rote memorization. I’m getting back into learning the game of Go (Baduk in Korea, or Weiqi in China). Similar to Chess’ voluminous documentation of openings, Go has what are called “joseki” which are a set of standard moves, the outcome of which are said to give both opponents more or less equal benefit. A lot of people begin learning these josekis through rote memorization without learning why these moves are the preferred moves, and so there is a long held axiom about them: “learn joseki, lose two stones”, which means that those who set out to learn joseki actually play weaker than they did without them. And yet every professional Go player will have an extensive vocabulary of josekis, and this is because they understand the moves. They understand the implications of the final positions, how the moves relate to overall board strategy, their strengths, and, more importantly their weaknesses—what other potential benefits they give up in trade for the final position.

How does one begin to understand such things? By more memorization? Hardly. Because there is a distinct difference between obtaining knowledge and developing understanding. We learn what works, what is true, by questioning, by pushing against what we know with what we wonder, suspect, doubt. It’s important that our questioning or our doubting be as authentic and honest as we can make it, but what other way is there to progress? If your entire life’s understandings are compiled from other authorities, we become merely anthologists, collecting a great quantity of other people’s understandings. What relationship do we have with truth until we’ve participated in it, conversed with it, been pushed and pushed back on it and allowed it to push back again on us?

If we are merely recipients and not engaged in understanding, we’ll lose more than two stones, we’ll have wasted a life to passive consumption, living only as consumers of whittled down and composed statements passing as wisdom.

  1. Zhivago is writing of a journalist’s notebook, filled with facts without interpretation. [return]