When you’re absolutely sure, remember you’ve been sure before

Marcus Aurelius - I will happily change

I couldn’t stand Professor Bauman. I took a philosophy class from him where he constantly picked holes in his students deepest convictions and forced them to ask really difficult questions. I got his point–he wanted us to think carefully with open minds–but whenever one of us would ask him, “What do YOU believe?” he would refuse to tell. I couldn’t have been more sure that he was a bad person for teaching that way: Nobody should lead people to question themselves and then refuse to help them reaffirm their beliefs in the truth–or at least what I saw as the truth.

Now my mind has changed completely. I think Professor Bauman and another similar professor I also disliked for the same reason were two of the most valuable teachers I ever had. I got out into the real world where I was confronted every day by fiercely differing viewpoints, all with their own strengths and weaknesses. I realized then that the unquestioning certainty and the relative lack of questioning that kids like me grew up with, was the worst possible preparation for dealing with life as an adult. Now I’m embarrassed that I was so vocally opposed to his teaching.

Who knows? Someday I could change my mind about this again.

The other day my brother-in-law sent me something I wrote as an over-confident teenager vehemently arguing for a viewpoint I no longer hold–he texted: “9 years is a long time.” It was equally hilarious and cringeworthy.

 

I’m not the only one who has done a complete 180 on big life things. In fact, a lot of people change their minds again and again and again.

Antony Flew was a champion of atheism who drastically changed his mind at the end of his life and wrote a book arguing for the existence of a god. Dan Barker was a Christian preacher for a long time but is now an atheist activist.

Almost 200 years ago, John Stuart Mill, one of the most influential philosophers and political economist in the 1800s, changed his mind completely about his core economic beliefs. According to his autobiography, his reading of romantic poets caused him to question the commitment to classical economics he had held since childhood, eventually leading him to a much more liberal viewpoint.

 

Here’s the thing. I was ABSOLUTELY SURE. So were Flew and Barker and John Stuart Mill.

What’s something that you used to be absolutely sure of that you no longer believe? I know there’s something.

 

I think it can do wonders for your life and relationships to remind yourself regularly that you used to be absolutely certain of things you no longer believe. That you’ve completely changed your mind about something you never used to question. That you now believe or do something you used to call “crazy” when you saw it in others.

When we forget that we have so drastically changed our minds before, we don’t consider that we might drastically change them again.

And when we are so certain there’s not a chance we’re wrong, we don’t easily learn, we frustrate people we talk to, and we miss out on the wisdom we could find in others whose different experiences have led them to see things we don’t see.

If I always talk to you as if I absolutely know that I am right and you are dead wrong, someday I’m going to have to eat my own words.

The more sure I am that I’m right about something, the more carefully I need to remember that I may someday realize I am wrong.

William Shakespeare - Fool thinks he is wise


P.S. If you’re nerdy like me and like reading, check out this little gem from John Locke, an influential thinker from the 17th century–talking about being respectful in argument, honestly admitting uncertainty and allowing for uncertainty in others:

[After pointing out that we must often act upon probabilities that fall short of certainty, he says that the right use of this consideration] “is mutual charity and forbearance. Since therefore it is unavoidable to the greatest part of men, if not all, to have several opinions without certain and indubitable proofs of their truth, and it carries too great an imputation of ignorance, lightness, or folly, for men to quit and renounce their former tenants presently upon the offer of an argument which they cannot immediately answer and show the insufficiency of. It would, methinks, become all men to maintain peace and the common offices of humanity and friendship in the diversity of opinions, since we cannot reasonably expect that anyone should readily and obsequiously quit their own opinion and embrace ours with a blind resignation to an authority which the understanding of man acknowledges not. For, however it may often mistake, it can own no other guide but reason, nor blindly submit to the will and dictates of another. If he you would bring over to your sentiments be one that examines before he assents, you must give him leave at his leisure to go over the account again and, recalling what is out of his mind, examine the particulars to see on which side the advantage lies. And if he will not think over arguments of weight enough to engage him anew in so much pains, it is but what we do often ourselves in the like case, and we should take it amiss if others should prescribe to us what points we should study. And if he be one who wishes to take his opinions upon trust, how can we imagine that he should renounce those tenants which time and custom have so settled in his mind that he thinks them self-evident and of an unquestionable certainty, or which he takes to be impressions he has received from God himself, or from men sent by him. How can we expect, I say, that opinions thus settled should be given up to the arguments or authority of a stranger or adversary, especially if there be any suspicion of interest or design, as there never fails to be where men find themselves ill-treated? We should do well to commiserate our mutual ignorance and endeavor to remove it in all the gentle and fair ways of information, and not instantly treat others ill as obstinate and perverse, because they will not renounce their own and receive our opinions, or at least those we would force upon them, when it is more than probable that we are no less obstinate in not embracing some of theirs. For where is the man that has incontestable evidence of the truth of all that he holds? Or of the falsehood of all he condemns? Or can say that he has examined to the bottom all his own or other men’s opinions? The necessity of believing without knowledge, nay, often upon very slight grounds in this fleeting stage of action and blindness we are in, should make us more busy and careful to inform ourselves than to restrain others. There is reason to think that if men were better instructed themselves, they would be less imposing on others.” (Quote taken from Bertrand Russell’s A History of Western Philosophy)

Author: Peter Elbridge

I am a lifelong learner and avid reader, which translates into doing smart work for myself, my team, and my clients. I have a passion for effective leadership and an even bigger passion for helping others do and feel better. I have a lot of experience in communication, public speaking, and writing. Above all, I have a deep and genuine care for every life I touch. That's why I write. (My opinions and endorsements are my own and do not represent my employer.)

One thought on “When you’re absolutely sure, remember you’ve been sure before”

  1. That’s a great quote from Locke, who was indeed a great thinker. Have you read Jeremy Waldron’s GOD, LOCKE, AND EQUALITY. It’s fascinating and presents Locke in a light quite different from that in which most philosophers saw him–at least until in the 1980s Richard Ashcraft’s REVOLUTIONARY POLITICS AND LOCKE’S TWO TREATISES OF GOVERNMENT showed him in his real historical setting to be someone quite other than the armchair philosopher most had taken him to be.

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