In my last post, I mentioned that it’s important to have faith. What sort of faith was I talking about? I probably should explain.
There’s a lot of different ways I use the word “faith”. The word has negative connotations these days due to its use by religious fanatics. They use it to mean a blind commitment to things even when there’s no evidence or reasons to believe in those things. That sort of faith is bad and it’s not what I mean. I’m moreso thinking of a faith in yourself, a faith in others, and a certain type of confidence in the world.
I got to thinking about all of this as I was watching the video below on Youtube. In it, Bertrand Russell explains what a philosopher is. He points out that there’s many important questions which interest, and should interest mankind, but many are not yet amenable to scientific methods and inquiry.
To Bertrand Russell as well as myself, philosophy is informed speculation about matters which science hasn’t yet figured out. Ideally, you go to the cutting edge of what’s known, study and become aware of all the facts, and then do your best to formulate questions which may or may not be answerable at the present time.
For example, the Greeks speculated that the world may be made of atoms. They had no way of confirming this, but they went ahead and thought about the problem anyway. Nowadays we have the means to confirm that the world is indeed made of atoms, but back then it was all speculation. It’s important to speculate like that. We must form questions, search for answers, and think, “If this is true, what would that mean?” You clarify the question and think of ways in which it might be tested and confirmed.
I often speculate about consciousness and its relationship to the brain. There are many confirmed facts which we know from neuroscience, but there are also many other questions which we don’t even know how to approach at present. I’m willing to step out, speculate, and try to clarify the questions even if I have no idea how they might be answered.
I also like to speculate about the nature of space and time. There are many areas of physics, especially cosmology, at the cutting edge which introduce mathematical theories to explain the universe but are not yet able to be confirmed. For example, we may not be able to build particle accelerators with high enough energies to actually test the theories we’re working on, but it’s still important to think about and explore these areas.
It’s important to have faith that other people, and even animals, are conscious. It’s possible to believe that all other people around you are just automatons, zombies, just mindless machines with no inner subjective feelings of pain, joy, or other emotions. There’s no way of knowing whether other people are conscious or not, but you become a rather nasty, self-centered person when you think everything revolves you and you only. Morality and a civil society involves empathy, love, and concern for one another. But if everyone around you is just a machine, similar to NPCs in a video game, then what does it matter what you do to them, say to them, or think of them?
Russell makes a very important point in this video. It’s important to have vigor and passion for things, even if there’s no way to obtain absolute certainty in anything. This isn’t the same dogmatic vigor of a religious fundamentalist. It’s quite different. You have to passionately pursue things even when you’re filled with doubt and uncertainty. It requires courage because you’re not certain what the result will be. This is best illustrated with examples.
Take love and relationships. It’s important to love people. To love others requires faith and trust in them. If you’ve been hurt in past relationships, you can’t let that stop you from trying again. That doesn’t mean you give up everything that you’ve learned from past experiences, but you’ll never know for sure how well things are going to turn out in the future. There’s always uncertainty. You have to be willing to get out there and do it again.
If possible, a person should be passionate about their work, even if you’re uncertain how things may turn out in the end. With someone like me, there’s always a worry that your scientific research may end up being used in weapon systems. For example, your research in genetics could end up being used to further bio-weapons. That sort of thing happens. But just because there’s a possibility the technology may be used in the wrong way, should all scientists quit their work and research, halting human progress?
Maybe you’re working on artificial intelligence and worry that the military is going to use it to create terminator robots which will eventually wipe out humanity. Do we stop working on making smart phones and other forms of artificial intelligence? You have to have faith that people will do the right thing with the technology.
Too much doubt will paralyze you. You may lack confidence in yourself, or as is just as often the case, other people. Don’t let cynicism cripple and enslave you. It will leave you in a cage that you were never meant to live in. Fear starts getting inside, and before you know it your life is boring and empty.
Faith doesn’t know the answer. You don’t know how you’ll get there but you just somehow, deep down, believe that you’re going to find a way to make it. It’s not a straight-line process. There’s lots of dead-ends, failures, and wrong-headed approaches, but you keep at it.
A lack of faith is to try something a few times, fail, and then just throw your hands in the air and make excuses, complain, and give up. Once that inner spark goes out, that inner belief that the world has new things for you, that confidence that you can achieve something new, once that flame goes out in you, you’re dead inside. The world around you will slowly rot, and unless you get up and move, you’ll die with it.
That’s my main complaint against our school system. Kids get this idea that they have to do everything right the first time. All homework and test grades are based on doing everything correctly on the first go. There is no re-takes, re-dos, and everything is recorded on a permanent transcript. It’s a TERRIBLE thing to do to people. It makes them afraid to deviate from the established path or try anything on their own. And since they never gain any experience going through this process, they live their whole life thinking they have to do everything right on the first go. You don’t. That’s not how it works. It’s perfectly normal to feel lost, to feel in over your head, and to have no idea what you’re doing. That’s part of any creative process.
If you study the history of all scientific advances, there were people going in every which direction, trying all sorts of things, and then finally someone stumbles onto the right path. They share their research, and then people start this process anew.
That’s why it’s important to have faith when it comes to knowledge as well. You can never be completely certain if you’re right or wrong, but don’t let that stop you from sharing what you’ve learned. If you have a blog, write about things which are on your mind. You’re sure to write some very stupid posts, but the only people who are going to judge you are those who have never went through any sort of creative learning process of their own. By necessity, any time you think about something which is new to you, you’re going to have lots of wrong ideas. You’ll be confused and wrong about many things. However, writing your ideas down either on paper or on the computer screen will clarify your thoughts and leave a record of your development. That will also help you teach other people in the future.
Many of us also come from varied backgrounds. I came from a very religious household and I have had to spend a lot of time sifting through what I do and do not believe in anymore. In the past, I was always too busy working to think much about it all. But as I had more free time to read books and just think about it all, I’ve changed a lot. You’re sure to change as well.
Growing older, you learn a lot of things. You come to learn that you don’t know as much as you once thought you knew and that knowledge is difficult to obtain. Wiser people tend to lose confidence over time because they realize the complexity of all the issues. Black and white thinking tends to turn gray and very few people are motivated to get on the soap box and preach beliefs they are not entirely certain about themselves. The problem is that stupid people lack this subtle understanding of the issues. Combine a badly informed person with a lot of confidence and you have a disaster. Just turn on your television or listen to talk radio. You may not be 100% certain that you’re right about different political issues, or scientific questions, or the nature of reality, but chances are that if you’ve read books and looked into the issues, you’re way more informed than most people who get their information from hate spewing political pundits, propagandists, and other ilk. It’s important to share what you think. I don’t recommend talking about issues you’ve never thought about or studied, but if you’re halfway informed, go out there and discuss the issue with people. Share your ideas and remember that “success” picture I shared earlier. Look at that squiggly line. That’s how your ideas develop as well.
There’s a balance in everything. Avoid extremes. Don’t be dogmatic and close-minded, but on the other hand, don’t be so full of doubt that you’re completely paralyzed and never do anything. To some extent, you have to always venture out into the unknown, into a world you’re uncomfortable with. That’s when you’re making progress and growing. That’s the sort of faith I’m talking about.