When the color of the sky appears (to me) matte silver, I attribute its unusual character to a rare interaction between my eyes and my brain. Though I have never in those moments asked anyone else to describe the color of the sky to me, I am confident their descriptions would not include matte silver. Tarnished white, perhaps, but not matte silver. Grey, but not matte silver. The enormous differences in perceptions between individuals still surprise me, even though I have witnessed those massive variations all my life. It is possible, of course, that individuals’ rods and cones are responsible for the discrepancies in this particular incidence of visual perception, but I doubt it. Instead, I am relatively sure a person’s state of mind at the moment of seeing is largely responsible. The brain interprets the same visual signals in different ways, depending on circumstances involving other receptors of external stimuli. Anger, sadness, joy, worry, and all the complex threads that weave those emotions and dozens of others together color our perceptions—pardon the pun. I remember, when I was a child, posing questions about color perception to anyone who would listen: “What if the color you and I both call “red” looks different to the two of us? What if my “green” is the way you see “red” and vice versa?” What if, indeed. A child’s expression of wondrous curiosity. The questions usually were dismissed as simple uninformed inquisitiveness. But I still have the same kinds of curiosity I did when I was younger; the questions may have changed, but their impetus has not. I still question the “known” and the “fully understood,” because I believe our knowledge of virtually all aspects of the world in which we live continues to unfold. Knowledge is simply theory that has not yet met a successful challenger. My suspicion about certainty is not new. About four years ago, I wrote:
Once a mind is made up, irrevocably, it becomes unbending and brittle. It becomes subject to irreversible rupture when irrefutable, contrary facts present themselves. When evidence—that an immutable decision was based on fallacy—is impossible to ignore, the mind shatters into shards of sacrosanct debris, scraps of certainty strewn across the mindscape.
I still believe those assertions…but they are subject to change when presented with evidence that suggests my belief is based on faulty information or faulty reliance on broken logic.
Other perceptions and beliefs, outside my interpretation of the measurable physical world, are just as subject to change. When my mental filters are cleaned; or “facts” are refuted or clarified; or when the fractured links in my chains of logic are repaired, my beliefs about the world adapt to the new realities facing me. But I probably am just like so many millions of others who, once committed to “facts” or ideas, refuse to allow certain opinions to bend, much less break into pieces. For example, I am confident my liberal world-view is based on the “correct” interpretation of all the inputs my brain processes. I tend to view information that might challenge that world-view as false, bogus, intentionally misleading, or otherwise “wrong.” Right-leaning people, I suspect, are just as confident their understanding of the world is just as “right.” Neither of us are as willing to question our ideas as we perhaps should be. Yet if both of us would listen to the other, without judging, we might discover slices of information that puts part of our world-views in danger of collapse. But because that would be emotionally catastrophic, we refuse to even listen. We cling to certainty with clenched iron fists. We refuse to consider, even for a second, that our respective world-views might be distorted by lenses that have been tinted or scratched or, in the extreme, cracked.
I want to be open-minded about everything. But is that possible? Do I really want to consider the absurdity that Earth is flat? Apparently not. Certainty is not entirely dangerous. But where is the dividing line? At what point does my liberal world-view cross into uncertainty or even further into doubt? And where do my conservative counterparts discover their own doubts? Neither of us want to entertain the possibility that we could be mistaken in our firm beliefs.
Doubt is not a pleasant condition, but certainty is absurd.
~ Voltaire ~
Today, I will give more thought to my unshakable beliefs; my certainty about matters that cannot be supported by available facts. And perhaps I will open my mind just a little more. Or discover my pride in my open-mindedness is badly misplaced.