Certainty and Misinformation.
This post presents a philosophical idea inspired by the text of today’s Daf. The Daf is one page in the Talmud that tens of thousands of people study each day. I explain the connection to the text in a comment below. My purpose is to show that there are underlying philosophical assumptions in the Talmud that can have great significance for anybody today trying to understand our complex reality.
We know very little about what’s really going on. In our quest for the truth, we rely on newspapers, TV, the internet, and books, but no single source can be trusted. Errors, simplifications, bias, and misinformation are everywhere.
We live in a vast, even global, society. The decisions and events that affect us also impact billions of others. These numbers are too large for the time-honored method of seeking facts by asking someone who was present. We don’t know any of the people involved well enough to trust everything they say, or the people close to them. Even if we do know someone involved, they may not have the complete picture and will interpret what they see according to their own beliefs.
Even when speakers have access to true facts, they often choose to hide some and promote others. Ideology frequently allows people to distort the truth.
However, all hope is not lost. There are tools available to discern some truth. We understand how people generally behave. We know the workings of the human mind, what is likely or unlikely, and what could lead people to lie. Our past experiences provide valuable insights into whom we can trust and who peddles nonsense. We can infer the truth by employing logic and drawing from our experiences.
The problem is that none of these methods can offer certainty; inferences are always uncertain. The human mind craves certainty, and we are not naturally inclined to doubt our positions. We cling to the notion that we still live in a time when we could rely on knowledge acquired through direct contact.
We fear the paralysis that could result from uncertainty and doubt. If we are unsure or if our data is potentially flawed, how can we move forward, make decisions, and implement our visions for the future?
Nevertheless, we are expected to make decisions. In societies other than the darkest authoritarian regimes, we are called upon to take action, make decisions, and support a chosen path. How can we do this if misinformation paralyzes us?
The answer lies in recognizing that inaction is often as bad as making poor choices. Our past experiences and logical inferences are better than nothing. We have no alternative but to make decisions, even if it means deciding not to take action. We must follow the path that seems most reasonable, but also remain aware that we might be incorrect. We must remember that we are navigating through a haze of disinformation, and that our understanding will be an imperfect simplification, at best. Despite our good intentions, our actions may inadvertently lead to harm.
Moving forward with uncertainty is challenging. If we project doubt to others, who will believe us or cooperate with our vision? Therefore, we may project a sense of certainty, but the danger is that we may eventually start believing it ourselves. Speaking as if we are certain has a profound impact on us, the speaker, and we soon forget that we do not possess all the facts.
As we forget our own ignorance and become convinced that the path we have chosen is the only plausible one, we feel anger towards those who disagree, challenge our facts, and propose an alternative path.
Therefore, we should never forget that we were forced to select one option among many for moving forward. When encountering those who chose differently, we should try to remember that they might be right. We can remain loyal to our choices without belittling those who disagree with us.
Never stop doing but never stop doubting.