Category Archives: worldview

When You’re Certain You’re Right

Is it possible to know you’re right on a controversial subject and not be proud? Are certainty and pride just peas in the same pod?

Is it possible to believe in a position, stance, doctrine, law, worldview, etc., with certainty while also having real empathy and understanding for someone who does not see the same way? If you are certain about a stance on a controversial issue, do you really have the capacity for empathy and understanding of someone who differs?

Is it possible to write a blog post without a sense of certainty?

Are certainty and pride, or certainty and humility, always operating together? Is either pair ever operating together?

If I say I am submitting to the authority of a school of thought, or to the authority of a text, doesn’t my appropriation or my interpretation ultimately reflect back on me, the appropriator, the interpreter?

Does my decision to submit to an authority, of any kind, ultimately become self-referential? (I decided to submit, after all.)

Can I make my way in the world with contingent operating beliefs that are open to correction, clarification, modification, and addition?

If I make my way in the world with contingent operating beliefs, am I certain? Hopeful? Squishy? Humble? Indecisive? Uncommitted? Judicious? Poor in self-esteem?

Maybe just arrogant enough to get through the day?



Functional Ignorance

It’s not what he says that bothers me. It’s that what he says is all he knows. His worldview is informed only by his worldview, and maybe by his worldview’s prefabricated responses to other worldviews, so investigation won’t be necessary. And of course he’s sure he’s right.

Nothing Against Logicians! Promise!

A properly functioning mind can destroy itself. It can think itself, in a logical and rational pattern, into madness. But that’s really more about the motive than the mode. It’s not logic and rationality themselves that are the source of the problem. In that respect, my recent quotation of G.K. Chesterton might have been misleading in regards to my outlook. Chesterton wrote, “The poet only asks to get his head into the heavens. It is the logician who seeks to get the heavens into his head. And it is his head that splits.” But I don’t have anything against logicians! Promise! I have no campaign against logic or rationality. From classical Stoicism to contemporary psychological therapies like logotherapy, cognitive-behavioral therapy, and rational emotive behavior therapy, logical and rational thinking has been a sturdy pattern for healthiness. But logic and rationality also could be used in an unhealthy way. In quoting Chesterton there, my point was to identify a problem that was once explained by an evangelical psychologist, Larry Crabb. “There is an enormous difference between the joy of discovery and the passion to explain,” Crabb wrote. “The former gives life a sense of adventure. The latter makes us hate mystery.” And, I think, as Chesterton suggests, that passion to explain gets exhausting, overwhelming, and eventually, devastating. So his single metaphorical dichotomy provides me inexhaustible help: I’m not trying to get the heavens into my head; I’m just trying to get my head into the heavens. And by heavens, I’m thinking figuratively. I’m thinking about all the questions and all the data and all the good theories and all the history and all the apparent unknowns—better to sit within it all than to insist upon a perfectly systematic account for it all. The former is wonderful; the latter is exhausting. I think someone could simultaneously say discovery in any field is an amazing, exhilarating journey, and logical, rational methods help discovery on its way. Motivation makes the difference.

‘We are symbols and inhabit symbols’

“We are symbols and inhabit symbols; workmen, work, and tools, words and things, birth and death, all are emblems; but we sympathize with the symbols, and being infatuated with the economical use of things, we do not know that they are thoughts.” — Emerson, in “The Poet”

To clarify a little bit, a symbol is fully itself, and it stands for something else.

Marilynne Robinson on ‘the felt life of the mind’ and beauty and strangeness

“Assuming that there is indeed a modern malaise, one contributing factor might be the exclusion of the felt like of the mind from the accounts of reality proposed by the oddly authoritative and deeply influential parascientific literature that has long associated itself with intellectual progress, and the exclusion of felt life from the varieties of thought and art that reflect the influence of these accounts. To some extent even theology has embraced impoverishment, often under the name of secularism, in order to blend more thoroughly into a disheartened cultural landscape. To the great degree that theology has accommodated the parascientific world view, it too has tended to forget the beauty and strangeness of the individual soul, that is, of the world as perceived in the course of a human life, of the mind as it exists in time. But the beauty and strangeness persist just the same. And theology persists, even when it has absorbed as truth theories and interpretations that could reasonably be expected to kill it off. This suggests that its real life is elsewhere, in a place not reached by these doubts and assaults. Subjectivity is the ancient haunt of piety and reverence and long, long thoughts. And the literatures that would dispel such things refuse to acknowledge subjectivity, perhaps because inability has evolved into principle and method.” — Pulitzer Prize winner Marilynne Robinson, in Absence of Mind: The Dispelling of Inwardness from the Modern Myth of the Self (The Terry Lectures Series)

Please also see “The objectives of metaphysics, the objectives of science.”


A single interpretive tool can save you from the work of understanding.

Easily repeatable narratives often become absolute truths.

When an easily repeatable narrative becomes a socially accepted truth, beware and be wary.

— Question it.

If someone claims to know your motives, be suspicious of his motives.

— What might he gain from your agreement?

Inconclusive Conclusions: Living with Montaigne’s Mentality

Appropriate a “worldview” to have an impostor’s point of view.

Or, develop a point of view that allows for the broadest range of possibilities.

I think I’m onto something with the second option.

Creative Nonfiction and Inconclusiveness

In MFA programs, some writers of creative nonfiction attempt to tell personal stories about traumas and crises.

Even the best memoirs can fail to answer fundamental questions about those personal stories.

But I wholeheartedly support those attempts.

“We read to know we’re not alone,” said playwright William Nicholson (who placed those words in C.S. Lewis’s mouth in Shadowlands, a fictitious account of the Narnia creator’s life).

Someone out there needs to hear he or she is not the only one who has been through a particular situation, or even just a particular feeling.

Written works, if not abandoned, have conclusions — but creative nonfiction is not always conclusive. That might seem self-contradictory for a genre of writing identified by its focus on the factual.

But it’s not self-contradictory.

A certain species of written work sets out to pursue the answer to questions, often unanswerable questions, like the question one of my friends pursued in her creative nonfiction thesis for her MFA: why did her grandfather jump to his death? Why did he commit suicide?

An ultimate, conclusive answer is not possible. But the meditation and speculation on the man’s heartbreaking act might just help bring about some emotional closure.

More importantly, the writer needs to wrestle with the emotion and experience that’s haunting her. For the writer, the wrestling and expressing have to happen. She pursues the question by telling her story.

And sometimes, people have to tell their stories again and again and again because they can’t quite make sense of what has happened.

Some of them are not writers, who at least have a creative outlet for their turmoil. That means non-writers tell their stories again and again and again to anyone who will listen. Their social circles tend to shrink. Their need for answers tends to expand.

Montaigne & Friends

A lack of conclusiveness in some nonfiction is hardly a postmodernist head trip or a morally relativistic innovation. The French writer Montaigne, who lived 1533-1592, was the granddaddy of the contemporary essay, and in his native tongue, essai essentially means to try.

Essays, in other words, were born as tries, as written attempts to grasp an issue, topic, emotion, or experience.

As I’ve been reading through Sarah Bakewell’s outstanding biography of Montaigne, and as I’ve been reading Montaigne’s essays in English translation, I’ve noticed an essayist’s mind roams and meanders and circumambulates.

An essay, in the literary tradition of Montaigne, is more like a tour through the layers and associations of the essayist’s mind than a definitive exposition of a given subject. (Alan Lightman deserves credit for this line of thinking; see his intro to Best American Essays 2000.)

The person’s interaction with the subject matter — that’s the point of the essay. Like I told a creative writing class recently, the relationship between the writer and “the subject” is the real subject of the essay.

And sometimes, people just don’t know what to think.

Essays are great places for saying, directly and indirectly, “Well, it seems like… but then, on the other hand…”

The essayist sets out to make a try, an attempt, at understanding something, and the reader ought to be as interested in the person writing about the subject matter as the subject matter itself. (Lightman again.)

Inconsistencies are welcome. Backtracking is cool. Indecisiveness is not par for the course; it is the course. Back-pedaling is to be expected.

That might seem like a horrible mode for the life of one’s mind, but for Montaigne, in a time of political ferment and religious wars among Jesus’s self-identified favorite children, withholding judgment (as Bakewell notes) and weighing all options and even leaving things unresolved seemed less like being squishy and more like being sane.

Kind of like in our time.

Neil Peart put it this way in a song that might have fit some of Montaigne’s moods: “Everyone knows everything / And no one’s ever wrong / Until later.”

Look—making oneself the sole authority is much, much different from insisting that others take responsibility for the violent results of their opinions and their allegiances. Accusations of individualistic rationalism and solipsism originate from the person covering-up a multitude of sins.

Arranging the Facts for Someone Else’s Conclusiveness

Sometimes the best thing a person can do, as Soren Kierkegaard once said (not in Concluding Unscientific Postscript, but if memory serves, in either Judge for Yourself or For Self-Examination), is to arrange the facts and leave the room so another person may arrive at his own conclusion. The arrangement might be motivated by an agenda. But to merely arrange the facts and leave—that might look inconclusive, and it might be inconclusive.

That probably doesn’t matter. In such a mode, the essayist’s righteousness is probably not the issue. The essayist seems to be operating in a self-deprecating mode: Sure, I’m a clown, but I’m dancing around this issue because it seems kind of important.

Of course, the inconclusive essayist—or dilettante blogger (guilty!)—risks as much by being inconclusive as he does by being confessional.

The better part of anyone’s social life depends upon agreement, unity, and mutuality. That seems both normal and tribal. But if the essayist wants to state an honest appreciation for a not-so-socially-acceptable perspective, the social circle might be less than accommodating to a departure from received doctrine.

So what? The essayist will just have to decide what’s more important—pursuing that uncertainty, that question, in a public fashion, or maintaining social respectability within the given framework.

I suspect no one would have appreciated such trade-offs quite like Montaigne.