Lesson 6 — Confident Knowing
Our decisions arise from a process involving the
- values we hold dear, the
- internalized information that we call knowledge, and
- information about our immediate situation being supplied at this moment by our senses.
One problem with this process is that each specific item of knowledge seems to have a confidence level assigned to it when it is stored away in memory. It might be something like:
- Grade A information: Absolutely reliable; use confidently in making any sort of decision.
- Grade B information: Likely to be true; okay for general use, but not where your life depends on it.
- Grade C information: It sounds plausible; it might be true, but then again it might not be. Don’t rely on it for anything important.
To make quality decisions we need quality knowledge — we need internalized information that inspires enough confidence to allow its use in all situations.
The situation would be clearer if the English language had four or five words, each of which reflected a different level of confidence in our knowing. Unfortunately, we have only that one word know to apply to all levels, and this tends to mask the underlying reality. Perhaps the A/B/C labels above will help. Labeled or not labeled, however, different confidence levels do exist. To live skillfully we must recognize this, and take steps to acquire information of the highest possible grade.
Several factors influence how confident we are that a statement is true:
- The clarity of the statement.
- The source of the statement.
- How well our previous intellectual learning supports the statement.
- How well our previous first-hand experience supports the statement.
- Whether the statement feels true.
Let’s consider these five, one at a time.
Independent of whether or not a statement actually is true, the clarity of the presentation affects our confidence in its validity. For one thing, we’re not likely to have much confidence in any statement we don’t understand. At the other extreme, exceptionally clear and understandable statements tend to carry with them overtones of validity. We must be careful, however. Clarity is no guarantee of truth, and it is sometimes used to disguise half truths or outright lies. We need to beware of simple assertions concerning complex issues, for example.
The origin of the statement also affects our degree of confidence. As the years go by each of us mentally compiles, and constantly revises, a list of information sources. We assign confidence ratings to those sources. We consider some of them to be reliable, some to be unreliable, and others to have major or minor biases. Some sources are widely respected by many people and appear on many lists — Einstein, for example, although few of us understand his work. For the most part, however, lists differ greatly from each other, and a reliable source on one list is likely to be considered an unreliable source on another. The Pope, for example, would appear on many lists, but confidence in the truth of Papal statements would vary from extremely high in some cases, to extremely low in others.
“Is the statement supported by my own past intellectual learning?” is another important consideration. Over time we acquire a lot of information, and from it we create a set of assumptions about the way things are — a set of beliefs about what is true and not true. If we come across a statement that clashes with this body of already-acquired information, we tend to greet it with skepticism because it conflicts with all this other information that we have come to trust.
How well a statement is supported by our own first-hand experience is perhaps most important of all. Much of our intellectually acquired knowledge is what I call second-hand knowledge. It is word-related knowledge picked up through schooling, reading, the electronic media, and what people have told us. It often ranks no more highly with us than an educated guess or a tentative hypothesis about things. I say this because when decision time comes we don’t have enough confidence in much of this “knowledge” to base important life decisions on it. We give a much higher confidence level to knowledge the we acquire first hand or which is supported by our first-hand knowledge.
One more gauge of confidence is our intuitive feeling about it. Does the statement feel true or doesn’t it? What is our intuitive, gut-level reaction to it? Intuitively-felt truth is high-confidence truth, and we often believe this sort of knowing strongly enough to base major life decisions on it. Our intuitive process takes a lot into account in coming up with these simple true or not true feelings. Still, even a deeply-felt sense of truth is not an infallible sign of it. If the intuitive process has received erroneous data, even this most holistic of mental processes can produce a misplaced feeling of confidence. Perhaps the highest level of trust exists when we encounter a statement that both rings true intellectually and feels true intuitively.
In real life, how does all this play out? What steps can we take to acquire truthful information, information in which we can have a high degree of confidence? One thing we can do is to upgrade the quality of our second-hand information — the information that arrives as words and pictures generated by others. One approach is to go on a personal search for new sources of information. Here we must actively expose ourselves — at least for a while — to much more information in our chosen areas of interest than we normally would. We must seek out and read new magazines and scholarly journals and books until a pattern begins to emerge for us. Certain sources will eventually rise above the rest; these, then, will be the prime candidates for our time and attention in the future.
When we can find no single source that is clearly superior, the best approach is probably to gather and compare information from multiple sources. The task here is to track down information sources — newsletters, magazines, journals, electronic journals on Internet, etc. — that have a variety of biases and slants, and to locate well-edited sources. There are now thousands of tightly-focused newsletters and specialty magazines.
One thing to look for is editorial taste that you have confidence in, and this is likely to mean editorial taste that is similar to your own. Editors are paid to sort through masses of information and to publish the best of it. You don’t have time to do this. But if you happen to find an editor with a mindset that inspires confidence, you have lucked out big time. It is wonderful to discover a publication that seems to be written just for you — to find in issue after issue that the editor’s sense of what to include bears an uncanny congruity with your own.
Direct contact with knowledgeable people can be an important source of reliable information. As mentioned in the Being a Learner Lesson (Lesson 2), computer communication is an excellent way to get in touch with such people in almost any area of concern. The Internet’s thousands of special-interest Usenet News Groups allow you to meet and communicate with others who share your interests.
Attending to the quality of the intellectual information that comes our way is important, but more important still is taking steps to acquire more of our knowledge directly. As I mentioned, we generally reserve our highest level of confidence for knowledge that is at least validated by our own direct experience. Especially where some future course of action depends on confidence in the knowledge we acquire, we need to make its acquisition in as direct and personally-involved a way as possible. Among the techniques we can use are:
- Do it yourself, attentively. Here the idea is to develop understanding by doing the thing itself, by immersing ourselves in what we hope to understand. Where physical activity is involved, the necessity for this seems obvious. It’s clear to everyone that you can’t learn to dance the Highland Fling or become proficient at tennis simply by reading about these things. It’s not quite as obvious with regard to spiritual practices and other personal growth activities, but here, too, reading just tells you what the real work is all about. Direct involvement also applies to selecting a career. Getting a taste of the work itself before spending many years in school could help prevent mismatches between people and livelihood. Could we in some sense pursue this potential career first as a hobby? (We could with electronics, flying, theater, and music, for example.) Or would volunteering to do a stint of related work without pay be possible?
- Go there yourself, attentively. Sometimes the essential knowing requires our presence. We may need to talk with someone personally. Or we may need to immerse ourselves in the atmosphere of a place and let our intuitive process absorb all of that subtle stuff which is beyond words. If I am considering a move to another city I might read a host of books and articles about it, but I probably would not want to move there permanently without visiting it first.
- Use your intuitive process more effectively. Intuition’s resources are immense and its processing is sophisticated, but its outputs are simple, subtle, and easy to miss. This non-verbal, reality-seeking, problem-solving process is always on hand to help us. It seems to take everything into account in its efforts to be helpful. And if we cooperate with it, our intuitive process can lead us to startling insights about our lives and the cosmos, and to creative outpourings well beyond those of our ego-driven intellect. The starting point here is to consciously recognize your intuitive process and to honor it. The cooperation consists primarily of
- a respectful attitude toward it,
- a conscious “listening” for its messages, and
- a quieting of our minds so that its subtle, quiet responses are not drowned out by the busy buzzy activities of the thinking, planning, remembering verbal mind.8
In summary, crafting a satisfying life requires more than simply acquiring a lot of information and making it our own. It also requires that the information we acquire be high grade information, information that inspires confident use in all situations.
8. An excellent book on the subject of intuition is Philip Goldberg’s THE INTUITIVE EDGE: Understanding Intuition and Applying it in Everyday Life, Los Angeles: Jeremy P. Tarcher, 1983.
Professor Alan Nordstrom’s questions and suggestions:
Reflect on one or more items of “second-hand knowledge” you take for granted but have never made the effort to verify. Are you sure that Earth is spherical? Are you sure men landed on the moon? What about the X-Files? (This could get paranoid.) Test your truisms.
Write about something you’ve learned well by doing it or by going there.
What are your experiences with intuition?
Please turn now to your private journal and record your thoughts, feelings, and insights of the moment. What has your reading brought to mind? What are your responses to Professor Nordstrom’s questions and suggestions? Finally, is there anything you would like to share with others? If so, just enter it in the box below and it will soon be turned into a posted comment.
(For other wisdom-related resources, visit THE WISDOM PAGE at www.wisdompage.com.)
Lesson text is based on Copthorne Macdonald’s book Getting a Life, copyright © 1995, 2008 by Copthorne Macdonald. Nordstrom comments and suggestions copyright © 2008 by Alan Nordstrom.