Foolish, Foolish Me The complexity of what we don't know BY: Troy Murphy |June 2016
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The amazing human mind transformed the world. Human thought produced culture. The social world created by culture has made survival increasingly more complex—products of this fabulous mind. Whether we like complexity or not, it exists. We must compete with other complex being within the rules of established by culture. We should work for equitable change but changes usually are subtle, often unrecognizable, while we wait for the revolution we still must survive. The growing poverty spreading across the streets of large cities sorrows me. The world has a long history of societies divided by the haves and have-nots. In our complexity we still have not solved this divide. We may ignorantly blame it on the person, or conversely disregard personal responsibility all together. No matter where we point the finger of blame the problem still exists and people suffer.
Childhood socialization, fortunate or unfortunate circumstances, choices, and millions of unknown factors combine, creating the circumstances of our lives. Many face the complexity with ineffective tools and undeveloped skills and are unable to effectively navigate the stormy waters of life. We abandon them, blame addiction and turn our heads to protect from their tears.
We commonly attribute success to personal characteristics. We point to grit, patience, wisdom and hard work as the driver of achievement. Beliefs in personal characteristics reinforce self-confidence; we find solace in our ability to conquer. But what motivates the desires pushing us forward? Where does the self-discipline originate that pushes some to succeed but fails in others? Baruch Spinoza suggested we feel free because we know our desires; but that freedom is not absolute; we know nothing about the underlying motivations stimulating the desires.
The factors intensifying desires with enough strength to motivate lie hidden. William Shakespeare aptly stated that “A fool thinks himself to be wise, but a wise man knows himself to be a fool.” Our human understanding supposes a much greater degree of order and self-empowerment than exists. Our mind detects order from ambiguous stimuli where order is absent. When we believe we are personally empowered—the creator of our success, we courageously venture into unknowns. We seek novel solutions to problems. This personal deception of strength creates an evolutionary advantage. We think, we perform and create.
Just because a characteristic provides an evolutionary advantage doesn’t imply infallibility. We often attribute personal actions and order to situations where no such attribution is warranted. We lie to ourselves. I live in a home because I’m wonderful; they live under the bridge because they are terrible. Many judgments cruelly blame the down trodden for their own dire conditions; we point to the missing trait and blame the individual. The unfortunate are despised. But this narrow view disregards the massive impact of unknown factors.
We must approach life with knowledge from two different perspectives. We must continue to create order. We gain wisdom from learning associations between consequence and action. This knowledge drives us forward. But we must also acknowledge we are fools; life is too complex for us to clearly define, making judgments futile and self-serving.
“We can know only that we know nothing. And that is the highest degree of human wisdom.” ― Leo Tolstoy
“I am the wisest man alive, for I know one thing, and that is that I know nothing.”― Plato
Life diverts from our expectations. The unknowns exert influence and the expectations fail to materialize. We feel frustration and disappointment when reality plays outside of our rigid borders of beliefs.
When threatened, we tenaciously seek security from rigidness. Our mind creates protective reasoning that explains away hostile evidence. A quick ad hoc explanation quickly relieves discomfort. Instead of gaining knowledge, we hold to beliefs that foster security.
We will never completely rid ourselves of faulty beliefs. We are meaning-making machines. Meaning creates the order we need to explore. We wouldn’t survive in a random and chaotic world. The power of our mind thrives on meaning, predicting and preparing for the future. Without the complexity of thought, the conscious mind would serve no survival purposes. Many happenings can be ordered, providing meaningful information to direct us toward complex goals. Our ability to plan depends on the ability to make connections between action and consequence; even though these plans rely on incomplete and random data. When we balance plans with willingness to evaluate, reevaluate and update the cognitive maps of how we perceive the world to be, we artfully adapt and make necessary adjustments. The acceptance of personal foolishness truly expresses the depth of true wisdom.