Philosophy and the Dress

The colour of uncertainty

So, what colour was the dress? Unless you live in a cave, you probably saw the striped photo and argued with those around you and scratched your head in bewilderment at how others can’t see what to you is so obvious. Surely colour is something so unambiguous that there can’t be any debate? And yet there was, a lot. It began to dawn on us that maybe what we’re certain that we see, is not so black and white (or gold and blue) as we thought. Maybe, quite simply, things aren’t what they appear to be after all. The internet meme of 2015 made the world doubt its eyes.

the dress

And that’s a good thing. We were all so certain of what we saw, because seeing is the only real truth, right? You can’t really “know” anything unless you’ve seen it first hand, because everything else is based on hearsay and trust. Everyone says that such and such happened. But how do we know this? Because someone trusted someone who trusted someone who trusted someone who was actually there and saw the whole thing. “Knowing” that something happened without having seen it happen requires faith that we are being told the truth, faith in reporters’ integrity, faith in writers’ honour, faith in test results, faith in scientific methods and accurate measurement.

Philosopher Bertrand Russell put it beautifully in “The Problem with Philosophy”:

“Philosophy… removes the somewhat arrogant dogmatism of those who have never travelled to the region of liberating doubt, and it keeps alive our sense of wonder by sowing familiar things in an unfamiliar aspect.”

The region of liberating doubt… Without going into deep abstraction here (although that would be fun), it is worth taking a look at how important it is to realize that certainty is a relative thing. What does it even mean? My online dictionary gives the definition as “firm conviction that something is the case”. Conviction is “a firmly held belief or opinion”. Belief or opinion. Neither of those words claim to know the truth. And yet we associate certainty with the truth. That is wrong. We can believe that what we know is the truth. But we can’t really be sure. What we think we know to be true, may not be.

by Greg Rakozy for Unsplash

by Greg Rakozy for Unsplash

A saying that I’ve often heard, so often that it seems to have lost its attribution, is: “If you’re sure, you’re wrong”. Have you ever felt frustrated in a debate with someone so certain that he or she wouldn’t contemplate another point of view or a fact that didn’t fit? Have you ever felt uncomfortable in the presence of dogmatism? Have you ever wondered how fundamentalists can be so sure that they are correct and everyone else is wrong? I fully support sticking up for your beliefs, arguing for them and taking steps to do what you feel is right. But we need to realize that we are not in possession of facts, just firmly held convictions. Personally, I find that the older I get, the fewer of those I have, but at the same time, the clearer things are.

Bertrand Russell again:

“The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, and wise people so full of doubts.”

Doubts are not the opposite of clarity. Accepting that you have them opens up possibilities and enhances potential. Accepting that you may be wrong puts things into perspective, and highlights the value of having an opinion anyway. If it turns out that you are wrong, it’s easier to forgive yourself if you didn’t expect a perfect score anyway. And it’s easier to accept and understand those who don’t agree with you.

Another of my favourite sayings, which lays bare this complicated world that we live in: “If you think you fully understand something, chances are you don’t have all the information.” The intricacies and nuances of issues both big and small are beautiful. And embracing the complexity of life can leave us in awe at the fact that we’re here at all.

Asking questions is a very human act. But living with questions is uncomfortable. The unknown is dangerous, so it makes sense to pretend it’s not there. But nothing much will get done. Even our prehistoric ancestors knew this. To survive, we need comfort. But to prosper, we need to leave our caves and brave the elements and the dangerous creatures that are out there. We need to see what’s on the other side of that mountain, because it might be better than this side.

We need answers to feel secure. Our need for answers is what has propelled human ingenuity forward, and is what has given us not only virtually all major scientific discoveries but also the methods to find more. Doubt and questions are the motor of progress. And yet as a society we seem to value certainty above all.

Politicians preach certainty. Why do we vote for those who seem the most sure that they’re right, rather than those who are most interested in finding balanced answers? Schools teach certainty. Why do we get graded on correct answers, rather than on our ability to ask the right questions? Parents pretend that certainty is part of being a grown-up. Those of you with kids will recognize the frustration of the incessant “Why?”. In cutting off the annoying stream of questions, we implicitly teach them to stop asking. Just as we were taught.

In this era of dangerous fundamentalism and epochal change, questions are more important than ever. Uncertainty is not paralyzing, it is motivating. It’s uncomfortable, true, and as humans we like comfort. But it only takes a skim of the newspaper, in both the national and international sections, to see where “comfortable” conviction gets us. Anyone will tell you that on a micro, daily, transactional and personal level, knowledge is empowering. But zoom out, and it becomes obvious that questions are more so.

Back to the dress. Why did it impact our media-heavy, visually-oriented western culture so much? For the surprise (what do you mean it’s not gold and white??). For the shock (you gotta be kidding me). For the curiosity (how is this possible?). And for the lasting awe at the complexities of nature. Once we realise that things are not necessarily what they seem, maybe we’ll be less hasty with conclusions. Maybe we’ll keep a more open mind, maybe we’ll realize that truth is very rarely obvious. Maybe we’ll move from accepting the status quo to questioning why things are the way they are. Maybe we’ll learn to ask better questions. And in so doing, take the first step to finding better answers.

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