The Psychology of Belief, The End: The Metaphysical Club

I'm going to end this series and wish you a happy weekend with a quote that has profoundly shaped my faith.

I'm not sure why this quote has so affected me, but I cannot shake it. And, in many ways, it sums up my goals for this series.

The quote comes from the Pulitzer-prize winning book by Louis Menand, THE METAPHYSICAL CLUB: A STORY OF IDEAS IN AMERICA. The book is the story of American pragmatism, the dominant philosophy in America from the Civil War up to about WW II. The book gives short but intertwined biographies of the first American pragmatists: Oliver Wendell Holmes, William James, Charles S. Peirce, and John Dewy. The title "Metaphysical Club" comes from a short time when Holmes, James, and Peirce formed the "Club" to discuss philosophy and other ideas. That would have been a very cool reading group to be in.

Here's the quote. Read it in light of my other posts in this series. It's a quote from the section on Holmes:

"The lesson Holmes [learned] can be put in a sentence. It is that certitude leads to violence. This is a proposition that has an easy application and a difficult one. The easy application is to ideologues, dogmatists, and bullies--people who think that their rightness justifies them in imposing on anyone who does not happen to subscribe to their particular ideology, dogma, or notion of turf. If the conviction of rightness is powerful enough, resistance to it will be met, sooner or later, by force. There are people like this in every sphere of life, and it is natural to feel that the world would be a better place without them...Holmes did have an intense dislike of people who presented themselves as instruments of some higher power. 'I detest a man who knows that he knows'...and he had a knee-jerk suspicion of causes. He regarded them as attempts to compel one group of human beings to conform to some other group's ideas of the good, and he could see no authority for such attempts greater than the other group's certainty that it knew what was best...

Still, Holmes did not think that the world would be better off without people like this, because he thought everyone was like this--and this is the difficult part of his belief about certitude and violence. It is easy to condemn unwarranted certainty in others; we are always confident that people we disagree with would be improved by a little self-doubt. We even remind ourselves, in our better moments, to be skeptical of our own convictions. In the end, though, there just are some things that we are certain about. We have beliefs we cannot help feeling are valid...And when push comes to shove over those beliefs, we are prepared to shove back."

The phrase that has stuck with me and has become a mantra of mine is this: "Skeptical of our own convictions."

This, to me, is key. Everyday I remind myself, "Richard, you could be wrong about that." I cannot communicate just how critical I believe this to be. Can you imagine a world where people were skeptical about their convictions? Such a skepticism isn't intended to throw out strongly held and cherished beliefs. Rather, its goal is to just give us pause, to open us up, ever so slightly, to learning something new. You cannot grow, or learn, or change if you "know you know."

So I encourage you, at critical junctures of life, to revisit your convictions and entertain the possibility that other people might teach you something. That effort, I believe, is one of the greatest ministries you can provide to the people of this earth.

Have a great weekend.

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4 thoughts on “The Psychology of Belief, The End: The Metaphysical Club”

  1. "We have beliefs we cannot help feeling are valid..."

    And we have beliefs that we don't even know that we have. They are subconscious assumptions that define our age. We gotta watch out for them too.

  2. Steve,
    I agree. The people who worry me the most are people who consider themselves objective and unbiased when, in fact, they are not. They have a kind of "self-blindness" that is generally benign (but irritating to outside observers) but such a blindness can, in certain situations, have some negative consequences.

  3. The problem is that there seems to be a sort of reverse collorary of this rule: lack of confidence in what one believes leads to inaction. That is as bad, what's needed is scepticism in moderation! Maybe...

  4. That is a good point. Sometimes I wonder if the faith stance I'm articulating suits cynical intellectuals, people who can sit around all day and point out the flaws in various positions but who rarely get their hands dirty. So there is a need to somehow find a faith position that is epistemically humble AND socially active.

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