Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Questioning Certainty


Now, there’s one thing I’m not that certain about – and that’s certainty. I’m not certain about certainty, in other words I’m not too certain if certainty about anything is a good thing in itself. I came across a site just a minute ago called “Answers to Difficult Questions” when I googled the word “questions.” You’ve probably already guessed that this is a fundamentalist Biblical site. They have got all the answers and their mission is to share them with anyone who will listen.

I’m always more than a little sceptical of any man or woman who believes that they have all the answers, or even most of the answers. Why? Well, it would seem to be that they have somehow stopped questioning. Call to mind any of your acquaintances who might be all too ready to offer advice or to proffer the ideal solution to any problem and what type of person comes before your mind’s eye? A person settled in their positions perhaps? A person of more rigid views? A person who is somewhat closed? Or again what is commonly termed a “know all.” Such persons, even if likeable in other ways, do tend to annoy us. Instinctively we’re not too sure of such bold certainty. Instinctively we feel that the world is more complex than they paint it.

I remember reading once that those clients or patients who come to therapy with all the answers are those least likely to make any progress in solving their problems. I think I learned this piece of interesting information in Dr Eugene Gendlin’s wonderful book called Focusing which is a form of therapy which is extremely holistic, and is based on a theory/practice that the body knows best. This does not surprise us, because the client who has not got all the answers is open to learning, open to new experiences; open to new ways of doing things; open to complementary or supplementary therapies rather than narrow alternative ones. This type of person rules nothing in or out, but is open to all that is healing. Hence for many reasons I’m not too certain about the value of being certain about anything!

I have always been a follower of the wonderful Socrates and his Socratic method. Socrates’ starting point was always that of the admission of his own ignorance. As a young student of philosophy many years ago in a college called Mater Dei I was enthralled by this honest, pure and unbiased starting point. How could one possibly get a more authentic starting point for any debate? When Socrates returned to Athens from his military service at Potidiae, one of the first things he did was to enquire into what had been happening in philosophy while he had been away. According to Plato’s Apology, when Socrates returned from this battle at the age of thirty-five (in 435 bce) the Delphic Oracle, questioned by Chaerephon, pronounced him the wisest of men. Socrates himself professed to find the pronouncement ironic, indicating that the wisest of men were those who, like himself, professed to know nothing. This is what brought the contemporary wonderful teacher and writer A. C. Grayling to the study of this subject – Socrates’ persistence in asking questions, simply questions and hard questions, pertinent and even impertinent ones. Grayling sees this process of questioning as one of the most importance aspects of the philosophical quest or indeed method! Indeed, perhaps philosophy is more a method or a way of thinking than a subject with subject matter in itself!

Though our sources may exaggerate, Socrates was notoriously ugly, with a pot belly, pug nose, pop eyes and ‘pelican gait’, and he made a joke of his appearance. It is said that he had a nervous malady or disposition. Coupled with this his ugliness (in a culture that greatly valued male beauty) may have taken their toll on his character, which, though noble, sensitive, kindly, sociable, and passionate, was also guarded and reserved. An ugly questioner in a culture of beauty made him as welcome in some quarters as flies on a very hot day. What really impresses me about Socrates is that he was slow to give answers, but quick to ask questions. How contrary to this wisdom are the ways of fundamentalists who are quick to give answers and slow to ask questions! They seem to be actually placing the cart before the horse.

Socrates attached the utmost importance to his hearers coming to the truth of their own accord. He would discuss important matters with them, searching out objections to their views, and he would insist that they hazard conjectures on these matters and try to work out the truth, but he would not tell them what to think, and this often meant that he could not tell them what he himself thought, at least not in any straightforward manner. In other words Socrates was a true “educator” which we learned at college to mean “to educe or lead forth the information from the student.” In the end, Socrates is convinced that only the self-taught ever learn. The conviction that people have to think things out for themselves is a wonderful one to my mind. That’s why I love the ugly little Athenian who asked hard questions of the young and so called beautiful young men of Athens.

I also love the famous quotation from the Apology which goes: “...to let no day pass without discussing goodness and all the other subjects about which you hear me talking and examining both myself and others is really the very best thing that a man can do, and... life without this sort of examination is not worth living...” (Plato, Apology 38a.). The last few words about the unexamined or unquestioned life as being not worth living have been often quoted.

The provenance of the wonderful piece of clipart I fail to remember unfortunately so I cannot acknowledge its author!

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