CORE ESSAYS

HOMECOREQUOTESCHANGE FORMAT




 

CURIOSITY: The desire to enlarge oneself is the desire to embrace
more and more possibilities, to be constantly learning,
to give oneself entirely over to curiosity.

 

 

VANITY AND JUDGMENT
3-29-03

Joseph, a retired judge: “Deciding what is true and what isn't now seems to me ... a lack of modesty.”

Valentine: “Vanity?”

Joseph: “Yes, vanity!”

— Krzysztof Kieslowski's Red


I am trying to understand the relationship between belief and judgment. Maybe you can help.

Religion says belief is based on divine truth and historical events. I think belief is based on judgment and must be, for judgment is unavoidable whenever we seek to affirm or deny anything, even in the privacy of our own minds.

When you shift belief from truth to judgment, you move it from the outer, objective realm to the inner realm of human character, emotion and fallibility. Hence, the problem of certainty: What guarantees it? Not even faith, for faith itself is a form of judgment.

ALL ABOUT ABOUT

To rephrase the idea: Belief is not based on facts, truths or events; it is not even based on personal ideas or spiritual experiences; it is in the final result based solely on our judgments about those things.

Judgment comes so fast we miss it; but even a gut-level, split-second response to the obvious requires some form of judgment. Judgment is hard to detect when it becomes automatic. Automatic judgment does our thinking for us. It's the rare judge who, like Joseph Kern in Kieslowski's Red, reflects on the judging process itself — and retires.

FROM TRUTH?

If belief came from facts, truths or historical events the variety of belief would be small indeed, not as is currently the case where we have all manner of wildly differing and conflicting beliefs held absolutely by billions of believers.

If certainty came from truth it would never be wrong, for belief would never solidify into certainty in the absence of ultimate fact; but since belief comes from judgment, it easily hardens into total conviction in the absence of truth.

LOOK AROUND

We need look no further than the daily newspaper to see that belief and truth have no need for each other, but one would have to get outside his personality and culture to see exactly why.

It’s possible to transcend culture, but how does one transcend his own personality when character is the very tool with which he grasps the world and makes sense of life? You can't see further by pulling out your eyes and holding them over your head, and you can't step out of your personality for an objective look at the world.

Even the rigors of science and logic reflect human perception, cognition and need. Read the philosophy of science and you will learn that the scientific method does not give truth but only powerful theories that are practically useful but never final or complete. Like belief, scientific theories work for now but always require revisitation and revision.

GODLIKE

You'd have to be god to transcend time, place and personal history for an undistorted assessment of truth and belief. I think Valentine was right: Certainty is a byproduct of disguised vanity. And I think Joseph was right: Certainty occurs only when someone fancies himself a judge.

As Milan Kundera wrote: “Man desires a world where good and evil can be clearly distinguished, for he has an innate and irrepressible desire to judge before he understands. Religions and ideologies are founded on this desire.”

OBJECTIVITY

It's important in many cases to strive for objectivity, but reaching it is of course impossible. Stop for a moment and think about all the obviously personal agendas that march forward under the banner of objectivity and “critical thinking.”

“Truth” is the favorite word of vile, agenda-mongering totalitarians. We know them well. They are the people who say with total conviction, “I'm right. You're wrong. Case closed,” as if they were the chief justice of the Supreme Court.

On the grand scale, self-importance and personal empowerment come more from judgment-created certainty than from truth. This is the last thing we want to admit; it makes us feel weak and confused; it sends us back to the spiritual and psychological drawing board; it thrusts on us a maturity we value in others but avoid ourselves. Good.

ALL THE DIFFERENCE

The problem for true believers is that it's quite different to say that belief is based on objectivity and truth — as religion and ideologies would have it — than to say it is based on subjective, human judgment.

It makes all the difference in the world.

FROM GOD?

Moreover, if belief comes from or is influenced by divinity what happens to choice and free will? In other words, if some god helps us in our belief we are not free agents and hence, not morally responsible beings; but if god does not influence belief — if it’s really about free choice — then we’re back to judgment again.

ON BEING GODLIKE

You may think valid information and spiritual experience guarantee your truth, but guess what: Ideas and experiences — no matter how powerful — always require and receive our evaluation, especially the assumptions we make about the validity of “holy scripture.” So we're back to judgment yet again.

ON BEING HUMAN

You're fallible. Your judgment is not beyond question. Faith is a judgment we make, and certainty is a stance we take. It’s how we fake out doubt. The dream of certainty helps us deal with the burden of choice. Willful and imagined objectivity damages you, your loved ones and the world you live in. A little humility goes a long way.

AND SO …

Either belief is about truth and not judgment; or judgment intervenes and certainty is a hope and a dream; or all the religions and ideologies are different but somehow valid; or there’s some other explanation that escapes me.

RETIRE

Vanity, vanity, all is judgment.

Of course, we can never stop making judgments or having beliefs, for that comes with being human. But a personal view — even deeply held — is quite different from an official pronouncement.

Just ask a retired judge.




QUOTES

UNCERTAINTY: Living with no supernatural justifications,
no complete explanations, no promise of permanent
stability,with guides of merely probable validity.