Provisional Truths, Skepticism

Show me an uncertain Neanderthal and . . .

Dave Kinnear1-On Leadership

I’ll show you a DEAD Neanderthal. Our brains are evolving quickly and not quickly enough. We no longer have to worry about deciding quickly between saber-toothed tiger and hunger or choose between the “four F’s” (Flight, Fight, Food and, uh . . . Mate). But our brains are still more comfortable deciding quickly and with having certainty rather than uncertainty. And therein lies a challenge for all of us.

Once you decide, whether on the savanna or in the city jungle, that there is danger and you take action, that certainty is very useful. In our personal lives and in our business lives, that certainty locks us in, closes our minds, and keeps us in a box. The thing that is important to understand here is that we reach this “certainty” prematurely, before all the facts are in and considered. Ted Cadsby, corporate director, principal of TRC Consulting, calls this a “speed-accuracy tradeoff” that is no longer necessary. He says that, “. . . there is an antidote to premature certainty: Adopting a mindset of ‘provisional truth.’ ”

What “provisional truth” means is, simply put, we must think of our explanations of how things are as hypotheses, or theories which we always try to disprove. We have to look for evidence that our hypothesis or theory doesn’t “hold water” in a given situation and is therefore incomplete or perhaps even just wrong. This concept is important and we may be able to understand it at an intellectual level, yet when it comes to being skeptical of our own conclusions, assumptions and certainty, we seem to have blind spots. I know I do. And since my awareness has been raised, I am noticing this same “Neanderthal Certainty” in my fellow travelers. It takes a mighty effort on my part to not only be skeptical of my own certitude but to suspend judgment for those who (it’s now so obvious to me) are trapped in their own certainty. Once we believe we have figured something out, we want it to be done. Yet, in our very high-speed and complex world, we need more than ever to embrace provisional truth.

This is not new thought in the sense that we have pretty much always expected our scientists to have skeptical, provisional truths. We want them to continue to find out how well their “theories” actually describe the material world. Yet we seem to often eschew that same method, that skeptic’s model, for ourselves and our businesses. The jump to certainty feels natural and good for us. We don’t often stop to think about this unless someone or something makes us do so.

I have often been that person who states what in reality is an opinion with such certitude that an inexperienced person would take what was said as irrefutable fact. I don’t do this on purpose. It happens because I study something that is complex and boil it down to what I think “the answer” is to “what is so” and then embrace that certainty. It’s a relief to be certain. I don’t have to deal with the “lost feeling,” or the “fear of the unknown” if I just make myself certain about the way things are.  Worse yet, it then becomes hard (impossible?) for me to see the evidence that points to there perhaps being a more complete answer or even a better answer. When I believe it I will see it – whether it’s there or not!

An open mind can receive new experiences, but certainty closes it off.There are several good books that I’ve been reading to help me along with these thoughts. Brain Rules, by John Medina, The Believing Brain by Michael Shermer and Brain Bugs by Dean Buonomano. What these and other books, articles and documentaries have shown me is that truly there is no other way to make sure I continue to grow and learn than to recognize that my experience of the world is through the faulty set of senses and meaning-making machinery of my brain. Socrates laid this out for us a long time ago: “The unexamined life is not worth living.” And what we now know is that when we let the brain lock itself down with certainty rather than provisional truths, then we cease to continue examining life, learning new things, seeing the material world in new more insightful ways, and approaching other humans with the attitude of “I will learn from every person I meet.”

I hope I am no longer the person you meet who seems to be certain that they know the way things are. I am working to embrace the uncertainty and mystery, to live with provisional truths. I will take what I can for verified models of what is so and build on them with the understanding that they might not be perfect and could be refined. I will remember that when we were struggling for survival back thousands of years ago, an uncertain Neanderthal was a dead Neanderthal. But that today, a homo sapiens who practices certitude is a close-minded homo sapiens and while s/he may not literally die from this condition will likely live an unexamined  life and s/he may make poor decisions. I get that such a life is not worth living. I also get that personally, I will not be anywhere near perfect in keeping my resolve to live with uncertainty in the big things. I will falter and slip into the comfort zone of certainty when I shouldn’t. As long as I catch myself (or you catch me!), I will be fine. Of that I’m well, almost certain!