How You Know What You Think You Know

Two unfortunate, and undesirable, qualities in many human’s natures are: arrogance and naivet

Let’s get this straight: Arrogance is not self-confidence. Arrogance is a form of pseudo-confidence. It comes from belief in one’s mind — not as a reasoning, thinking and an objective mind, but as whatever one’s mind thinks and feels, regardless of circumstances. Arrogance is the false confidence of emotions divorced from facts. Genuine confidence comes from knowledge and certainty, things which come from proof.

Now for naivet Naivetis not simply honest ignorance. Any one of us can be honestly ignorant about anything at any given point in time. Mankind was honestly ignorant about many things five hundred years ago, things which even a simpleton can understand today. The same is true of today relative to any future time. Naivetrefers to ignorance in the absence of any knowledge that more information may be needed. Naivetcontrasts with a rational view: “As far as I know, this is what’s true. There may be more to know, but to the best of my knowledge this is it.” Naivetinstead means the following: “I know it’s true. I just know it. End of story.”

Like so many things, the difference between naivetand honest ignorance is subtle — yet profound. The same applies to the difference between arrogance and confidence. Most of us can readily think of examples of each, either from the world-at-large or from our own personal lives, to better illustrate the point.

In the psychotherapy world, a therapist sees examples of both naivetand arrogance. Here’s a classic and surprisingly frequent one. A person tells a family member or loved one to go see a therapist. Why? “Because I’m right and you’re wrong. When you go to see the therapist, you’ll see what I mean.” This is often unstated, but sometimes it’s even openly stated by the family member or loved one. Now think about what the person who does this is assuming. He or she is assuming two things: One, that not only is he right — he’s self-evidently so, in a way that the therapist will immediately see and understand. Two, that once the therapist conveys this fact to the loved one, the loved one will immediately change his or her mind, for that reason alone.

To the person making the referral, it boils down to the same principle implied by this simplified example: “The sky is blue. Look, it’s blue. You’re claiming the sky is red. It isn’t. Go to the therapist. The therapist will look up at the sky and tell you it’s blue. And you’ll see that I’m right.”

This is what many people actually use therapists and psychologists for — not with red or blue skies, but with slightly more complex matters. The arrogance lies in assuming you’re right, when you’re not necessarily right. Most things — especially things people fight about, disagree over, or see therapists about — are not self-evidently perceptual givens, like the color of the sky. While it’s possible to be certain you’re right about something more abstract, it’s an abdication of your responsibility to refer your loved one to a therapist to show him he’s right. It’s YOUR job to convince your loved one you’re right.

And then there’s the naivet How do you know the therapist will agree with you? How can you be sure that some therapist you probably have never even met, or been counseled by, will agree with you on your position? And so what if he does? If your loved one is unconvinced by yourself — someone to whom he’s at least willing to listen — then how is some therapist going to convince him on the faith of professional authority alone?

The issue underlying all of this is how we know what we know. In philosophy, the field is called epistemology. It’s a complex field, too complex to detail here. The point for now is: People assume things are true for different reasons. Some assume things are true because “God told me so” or a representative of God told him so. Others assume things are true, “Because I can just feel it. I just know it.” Another believes: “It’s true because everyone else seems to think so. How can most people be wrong?” Still others assume things are true because, “Facts X, Y and Z logically lead to the conclusion Z.”

The last type of epistemology is the best, and in fact the only right kind. It’s verifiable and also refutable. It’s objective, meaning truth lies out there — to be discovered — but can also be accessed as truth by any thinking mind. Therapists who operate on this objective theory of knowledge can help you, but they can also empower you to do it better and better for yourself.

The method is called reason. Reason is a skill open to everyone. It’s the way that we truly know, and it’s also the primary tool for achieving self-esteem.