I, Fanatic

The trouble with most folks ain’t so much their ignorance, it’s their knowing as many things which ain’t so.1

Moral development involves shedding immature, inaccurate beliefs and values, and growing into more mature and accurate ones.

Consider an analogy. In elementary school, students are exposed to the concept of the atom as the building-block of the material world. Ideas are presented in a simplified way, to match the students’ level of cognitive development. In high school, those ideas are built upon, developing a more sophisticated and accurate concept of the atom. So again at university level, until we reach the pinnacle of current human understanding of this aspect of life. So it is with moral development. As we learn more of the principles that govern life, old notions within our worldview are joyfully discarded, allowing newer, more accurate ones to take their place. However, this growth is inhibited and stunted the moment that we become attached to our existing knowledge. The joy of learning morphs into fear of a threat to our worldview.

Attachment to knowledge is the egocentric attitude of I-know. It is a false assurance regarding one’s understanding, and arises because we fail to recognize the boundary of our specific worldview and the vast ignorance that surrounds it. Consider your field of vision. Beyond the eyes’ reach there is no sight – we cannot see what lies above, behind, or beside the head. Yet we rarely notice this boundary. We do not, for example, perceive our visual field in the same way that we do a movie screen, with its obvious boundary and the blackness surrounding it. In our daily experience of vision, the view to us seems complete. We rarely spare a conscious thought to recognize the boundary and the non-vision that extends infinitely beyond it.

The same may be said of our intellectual-emotional perspective of the world, our worldview: the values and attitudes that we hold; our beliefs about what is true/false, good/bad, beautiful/repugnant, and so forth. It determines the way that we experience the procession of life events that parades before us, the attitudes we hold, the choices we make. As a result we become attached to our own ‘knowledge,’ inhibiting unbiased assessment of other ideas and life-perspectives. Arrogance is the ramparts of ignorance. This is not unlike the ‘Dunning-Kruger effect,’ which reveals that those who are least proficient in social and intellectual skills are more likely to overrate their own abilities 2,3. We thus develop fanaticism, which involves an intractable and unjustifiable claim to know something with certainty. We become unable to reason against what we personally assert to be true, and claim it to be true universally.

The personal and interpersonal costs of attachment to ideas should not be underestimated. The ossification of our worldview leaves no room for new ideas that can better serve our decision-making. This disadvantages us at every turn as we negotiate our way through life with an inferior operating system. Being dependent upon the sense of certainty with which we claim to know, we must maintain an ideologically defensive posture, ever-ready to protect our position and reputation. The emotional-intellectual resources expended in defending a worldview purely because it happens to be one’s own could be put to better use: in absorbing and critically analyzing others’ ideas; refining and redefining one’s understanding of the world and oneself; reaching out with empathy to others. Interpersonally, the inability to identify with another’s worldview creates isolation & loneliness. And for others, open communication and trust cannot be established with someone who appears intellectually dishonest, or unwilling or unable to consider new ideas. In the words of theologian Sir Lloyd Geering, such fanaticism is “endangering the future of the human race, it’s becoming so serious”4.

While the (especially religious) fanatic is often characterized as someone who takes things too much on faith, it may be more accurate to describe him as someone who utterly lacks genuine, healthy faith. True faith is not blind, but based upon evidence and reason. A. Parthasarathy illustrates the concept of faith by juxtaposing two definitions,5 the first from Christian mystic Joel Goldsmith, the second from Nobel prize-winning Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore:

Faith is a belief in a thing I do not know until I come to know what I believe

Faith is the bird that feels the light and sings while the dawn is still dark

These two definitions convey different aspects of faith. The first is that faith accepts as true what it does not conclusively know to be true. That is, there is a conscious recognition of the inherent margin of uncertainty. Genuine faith has the humility to recognize itself as such, whereas the fanatic arrogantly and ignorantly claims incontrovertible knowledge. The second definition indicates that faith is a purely subjective phenomenon. It is a personal feeling that fills the heart, and influences attitudes and actions.

Gross expressions of fanaticism and their attendant harm should prompt us to look within: to search for ideas that we hold without question, that we assume to be true and valuable without evidence or reason.

People are possessed with groundless beliefs and faiths. You pick them up without question or reason. Without proof of their credibility. And accept them as a matter of fact. You must realise some of your strongest beliefs had taken root in your childhood. Your life runs on those faithful lines. They seem too obvious to you that it would be sacrilegious to question them.6

Whether we seek to remedy fanaticism within ourselves or disarm it in society, the process starts with consistent self-inquiry, questioning into what we hold to be true. Implicit in this questioning is the simple acknowledgement of the inherent uncertainty that pervades so much of life.

Uncertainty is Certain

…he, who will not reason, is a bigot; he, who cannot, is a fool; and he, who dares not, is a slave.7

To return to our earlier analogy: just as no single person’s vision can take in the entirety of her surroundings, no single worldview can encompass the reality of life. The recognition that one’s perspective is personal rather than universal is to recognize the inherent uncertainty in what we claim know.

All actions and attitudes carry within them some assertion or notion that we accept as true. A racist attitude is contingent upon the belief in the superiority of one race over others; pursuing ever-more wealth arises from the belief in the value of money in bringing happiness; fighting for women’s rights implies the notion of an essential equality between genders. It is therefore important that we “examine the crevices”8 in our worldview, and begin to question what we claim to know. Many of our beliefs are blind, based on unquestioned assumptions rather than evidence, questioning, and reasoning. We can start to discern these assumptions by self-reflection: questioning our actions, attitudes, and intentions.

What am I pursuing in life? Why am I choosing these courses of action?

What do I want to achieve? Why do I want it?

What do I believe? On what basis do I believe it?

This inquiry soon forces us to acknowledge the uncertainty of our beliefs, the limitations of our knowledge. Humility and self-reflection are essential aspects of moral and intellectual development. Such questioning strikes at the heart of our actions, desires, and beliefs; it reveals to us our own core values; and offers an opportunity to challenge them if we have the courage to do so.

The Joy of Uncertainty

Every act of conscious learning requires the willingness to suffer an injury to one’s self-esteem. That is why young children, before they are aware of their own self-importance, learn so easily; and why older persons, especially if vain or important, cannot learn at all.9

Liberating oneself from attachment to ideas and beliefs is to overcome the comforting notion of I-know. This is no mean feat, and is the ongoing process of self-development. It begins with developing more value for learning than for being right. The genuine student recognizes that partial knowledge and unquestioned assumptions are limitations, and craves the freedom that comes from intellectual independence. The true learner does not derive self-worth from what she claims to know, but instead finds joy in discovery of greater truth. Uncertainty then ceases to be a threat to wellbeing. It instead becomes a constant and welcome companion, one that brings relief from the burden of having to know the answer, of having to be right.

A vital aspect of dropping attachment to ideas is the development of the intellect. The intellect alone has the capacity for observing and questioning the values and beliefs that we hold. A weak intellect fails to recognize the problem of attachment itself, and therefore sees no reason to take action. In any case, a weak intellect can at best perform only a superficial analysis of the personality’s beliefs, and values. A powerful intellect clearly sees the harmful nature of attachment, and can plumb the depths of the personality to recognize and question it. It further equips us to absorb and assimilate higher values, (known also as Vedanta in Sanskrit) directly addressing attachment’s cause.

vedantasm

Just as muscles are developed through use, intellectual development requires constant questioning of everything that we hear – from elders and teachers, from peers and loved ones, from society, and from one’s own mind. The price of freedom is eternal vigilance. Reflection upon higher values becomes as important a part of our daily schedule as exercising of the physical body. Becoming attached to ideas takes no effort. Extricating oneself from attachment takes a consistent application of self-reflection, and a constant remembrance of the uncertainty that pervades our worldview. This brings intellectual independence, the freedom from baseless beliefs; greater moral clarity; tolerance and open-mindedness towards others’ views. This process is essential for human flourishing, and is everyone’s responsibility in life. It cannot be delegated, and it must not be delayed.


1 ^ Widely attributed to Josh Billings (pseudonym of Henry Wheeler Shaw)

2 ^ Kruger, J., & Dunning, D. (1999). Unskilled and unaware of it: How difficulties in recognizing one’s own incompetence lead to inflated self-assessments. J. Pers. Soc. Psych, 77(6), 1121–1134.

3 ^ Dunning, D., Johnson, K., Ehrlinger, J., & Kruger, J. (2003). Why people fail to recognize their own incompetence. Curr. Dir. Psych. Sci, 12(3), 83–87.

4 ^ Witchell, D. (2013, August 24). The great story. New Zealand Listener, (3824), 30–33.

5 ^ Parthasarathy, A. (2008). The Fall of the Human Intellect. 3ed. A. Parthasarathy, Mumbai. p.60

6 ^ Parthasarathy, A. (2008). The Fall of the Human Intellect. 3ed. A. Parthasarathy, Mumbai. p.55

7 ^ Drummond, W. (1805). Academical Questions. Vol. 1. Google Books. p.xv

8 ^ Parthasarathy, A. (2004). Vedanta Treatise: The Eternities. 11ed.A. Parthasarathy. p.197

9 ^ Szasz, T. (1973). The Second Sin. Anchor Press, NY. p.18