How many times have you been caught out trying to fake knowing all about something which you really know very little or nothing of? How many times in life do we pretend in order to impress, to try to entertain or at least not appear foolish? It happens all the time. We delight in catching others out when they do this, yet dread when we ourselves are met by someone smarter or more experienced or who can just see through our shenanigans.
Now imagine doing that all the time. Habitually pretending you know all about everything – especially all of the “important” things like what is the meaning of life, why everyone acts the way they do, where we all came from and where we are all going with our lives. If you were to live under this pretense for long enough, you would likely forget any real questions you yourself still had and would develop a surety that you have all the answers to everything that matters.
That is what life is like in a cult or mass movement such as Scientology.
The Psychology of Certainty
Certainty. Decisiveness. Conviction. Positiveness.
These are traits we look for and appreciate in leaders in any field including politicians, teachers, parents and even our boss at work. When the stakes are down and things are looking grim, it is natural for people to look for someone who knows what they are talking about to lead them to safety, security and a longer life. No one wants to follow or even listen to wishy-washy, uncertain people who are constantly second guessing themselves. We look down on such individuals, so it’s not for nothing that we value certainty and emulate those who have it. I’d go so far as to say that this is one of the defining characteristics of a leader.
Yet, after living life for a few years and learning more and more about the vastness and complexity of the world, it’s usual for most of us to realize that we are never going to know everything we’d like. We learn socially, very early in our childhood, that people who don’t know what they are talking about or don’t know what they are doing get laughed at, ridiculed or worse. So we learn to hide our uncertainties and fake our way through.
Given that it is part of our make-up to do this, is it really so surprising that something like Scientology would have appeal? Not only does it promise happiness, success and spiritual freedom but above all else, its founder L. Ron Hubbard actually defined the word Scientology as “knowing how to know” and described it as the “Science of Certainty”. Those are buttons that hit every human being at a gut level.
Yet the truth is that after millions of years of existence, and at least six thousand of those years recorded in history to one degree or another, we are truly certain of hardly anything about ourselves, our planet and the universe. Endless debates rage daily on social forums about almost any social, scientific or political issue. There are very few things that every human being on this planet would agree on or have utter certainty about. We can’t even get everyone to agree that the Earth isn’t flat or that we actually put men on the moon. In fact, it seems to me the only thing we could all come to an agreement on is that we are never going to all agree about anything!
Science and Reason
When you are a follower of a mass movement, by definition you are convinced of the veracity of your position and that you have found some form of Absolute Truth and are quite certain about it. Thus we have almost all religions, political pundits, fanatical terrorists, etc. It’s easy to see this in the extreme forms of relgious, political and social intolerances that splash across media headlines every day. Yet don’t we all have shades of this to one degree or another? It’s in our nature.
When our personal truths are shattered for whatever reason, we are left adrift and often will search for some new truths to cling to. This happened to me when my certainty about Scientology was broken. Once I started unraveling the lies inherent in much of Scientology’s teachings and availed myself of all the resources available on the subject, it was painfully obvious that I had been being deceived and manipulated for decades. That was a hard truth and one which left me reeling.
I had been so sure that I had all the answers. For years, I had been assuring others that they could have that same certainty if they would just learn and practice Scientology. Never mind all the things that didn’t quite make sense or the gray areas we all didn’t talk about. We just brushed those little questions aside. Instances where it didn’t seem to work were easily blamed on the person it didn’t work on. It was never the fault of the subject of Scientology itself.
Once something like that is cracked, it’s only natural to start looking for new truths and new ideas to grasp onto which will give some kind of life support. It was clear to me that I was going to have to re-evaluate everything I’d been taught. I was going to have to look at all of my personal beliefs and see if they were based on what I truly knew to be the case from my own experience and knowledge, or were they just based on what I was told to believe. The one thing I did not want to do was swap one cult for another, one totalitarian thought control system for another. I made a very conscious decision that I wasn’t interested in beliving anything anymore. I wanted to be able to examine evidence and facts and in short, live in the real world and not some cult leader’s fantasy world.
I consider myself extremely lucky that it was at that moment that I happened upon materials about science and critical thinking. Specifically, these two concepts totally rocked my world:
“…Science is not about certainty. Science is about finding the most reliable way of thinking at the present level of knowledge. Science is extremely reliable; it’s not certain. In fact, not only is it not certain, but it’s the lack of certainty that grounds it. Scientific ideas are credible not because they are sure but because they’re the ones that have survived all the possible past critiques and they’re the most credible because they were put on the table for everybody’s criticism.
“The very expression ‘scientifically proven’ is a contradiction in terms. There’s nothing that is scientifically proven. The core of science is the deep awareness that we have wrong ideas, we have prejudices. We have ingrained prejudices. In our conceptual structure for grasping reality, there might be something not appropriate, something we may have to revise to understand better. So at any moment we have a vision of reality that is effective, it’s good, it’s the best we have found so far.” – Carlo Rovelli (Italian theoretical physicist)
“Science is a way of thinking much more than it is a body of knowledge.” – Carl Sagan (US astrophysicist and author)
With everything I had learned (or rather, mis-learned) in school and later in Scientology with Hubbard’s pseudo-scientific jargon, I had the gross misconception that science was all about sure and absolute knowledge of ourselves and the world. I could not have been more wrong.
The Certainty Lie
A key principle in critical thinking is to not make assumptions or practice “know before you go”. Good science is founded on observation, research, experimentation and using the knowledge gained to then come to a conclusion, from which more testing and more evidence gathering is then done. It’s a never-ending process.
A scientist does not start with a conclusion and then try to prove it. He starts with an educated guess which he thinks may explain something. This guess is called a hypothesis. A hypothesis is only valid or useful if it can be subjected to testing. It’s known from the very beginning that it could be totally wrong. He and others then proceed to try to disprove that hypothesis. The second that he or someone else can come up with tangible evidence that the hypothesis isn’t valid or doesn’t work, it’s back to the proverbial drawing board and that hypothesis is either revised or dropped entirely based on the new evidence.
There is a lot more to the whole scientific process than this. My point is that any scientific principle – each and every one of them – is not guaranteed by anybody to be 100% Absolute Truth, no matter how many times it’s been tested or “proven”. It may be that there are exceptions to any of the scientific principles we are all familiar with, but those exceptions just haven’t been discovered yet.
In good science and in rational thinking, there is always an element of uncertainty or doubt. No matter how far fetched or inconceivable an idea may be, it might just turn out to be true. To dismiss it out of hand, with no evidence or facts to support that dismissal, is not critical thinking but arrogance. There may well be UFOs visiting Earth on a regular basis and Atlantis may really have sunk under the ocean three millenia ago, taking all of its advanced technology and wisdom with it. We can always keep our eyes and ears open for evidence of these things. If such should appear, then we are that much closer to understanding more about the world in which we live.
Of course, as Carl Sagan advises: “It pays to keep an open mind, but not so open your brains fall out.” Once an idea has been disproven or an assertion has been shown to be invalid, it’s silly to continue to cling to it. A person has got to be willing to change their mind and a critical thinker will when the evidence is clearly not supporting his position.
To a cult member or someone in a mass movement, they cannot afford to be uncertain in their thinking. They build up walls in their thinking and won’t let facts or evidence get through to challenge any of those certainties. By doing so they limit their own thinking and, really, close themselves off to a lot of what the world has to offer.
The certainty that groups like Scientology offer is itself an actual trap. It’s a way of shutting out observation and closing off thinking. There is not one subject known to Man that can offer total certainty of life, the universe and everything. That level of knowledge simply doesn’t exist.
There’s nothing wrong with knowing things. Anyone can have well-founded ideas, can form new opinions from them and get by in the world. We all do just that every day.
What we don’t do and what would be a beneficial change for everyone is to adopt that idea that it’s just as important to know what you don’t know, and to be okay with that too. In fact, the recognition that one does not know, and beginning the quest to learn, is actually the point where all wisdom begins.