Partial Answers from Everywhere


“Nothing is exactly as it seems, nor is it otherwise.”  Alan Watts

Here is a reality that many of us forget:  Everyone is partially correct.  Every theory, belief, and philosophy…partially correct.  There is a Zen saying I think describes this: “As soon as you speak of something, you have missed the mark.”  I think this applies to our perception of reality as well.  When it comes to our understanding of reality, our guides, and just about everything we never really hit the bull’s eye.  Close may be good enough, but if you think about it just hitting the target board may be all we can hope for.  In many ways, we fill the gaps of what we don’t know with a bit of faith, and sometimes we fill the gaps simply by ignoring them, by not paying attention.  When reality doesn’t match our model, we ignore it.  Then, when something matches our own theories, we notice and we take it as “proof” that we are right.  This tendency is called confirmation bias.  We tend to only remember evidence that supports what we already think we know.

How much of this iceberg can we not see?

How much of this iceberg can we not see?

I have to fight this.  For a more complete understanding, I need to pay attention to all of reality, even the stuff that might prove me wrong.  This is difficult to do, to be truly open-minded, a real philosophical scientist.  If I can keep my beginner’s mind open, I may discover something and gain more clarity on my understanding of reality.  You and I can increase our chances of seeing things as they truly are when we are more open to possibilities outside of our own dogma.  Then we’ll know “the truth.”  But how do we know we are right?

Well, we don’t.  At least not with 100% certainty.  In fact, I would imagine that our estimate of how we understand the world is far too optimistic.  I might think I’ve got a 70% understanding of something, but in reality it is much, much lower than that.  My original intent was to say maybe it’s only 20%, but really if it is something big, like maybe “How to Live,” I may be way off…like I might be less than 1% right.

Admittedly, that is why I mainly borrow from three main philosophies, Zen, Stoicism, and Objectivism as I form my view of reality, not to mention the countless other views of the world that I research.  One just isn’t enough.  I guess I am the epitome of eclectic.  These philosophies overlap in many ways, but in many others one philosophy might answer, “How should I live?” much more directly.  There are some gaps in each of these philosophies’ concept of how things are.  Maybe Stoicism has it 80% right, I don’t know.  For all I know, the Stoics might have had it 80% wrong.  I concentrate on three major philosophies, but of course there are so many others!  There are so many more partially correct philosophies out there.  Complicating things is the fact that a Stoic, Buddhist, Objectivist or any other view of the world may be 95% right for me, and completely wrong for you.

What an abominable sin of conceit I commit, when I think I know better than others.  Even worse, that I know something for sure.  I have fallen into this trap again and again, despite what I consider to be steady vigilance against it.  I’ll go on and on about how I just might not be right, just like I am doing now, and yet in the next moment I will tell my wife that she is wrong without even considering deeply what she said.  I will condemn someone (almost always to myself) for their silly beliefs about religion, politics, science or whatever.  I will condemn them without considering that they most likely are at least partially right.  However, at least my condemnation is momentary, and never violent.  Imagine clinging so tightly to your “true” philosophy, that all others are excluded.  Imagine “hating” another philosophy, so much so that violence is necessary to rid opposing views.

Some reflection now on this partially correct quality of all things might be necessary.  The awareness that what you believe is only partially right is essential.  Even if by chance, your world view is 95% right, it’s still 5% wrong…partially correct.  The greatest of human strife: wars, murder, even plunder and theft, come about when we have convinced ourselves that our view is 100% right, justifiable not only to defend to the death, but also justifying aggression on those that are wrong.  The minor offense is to think we are 100% right for moments in our lives, but the major sin, the mortal one is to attach to our view with 100% certainty.  This is where evil finds its way into the world.

Are there ideas worth dying for?  Killing for?

Are there ideas worth dying for? Killing for?

Too often, too many think they are right, rather than partially correct.  The greatest difficulty in our relations is not in that there is right and wrong, but in that we are unable to see that we are all partially correct and mostly wrong much of the time.

Of this I am sure…I think.

2 thoughts on “Partial Answers from Everywhere

  1. Another great piece by HS… but if A is better than B, and C is better than B wouldn’t C be the “best.” This logic correlates to truth…if belief A is partially true and belief B is more true than belief A there must be a belief that is most true, or the ultimate truth, so true that nothing is truer.
    But there is a problem, no individual has the time or ability to analyze the contents of vast libraries that by his own unaided judgments he might know what to choose and what to reject when searching for the ultimate truth. The best we can do is use our reason and logic to point us to the ultimate truth. Reason is like looking at a shadow cast by a graceful horse, you don’t see the horse but you have a good idea what it is.
    This is where faith comes in, many say faith is a leap in the dark. No, faith is a reasoned act that is supported by a shadow of the truth. To see the horse you must believe the horse exists, based on your reason.
    Not “believing” your belief is true or thinking you might only be 10% correct is nonsense and self-referential incoherence, why believe it in the first place?

    OK, that was difficult to write and probably harder to read and understand.

    Thanks for the thought provoking post Heroic Stoic!

    • Arguably, although probably irrefutable, is the fact that all of us have to have some faith in something. Even the severely rational mind must make assumptions that some things are true. In essence, to feel whole we have to fill the gaps with something. I guess you could fill it with wonder or awe, rather than faith.

      Not just libraries…that is only what others have transcribed. Much evidence is experiential as well. Peer into the night sky, how far are you observing? We observe it directly, and yet cannot comprehend its completeness.

      One final thought. When you see a “horse,” remember that what you see is not a “horse,” but rather an entity which never had a name until you attached a label to it. As far as nature is concerned, “horse” does not exist. It is you and I who have chosen to use “horse” to describe it. First, so that we can organize what we see into something we can recall later, and next so that you and I can communicate with each other about what we’ve observed with a common terminology.

      What a rabbit hole! (Not a real rabbit hole, but the symbolic one :-))

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