Build a coherent world view

Whether you form the correct opinion in a given situation, whether you do the right thing, and whether you experience adequate feelings (whether you are, that is, neither too cold nor work yourself up more than the occasion warrants) depends on many factors. For one, you must be able to take in your surroundings correctly: recognize all the relevant details, and discount what's irrelevant or misleading. But to look only at the situational elements is not enough. Since you are likewise part of the situation yourself, since you bring your entire personality with you, the overall soundness of your views plays a part as well.

Your views should fit together: what you think and say should be consistent, shouldn't be contradictory. And there is a connection between your beliefs, actions and feelings. What you do, and how you do it; when you feel strong emotions, and how you express them; what you think and say, and how you decide when to speak out loud your opinions and when to keep them for yourself: all these should fit together, and make sense in the light of each other. Your thinking can explain your actions, and feelings can express your thoughts — but only if they actually cohere. More generally, whenever you exercise your rational capacities, that is, whenever you form an opinion, decide how to act, or reflect on an emotional state you experienced, those who want to understand and make sense of you (and that includes yourself) only have a chance to be successful at it when they can assume that you do it in a way that is sound, proportionate and internally coherent.

(Put the other way round: if you are just inconsistent, what is anyone supposed to think? To the extent that you exhibit contradictions, you make it hard, if not impossible to understand; and obviously, not being able to rely on understandability, how could one come to trust you? And ask yourself: how could you trust yourself? For this is, as you certainly have guessed, not just about making you intelligible to others, but also, and perhaps primarily, to yourself.)

Obviously, this doesn't mean you should attempt to never ever contradict yourself: frequently enough, you'll learn something new that invalidates or at least relativizes some ideas you hold. In these cases, there is nothing wrong with changing your mind. It would be foolish to stick to an opinion merely because you have once claimed something that's at variance with it, or because you've once acted in a way that was not in line with it.

But be honest about that change of mind: don't try to give the impression that you've never thought differently. 'I used to think so-and-so ... I now think this-and-that.' is more honest than claiming 'Well, I've always said this-and-that!' (Even if you never actually said so-and-so, but merely thought it. Remember: giving a wrong impression is not in the least better just because nobody knows about it; and what does it matter, as long as you are aware of it yourself?)

To sum it up: the goal must be a harmony of opinions and beliefs (expressed or not) with actions and affections. How can that be achieved? Being cautious and vigilant, avoiding rashness and error is part of it. But it's not merely a passive affair: there is a lot that you must actively do in order to reach that goal. Of course, there is no such thing as explicitly taking stock of every bit that you know or believe. But that doesn't mean that you can't work on the consistency of your views. And again, don't remain too narrowly fixated on situational elements. Your opinions range from political, historical and religious views over aesthetic preferences, career choices, personal likes and dislikes, tastes and whims down to those hopes and desires, aversions and fears that we barely ever admit to ourselves. There may be some about people in general, but many opinions that we hold are about rather specific persons: your friends and family, your neighbors and colleagues, customers and business partners, long-standing companions and recent acquaintances, your allies and your enemies. And most important of them all, your philosophical views: what's good and bad, what's valuable and why, how reality is made up and where its borders with unreality run, how to tell knowledge from mere belief, truth from falsity, correctness in thought from the mere appearance of it. Look into all that, and especially examine these views when you come across them while reflecting on something that you have experienced or done. Can you identify some of the roots of your feelings and actions in those more or less deeply held opinions? Take care.
Copyright © 2007-2012 by Leif Frenzel. All rights reserved.