Certainty | Bad for your brain?

I went round to a friend’s house for dinner last night.  We sat there, chatting and laughing and talking over shared memories from university, so many years ago. At some point, for some reason we were discussing the imminent French elections, and the rise of terrorism and the far right, and the situation in the Middle East (not ALL the time, obviously...it just came up!). Someone asked a question about Islam. About why the hatred is so deep across so many generations? Why is it that young men are so susceptible to radicalisation? Is it poverty, or the adrenaline that joining a ‘crusade’ and ‘belonging’ gives them?  

I was sitting back mulling the subject over, my mind wandering to the many ways one could answer, and the many questions it stirred up that I hadn't thought of before. I suddenly noticed to my surprise - and total horror - that everyone else round the table had their iPhones in their hands and was Googling the answer.  

 Photo: Jesse Orrico/Unsplash

Photo: Jesse Orrico/Unsplash

How can the answer to a complex, many stranded question be found by reciting a couple of online articles? Are we all being brainwashed? Standardised? Walking blindly towards the threshold of our own 'Brave New World' scenario?

Have facts won the day?

At a time in history when we know more than ever and can have an answer to many of life’s questions at the click of a button, mystery itself is under threat. In the words of a retired vet I recently met who lives in a rural welsh community: ‘My Sunday nights in the pub have been ruined by Google. Ten or fifteen years ago, we would gather and sit debating current affairs and life’s big issues into the night, but it doesn’t happen now. We’ve lost something valuable now that any fact can be checked on the spot by a smartphone search.’

It’s a sad state of affairs when, in our search for knowledge and understanding, thought, experience and imagination get set aside to be replaced by a cleansed reporting of 'acceptable' and presumably mainly 'approved' fact. Deep thought, and personal and even mystical experience go out the window. On the other hand, if we let it, life’s enduring philosophical unknowns acquire fresh relevance. Ditto the allure of strange co-incidences, prickling sixth senses and anything that stokes a sense of the unknown, unexplained, unmapped. Things that can't be experienced via your smartphone.

Rediscovering philosophy

We need these mysteries. When you don’t know where to start, your mind is free to meander down unlikely and illuminating tangents, unfettered by the constraints of fact. That's where inspiration and vision come in. You can't find them on your iPhone.

Kierkegaard said: “Life is not a problem to be solved.” Surely, he was right. Feeling your way to an answer in a directionless way can be deeply satisfying, feeding parts of yourself that a question with a Wikipedia answer can’t.

So how to get started on such a quest?

  • Reboot your brain.
  • Join a debating meet-up group. There are plenty on the meetup.com site.
  • Travel and meditation also open up new mysteries, or head to the philosophy or self-help section of your local bookshop.
  • And always, always ban people from checking their phones when they come to supper.   

Here’s to a life filled with wonder, discovery and adventure!