Mental Skill

Chapter 3
The Veil

When you lack mental skill, you pay a price—inability to cope. You also pay an emotional price—doubt. Standing between you and reality is a veil of uncertainty. You long to feel that a decision is decisively right, instead of tentatively right. You want to break through the haze of probability into the sunlight of certainty.

Too bad, you are told. Certainty is not possible to Man—and if it were, it would be arrogant and presumptuous. You are told this as a sure and certain fact.

One might expect a statement that everything is tentative to be itself expressed tentatively. One might assume that a blanket accusation of uncertainty would include a confession of uncertainty. If it does not, then arrogance and presumption are certainly in play. If it does, then we may apply analytical skills and decide for ourselves about certainty.

States of consciousness are experienced directly. You perceive your mind to be alert or lethargic, eager or reluctant, happy or sad, sure or unsure. Certainty and doubt are differentiated from other states of consciousness in referring to the process of thought. Certainty is confidence in the process; doubt is notable lack of confidence.

Can this be right? Because if it is, it means that certainty is the normal state of a reliable mind. Fortunately, you can see for yourself if it is right. When you entered the room you are now in, did you turn on the light? If so, did you do it tentatively? Did you hope that you clicked the proper switch, that it was working, that the power was on, that the bulb was not burnt out? In short, were you surprised when the light went on, or would you have been surprised if it failed to go on?

One has only to review the normal actions of any day to observe that the norm is certainty. To get to work, you drive a particular route with perfect certainty. You enter a particular door with perfect certainty. You answer the phone by saying your own name with perfect certainty. In fact, you recognize doubt precisely because it is an exception to the norm of certainty.

This norm rests on direct perception. You see things, hear things, touch things. You identify them conceptually. If you are sane, you feel confident in this basic process. Everyone agrees that you should. It is when your thinking grows more abstract—more withdrawn from concrete percepts—that you are told to mistrust it.

Think again of the light switch. It is a lever. You move it. But your certainty is not that you moved it, but that moving it will cause the light to go on. That is entirely abstract. What produces the light is known only by inference. It is knowledge arrived at over a long period of time by chains of reasoning in minds from Benjamin Franklin to Michael Faraday to Thomas Edison. You are certain about it for the same reason they were—because you test it out and make sure.

What the doctrinaire doubters are saying is that as soon as a mental process requires some skill, then, instead of testing it out and making sure, you should just worry. They are viewing the mind as operating without methods.

Certainty is confidence in the process of thinking. It is an issue of method. If I did the process right, then the end result is reliable. Part of doing it right is testing things out and making sure. The method for achieving certainty is the method for getting things right. There is no separation: certainty is the name for the state of a mind using methods that benefit the thinker's life. It is the state of a mind connected to reality.

The veil of doubt that makes many lives miserable is in fact a skewed relationship between thought and truth. Truth is viewed as resting on true propositions rather than accurate observations. Knowledge is not connected to reality itself, but to a mediated, interpreted version of reality—reality through the eyes of another. Concepts get traced down the hierarchy not to direct perceptions but to authority.

For example, how could a skilled thinker trace the concept justice to its roots in observed reality? He could look at instances of justice and injustice to establish a definition. A man was unjustly imprisoned. That is, he was judged and punished wrongly. The punishment was wrong because the judgment was wrong. So the essence of justice is judgment of some kind. To see what kind, make comparisons. If you judge that a cloud will produce rain, is that the same? No; you would not punish the cloud if it failed. That is a scientific judgment, while justice entails ethical judgment. Ethical judgment is judgment of a being with free will—man. Justice is making this judgment on the basis of reality rather than whim. How is that done?

At this point the skilled thinker reviews his methods of making ethical judgments, and sees exactly how it is done. He thinks of judgments he made, and judgments he observed. He has in mind concrete instances of justice being done, and also how these instances can be fitted together and regarded as parts of a greater whole—the concept justice.

Contrast this to what happens when the veil of doubt is present. This man looks in the dictionary and finds that justice means equity. He remembers his father telling him to be fair. Justice is fairness. He remembers a professor saying that justice means redistribution of wealth. That sounds fair. But of course, one cannot be sure what was meant by redistribution.

This man is looking not at reality but at what he has been told about reality. He traces the concept not to direct perception but to indirect reception. He stops at one remove from reality. Since he never feels certain about justice itself, he never feels certain about any thinking using that concept. He is right to have no confidence in his method: he only sorted through some memories. His relation to reality is not direct but mediated—it is a hand-me-down reality.

A skilled thinker, told that justice is fairness, looks for a common essence. He observes that some people demand fairness when they want justice, while others demand fairness when they want preference. The judgments that justice refers to are made by an impersonal, objective standard, but the judgments that fairness refers to are made by a more personal standard. So the healthy mind is led to think about ethical standards, and to look for an objective one.

Certainty is epistemological health. The mind is habitually using methods that work in handling reality, so the mental state is habitually one of confidence in the thinking process. The relation to reality is direct. Facts are there to be observed.

Doubt is chronic epistemological confusion. The mind is habitually trying to get by without effort, so the mental state habitually lacks confidence. The relation to reality is skewed; facts are treated gingerly, at arm's length.

Changing doubt into certainty means applying effort. Bad habits have to be replaced by good habits. One must learn to confront facts head on, to observe truth in person, to experience life directly without mediation, to make decisions based on reasoning rather than agreement. In short, one must learn mental skills.

A voice from behind the veil can be heard: "But you're telling me that in order to stop doubting myself, I have to start doubting everybody else! That's crazy! I have to trust what somebody tells me! I can't go out and do every experiment described in every class in my school. I have to believe my teachers."

It is a question about proof. Just as you trust your own conclusions when you can prove them, so you trust other people's conclusions when they can prove them. No matter how abstract and sophisticated a conclusion might be, you use the same method to test it out and make sure of it. First, you trace the key concepts back to direct perception, which includes seeing cause and effect. Second, you consciously verify that it fits in where it claims in the totality of your knowledge. You make sure that it squares with what you see, and that it squares with what you know.

If you have the habit of squaring your thoughts with what you see and what you know, why would you suspend this habit for thoughts of others? They can describe for you how they traced the concepts back to perception, and how they integrated the thought with everything already known. That is, they can prove what they tell you. There is no need for blind trust.

How does a skilled mind handle bald assertions by an authority figure? As a fact of reality. The teacher said such and such. The mayor declared so and so. What you know is that the declarations were made. What you do not know yet is their relation to reality.

There is a shortcut here which skilled minds use to big advantage. To see what it is, think "Yabba-dabba-doo."

Nonsense sayings are sounds which have an expressive content. They are happy, as "Yippee!" They are sad, as "Boo-hoo!" The tone of voice is what conveys the emotion. They are not intended to have any cognitive content—to name any concepts. But what if boo-hoo were replaced with, "Reality sucks?"

He who begins arguing with that proposition has been suckered. It seems to use concepts, but it still has no cognitive content. It is a variation of boo-hoo, a phrase used as a vehicle to make expressive noises. It is an arbitrary statement. It is not something which could be true or false. Calling it true or false would be like calling "Yuck!" true or false.

If you were to test out every proposition uttered by everyone you met in a normal day, you would likely discover that many could not be traced even a step down toward a base in perception, and many would not fit in anywhere at all in the totality of knowledge. They are arbitrary statements intended to convey not knowledge but attitude. The proper response is to the attitude, not to an inapplicable truth or falsity.

Learning to recognize the arbitrary means that you don't have to waste time taking seriously what is not meant seriously. It saves you from falling for slick tricks of rhetoric. It lets you concentrate on determining the truth of real statements without getting sidetracked on meaningless verbiage.

The skill of recognizing the arbitrary is based on the skill of identifying essentials. For example, that old canard that a stopped clock tells the correct time twice a day. A skilled mind would see that the essence of this statement is an arbitrary absurdity, and waste no time with it. To see how, find the essence.

The essential characteristic is the one or ones without which the other characteristics could not exist. What is the essential similarity that puts timing mechanisms into the concept clock? Is it telling time, or keeping time? If the essential of a clock is telling time, then every radio is a clock, since it tells you the time incessantly. If a mechanism is not keeping time, in what way could it tell time?

To think that a clock not keeping time could still tell time at some instant, I must arbitrarily regard telling time as the essential of a clock. This leads to absurdity. If I draw a clock face on the wall, will it also tell the correct time twice a day? If I paint a number on the wall, will it tell correct digital time twice a day? Does my house number then tell the time twice a day?

For even greater absurdity, imagine a working clock set to the wrong time. It is never correct, so it is inferior to the stopped clock which is supposedly correct twice a day. One could multiply the absurdities indefinitely.

Rhetorical tricks are often based on defining something by an inessential characteristic. For example, the politician's favorite pejorative, "extremist." This arbitrarily assumes that the essential of discourse is not truth, but moderation.

By attending to essentials, you can identify the arbitrary elements in what people tell you, and concentrate on the elements which could be true. One of the things you will escape is the trap of trying to prove a negative.

"Well, if you don't believe that flying saucers come from outer space, prove it!" That is a demand to prove a negative—to prove that an arbitrary statement is not true. A good answer might be, "I know you are wrong because the invisible guru by my side told me so. What? You say there is no invisible guru by my side? Prove it!"

People who sense a veil between themselves and reality often think they must take arbitrary statements seriously, and try to prove negatives. That is because they regard what they are told as at least the equal of what they discover for themselves. When they become skilled enough to have confidence in their own thought process, this impulse will vanish along with the veil of doubt.


The way to ensure certainty is to test out all your concepts and make sure they fit with all you know. This testing goes in two directions: down the hierarchy to direct perception, and up to the widest context.

In practicing definitions, you practiced tying concepts to direct perception. Now you can practice going in the other direction. For example, by fitting the concept justice into the total of knowledge.

The definition tells where to start. Justice is moral judgment conforming to reality. But it is often used in a broader sense. People call the world unjust, or say that justice is served in the long run. What they mean is that men "get away" with doing bad things as if moral judgment did not exist, or else that they escape judgment now but not in the long run. Men discuss whether reality is just or not. This broadens the idea out into a principle, or fundamental truth. The discussion asks if reality conforms to our moral judgments.

Since reality is what it is, the answer would be that reality conforms to our moral judgments when those judgments conform to reality. That shows that we started with the right definition. If truth is conformance to reality, then justice is moral truth. But truth has to be objective fact, not subjective desire. So justice is objective judgment in ethics. We can see how it all ties together. To live well, you have to make judgments that work with reality instead of against reality. Moral judgments done that way are called just.

Notice how comparison is used in fitting things into the big picture. To integrate friendship—a human relationship of mutual esteem—into the overall picture, one might ask: how does it compare with companionship, with affection, with love? In fitting love in, one might ask: what is the difference between filial love and romantic love? What are the similarities and differences between intense friendship and romantic love?

If considering such matters makes you uncomfortable, fit that in. Compare with other things that make you uncomfortable. Compare different kinds of discomfort. How does physical discomfort compare to mental discomfort? How is comfort defined, and how does it compare to other felicities?

If you have trouble concentrating on such seemingly arcane matters, do it on paper: write down differences and similarities. When you have practiced enough to see the practical advantages of fitting things together, you will begin doing it mentally, by habit.

The goal is to form a habit of knowing where you are and what you are doing. Mental confidence grows from the ability to keep clear on what each word you use means, and where it fits in your total knowledge.

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