The oracle at Delphi declared that Socrates was the wisest man in Athens. This astonished Socrates because he always felt that he knew so little. Upon reflection, he realised that he was wise because he recognised his ignorance. Unlike so many clever people, he knew his limits.

The wisdom of Socrates also implied a healthy suspicion of the claims of others. It pays to be distrustful of authorities and experts and popular opinion. The surface is always likely to be a mask. Things can change dramatically when we examine them in detail. We can’t even trust ourselves. We all have a natural talent for self-deception and are vulnerable to the deceptions of others.

Yet Socrates was no post-modern cynic. He felt we could always find the truth that mattered. He knew that a knee-jerk scepticism is a kind of stupidity no more admirable than the thick-headed bravado of youth. It takes little intelligence to rubbish the views of others and or find faults in an idea. If we don’t have the time or mental capacity to establish the truth for ourselves, we need to find out whose opinions we can rely on.

Thanks to language and writing, we don’t have to constantly reinvent the wheel. We can safely trust the scientific laws that provide the resources we depend on daily. We generally trust the conventions of our society. We expect our politicians to be honest if not wise, and they usually are. We trust other people to treat us well and they generally do. We trusted our parents or we would never have learnt to cross the road safely.

Trust is the essence of all learning. To learn at all we have to trust that our parents, our teachers, our peers and the media know an awful lot more than we do. Human society is so complicated that it takes twenty years of growing up until we can be regarded as capable of independent thought. Many of us have doubts from an early age, but it still takes years of hard-won experience to sort out what is reliable and what is not.

Trust is pragmatic, efficient and economical. It is the glue that hold societies together. It is the magic of teamwork that makes humans operate like macro-organisms. It requires little thought and conserves energy, which makes it the main selling point of ideologies. Trust lets you relax and let others think for you. It is our default position until knowledge or disappointment expose the cracks.

Yet to trust anyone or anything remains an admission of ignorance. Trust should always be provisional pending conflicting data. Children are very trusting – they have to be – but a clear sign of maturity is that we become more discriminating and less trustful as we age. Self-evident truths have a tendency to degrade with the years. People we once admired look more and more dodgy. Once we get the full picture, our youthful heroes rarely grow in our esteem.

To function at all, we have to trust what we can’t know for certain, but we can still make intelligent assessments based on probabilities. We could decide that X is almost certainly true or worth relying on. This is the highest possible rating for trust. Alternatively we could decide that X is only probably true; or probably false; or almost certainly false, while making all of these calls on inconclusive evidence. If it was an absolute certainty that God exists, it wouldn’t require any trust at all.

Total distrust is paranoia. Total trust is blind faith. Both those schlerotic extremes can be dangerous. Our capacity to trust needs to be flexible and open to new information. Despite our limited knowledge and skills, we still have to trust ourselves to make good decisions. In particular, we have to decide how much or how little to trust in any particular situation.

Given our ignorance, we can easily be manipulated. “Trust me! I know what you need!” say the marketeers, the politicians, the spiritual leaders. If we believe them, the payoff comes immediately as a flood of positive brain hormones.

Faith that someone has the answer can instantly ameliorate the pain of self-doubt and confusion. The feeling of trust is enormously comforting and addictive. It evokes the certainties of childhood when happiness really was as close as the next ice-cream cone. We can easily imagine how happy we will be if we do what the nice man suggests. In mature adults, trust often implies a degree of infantile regression.

Since all of us basically earn our livelihoods by bartering skills and goods, we are constantly confronted by people trying to sell us something. We need to be a bit canny. So whether someone is selling cosmetics or enlightenment, how can we tell whom to trust or not? Here are some guidelines.

Beware the salesman. He may not be wrong but he is unlikely to give you the unvarnished facts.

Beware of simple solutions. These appeal to the child in us. If it seems too good to be true, it probably is.

Beware of the one-size-fits-all solution. Each of us is extremely individual in all our responses. The car salesmen, the politicians, the pope, the inspirational writers are all convinced they know what will make you happy. Without knowing a single thing about you. Not even your name.

Beware of the self-appointed expert no matter how spectacular his claims. Expertise comes from training, team-work and the accumulated knowledge of centuries. No one can bypass this by gazing at their navel.

Don’t trust popular opinion. Truth is not a matter of a vote. Billions of people believe in life after death, but strong conviction or wishful thinking do not even make a halfway plausible argument.

Don’t accept shoddy language or logic. If a word or idea seems to be meaningless, it probably is so deliberately. Religions have always used obscurity and paradox to stymie any attempt at understanding them. A statement such as ‘Jesus died for our sins’ is neither right or wrong. It has great power precisely because it can’t be deciphered into any clear meaning. Obscure and apparently profound statements are like viruses. Because they are neither alive or dead they can hang around forever.

Fortunately, there is a high-quality gold-standard way of determining what is most worthy of trust. Science is based on experts subjecting the work of other experts to the most ruthless inquiry. Key words have to be clearly defined. Arguments and hypotheses have to be free of logical fallacies. Experiments have to be accurately described. Alternative explanations have to be considered. Speculation is minimised and the limits are carefully observed. The evidence has to be replicated independently hundreds of times. The work has to published and evaluated by peers.

This path to certainty is usually littered with ruined reputations, failed lives and a few suicides. It can takes years before a consensus arises, although there will always be a valuable rump of researchers acting as devil’s advocates. Any truth that makes it through this brutal crucible is probably worth trusting. The method is not perfect but it is a shining beacon of light compared to its rivals.

There is another way of determining a much smaller, local truth. It is not easy but it is very useful. It takes years, but each of us can gradually learn how to recognise what is right or true for us personally.

We start with the Socratic position of admitting how little we really know about anything. Although we ultimately have no choice but to listen to our intuition we shouldn’t trust it unconditionally. It is often based on prejudice and inadequate information, and prone to self-deception and denial. Our judgements certainly become shaky when we are stressed, over-emotional or vulnerable. What feels intuitively right is often wrong, and vice versa. For example, intuition tells us that sugar is good for us and that the sun goes across the sky. Both are wrong.

However we can gradually refine our intuition through self-awareness. It is said that the body never lies. This may be true but it usually talks so quietly that a noisy brain can easily smother its unwelcome messages. Learning to listen well can tell us a lot. Our musculature tell us about stress, pain and arousal. Our sense of true or false, however, comes from the belly.

A lizard or a fox has all the rudiments of a moral code. If they eat something poisonous, they instantly spit or vomit it out. Our sense of right or wrong, good or bad, true or false has evolved out of disgust and the vomiting reflex. Our belly responds when something feels false. It flips or contracts or sends up a whiff of nausea. We feel a subtle shrinking, a withdrawal response, in our guts.

Our conceptual brain can easily be tricked by a plausible idea, but this visceral response can’t be manipulated in the same way. It is always good to tune into our belly when we have to make a decision or judgement. It still may not be right and it may still need to be interpreted, but it will always be honest.

© Perth Meditation Centre 2010