We humans often have a tendency to accept ideas and pronouncements as fact that may or may not be true. I know that most of the mathematical formulas that I used in my classroom have weathered the burden of proof over time. I also realize that just since I was born theories regarding the universe and its beginnings have changed. If I had taken the earlier pronouncements as fact, I would have been wrong. I have faith that there is a God but as far as I have found, there is no way to definitively demonstrate that I am more correct than someone who belies the idea of a divine being. I think that I know my friends and relatives well but I also admit that I can’t get entirely inside their heads. I believe that the sun will set this evening and rise again in the morning but I can’t be entirely certain that nothing will happen to interfere with the centuries old rotations of our earth. The fact is that what we think to be totally true may indeed be debatable. Somehow in understanding this my outlook on life has become an oxymoron for I am definitely a cynical optimist. In other words, I question virtually everything understanding that ignorance and evil often reigns supreme, but have faith that good will ultimately win the day.
I learned today that Adnon Syed, a young man convicted of murdering his girlfriend fifteen years ago, will receive a new trial mostly as a result of questions raised by the podcast Serial that captivated the world’s attention a couple of years ago. Most of the evidence against Mr. Syed was circumstantial with the exception of testimony from a friend who claimed that he helped Adnon bury the body of Hae Min Lee on the day of the murder. Many of the other witnesses told conflicting stories and aside from cell phone records placing Syed at the park where the young girl’s body was found, there was no DNA, no fibers, no blood to tie the defendant to the crime. The only thing that any of us know with certainty is that a promising young woman lost her life and that nobody has ever admitted to the crime. Being a juror on such a case must be an enormously difficult task. It requires the wisdom of Solomon. On the one hand there is a desire to find justice for Hae Min Lee and her family. On the other hand nobody wants to convict an innocent individual which Adnon Syed claims to be.
I’ve served on a number of juries and each time I have approached my duties with anxiety. I want my ultimate decision to be right and just. I have found that my fellow jurors were as determined as I was to be fair. We each spoke of losing sleep over the momentousness of our task. In the end we could only pray that we had come to an accurate conclusion. The Perry Mason moments that we see on television rarely occur in a trial. Only those intimately involved will ever know the whole truth and they are generally silent.
Aside from ironclad laws of physics and events that we see with our own eyes much of what we take as gospel is based more on our innate philosophies than on any concrete proof. I am violently opposed to abortion because I believe with all of my being that it is murder. Still, I am not so vain to think that I am one hundred percent right. My conclusions are based on my own thinking that life is life whether it is a blob of cells that will one day become a baby or a fully formed viable human being. As such I cannot imagine anyone defending the barbarous methods of abortion but I wonder if I am wrong and those who see it as a right of choice are indeed the ones who have the higher ground. I only know for sure that I cannot abide by abortion but I am reluctant to foist my beliefs on others. I am caught in a painful conundrum because I worry that by being so I may be guilty of condoning a practice that I should vigorously oppose.
I myself don’t like guns. I am a bit afraid of them and have little desire to either be around them or fire them. Nonetheless, I know so many people who have them and use them wisely, even the scary ones that seem to have no purpose for normal use. I grew up with uncles and cousins who went hunting each year. When I visited my grandmother’s house as a child I saw my uncle’s loaded pistol displayed on his dresser. I understood that I was never to touch it. My husband has guns that once belonged to his relatives. They are family heirlooms in his mind. He keeps them safely locked away. Once in a great while he takes them to a shooting range to practice his skill at hitting targets. He doesn’t like to hunt and as far as I know he has never actually killed another living thing. He is as comfortable around guns as I am uncomfortable around them. Who is right and who is wrong? I can’t say with any degree of confidence. I believe that my gun toting friends and relatives have been portrayed in a negative light that they do not deserve. I know that they are sensible in their use of weapons. I also understand that few of the mass shootings that we have witnessed of late would have been prevented with the legislation that is currently being proposed. I find myself seesawing between arguments and wondering if we are truly getting at the heart of the matter regarding violence in America. The issue is so much more complex than our politicians would lead us to believe.
I read that Neil DeGrasse Tyson recently suggested that we create a state of Rationalia, a place in which scientific reasoning is our guiding light. It would definitely be a welcome change from the emotionalism that presently reigns but I find it doubtful that it would work in all situations. Ultimately in cases like a murder trial or judgements about abortion or gun control there is no hard data or inarguable evidence to guide us. We cannot always determine the truth without a shred of doubt. Our humanity all too often puts the lie to even the best theories. People find ways to demonstrate that it can be lethal to put our faith in a single idea. Instead we have to approach every situation that we encounter with a realization that we are limited in what we know to be true. When we do that we open ourselves to possibilities that may allow us to rethink our own philosophies and consider opposing views. Being open minded is one of the most difficult states of mind to achieve but it is the place where we surely need to go.
I often think of a graduate class that I took in which I was required to work with a diverse group of individuals to create a single project. We were all bright and self assured which created a rather rocky beginning for our work. Each person was somewhat insistent that she was destined to be the leader in developing the group’s ideas. Eventually we managed to move beyond the norming and storming stage just enough to admit that no one person had all of the answers. In fact, as we began to unemotionally consider each of the points of view we all changed. We realized the great power in a variety of ideas. In the end we were the most dramatically struck by the wisdom of the one member that we had at first thought to be the most deficient in knowledge. I learned from that experience that the only thing that is definitely true is that there is so much that I don’t know for sure. Admitting this has changed my life. I have learned to pledge my allegiance to seeking the truth, not to joining a particular crowd or way of thinking. We have to be open to the possibility that what we have long believed may be wrong. I am optimistic that most good people agree with me. It is how we always seem to find the answers we are seeking. This I know for sure.