How to Interpret the Notion of Chance?

We all think we’re familiar with the notion of ‘chance‘. But are we really? And if so, what are the consequences we should attach to our interpretation of chance? For instance, are chances purely descriptive in nature – in the sense that they refer only to past events – or do they have a predictive power that might be based upon some kind of underlying ‘natural’ force producing the structured data? And why would it even matter how to interpret chance? Let’s take a look behind the curtains of a probabilistic interpretation of chance, right into its philosophical dimensions.

On average, 12,3 per 100.000 inhabitants of the USA get killed in a traffic accident. Also, 45 percent of Canadian men are expected to develop some form of cancer at some point in their lives. So, what do you think about these data? First of all: does the fact that 12.3 out of 100.000 inhabits get killed in traffic tell you anything about the likelihood that you are going to be killed in traffic? I guess not. It is merely a descriptive notion invented to condense a large amount of data into an easy to read figure. It says nothing about your future, or anyone’s future for that matter. After all: you will either die in traffic or you will not, and you will either get cancer or you will not. At this point in your life you are absolutely clueless which way it will turn out to be. For all you know, it might be a 50-50 kind of situation.

Although this interpretation of chance might feel counter-intuitive, it seems a more reasonable position to take than believing you are expected to die in traffic with a probability of 12,3/100.000. You are after all a unique person and you don’t have 100.000 ways to go. You either go one way, or the other. It is only by adding huge amounts of data together that scientists can come to compressed figures (like chances), thereby describing what has happened in the past. But description does not equal prediction, and totality does not equal uniqueness.

What are the implications of this manner of looking at chance for our interpretation of science? What about the inferences scientists make based upon data, like the one about cancer I mentioned above? Are they making unjustified claims by posing that 45 percent of men are expected to die of cancer? I believe this might indeed be the case. In case scientists want to be fully justified in getting at their conclusions, they should do away with any claims regarding the likelihood of any event happening in the future. That seems to be the only manner for staying true for 100 percent to the data available.

But watch it: this is not to say that the scientific enterprise has lost its value. Science can still be the vehicle best-suited for gathering huge amounts of data about the world, and for presenting these data in such a way that we are able to get a decent glimpse of what is going on in the world around us. And that is where – I believe – the value of science resides: in the provision of data in an easy to understand manner. Not in the making of predictions, or inferences of any kind, as many scientists might happen to believe: just the presentation of data, a job which is difficult enough in itself.

You could say that I am not justified in make this claim. You could back up your argument by saying that a difference should be made between the case of ’45 percent of men are expected to get some form of cancer’ and ‘one specific man has a 45 percent chance of getting cancer’. Where the latter might be untrue, because of the fact that one will either get cancer or not, the former might be more justified. That is because it divides a group into units that will either get cancer or not. However, although this might be true to a certain extent, it still seems to be an unjustified manner to make predictions about the way the world will turn out to be. After all, considering 100 men to be the unit of selection is only to replace the level of the individual with the level of a group. On an even higher level of abstraction, one could consider the 100 men to be one unit, which subsequently would make the conclusions reached unjustified again.

Also, when choosing to make predictions on the level of the group, why does one choose the higher- instead instead of the lower level? Why wouldn’t it be okay to say that, instead of human beings, cells are the true units that either get cancer or not? That’s only a difference in the level of analysis, right?

So, next time you read somewhere that 99 of the 100 people fail in achieving something, interpret this for what it is: a description of what has happened in the past that can inform you in making the decision about what you should do right now. So don’t interpret this as meaning that you only have a one percent chance of being able to achieve a certain goal, because that would be a totally unjustified inference to make: an inference that goes way beyond what the data can support. And don’t consider a scientific fact to be a prediction about the future. Consider it for what it is: a useful description of the past, but no legitimate claim about the future.

But what do you think?

Why Are We Here?

It’s time to take a look at what might be the most mysterious question we human beings have to face: why are we here? When you start thinking about it, you immediately seem to stumble upon a wide variety of different – yet equally unsatisfying – answers. It doesn’t matter from what angle you approach the issue: you won’t be able to crack it. However, despite this seemingly discouraging answer, it doesn’t harm to give a go, right? Nah, probably not.

There are many different views about why we are here on this earth of ours. One “branch” of human thinking considers religion to be the foundation upon which the answer to this fundamental question is built. And although I am not a religious person, I cannot call it inconceivable to feel the urge to base your faith upon a higher power. I even dare to say that it is a natural human inclination to try to grasp the world we are living in to the fullest extent possible. And for that matter, religion seems to be a great tool for avoiding the madness of feeling powerless; for avoiding the feeling that we will never come to understand what we are doing here on this earth of ours. But more about religion in another article.

Since religion is not the only “option” available. There also is a completely different branch of human thinking that – through the centuries – has gathered many adherents. A branch to which the “enlightened” Western civilization adheres; a branch of human reasoning that says farewell to each and every inch of uncertainty; the branch that encompasses true reason and intelligence. I am talking of course about science. And if you caught me talking in a slightly cynical manner about the nobleness of our scientific enterprise, you are right. I don’t necessarily agree with the mindset of “let’s take a look at the facts” in order to end an argument. That is, a mindset of giving science the monopoly on the production of facts. Since how true are the facts if we do not call them facts anymore? If we just consider them to be products of human thinking and creativity?

But let’s take a closer look at the endeavors of religion on the one hand and science on the other. In what way do the two fundamentally differ from each other? Do they even differ from each other? Isn’t it true that both of them proclaim to know what is true and what is not? Isn’t it true that both parties believe that the manner in which they believe – whether it is adhering to the word of God or Allah, or gathering data and coming to conclusions – is not only the only way in which the truth will come to us, but is also the only morally right way to do it? “How can people ignore the word of God? Don’t they see that this is the way to act?” Or, “Why believe in the word of God when it is so obvious that the only truth there is can be obtained through the scientific enterprise? Science is after all the paragon of human reason.”

It seems to be – as it is with a lot of matters in life – very much dependent upon the paradigm you live in what your notion of truth or right and wrong might be. What is the neighborhood you grew up in? What are the ideas you have been taught at school? What do your friends and family belief? All these components determine the way you look at the world and the way you interpret the information you obtain from your external environment.

But what if you aren’t satisfied with the solutions brought forth by religion or science? What is you do not feel at ease about both of these proclaimed approximations of the way the world works?

Let me tell you a story. A few months ago, I was visiting a guest lecture from a Stanford University Professor at the university I am studying. The professor seemed to be a very knowledgeable man who spoke about topics like dark matter, very small particles, general relativity and other notions I hardly knew – and know – anything about. Although I did not fully understand everything he said, I could see that he was very passionate about – as he said – “coming closer and closer to discovering the true origins of our solar system”. His team at the University of Stanford had – by making use of satellites – been able to measure the activities in our solar system as they happened “within seconds after The Big Bang”.

At the end of the lecture, there was an opportunity for asking the professor some questions. When no-one seemed to make an effort to ask the professor a question, I decided to give it a go. Although I did not know anything about neutrinos or matters of those sorts, I knew what I wanted to ask:

“Sir, can you please tell me what happened before The Big Bang?”

Of course the professor didn’t know. After all, how could he? No-one knows. But it seemed to be the appropriate question to put everything into perspective. To show that there will always be a step further. That there will always be another cause for what we consider to be the beginning. But don’t get me wrong. I certainly do not believe that we should stop our quests in search for the ultimate foundations of knowledge. Both science and religion are great goods for our society. Besides all the economies being propelled by scientific discoveries and consequently the wealth we live in, science and religion provide us with food for thought. They allow us to dream about what might be. They give us purpose. What more could we wish for?

I am curious about what you guys think: can we know why we are here?

Happiness and Ignorance or Appreciation and Wisdom?

As John Stuart Mill said in his Utilitarianism,

It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied.

The question that immediately comes to mind after reading this quotation is: Is this true? Is wisdom truly worth more than satisfaction? Would someone truly rather be happy and ignorant than face the absurdity and meaningless of life, and thereby touching upon – what might – be the ‘true’ nature of our existence? In other words: a happy fool or an enlightened absurdist, what to choose?

You can look in the mirror every morning and think to yourself, ‘I’m going to be wiped from this earth within – at most – a few decades,’ ‘I don’t have a clue what I’m doing here, and I’ll probably never figure it out’ or ‘Does what I am about to do today contribute anything to the course of humanity?’ Each of these questions seems to come from a very reasonable reflection on life. Philosophy, being the human quest for wisdom, should not turn walk away from questions like these, even though they might turn out to be unanswerable or depressing. Philosophy is not a quest that should be focused on creating finished products, like carpentry or painting. Philosophy, like any attempt to obtain ‘the truth’, is a never-ending activity, whose value resides within calming down our feelings of despair. It might be comparable to drugs, but instead of deciding not to face the absurdity of life by lowering one’s state of consciousness, one tries to convince one’s consciousness that there must be a road to certainty; a road that one, in blinding naivety, hopes to stumble upon. This is the life of the absurdist.

But there is another way to live. You could look in the mirror every morning and think to yourself, ‘I’ve got to hurry up, I’ve got to be at work at 8 o’clock,’ ‘I still have to tell John that he has to cook dinner tonight, since I will be home late’ and ‘Oh it’s Tuesday! That means that there will be soccer on television tonight!’ You could force yourself to try and turn off the existential, reflective part of your mind and commit to living the robotic or auto-pilot-like life. You could try to become immersed in the rat-race called life to such an extent that all of your thinking power is required just for sticking to your rat-race-like planning. There is no time for reflection; all your time is needed for action. Life consists of the ever recurring 9 to 5 cycles stringed together by knots of transient and superficial moments of happiness. This is the life of the fool.

The advantage of being a happy fool is that one, in contrast to the absurdist, is able to experience happiness, no matter how superficial this might be. The fool is able to get lost in the dopamine-flow triggered by the utterly irrelevant phenomena he finds interesting or amusing. He turns his back towards the absurdity of life; he lives his life the ‘normal’ way: the way (almost) everyone lives it. Moreover, it is the manner in which any animal on earth lives its life. And that’s exactly where the sadness kicks in. Since, we could ask ourselves, how ‘human’ is a life that doesn’t differ in any fundamental sense of the life of a pig? A life that is lived on cruise-control, only taken control of when our biological urges seem incapable of doing the job, when humans seem equal to mice? And even though we – in contrast to the mice – have the thinking power to live a different life at our disposal, we rather let our animal brains control our bodies: no thinking means good thinking.

And this is where the Socrates comes in. Although the Socrates realizes that he might not have chosen the hedonistic path to happiness, it is the outer part – the ‘human’ part – of his brain that gets freed from the shackles of social and biological conditioning; he takes control of his life. Happiness gets bypassed, and fulfillment is being striven for. And it is by accepting the inability of his mind to ever find the path to certainty that he enters a vicious circle that starts and ends with absurdity: the highest state of enlightenment attainable for the human mind. It is only in the absurdist spheres of consciousness that happiness can be judged for what it really is: an empty goal created to prolong the dominance of the animalistic parts of our brains.

Should we see it as our duty to enlighten ourselves, to reach the level of consciousness we can reach; a level that is filled with reflection on the absurdity of life? Or should we succumb under the temptation of hedonism, give up the analytic an logic reflection on ‘this thing called life’, and long for bursts of momentary happiness? What is the human way to live?

What do you think?

The Humanities: Are They Truly Scientific?

What are the criteria for being called a “science”? Usually we seem to associate scientific thought with notions like “facts”, “the truth” and non-subjective enumerations of “the way the world works”. This “normal” interpretation of science often comes down to the idea of science as being able to describe and explain the universe according to a set of formal or natural laws. However, not each discipline that we normally consider to be a science seems to occupy such an “indisputably scientific” position; an indisputable position like physics or chemistry does. Not all the sciences are about the predictable domain of nature. Some of them handle about what might be the most difficult entity to capture in terms of laws: the human being and its utterly unpredictable behavior. Therefore the following question seems justified: are the disciplines that are trying to grasp this interpreting and subjective animal called “human” worthy of being called a science? That is, are the humanities truly scientific?

By humanities, I am referring to disciplines like history, literature and likewise disciplines having the human, or its creations, as its research object. In order for these disciplines to position themselves as being a collective of genuinely “scientific” endeavors, they could try to shed any accusations of subjectivism by adopting an empirical and falsifiable method of inquiry. Being “scientific” in this sense means having a positivistic stance of gathering data and inferring logical conclusions from this data; a stance that isn’t interfered by any introspective or intuitional attempts to gain knowledge. By choosing the positivistic route, no doubts about the objectivity (as being the counterpart of subjectivity) of the humanities’ claims can be made.

However, applying this empirical method of inquiry, and presupposing an attitude of “just sticking to the facts”, might hollow out all that is the humanities. And although the humanities might not be objective in the sense that physics or chemistry are objective, they still seem to be able to contribute valuable insights to our shared pool of knowledge. Therefore, it might be more reasonable for us to make a distinction – within the humanities – between: (1) descriptive inquiries and (2) hermeneutic inquiries.

By making this distinction, full clarity can be provided about (1) the areas within the humanities that are striving to represent “the facts”, and thus should be interpreted to provide an objective description of any state of affairs, and (2) the research that strives to come up with reasonable interpretations of historical events, texts and any other product of human creativity. By explicitly separating these two types of research from each other, we might be able to get the best of both worlds: on the one hand (1) we can satisfy our need for “objective data”, and on the other hand (2) we are still able to come up with interpretations of human constructs. This would provide us with the completest picture the humanities would be able to offer us.

So let’s wrap things up. You could say that the humanities provide us with interesting reflections on what might be going on in those creative minds of our ancestors. However, we should not expect the humanities to adhere to the rules of scientific investigation as they are laid down by positivism. In order to avoid the harmful trap of condemning all of the humanities to the realm of subjectivism, we could try to come up with a sub-domain within the humanities that is confining itself to empirically verifiable facts. However, on a holistic scale, the humanities should be respected for the unique contribution they make to our system of beliefs; even though it might not be possible to capture their insights in terms of laws, and even though a certain part of the scientific community might have problems with calling the humanities “true” sciences.

But what do you think?

The Leap of Faith: The Creative Element of Science

Scientific realists are known to have a positive epistemic attitude towards the content of our best scientific theories and models. The exact interpretation of this philosophical tenet can, however, differ dramatically between each of its proponents. Some of them base their idea of the truthfulness of scientific realism upon the seeming success of the reference of its theoretical terms to the things in the world. Others refer to the scientific method of inquiry as making science an adequate system for capturing reality. Here, I’ll interpret scientific realism not so much in terms of the truthfulness of its terms or a method of inquiry, but in terms of the faith one puts in the ontology of scientific theories. …Or, as the objective interpretation of scientific realism goes, in scientific theories as giving an adequate representation of a mind-independent world. However, isn’t there something fundamentally wrong with this representation of a “mind-independent” world? To see this, we first of all have to understand what science and its purpose within our society is.

Science is involved in the production of knowledge. It does this by gathering large lumps of data and extracting what are the seemingly underlying structures responsible for the phenomena being detected. Usually, on an “objective” interpretation of science, we think of science discovering the way the world works. Science is involved in writing down whatever kinds of regularities are being detected in the world. However, is this truly the manner in which knowledge is being created?

I believe that one crucial element is being left out of this picture, and it is this element that is responsible for the progression and the advancement in science as we experience it on a daily basis, and the seemingly never-ending accumulation of facts in which it results. I am talking, of course, about the element of inference. The notion of inference has been well discussed by philosophers ever since Hume pointed out the incomprehensible problems associated with it. However, apart from Hume’s ideas about the indeterminacy of scientific theories and the problems it causes, in what way does the inferential relationship – which is present in every logical system consisting of premises and conclusions – manifest itself in the daily life of a scientist? And what is its role with regard to the production of facts?

Let’s take a look at an example. Imagine a scientist who has made the following observation: (A) human skin gets agitated when it gets in touch with a deadly nightshade (which – apparently – is a type of plant). Furthermore, the scientist believes to know that (B) a poisonous plant makes one’s skin agitated. Therefore – and let’s assume that this was unknown up till that point in time – the scientist claims that (C) deadly nightshade must be poisonous. Or, to put it more formally, (A^B) –> C. Given that the scientist has enough data to back up this claim, he or she has just created what we consider to be a fact.

But what would have happened if the scientist would have went home after making the observation responsible for premise A? Then no fact, and thus no new knowledge, would have been produced. That is, the scientist would have remained stuck at the level of observation, a level that can be reached by each and every one of us and therefore would not create any scientific value, a.k.a. knowledge. It is only because of the scientist being a person who has studied botany for years, who has confidence in his or her own capabilities and who has a basic sense of logic, that the step from mere observation to fact can be made. And it is by making this step, the step represented by the “–>” symbol in the logical formulation, that the scientist adds value to the “knowledge-producing factory” called science.

Two noteworthy implications follow from this observation. The first is that facts about the world around us are, whether we like it or not, constructed on a very fundamental level. There is always a human being needed in order to take the last step and create the knowledge: to take the observation and the knowledge at hand, and make an inference leading to the creation of new facts. And it is because of this inference, which is an activity that has to be performed by us human beings with our minds and our souls, that objectivism, with its proclaimed access to mind-independent knowledge, is untenable.

But watch it: It is explicitly not being said that the observed regularities in the world did not occur before the scientist came along and used the data about these regularities in producing our so-called facts. No claims are being made about any causal relationship between the domain of knowing (epistemology) and the domain of beings (ontology). What is being said is that what happens within the domain of beings is completely irrelevant to us human beings, since we will never be able to access the domain of beings – from a mind-independent point of view – in order to know what would be happening there. All that we know is that, after the scientist has finished its research, the fact is there.

A second implication of this plea for constructivism is that, on the most fundamental level, science does not seem to differ from religion – or from any other system of beliefs for that matter – in any fundamental manner. Both of these domains are dominated by people who believe in the truths of the ideas brought forth within these domains. None of the ideas produced within these domains will be true – at least not in a sense of being true independently on the human mind – unless they are believed to be true. And it is this believing that is an inherently human, and thus mind-dependent, ability which provides us access to the only realm of truth we will ever know: the realm of beliefs.

So the question is: is knowledge being constructed by scientists as an outcome of a fact-seeking process? Or are facts existing somewhere out there in the world, true whether they are discovered or not? And, if so, true in what sense?

Note: an adaptation of this article has been published at www.partiallyexaminedlife.com.

The Nonsensical Realm of Ontology

Since the dawn of intellectual humanity philosophy has been characterized by a dichotomy between the realm of being (ontology) and the realm of knowing (epistemology). Ontology deals with questions like, “What exists?”, “Are there properties in nature that can be grouped under a single name, or is each instance of a ‘group’ a different group in itself?”, and, “Are properties an intrinsic part of nature, or are they nothing more than a projection of our imagination?” Epistemology, on the other hand, is concerned with questions like, “What can we truly know?”, “Of what can we be absolutely certain?”, and, “Are there universally true ideas?”

The distinction between ontology and epistemology is deeply ingrained within academic philosophy. But, when you take a closer look at the distinction, there seems to be something very odd about it.

Let me ask you the following: if you look outside of your window, what is it that you see? Let’s assume that you would say that you see a tree, a car and little boy kicking a football. Okay, now let me ask you a different question: what do you think you know exists outside of your window? “Uh, a tree, a car and a little child kicking a football?”, you will probably say. But what’s the point of this?

Well, what I am trying to show is that although there might be a difference between what exists out there in the world and what you think you know exists out there in the world, we human beings only have access to the latter. We only have access to our own beliefs. Because think about it: how could we possibly determine what the world is made of if we aren’t even sure about what it is that we truly know? How can we ever believe to gain certainty about what is out there if we aren’t even sure about what is in here, in ourselves? In our own little worlds that we call our minds? In other words: why would we even try to come up with an ontology if there are no objective means to judge the fruits of these efforts?

It is, as I’ve written about in a previous article, impossible for us human beings to detach ourselves from our own, inherently limited, first-person perspectives. That is, we are forced to see the world through our own eyes forever. It is impossible for us to leave our own points of view behind and step into “the world as it truly is“. And even if we would be able to do so, to step into the world as it truly is, how would we know that we had entered it? How could we know that there is no other world of ideas that is even truer than this one? Then we, first of all, have to be sure that we have reached the truest of worlds, right? But then again, how would we know that?

I would say that there is no reason for continuing the ontological tradition besides it being “just fun” to speculate about what might exist in the world out there, in the same way it might be fun to speculate about what Hogwarts might be like. Let’s first of all focus on what we might be able to gain at least a little bit of certainty about. That is, let’s focus ourselves on what we think we know. Let’s focus ourselves on the quest of epistemology.

But what do you think?

Note: if you have found this an interesting article, you might also enjoy this one. A warning upfront: this one might be a little more philosophical in nature.

Infinity: The Scientific Way of Saying that We Don’t Have a Clue

Physicists claim that the universe is (increasingly) expanding. But, if you take a closer look at it, you come to see that this isn’t exactly true, don’t you? Since – to make things clear – it appears that the universe isn’t expanding in the sense of something becoming larger; no, it is expanding in the sense that the space between “the things” (galaxies, in this case) is getting wider. It can be compared to a piece of dough scattered with raisins and put in an oven. You will see that, when the dough starts rising, it is not the space within the oven (“the universe”) that is getting larger; no, it is the space between the raisins (“the galaxies”) that is expanding. Okay, okay…but why would this observation be of any importance?

Science is commonly conceived of as being the furthest the human species has come in its quest for finding “the truth”. Science is the realm of human thought that has been endowed with the authority to officially distinguish what is true from what is nonsense. And the scientific journey has proofed to be very valuable to us. It has provided us with prosperity; loads of it. The discovery/invention of electricity and other sources of power are marvelous achievements that – for the biggest part – can be attributed to the scientific enterprise and its longing for knowledge.

In spite of all these accomplishments, we have to stay/become realistic. We have to realize that science is not going to solve our everlasting longing for “the truest of truths”; that science is not going to provide us with final answers to any of the existential questions around. Questions like, “Why are we here?”, “What is right and wrong?”, and, “What are we?”. These are questions so fundamental that they cannot be (satisfactorily) explained upon by science, or by any system of thought for that matter.

And therefore I was glad to read a physicist admitting that we do in fact not know what, if anything, lies outside of the (observable part of) the universe. Our universe might, as he mentioned, go on for infinity or it might – in some inconceivable manner – “be wrapped around itself”. Although I very much appreciate the humbleness of the physicist in admitting that our knowledge is indeed limited, I want to take a look at the two options he put forth for how our universe might be (un)limited.

The first option concerns the notion of infinity. Let’s ask ourselves: what actually is infinity? To me infinity seems to be a concept that is truly unimaginable for us human beings. And although we can try to come to grips with it by translating the concept into mathematical terms, this quest will always result in awkward and unintuitive conclusions. And it is this observation that made me wonder: isn’t infinity just a “quasi-rational” and allegedly scientific response to what is in fact an inexplicable question about the universe? Isn’t talking in terms of “infinitely big” or “infinitely small” just as much a sign of our ignorance as are explanations pointing towards a God-like creature? Even though the former is considered to be a “rational” explanation while the latter is considered to be nothing more than a relic from the “superstitious” past?

And what about the other explanation; the idea that the universe is somehow wrapped around itself, or that our universe is part of a multiverse? These explanations are just as inconceivable as the concept of infinity is. After all, if there would exist a multiverse, where would this multiverse have come from? Another multiverse? But where would that multiverse have come from…? Isn’t this just a slightly more “rational” infinite regress to get lost in?

Thus, although it might sound “rational” or “scientific” to be talking about infinity as being a genuine explanation for the size of our universe, it does not bring us any closer to having any knowledge about the way the world works. Since, in order to get closer, we have to know how far along the way we are. And how can we know how far we are if we are dealing with infinity? That is, how can we point to something being an explanation, if this explanation itself is incomprehensible?

I don’t know. Therefore I ask you: what do you think?

Honesty and Friendship: A Good Combination?

Should you always be honest with your friends?

Should you always be honest with your friends?

I have to make a confession: I am not always completely honest with the people I talk to. And not only with random people I meet at birthday parties; even with my very own friends. But let’s be truly honest: that’s not shocking, is it? Not because I am such a jerk, but because no-one is always completely honest with his friends, right? A more interesting question would be: should you always be honest with your friends? Being honest might hurt your friend’s feelings, so maybe you should rather lie and keep you and your friend happy, than telling him the ‘painful’ truth, right? Or would that prevent you in some way from bonding – with your friend – on a deeper level? A ‘friend’ level? Or maybe the entire dichotomy – between kindness on the one hand and honesty one the other – is just completely wrong: who says that honesty and kindness cannot go hand in hand? After all, isn’t being honest always a kind gesture, even though the content of this gesture might not always be flattering? Let’s take a look at that.

I am sure you know the dilemma: should you tell your friend the not-so-positive truth or should you lie in order not to cause a stir? Of course you should tell him, you might think. After all, what is the value of friendship without honesty? Isn’t that where friends are for, to be honest with each other, no matter what? No matter how tough the message might be, someone should tell you the truth. And this someone should be your friend, right? But then, after having thought through the consequences of being honest, you might start to think differently: ‘I don’t want to be rude to him. Maybe he’ll think that I am not respecting him. Maybe he’ll avoid me in the future. Maybe I will lose him as a friend.’

We human beings are afraid to be honest. We are afraid that people – including our friends – might not want to hear us say negative things about them, even though these negative things might be said with the best intentions. Friendships are valuable to us; so valuable, that we don’t want to risk losing them. But what if you had to choose between (1) your friends being always honest with you (but not necessarily positive) or (2) your friends always being positive (but not necessarily honest with you)? And, more importantly, what category of friends would you consider to be ‘better’ friends? Not the first category, right? Not those superficial and cowardly creatures. No. A true friend should be willing to tell you the truth, no matter what. That is what true friendship consists of.

But that implies that you should also accept the comments of your friend. That you should be grateful for him having the courage to tell you what he thinks. You would have to show him that he is a true friend to you and that he is valued for being honest with you. Don’t criticize your friend’s comments. See them as a sign of true friendship. And, on the other side, interpret flattery for what it really is: a mask to hide feelings of insecurity and neediness.

To end on a personal note: I believe that you should always be able to tell your friends the truth. And if it turns out that they cannot handle the truth, then you probably weren’t true friends in the first place, right? On the other hand, we all want to be happy and sometimes hearing the truth might make us sad. After all, how happy would we be if everyone around us, including our friends, would constantly share their negative – but true – conceptions of us? Nonetheless, we must grow up and dare to face the storm of well-intended criticism. Because you will never be able to improve if you don’t know what you’re doing wrong.

But what do you think?