The Problem With Certainty

It seems to me that most people feel certain that they know The Truth.  You’re familiar with many of them.  Ninety-nine percent of journalists, I’m pretty sure, fall into this category.  So do one hundred percent of political leaders, as well as the majority of clergy and university professors.  I’m using the terms “journalists” and “political leaders” very loosely here.  I’m guessing at the percentages, of course; but finding an authority figure in the media, the political system, or a religious organization that has enough humility to admit that they don’t have the ultimate answer or know all the facts is a rare thing indeed.  The people to whom I am referring are the ideologues, the activists, the religious crusaders, and the power hungry.  They are certain that they are right—to the point that they feel that they need not stoop to address arguments that contradict their assertions.  Certainty means everything to them and in many cases, that certainty offers them a moral imperative to do some downright malevolent things in pursuit of their ideology.

The certainty allows them to view every dissenter as the problem.  There is no room in their dogma for dialogue.  In fact, those who hold an opposing viewpoint must be silenced so as not to corrupt the uneducated.

When an ideology does not permit opposing viewpoints, the resulting behavior often turns bitter, resentful—even violent.  I’ve often written about how Christian ideologues can fall into this pit.  But this pitfall is not exclusive to Christians, or jihadis, or even religious people.  Pull up any news source and you will see several secular individuals or groups prominently featured whose political or social ideologies have led them down this same path.

In such groups, there are undoubtedly many true believers who have applied about as much mental rigor to their ideology as they have to analyzing a chainsaw massacre movie.  Yet it also seems probable that a large segment of the oppressive crowd is simply power-hungry and is using the cause of the week as an excuse for the violence or coercion they employ to gain power.  Allow me to take a quick detour to address the tendency toward coercion before I get back to the problem of certainty.

The polarization in our society is exacerbated by a lack of dialogue.  I’m not sure which one causes the other.  Perhaps it’s a chicken-and-egg thing.  Whichever came first, these days, meaningful conversation between those with differing viewpoints is like Monty Python’s number five—it’s right out.  Unfortunately, more and more people seem to be comfortable with ruthlessly suppressing opposing viewpoints.  I find this to be troublesome.

If we are to survive as a society, we must be willing and able to debate ideas without the threat of political or social persecution.  It may very well be that we’re past the tipping point, and the oppression will get worse before it gets better.  That seems to be the historical trend:  those who once set their hearts on political domination and feel as if they have the means to do so stop at nothing to achieve it.

For those of you who are thinking about the many groups of ideologues who don’t use violence to achieve political dominance, perhaps this because they are a small minority and don’t have a hope of achieving dominance.  And in the US, many right-leaning ideologues (religious or political) still believe that freedom is preeminent.  That belief in itself is a healthy restraint against widespread ideological coercion.  I’m not giving this concept the due diligence it deserves here, as it would distract from my discussion on certainty.  So to put the train back on the tracks…

Allow me to point out that the need for certainty can become a pathology.  It is one of the drivers of ideological coercion and is a primary cause of willful blindness.

Many of The Certain are appalled at what I am postulating.  They see themselves as morally superior to the masses who are either benighted rubes or stubborn dissenters who obstinately ignore what must be a painful level of cognitive dissonance.  (You know what cognitive dissonance is, of course… it is the thing that keeps all the other idiots from agreeing with you.)  Many of The Certain believe that if they give up their certainty and admit that they don’t possess the complete and entire Truth, that would be tantamount to declaring that there is no such thing as truth, and they would in essence, be setting themselves adrift in a universe of moral and intellectual relativism.

Is there a way to live together despite our disagreements and still remain faithful to our convictions?  Fortunately, there is.  It’s called dialogue.  It means that we need to be willing to listen to each other.  Listening, you understand, is not merely politely remaining silent while you grudgingly give the other person a chance to talk.  It is making an honest attempt to understand them.

If you and I disagree, and one or both of us is certain that we cannot possibly be wrong, not only will we never agree, but we don’t have a basis for dialogue.  All we have is conflicting ideologies that will only breed animosity.  But if we are both seeking the truth, then we have a starting point for dialogue.  Even if we never completely agree—and we won’t—we can at least be cordial and try to understand each other.

I picture the dilemma of truth-seekers who disagree with each other as two people moving toward a lighthouse.  Say we’re on land, and there’s a lighthouse on the coast.  The lighthouse represents truth.  You and I are 50 miles from the lighthouse, and 20 miles from each other.  Neither of us knows the whole truth (which means that there’s a lot of stuff that we’re wrong about), and we don’t agree with each other.  There are thick woods between us.  We may not be walking together.  But if we are both walking toward the lighthouse, then we will eventually get closer to each other.  At points, the trees between us will thin, and we may eventually get to the point where we are walking side by side.  But even if we don’t, we will at least be walking in the same direction—working toward the same end.

We must be willing to prioritize the truth over our beliefs—and especially over certainty.  Searching for the truth is a never-ending quest, and in service to this quest, we must be willing to have our beliefs falsified when confronted with credible evidence.  And on this journey, we must allow others to express their viewpoints—even if we disagree with them.

And that’s the way it ought to be!  I think.

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