Musings: On Certainty and Uncertainty

There is an idea – almost an axiom in our world – that strong, dogmatic belief leads to intolerance, social oppression, and the decay of reason, while an uncertain agnosticism that subjects everything to reason and logic leads to tolerance and open-minded harmony.

Actually, it’s almost the opposite.

I say almost because dogmatism certainly can lead to intolerance and so on, depending on what the dogma is and how it is applied (and, most especially, on the people involved). But agnosticism and uncertainty will always lead to these things, at least on a societal level (individuals can always be an exception).

The idea behind the axiom is that if someone is not certain of a given idea, if he regards it as merely the conclusion of reason which may, of course, be open to question, then he will not seek to impose it on anyone else. He’ll serenely accept that different people have reached different conclusions, or have different experiences, and so the important thing is to learn from one another and to live and let live.

On a purely logical level, that would seem to be the proper reaction. Except that people don’t work that way.

The whole idea of gloriously tolerant uncertainty seems to me to be one of those examples of trying to simply cut out an unwanted part of the human psyche. We know that rigid dogma and a sense of personal certainty can lead to a blind, bullheaded dismissal of all who dissent from it. So, we remove the dogma!

Except that people really can’t function without dogma and without certainty. You can’t even argue that they should without an assumed, dogmatic idea that tolerance and open-mindedness and harmony are objectively desirable things. And most people require far more certainty than that. All you are doing is removing the ‘received dogma’ label from a given idea and slapping a ‘reasoned discernment’ label on it. But this simply makes people cling to their unacknowledged dogmas all the harder and obscures the line between received truth and reasoned conclusions.

Because, you see, a man may admit to uncertainty on a point that he is indifferent to, but not on something that is important, and certainly not on anything vital to his conception of himself (e.g. his core concepts of right and wrong, and with them his all-important ability to think well of himself).

But when someone adheres to this idea – that dogma and certainty lead to intolerance and intolerance is evil – then he won’t call his core beliefs dogmas. Instead, he’ll say that they’re ‘common sense’ or the result of reason or self-evident or something. But in any case, at no costs will he allow them to be questioned. In principle they are subject to debate, but in practice he does not dare to scrutinize them or to permit anyone else to do so. The man will not accept the legitimacy of any ideas that seem to threaten his core beliefs and will grasp at anything to discredit them. Engaging with contrary ideas involves tremendous psychological risk, and so most men will avoid it however they can.

What you then have here is a situation where certain ideas are both vulnerable to attack and vitally important, and vulnerability coupled with importance leads to desperation.

Dr. Johnson pointed this out in his own case. When it was noted how much more tolerant the old pagans seemed to be in matters of religion, Johnson answered that this was because they didn’t actually take the question very seriously: “When a man has nothing to lose, he may be in good humor with his opponent. Being angry with one who controverts an opinion which you value is a necessary consequence of the uneasiness which you feel. Every man who attacks my belief diminishes in some degree my confidence in it, and therefore makes me uneasy; and I am angry with him who makes me uneasy.”

But, since such men are committed to the notion that their ideas are simply ‘reasonable’ the agnostic modern will still claim that their desperate defenses are nothing but good, sound logic. Which means their capacity to reason becomes steadily eroded as ‘logic’ comes to mean ‘that which supports my core ideas’.

The natural result is that contrary ideas are regarded as simply illogical and irrational (or malicious) by hypothesis, and therefore unacceptable. Hence the ridiculous spectacle of people complaining that children being taught something other than their own beliefs would mean that they are ‘not being taught to think for themselves.’ In their minds, ‘thinking for yourself’ means ‘thinking as I do’, because the alternative is to question their own core beliefs, and with it their own conception of themselves.

But again, when a question is both important and subject to personal judgment, a man cannot tolerate a deviation from it. It isn’t that it threatens his ability to live it, it’s that it threatens his peace of mind. He cannot allow that such a view is legitimate, because to do so is to undermine his own belief and thus to say that he might be wrong regarding a core part of his identity, which is thus reduced to a mere opinion or personal taste. “Valid” in a pluralistic context means “unimportant”.

The result of all this is that anti-dogmatism naturally leads to greater ‘horizontal’ or social pressure in societies that adopt it. The more agnostic a society commits to being, the more conformist it will become as people fight to settle and maintain their core beliefs. Certain ideas, certain arguments, and certain behaviors have to simply be rendered socially unacceptable in order to keep some kind of common value system (necessary for any society to function). Reason cannot be allowed to enter into it, because even admitting the necessity of debate on the point legitimizes the other side, which by hypothesis means that it is a matter of indifference and thus not part of the common standard.

By the principle of agnosticism, a valid belief on the part of anyone renders the counter-belief uncertain in everyone. If it is to be held as core belief, a vital part of one’s self-image and of the common standard of the community, then it must be something that cannot be legitimately questioned: something doubt on which indicates idiocy or bad faith or something of the kind.

In contrast, something held as a dogma can be safely scrutinized because it’s held, not contrary to reason, but apart from reason. It isn’t something that we’ve dug out and set up ourselves and thus dependent on our own ability to defend and explain it, but something that comes to us from outside and stands exterior to us. We can poke it and prod it and see how it works all we like (if we are so inclined) so long as we can take it more or less for granted as a given answer. If you are working out a mathematical proof, you may not be able to personally make it work out, but that doesn’t mean you doubt the solution itself. Moreover, knowing what the answer is supposed to be gives you a guideline for whether you are doing the problem correctly or not.

In any case, the answer will still be there, even if you can’t figure it out. It is possible in a dogmatic system to say “I don’t understand, but I still believe” and “a hundred difficulties don’t add up to one doubt”. It doesn’t make any sense in a liberal / agnostic one, except as an expression of raw will. Because under agnostic principles, if you don’t understand, you shouldn’t believe. Or at the very least you should doubt and not make it a part of your core identity, with the results outlined above.

In short, dogmatic certainty is one of those things that, whatever you do, you can never remove it from the human psyche. You can only obscure or disguise it, which only aggravates its evil tendencies. Dogma acknowledged as such can allow for tolerance because it isn’t dependent on you to survive. Dogma that is both claimed as a reasoned conclusion and is part one’s core being cannot, because even to question it comes with great psychological cost.

Again, importance plus vulnerability equals desperation. Desperation does not lead to tolerance.

Bonus Post Script:

By the way, this whole subject is an example of a trend I notice in a lot of liberal thought; a tendency to assume a very high (and thus very flattering) moral and intellectual standard among the general population. I’m not talking about basic honesty and responsibility, but extraordinary virtue and intelligence.

In this case, the proposed state of agnostic uncertainty would only lead to general open-minded tolerance in a society where all men were true philosophers committed to a pure and disinterested pursuit of the truth, who could not only stand to have their more cherished ideas and self-images discussed, but would be able to judge when they have and have not been proven satisfactorily. An entire society of Socrateses and Aquinae, in other words.

That is to say, a standard that exists in only a vanishingly small number of truly exceptional individuals and absolutely will never be the norm for any society, but which is both very easy and very flattering for a given individual to imagine of himself.

It’s very easy to convince people that something they want to be true is true. This is often applied to religion or areligion or other big ideas, but I think it’s best seen in much simpler and more obvious ways, such as the fact that if you tell people that they are brilliant, reasonable, enlightened, and virtuous, they will want to believe you. And so if you have a system that only (theoretically) does what it says it will in a society of perfectly enlightened, intelligent, and virtuous citizens, many, many people will flock to it in droves without asking 1). Whether they are, in fact, such a nation of supermen and 2). How such a system will function in a society whose citizens do not fit that criteria.

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