On Certainty & Doubt

“A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines. With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do. He may as well concern himself with his shadow on the wall. Speak what you think now in hard words, and to-morrow speak what to-morrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict every thing you said to-day. — ‘Ah, so you shall be sure to be misunderstood.’ — Is it so bad, then, to be misunderstood?” ~ Ralph Waldo Emerson

Emerson For a long time I viewed my many doubts as a sort of impediment rather than a philosophical weathervane. From time to time, still, I crumble under the weight of it all and embrace some false certainty, as though I can point myself in some singular direction regardless of the winds of change and time. I set my course and go unblinkingly into the black. Then, somewhere out at sea, I remember myself. I remember that the people who seem most certain in this world are often the least; and that the waters are deeper than I can comprehend. It would be wiser not to underestimate their depths. It would be wiser to treat this ocean of human knowledge with humility.

I think doubt is a much maligned, much misunderstood thing; perhaps because people never really embrace it, never really try to understand why it might be – in and of itself – a positive force, but instead find ways to extinguish it utterly. Doubt is cast in our society as a malfunction, something to overcome, something broken. I don’t see it that way anymore. Yes, some people become mired in it, become paralyzed by indecision – there are reasons we have phrases like “wracked with doubt” or “mired in doubt” and so on and so forth. But doubt is not the same thing as uncertainty. “Speak what you think now in hard words, and to-morrow speak what to-morrow thinks in hard words again.”

Certainty is an alluring trap; the temptation of intellectual or spiritual closure pulls us under, riptide-like, into its soporific current. A release from our uncertainty is a powerful tonic. It explains the Tea Party, the socialist revolutions of the 20th century, American exceptionalism, and essentially progressivism writ large. And our certainty only increases as the subject matter becomes more complex and our expertise (or faith in expertise) becomes more precise.

Doubt should guide us as we edge toward the precipice of social engineering or nation building or legislation that could affect the lives of millions of people; too often, faith in the capability and beneficence of experts and technocrats guides us instead. Numbers and data should inform our decisions as well, obviously, but soberly and with caveats. The unpredictable is always with us and never fully accounted for. We know that we do not know but never what we do not know. That is why we must sometimes cleave to folkways, to the incomputable knowledge of the past and its inscrutable traditions.

As I was once fond of repeating: The more I know, the less I know. Perhaps this is why I find conservatism – not movement conservatism, mind you, but rather that elusive almost apolitical dispositional conservatism – so much more interesting and compelling than any other political philosophy – why it resonates with me in spite of myself, and why it provides me with some balance to my own rather more hot-headed disposition.

All of which reminds me of a piece Jim Manzi penned recently that I’ve been meaning to write about. In an extended discussion of experts and public policy, Manzi concludes,

Bill Buckley famously said that he “would rather by governed by the first 2,000 names in the Boston telephone directory than by the Harvard faculty.” So would I. But I would rather fly in an airplane with wings designed by one competent aeronautical engineer than one with wings designed by a committee of the first 20,000 names of non-engineers in the Boston phonebook. The value of actual expertise in a technical field like wing design outweighs the advantages offered by incorporating multiple points of view.

The essential Progressive belief that [Ezra Klein] expresses in undiluted form is that crafting public policy through legislation is a topic for which, in simplified terms, the benefits of expertise outweigh the benefits of popular contention. Stated more cautiously, this would be the belief that the institutional rules of the game should be more heavily tilted toward expert opinion on many important topics than they are in the U.S. today.

This would be a lot more compelling if the elites didn’t have such a terrible track record of producing social interventions that work.

An aeronautical engineer can predict reliably that “If you design a wing like this, then this plane will be airworthy, but if you design it like that, then it will never get in the air.” If you were to build a bunch of airplanes according to each set of specifications, you would discover that he or she is almost always right. This is actual expertise. I’ve tried to point out many times that the vast majority of program interventions fail when subjected to replicated, randomized testing.

Our so-called experts in public policy talk a good game, but in the end are no experts at all. They build castles of words, and call it knowledge.

I love that last line: “They build castles of words, and call it knowledge”. While I value the data provided by the social sciences, I think it can do little more than point us in a vague direction. Often it can do little more than provide us with warning signs, and very often only in hindsight. Naturally, this can result in treating symptoms for a disease that has already run its course, with all the unintended consequences that entails; or to treating what is not a disease at all but rather simply another side-effect of being human. Or it can result in pseudo-science – for instance, the racialism practiced by folks like John Derbyshire who cloak their own use of social sciences to promote notions of human ‘biodiversity’ in the thin veneer of biology – another fallacy Manzi has made short work of.

Unintended consequences, moral hazard – these are the cornerstones of the Doubter’s belief system. Acolytes of doubt look always into the dusty corners of ideas and ideology to find cracks in the sediment, to find the faulty beam that will, someday, bring the whole house toppling down. Every idea is a house of cards, a gamble; every step forward runs the risk of collapse; steps backward run similar risks, which is why doubters are rarely activists or revanchists or progressives or populists, nor are they really conservative or liberal – though I think the Oakeshottian ‘conservatism of doubt’ Andrew Sullivan has written about on numerous occasions is essentially what I’m driving at.

For a long time I tried to snuff out my own doubts, my own wishy-washiness. I still do – and such is the paradox of subscribing to doubt as a philosophy. Certainty burns brighter, and doubt casts shadows everywhere – even on its own merits. To truly doubt – to doubt with conviction – means one will constantly question the value of doubting, and will constantly be drawn moth-like to that bright burning candle of faith or certainty or closure.

Two posts here at The League have gotten me thinking. William’s thoughts about The League, and Jason’s musings on political teams. Jason wrote:

The assumption, as always, is that one simply must choose a team. From then on, keeping score is easy. You know you’re winning when your team is in power. You know you’re losing when your team is out of power. If you do not choose a team, one will be chosen for you, and their joys and miseries will be ascribed to you, whether you ask for them or not.

Most people never even try to avoid choosing, of course. And the few who stand outside for a while usually acquiesce sooner or later. But this presumably useful heuristic has some funny side effects. The goal of politics is no longer the sensible management of power, let alone its reduction. The goal is power — to get it, to keep it, to bang that gavel. That’s what parties do to us — they place the reality of politics, and the power of it, beyond moral censure. Power is what everyone wants.

Teams give their members, above and beyond anything else, a sort of prepackaged certainty in a worldview and a sense of being right. They validate our certainty, and give us a bulwark against doubt. And recently I gave in to the notion that somehow we must pick a side if we are to ever have anything worthwhile to say, that all those wishy-washy fence-sitters were little better than David Broder, engaging in all sorts of false equivalencies. I was wrong to do so. I was wrong not only to think that I could be part of a team, but wrong to think I could cheer on the liberal side exclusively, that I could fit into that particular box. Oh, I can’t really cheer on the conservative side either, no doubt about that – the conservative “side” being little more than the conservative movement in this case, hardly a movement known for its doubt or temperance. But I don’t have the disposition of a liberal either, really, the faith required to be a progressive, or the certainty required to be part of a team, toeing whatever line is acceptable and appropriate. I distrust all complex systems including government, and if anything, my foray into contemporary liberalism has made me distrust government more than ever. I am not reflexively anti-government, of course, but I distrust it plenty, as I do all complex, entrenched institutions. But the question of liberal/conservative is secondary to doubt and certainty.

Part of what moved me toward the side of certainty and away from the side of doubt was the fact that, as I mentioned at the time, I have always voted for Democrats. But it’s important to understand why I’ve always voted for Democrats. I live in Arizona, first of all, where the right-wing is quite a lot further to the right than I would like. The Arizona legislature and other elected officials in Arizona are consistently passing or pushing radical, revanchist legislation. The only possible way to bring moderation to the state is to vote for level-headed Democrats. Furthermore, I am something of a socialist when it comes to local politics (I kid, to some degree, but I really am much more liberal on local issues, i.e. public schools, local business favoritism, etc.) so I tend to vote for people who will keep my town the artsy, funky, local-businessy haven it is. The same cannot be said for national politics.

On a national level, the only votes I’ve cast in presidential elections were for Gore when I was an eighteen-year-old default-lefty (default, I say, because my politics at the time were largely unexamined) and then Kerry in ‘04 after Bush led us into two wars, and then Obama in ‘08 because McCain was an idiot and Bush and the Republican party had laid waste to the American economy. But if a serious Republican were to run against Obama in 2012 I might very well vote for them. Naturally, my sense of what constitutes ‘serious’ is quite different than much of the GOP base, so this is unlikely. Gary Johnson stands very little chance, and let’s face it: Mitch Daniels is too short.

Likewise, my inclination has always been toward a more traditionalist, localist society: place, limits, liberty – these strike a resounding chord with me – but I am too uncertain of the ramifications of localism to embrace it fully and too sure that my own localism is colored by the affection I feel toward my own town. I suspect romanticism is largely to blame, and I am a Romantic at heart. Besides, people have a nomadic streak, a desire to shrug off our generational obligations, to be something more, always, than what we are or are expected to be. Who am I to suggest that this is wrong when I myself have the same desires? Why not go to the city and leave the farm behind? Become something else entirely. Cast off our old skin, metamorphosize and become butterflies.  Sometimes our home towns are little more than ghost towns, places to haunt us, places to leave behind full of ghosts we’d prefer to forget.

My belief in free markets has similarly developed out of my doubt: I doubt that markets will always or even often provide optimal results, but I doubt more the central planner or the protectionist. I am certain of our individual stupidity but more afraid of the state’s massive, collectivized stupidity. I am not ideologically a free marketeer, really. It is only, like democracy, the least worst option of the bunch. And I believe in societal safety nets because I doubt the beneficence of my fellow man – or of myself, for that matter.

In short, I am not sure if I am a conservative or a liberal or a libertarian or an independent. I only know that I am an adherent to the philosophy of doubt (however often I am lured by its seductive twin) and that, as such, I tend to abhor movement politics, cringe at the faux certainty of those good team players so quick to shut down debate – and sometimes, every now and then, envy the certainty of these movements and their followers. I fear the capacity man has for evil and destruction more than I am able to place hope in his good intentions; and I worry more about the unintended consequences of people who mean well but are given too much power to enact their well-intentioned ideas. I would prefer to keep power as dispersed as possible even if it means giving up on some good ideas. But I am not certain that I am right about this. It is very possible I am wrong. I am a doubter, and a Gemini, and I will continue in this infuriatingly inconsistent philosophy because I am only certain about one thing: doubt is merely the least worse option of the bunch, and from where I’m standing, that is enough. I will undoubtedly be misunderstood, but as Emerson rightly asked – “Is it so bad, then, to be misunderstood?”

Please do be so kind as to share this post.
Share

53 thoughts on “On Certainty & Doubt

  1. Must be something in the air, because yesterday I wrote this about a small ethical dilemma I faced 20-odd years ago:

    “I can’t say if I did the right thing or the wrong thing, or what I’d do if I had it to do all over again. I only know what I did.”

      Quote  Link

    Report

  2. Let me recommend Voegelin’s essay “In Search of the Ground,” as the first step toward recovery. Here the third meaning of ‘aition’ or the ground of existence is explicated as Nous (Reason, or intellect or Spirit). Consequently your search is for rational purpose, what Voegelin identifies as that which can be found in the Aristotlean ‘episteme politike.’
    Voting for Barry is surely the sign of a serious psychopathology, but one that can be overcome.

      Quote  Link

    Report

  3. “Doubt is cast in our society as a malfunction, something to overcome, something broken.” This seems to me the opposite of the case. Arguably actual doubts about issues of real importance are not charitably entertained by our society, but doubt is certainly cast in our society as an intellectual virtue.

      Quote  Link

    Report

  4. Excellent analysis, Erik. I’ve had similar thoughts over the years. What helped move me along was the realization that truth and certainty are not the same thing and that while the former is important at day’s end, the latter really isn’t. I can strive for knowledge of truth without ever needing certainty to support my endeavor. If I need anything, it is hope, hope that what I’m pursuing is the truth, and hope that all of us stand, walk and search within its light, even and especially in our disagreements.

      Quote  Link

    Report

  5. Interesting post. Note that the law of unintended consequences cuts both ways: by doing something new and by continuing to do the same thing in the face of changed circumstances.

    But in a world as industrialized as ours, circumstances are always changing. How many gigatons of CO2 equivalent should we release, before calling a stop? What’s more radical — following the path of every other industrialized nation on pooling health care costs, or leaving ever more people without access to preventive health care? Our fishery fleets for the first time in human history can destroy all the fisheries, not just a few at a time (Grand Banks cod, Monterey sardines). What’s the more radical course of action in the face of doubt about how best to save wild fish — do nothing or try incremental change?

    Manzi, as usual, casts his political opponents in the worst light possible. To me, the core message of liberalism is that government can help. As it can also do harm, the actions of government need to be watched closely and reversed if necessary. But as we don’t run society as a closed, replicable experiment, we really don’t know how much worse things would be if “elites” hadn’t at least tried to make things better.

      Quote  Link

    Report

    • “But in a world as industrialized as ours, circumstances are always changing. How many gigatons of CO2 equivalent should we release, before calling a stop?”

      It seems to me that this question is best answered by reason, and not liberalism or conservatism or even libertarianism. Better still if we answer it with reason, and then observe the results with the same.

      I always find myself worrying when someone explains that we’re going to try a liberal solution, or a conservative solution, or a libertarian solution to a problem. I always imagine that the real goal is not the end result so much as the forcing of a solution that IS liberal, or conservative, or libertarian. I am always more comfortable when someone says “Wait – how can best deal with this?”

        Quote  Link

      Report

      • Yep. But sometimes that means that the State steps in and says ‘you can’t’ or ‘you must’. (I’m rarely a fan of the latter.). And starting from a presumption that the free market does better always (yes always) has the hidden assumption that costs cannot be externalized (pollution) or socialized (bank failure).

        So for me, the basic rule of State involvement is how is the taxpayer on the hook when things go wrong. Figure out that number — from finance to pollution to health care — and regulate to fill that gap.

          Quote  Link

        Report

    • Good points, Francis. I don’t think we can solve everything by incremental change either. Sometimes radical steps have to be taken – think of things like sweeping reforms to civil rights, for instance. I’m less certain about solutions to environmental problems like climate change which require such widespread economic changes. Though I would support a carbon tax.

        Quote  Link

      Report

  6. “In short, I am not sure if I am a conservative or a liberal or a libertarian or an independent. I only know that I am an adherent to the philosophy of doubt.”

    A well thought and delivered argument, though in all fairness to me you’re preaching to the choir. The extra step I might go from that line above is that unlike most of the other philosophies, doubt doesn’t ask you to abandon your reason at best or your humanity at worst.

    Sooner or later, the dogmatic always place the unreachable ideal above people. Doubt helps counter that.

      Quote  Link

    Report

  7. Geminis are a real pain in the posterior.
    At least, that’s what all my friends and family keep telling me.

    An altogether thoughtful post and interesting read, despite the short shrift paid to social science beyond ‘vague direction’.

      Quote  Link

    Report

  8. The whole problem with the world is that fools & fanatics are always so certain of themselves, and wiser people so full of doubts.
    ~ Bertrand Russell


    The above quote is my email signature. I read the title & assumed it would a post more along those lines. As a self-described liberal I was highly disappointed.

    Why? Because I think your characterization of liberal certainty is not a good one.

    I don’t think most liberals are as cocksure about any policy prescriptions as you make us out to be. I think liberals are certain about the things we want accomplished when it comes to a particular policy question. I don’t think that necessarily bleeds into a certainty of success.

    The only lib mentioned in this piece is Ezra Klein. Someone who is just about as far from a fool or a fanatic as it gets.

    Maybe it’s because I’m Black, but I highly skeptical of the collective wisdom of the American people.
    The idea the a whole bunch of people who know little to nothing about a particular subject are going to come to a better solution than those who have studied it is ludicrous. Only in the political/policy sphere would someone make a statement along those lines & be lauded for it.

    I’m especially skeptical of all the doubt that is thrown up when liberals try to do something big. Reagan’s nonsense about medicare comes to mind.

    “I am certain of our individual stupidity but more afraid of the state’s massive, collectivized stupidity.”

    What about the nation’s massive collective stupidity? I feel like there is a bit of this salt of the earth Americans know best stuff running through this piece.

    I don’t believe in the free-market as it now stands because corporations are not trying to get the most efficient outcome, they’re trying to get the most profitable one. I think what we’ve seen in the banking industry over the last few years proves that this two goals are not necessarily aligned.

    I also have to say I’m definitely wondering how much of this piece has to do with the reception to some of your posts at Balloon Juice.

    At the end of the day though I think your doubt, partially based in the fear of the evil that people can do, leads us to stagnation. What’s funny is that you kind of seem to wish for certainty before any govt action. No such certainty exists. All potential solutions come with risks. Some greater than others.

    Conservatives would just have us stand pat. Unfortunately, with a lot of the issues that we face as a nation that is not really an option. Occasionally risk must be taken, doubt cast aside, and replaced with hope.

      Quote  Link

    Report

    • TKOEd – I think you’re focusing too much on the Manzi passage (which mentions Klein). That being said, perhaps this was aimed a bit more at liberals, and maybe that is, to some degree, because of the reception I’ve had at Balloon Juice. But it’s not meant as a take-down of liberals or liberalism; rather, it’s just a meditation on my own doubts about everything and since I try to incorporate politics into most of my writing, that’s the direction this piece took. Since I have been thinking a great deal about liberalism and its limitations, this is the strain that emerged. But again – this is meant not as a piece about my politics directly so much as it is a piece on my disposition. I still overcome many of my doubts in order to support positions which I care deeply about.

        Quote  Link

      Report

    • In other words, this took on a tone aimed a bit more at liberals because the last time I staked out a place in the realm of Certainty was for liberalism; and here I am saying I should remain in the realm of Doubt. Not necessarily that I should stop pursuing liberalism, either, but that I should do so in my own way, with my own philosophical penchants intact.

        Quote  Link

      Report

      • Are liberals in line with 20th century progressives? And was eugenics a product of progressivism? I’m seriously asking- I don’t know. But I do live in a part of Canada where well intentioned liberals offer a lot of social services that basically amount to keeping the poor under surveillance, so I have my suspicions. The real problem in America, as Jason basically said, is that you share these suspicions and it’s assumed that you vote Republican, and vice-versa if you share your suspicions about conservatives.

          Quote  Link

        Report

        • Are liberals in line with 20th century progressives?

          Well… they are descendants and share a familial resemblance. Additionally, you will find, in pockets, a handful of knee-jerk defenses of the, ahem, “excesses” of historical progressivism (as well as attacks on the motives of those attacking historical progressivism) to be coming from the left 99 times out of 100.

          Was Eugenics a product of progressivism?

          You say “product” and I think I need you to unpack that. It was one of the things that progressives believed at that time, yes. Helen Keller, of all people, believed in eugenics (her dog was blind too). Margaret Sanger needs no introduction. OWH Jr (ptooey!) was willing to abandon any number of Rights in order to scratch his eugenics itch.

          Then there was that whole “Hitler” thing that sort of tainted eugenics for everybody.

          But, once upon a time, a belief in eugenics was part and parcel with progressivism.

          It ain’t now and oughtn’t be used as a cudgel against modern progressivism, of course. But to gloss over it is like glossing over all sorts of ugly history. There are good reasons and bad reasons to bring ugly history into the conversation… and once the topic of the conversation is now on history, there are good reasons to change the subject something else and bad reasons to change it.

            Quote  Link

          Report

          • Sure, it’s not intended as a strike against modern progressivism- just a reminder of why one might tread with caution. Also, I’ve had any number of conversations about my misgivings about liberalism with liberals in which I was reminded of the civil rights movement and told I’d probably have had a problem with that as well.

              Quote  Link

            Report

  9. Surprised Yeats wasn’t mentioned in this thread:

    TURNING and turning in the widening gyre
    The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
    Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
    Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
    The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
    The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
    The best lack all conviction, while the worst
    Are full of passionate intensity.

    Surely some revelation is at hand;
    Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
    The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
    When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
    Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
    A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
    A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
    Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
    Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
    The darkness drops again; but now I know
    That twenty centuries of stony sleep
    Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
    And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
    Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

      Quote  Link

    Report

  10. The unpredictable is always with us and never fully accounted for. We know that we do not know but never what we do not know.

    That’s it right there. Why should we embrace doubt? BECAUSE IT’S NEVER GOING TO GO AWAY.

      Quote  Link

    Report

  11. A nice piece. Theodore Dalrymple writes somewhere that “no one is ever converted by moderation,” and I think doubt and moderation face the same PR challenges. Neither is very sexy. But when it comes to forced choices, moderation, perhaps, is doubt in action.

    A few typos:

    “…the temptation of intellectual or spiritual [certainty?] pulls us under…”

    “…would rather by [be] governed by the first…”

    “…further to the right then [than] I would like…”

      Quote  Link

    Report

  12. My belief in free markets has similarly developed out of my doubt: I doubt that markets will always or even often provide optimal results, but I doubt more the central planner or the protectionist. I am certain of our individual stupidity but more afraid of the state’s massive, collectivized stupidity.

    This is close to the insight that changed me.

    When I realized that I ought to have been free to make more poor decisions, I realized that others ought to be that free too. I got through my poor decision-making years (or the worst of them, anyway) pretty much unscathed. I know a lot of folks who did not and now have records for a lot of the things that I got away with.

    The cures we have in place are worse than the diseases they’re supposed to alleviate.

    Our government has created an iatrogenic disease.

      Quote  Link

    Report

  13. If “doubt” is neither analytically paralytic nor an impediment to action, per se, then it is consistent with “progressivism”, which needs be no more inspired by “certainty” than conservatism to be effectual.

    To assume that all that we might know or might do is already reflected in what our current government, culture, ‘social institutions’, or the ‘commonsense’ of the Boston phone book, is not “conservatism”, but a philosophy of despair.

    What is doubtful is that one can argue that “experts” get it “wrong” more often than the status quo must get it “right”. A captain who turns his boat all the time and one who steers nothing but a straight course will hit the same number of rocks, other things being equal.

      Quote  Link

    Report

  14. I think you raise an interesting point around the role and value of doubt. I myself have lived my entire life wary of ideological commitment – a certainty to the order of life and society.

    I think though that it is important to recognize that the general decline of party membership and party affiliation – and therefore guaranteed support – is in great decline. I think this points to an emerging expression of doubt, doubt though that may (and you are right here to identify the Tea Party movement) result in a new certainty. In this way I expect to see a 3rd party emerge in America at some point that provides a type of certainty to a people that have only known certainty – with certainty comes choice, choice you can be certain of – an American dream.

    Doubt though must in the end has to make room for certainty. At some moment a decision is made that requires a committment which can only be made from a place of certainty – even if it is in that moment. So – I am doubtfully certain myself.

      Quote  Link

    Report

  15. This is a great piece, thank you.

    As a fellow doubter, I’m quite interested in the transpartisan movement. I believe it is a viable way forward for US politics.

    I’m often able to see “both” sides in an argument and hence, if both positions have merit, than perhaps both are equally flawed?

    We’re often so afraid of being wrong that admitting even the possibility seems like a fate worse than death. I’ve decided that everything I believe is probably wrong, and there is a great freedom in that.

      Quote  Link

    Report

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *