Doubt & Certainty continued

“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, via commenter TKOEd’s comments in the first Doubt & Certainty thread

TKOEd was disappointed in my last piece:

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.

Bertrand.Russelljpg In the process of writing an extremely long and rambling 2300+ word post, I think some of my finer points were lost in the shuffle, and some of my lesser-fine points were made in ways I did not entirely intend. First of all, I do not mean to characterize liberal certainty any which way though I can see how the Manzi excerpt could leave that impression. I’m speaking broadly about certainty in general and specifically about the sort of blind certainty that I think emerges when teams and tribalism become too central to our way of thinking about the world. I don’t think people can live entirely in doubt or entirely in certainty ever, but I think one is on safer footing – ethically and otherwise – at least coming from a position of doubt rather than from a position of certainty.

This doesn’t mean that you cannot act until you are certain, that you cannot support specific policies or candidates or even ideologies – it simply means you start from a position of doubt and work your way through the ideas from the ground up rather than the other way around. Sort of like the scientific method. When you’re working from a hypothesis you have to let the facts determine where you end up – not the other way around. The easiest way to spot phony science is when you see people working backwards from a predetermined conclusion and filling in the data as they go in order to make it conform to the results. Same for politics. And teams have a way of making us do this, of presenting us with expectations of conformity that require us to work backward from certainty rather than forward from doubt.

Nor was my post meant as a broadside against liberalism. I do mention that I find dispositional conservatism (or whatever you want to call it) the most compelling political philosophy (if it is that) and that I would consider myself, still, a dispositional conservative. But politically I am much more a limited-government liberal (or something along those lines: a Cameroon Tory? a Cleggian Liberal Democrat? a liberal-tarian?). I wrote the following because I really do think there is no good American equivalent of my political leanings, and I think, by the way, that many other people are in the same boat as myself:

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 wrestle endlessly with my political self-definition, because I am a Steppenwolf, because I have a constant desire for certainty, for an ideological home, for all of that – and at the same time, I know that because of who I am I will never be content with any hard lines drawn around myself. Because I am full of doubt and because I don’t want to attain the sort of certainty that I fear might blind me. Of course, this is not necessarily a call for incrementalism either as some commenters read it – I believe in radical change occasionally as well, and am somewhat radical when it comes to civil liberties. I attempt to temper my own radicalism by acknowledging that we are in a democracy, and so we must muddle through.

This Wilkinson passage is fitting here, both because I agree with Will’s larger point that economics is a morality play and because it ties directly into the concept of experts vs. democracy, another point TKOEd took issue with in my post. Here’s Will:

There is a straightforward conflict between expert macroeconomic management and democracy. This ought to be more openly acknowledged and discussed. When elite economists demand more deference to technocratic consensus, they not so subtly demand that (even more) immense political power be ceded to them and their grad-school pals. To become angry that this power has not been granted, that select expert voices do not drown out the crowd, is to lament that in a liberal society other less expert voices are also heard. The gamble of democracy is that this evidently unwarranted equality of influence may deliver suboptimal policy in the short run, but will deliver the most materially and morally satisfactory results in the long run. Fits of expert indignation may be righteous. Bruising rants against dim foes may be damning. Trenchant retorts may be logically airtight. But no pile of Nobel prizes and prestige degrees, no matter how high heaped, will ever amount to a coup. For this, we must be grateful.

Like TKOEd, I’m skeptical of the collective wisdom of the American people. I’m not any more skeptical of the people we put in government. But those people wield enormous power; and nor are they acting in isolation. What they can and cannot do is often limited by other people perhaps less brilliant or less honest. Even the most skilled technocrat with the best intentions has to navigate the labyrinthine halls of power, compromising here, giving special favors there. Often it is the very corporations and special interests that liberals decry who benefit the most from centralized power and complexity, from the good intent of human failings. Limiting government, then, in my view is a very progressive goal. We will have experts in government no matter what – and that’s not a bad thing – but we should expect what they can achieve in real life to be far less than what they can achieve in theory. They are as human as we are and as prone to mistakes. We should look to limit the scope of their mistakes.

Again, conservatives are as guilty of certainty as liberals are – often more so. The conservative movement is nothing if not a rigid movement of ideological authoritarianism, punishing any and all who fall out of lockstep with irrelevancy. Nothing on the liberal side of the equation comes close at least in terms of organizational solidarity. Of course, such blind lockstep can afflict any group regardless of political stripe.

So this is much more a discussion of doubt vs. certainty than it is liberalism vs conservatism, or at least that was my intention.

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

18 thoughts on “Doubt & Certainty continued

        • Perhaps you’re okay with brown people living in slavery. Maybe it’s all well and good for you to sit idly by while tyrants oppress people and treat them as less than human. Rape rooms!

          In the tradition of the North liberating the slaves, we decided to liberate Iraq.

          I’m sure that you fans of the Confederacy will couch your arguments in white robes of “pragmatism” and “cost/benefit” and “our business” but I know that those supposed crosses will be on fire before long.

            Quote  Link

          Report

            • There is an old joke. Milton Friedman (or Friedrich Hayek… heck, Ludwig von Mises, why not?) is on a plane sitting next to a gorgeous woman.

              He asks “would you spend the night with me for one million dollars?”, the woman gets flustered but, after a moment’s deliberation, says “Yes, I would.”

              He then asks “would you spend the night with me for one hundred dollars?” and she gets all huffy and asks “what do you take me for?”

              He says (come on! Say it with me!) “We’ve established that, now we’re haggling.”

              We all know that wars can be perfectly justified. We have already seen an example of one that only wicked people would be opposed to. (I’ve no doubt that we could come up with others.)

              Once we’ve established that this war over here was okay… well, we’ve established that.

              Now we’re haggling.

                Quote  Link

              Report

  1. “In the process of writing an extremely long and rambling 2300+ word post, I think some of my finer points were lost in the shuffle, and some of my lesser-fine points were made in ways I did not entirely intend.”

    No offense to TKOed, who I’m sure is a smart guy (though ordinary gentleman), but how does one read the post on doubt and come away feeling it’s intent was a “broadside against liberalism?” A good clarification post here, but I’m confused as to why anyone would have read it as anything other than what it was.

    Is it possible that those who felt this way about the post were liberals, and read it that way because of their certainty in liberalism – which is to say that the tribalism gene kicked in?

    Not actually meant to be a snarky question, really one born of genuine curiosity. If so then it would seem to continue to make the original post’s argument for it.

      Quote  Link

    Report

    • If you go back & read my comments I never said it was a “broadside against liberalism?”
      I also don’t think that E.D. is saying that he thought I took it as such. He can correct me if I’m wrong.

      My point was I thought E.D. was characterizing liberals as always being certain that our aims will be successful. He then commented that he was not. I took this post to be a clarification for those who may have read the previous post as a subtle attack on liberalism.
      In the original post I didn’t think E.D. was attacking liberalism. I thought he was attacking the certainty of liberalism. I thought he was using the Manzi excerpt to do that. He says that wasn’t his intention. Good enough for me.

        Quote  Link

      Report

  2. “This doesn’t mean that you cannot act until you are certain, that you cannot support specific policies or candidates or even ideologies – it simply means you start from a position of doubt and work your way through the ideas from the ground up rather than the other way around. Sort of like the scientific method. When you’re working from a hypothesis you have to let the facts determine where you end up – not the other way around. The easiest way to spot phony science is when you see people working backwards from a predetermined conclusion and filling in the data as they go in order to make it conform to the results. Same for politics. And teams have a way of making us do this, of presenting us with expectations of conformity that require us to work backward from certainty rather than forward from doubt.”

    I vaguely recall someone (maybe Jaybird?) mentioning Oliver Wendell Holmes in a previous post. I can’t find a suitable link, (here’s the best I can come up with, definitely worth reading in its entirety: http://humbug.baseballtoaster.com/archives/000502.html), but the author, Ken Arneson, argues using observations made by Holmes and contemporary neuroscience that it’s human nature to (1.) make the decision; then (2.) gather facts to support that decision; then (3.) present analysis to explain decision instead of (1.) gather facts; then (2.) analyze facts; then (3.) make the decision.

    If that’s true, then are we forced to choose between a superficial and reactionist public or depriving said public of their democratic rights?

      Quote  Link

    Report

    • I’m not so certain it’s that simple, especially since that almost seems to assume on united public.

      I have seen enough people change their minds that I feel sure that while the Arneson model you referenced is indeed human nature, it is in the way that violent behavior is. That is, just because it’s in our nature doesn’t mean we as individuals can’t choose otherwise.

      Or perhaps it’s more base than that – maybe people who are swayed by reason in political arguments are no less irrationally tribal than others, they are merely irrationally tribal about something else. (Hello every Raider fan I’ve ever met!)

      In either case, it seems that in any political issue you have a base of people in one tribe who won’t budge facing another base from another tribe who are equally inert. And in the middle are the doubters (or, as they’re often know to the people on either side of them, the People Without Any Real Values). Those are the people to sound reasoned arguments. And swaying them is how you avoid choosing between a superficial reactionary public and tyranny.

        Quote  Link

      Report

      • I agree with you but it takes a lot of practice and experience in metacognition to get there, and the vast majority of the voting public just doesn’t make the effort (why should they? ) If each national political contest is really just a competition to see who can get the doubter vote, then the system breeds disingenuous politicians (since the primaries usually select candidates who represent themselves as extremist nightmares).

        It seems like a lot of our more successful institutions – science specifically comes to mind – recognize the fundamental human deference to baseless intuition and correct for it.

          Quote  Link

        Report

        • I am not sure if I agree or not…. Because I don’t know the extent it’s been tested.

          I know libs and cons had differing arguments for Obama’s big 08 victory. But I always thought they were off the mark, viewed through tribal masks.

          Regardless of what you think of him as POTUS, I think people came out in droves for him BECAUSE he ran as a reasonable pragmatist, or in Erik’s words, a doubter. I think in the cacophony around him his refusal to claim the red v. blue America narrative is exactly why so many had real hope… And why so many non-tribals have been so subsequently disappointed.

          The cynic in me wants to think that you are correct; that anyone who runs on a non-tribal message is doomed to also-ran status. But the romantic in me wants to think that if any party ever chose to run and govern from a place of mixed confidence and doubt, tempered with reason, they would be able to rule with an overwhelming mandate.

            Quote  Link

          Report

  3. Another way to express this is that we know what we know, but we don’t know everything, and even some things we know aren’t totally correct, so we’re constantly improving our knowledge. We’ve made great progress from pure superstition, but absolute knowledge in the areas of sociology, religion, the political realm, psychology, any areas which have to do with relationships between humans and the functioning of our minds, is impossible, so we act on the best knowledge possible, knowing that future information can alter our choices. Having said that some knowledge has been so thoroughly tested it becomes a principle, therefore it’s not necessary to start from scratch and work upwards in situations where principles can be applied. Utilitarians become myopic when they fail to acknowledge principles, and the history of the particular principle in question. Those who adopt a mindset of doubt, unless it’s tempered with wisdom and some principled certainty, are vulnerable to utilitarian myopia, or relativism, because they apply doubt across the board, overlooking the tested and proven knowledge received from the past. You can say that principles can’t be applied to every possible situation, but that has to be firmly established, and not be just a weak justification for pragmatism, or doing the next politically correct thing. The current political problem, especially with statists on the right and left, is the idea that classical liberal principles, which came about through much suffering and a lot of reasonable thought during the Enlightenment, can be ignored in favor of central plannng and social engineering based on pragmatism and utilitarianism, which is really regressive emergence of domination of the few over the many. While doubt is essential to the growth of knowledge, established principles are also essential to protecting the progress we’ve made, and ensuring progress in the future.

      Quote  Link

    Report

  4. Insightful post. I came here from Andrew Sullivan’s blogazine, where he highlighted this paragraph:

    I’m skeptical of the collective wisdom of the American people. I’m not any more skeptical of the people we put in government. But those people wield enormous power; and nor are they acting in isolation. What they can and cannot do is often limited by other people perhaps less brilliant or less honest. Even the most skilled technocrat with the best intentions has to navigate the labyrinthine halls of power, compromising here, giving special favors there. Often it is the very corporations and special interests that liberals decry who benefit the most from centralized power and complexity, from the good intent of human failings. Limiting government, then, in my view is a very progressive goal. We will have experts in government no matter what – and that’s not a bad thing – but we should expect what they can achieve in real life to be far less than what they can achieve in theory. They are as human as we are and as prone to mistakes. We should look to limit the scope of their mistakes.

    I largely agree, but have some questions. First, isn’t limiting government because people make mistakes and are prone to undue influence an argument for limiting the size, power, and influence of all institutions? People make mistakes in business, people in religion also face temptation by groups seeking their blessings, and scientists screw up experiments. While limiting government sounds great in theory, the fact is that our abilities, including the abilities of all institutions, keep amplifying as progress happens. So maybe government should grow in proportion. Government today is bigger and more impactful, but so is everything else.

    And even if all these institutions become far more limited, what about the institutions of personal relationships- family and friendship? Its grand and noble to speak in terms that have societal impacts, but the story of humanity happens within each person. People become liberated from the corrosive influence of a corrupt government or wicked religion, only to perhaps find themselves in abusive, dysfunctional, and/or self-limiting families and friendships. While its wise and beneficial to limit the impacts of institutions like the government screwing things up, what about more intimate ones?

    This leads to me third and final question. Isn’t this an argument to simply limit action in all spheres of living? If people often become corrupted and make mistakes, should we adopt a Buddhist principle of accomplishing the most by doing the least? Doubt in an age of hubristic certainty projected onto the masses has many virtues, but the arguments presented in this paragraph could lead to conclusions to simply stop attempting to improve things, and instead passively watching mindless entertainment and engaging in meaningless distractions. Because if we attempt something too grand- say, like writing things like the Declaration of Independence or attempting to fly or building huge bridges- we are liable to screw far more things up than we get right.

    While doubt has an irreplaceable role to play in advancing progress, perhaps its the doubt of perfection or certainty that matters.

    I enjoy batting around this topic. Keep on working hard, hardly working.

      Quote  Link

    Report

  5. “I don’t want to attain the sort of certainty that I fear might blind me ”

    Bingo. This is how I approach all things. Especially when it comes to politics & policy.

    “Limiting government, then, in my view is a very progressive goal.”

    Absolutely, but the devil is in the details.

      Quote  Link

    Report

Leave a Reply

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