Nothing Deserves Certainty

Bertrand Russell on Certainty and Self-Doubts

In a 1960 TV interview, celebrated British mathematician and philosopher Bertrand Russell said,

I think nobody should be certain of anything. If you’re certain, you’re certainly wrong because nothing deserves certainty. So one ought to hold all one’s beliefs with a certain element of doubt, and one ought to be able to act vigorously in spite of the doubt. … One has in practical life to act upon probabilities, and what I should look to philosophy to do is to encourage people to act with vigor without complete certainty.

Intellectual Censorship

It’s regrettable that many ideas imprinted into the soft putty of an unformed mind sometimes remain there forever. Many people seem to believe the very first thing they’re told and stick with it for the rest of their life. What’s worse, they are often willing to defend that position to their death. They engage in intellectual censorship: not only do their core beliefs remain unexamined, but also any attempt to challenge their beliefs is taken as a grievous insult. They don’t realize that the suppression of opposing viewpoints doesn’t add credibility to an argument.

One reason could be laziness. In On Being Certain, Robert Burton highlights the neuroscience behind the discrepancies between genuine certainty and the feeling of certainty. Arguing that certainty is an emotion just like anger, passion, or sorrow, Burton provides summaries of many studies that show that people’s certainty about their beliefs is an emotional response that is distinct from how they process those beliefs. Consequently, once they develop a “that’s right” disposition about a subject matter, their brain subconsciously protects them from wasting its processing effort on problems for which they have already found a solution that they believe is good enough. In other words, their cerebral laziness subconsciously leads them to “do less” by simply embracing certainty rather than reexamining their assumptions.

Intellectual Censorship and Intellectual Arrogance

Intellectual Arrogance and Philosophical Idolatry

One outcome of feeling certain is intellectual arrogance. People who live by the illusion of their own self-sufficiency will shut their arrogant minds to alternative perspectives and even turn hostile towards those who possess or produce new ideas, since they regard their own truths as absolute without the need for alternative viewpoints or even amplification of their own convictions. On the other hand, people who recognize their limitations will necessarily feel modest about themselves and be enthusiastic to broaden their points of view. They actively seek differing viewpoints with compassion and gratitude and seek to cross-examine their convictions, strengthen them, explore alternative viewpoints, and perhaps discover new truths.

The 16th century English philosopher Francis Bacon wrote (per The New Organon and Related Writings,)

The human understanding when it has once adopted an opinion draws all things else to support and agree with it. And though there be a greater number and weight of instances to be found on the other side, yet these it either neglects and despises, or else by some distinction sets aside and rejects, in order that by this great and pernicious predetermination the authority of its former conclusion may remain inviolate.

The 19th Century British political philosopher John Stuart Mill actively advocated understanding every side of an argument because he wanted to “see that no scattered particles of important truth are buried and lost in the ruins of exploded error.” Mill explained in Early Essays:

Every prejudice, which has long and extensively prevailed among the educated and intelligent, must certainly be borne out by some strong appearance of evidence; and when it is found that the evidence does not prove the received conclusion, it is of the highest importance to see what it does prove. If this be thought not worth inquiring into, an error conformable to appearances is often merely exchanged for an error contrary to appearances; while, even if the result be truth, it is paradoxical truth, and will have difficulty in obtaining credence while the false appearances remain.

Uncertainty is a Fundamental Tenet of Thinking, Discovery, and Invention

Speaking of the virtues of uncertainty and doubt in the scientific and unscientific methods of questioning, experimenting, and understanding, the celebrated physicist Richard Feynman said in The Meaning of It All,

This experience with doubt and uncertainty is important. I believe that it is of very great value, and one that extends beyond the sciences. I believe that to solve any problem that has never been solved before, you have to leave the door to the unknown ajar. You have to permit the possibility that you do not have it exactly right. Otherwise, if you have made up your mind already, you might not solve it.

When the scientist tells you he does not know the answer, he is an ignorant man. When he tells you he has a hunch about how it is going to work, he is uncertain about it. When he is pretty sure of how it is going to work, and he tells you, “This is the way it’s going to work, I’ll bet,” he still is in some doubt. And it is of paramount importance, in order to make progress, that we recognize this ignorance and this doubt. Because we have the doubt, we then propose looking in new directions for new ideas. The rate of the development of science is not the rate at which you make observations alone but, much more important, the rate at which you create new things to test.

If we were not able or did not desire to look in any new direction, if we did not have a doubt or recognize ignorance, we would not get any new ideas. There would be nothing worth checking, because we would know what is true. So what we call scientific knowledge today is a body of statements of varying degrees of certainty. Some of them are most unsure; some of them are nearly sure; but none is absolutely certain. Scientists are used to this.

Reiterating the virtues of uncertainty in a discussion of the thought process of the French Renaissance philosopher Michel de Montaigne, author Nassim Nicholas Taleb writes in Fooled by Randomness (see my summary of this book):

It certainly takes bravery to remain skeptical; it takes inordinate courage to introspect, to confront oneself, to accept one’s limitations— scientists are seeing more and more evidence that we are specifically designed by mother nature to fool ourselves.

And British naturalist Charles Darwin wrote in his Autobiography,

As far as I can judge, I am not apt to follow blindly the lead of other men. I have steadily endeavoured to keep my mind free so as to give up any hypothesis, however much beloved (and I cannot resist forming one on every subject), as soon as facts are shown to be opposed to it.

Nothing Deserves Certainty

It’s a Narrow Mind that Stays Rooted in One Spot

The American jurist Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. wrote in Ideals and Doubts, “To have doubted one’s own first principles is the mark of a civilized man.”

An important characteristic of an educated person is an inquiring mind and the pursuit of intellectual growth. People of sound conviction have nothing to fear from civil debates and are willing to throw a wide net in exploring their own beliefs. They are ready to give up the refuge of a false dogma. They have no fear of meeting minds that may be sharply different from their own. Seek alternative—even opposing—perspectives to broaden your perspectives and persistently examine your biases and prejudices.

Charlie Munger, the widely respected vice-chairman of Berkshire Hathaway, constantly reminds us that one of our utmost intellectual duties is to scrutinize our most cherished ideas as ruthlessly and as intellectually as we can—something that’s hard to do.

Idea for Impact: Expose Yourself to Alternate Viewpoints and Grow Intellectually

If you earnestly survey an opposing viewpoint and find it is still erroneous, you have the satisfaction of knowing that your views withstood intellectual scrutiny. Alternatively, if you determine that another viewpoint is partly or wholly right, you have the equal satisfaction of softening your rigid position, setting your opinions right, and feeling smarter for not succumbing to your ego’s demand to cling to a sense of certainty. The German writer and philosopher Johann Wolfgang von Goethe once wrote, “Let no one be ashamed to say yes today if yesterday he said no. Alternatively, to say no today if yesterday he said yes. For that is life. Never to have changed—what a pitiable thing of which to boast.”

By all means, dismiss ideas if you find that they lack coherence, evidence, or argumentative power—but don’t dismiss ideas merely because they disagree with your existing viewpoints. As the French writer and philosopher Voltaire said, “Doubt is not a pleasant condition, but certainty is absurd.”

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