The Problem of Certainty :
A huge debate on extremism is understandable in the light of awful events here and around the world, but extremism is a subset of a larger phenomenon which is certainty. Certainty comes from strong belief systems. Of themselves there is nothing wrong with strongly held beliefs but there also needs to be scepticism. If an element of doubt is present our ability to recognise alternatives to our views should prevent much of the behaviour we witness. Certainty can lead to blame. Religion seems to thrive on certainty as do certain secular world views such as strong politics.
A short discussion of scepticism and it’s opposite, dogmatism is useful. Organised into strong power structures religions (including secular ones) nearly always treat unquestioning adherence as a central tenant. Ritualistic patterns of activities tend to include statements of blind acceptance of the particular dogmas. Among the strongest accounts of how we see the world is came from David Hume when he described how we impose psychological patterns seen in nature. Event A follows event B on numerous occasions and often B is claimed as the cause of A. This is called inductive thinking. Of course B may well be the cause of A but by linking the two events from observation does not prove this. It is reasonable to accept the best explanation of cause and effect based on the available evidence. It would be strange to use alternative explanations if they are based on weak evidence bases. This is done by numbers of people for a range of reasons. The fact of the matter is that behind all the evidence based explanations used there should be at least the awareness of doubt. We just might be wrong. It happens. Hume’s is one description of scepticism that has never really been seen off. Dogmatism is a form of acceptance of a belief despite any counter examples thrown at it. This can be called a paradigm (Thomas Kuhn) or a project (Imre Lakatos) or simply blind faith (religions or politics). Evidence does not account in the recognition of the value of a belief, there is usually a kernel of dogma at the heart of any notion. It has the role of providing an anchor to the acceptance of it. This is necessary. In order to function everyone must have a level of acceptance of certain ideas. Even so these may change over time. Certainty the purpose of this blog is about the wider unquestioning use of certain ideas that rules out all exceptions.
So I think both scepticism and dogmatism have their role. Certainty is much more than dogmatism. It is a mental state, despite any evidence, of refusal to think of any ideas that may contradict current belief.
We are entitled to criticise any religious or political views (the idea that some perceived slight or insult preventing those expressing opposing views to a religious belief is ridiculous) provided this occurs in a form of dialogue without threat or bigotry. Pluralist societies may respect different view points but does not ban reasonable debate of them. Recent events have occurred in some universities where small groups seek to censor or intimidate those they see as opponents . Such groups entirely ignore that limits on freedom of expression are in place to protect the vulnerable from violence or other unacceptable behaviour (John Stuart Mill – On Liberty). The traditions of open debate go deep in this country.
There is always the issue of competence. On those occasions when important decisions need to be made facts should be an important factor. This might sound obvious but that important part of all our mental schema is dogmatic core of belief. How far we stick with that core varies from person to person. There is a time in all our lives when change of ideas happen, whereas most of the time much of our basic ideas are stable. There is a parallel with Thomas Kuhn’s talk of revolutions in science and normal science. The inclusion of what Lakatos calls auxiliary hypotheses, that is those more peripheral concepts that in order to protect the main thesis can be rejected. For a religious follower the role of certain ‘miracles’, whatever that means, can be downgraded or ditched to protect the idea of a deity. Coming back to competence it is a serious matter to allow decisions to be made purely from idealogical reasons even when those decisions are clearly harmful. So certainty can lead to forms of behaviour that clearly have only the merit of the preservation of a strongly held belief system. It is true that an adherent to any world view could argue that given enough time an answer may be found to the antinomy that presents itself and therefore certain ideas or facts can be parked until the problem is resolved. This is not a permanent problem solver and another ‘solution’ is the creation of ad hoc theses. This will satisfy those with certainty but at the same time the original troublesome facts will eventually return. The decisions made based on a faulted certainty could well prove disastrous or at least unbelievable.
I also wish to discuss the sociological or normative pressures that may play a big part in forcing members of a group to accept without question the certainties they espouse. It cannot be underestimated that group pressure can have an effect on individuals when they begin to reject the norms of the groups they are part of. In an idealogical (especially in a religious community) real enmity can be shown to any who seek an alternative path. Excuses are put forward by community adherents or sympathetic outsiders for what in many cases is really the exercise of power. The normal rules of behaviour from one group are abandoned when dealing with another. Because of societal pressures somehow it is deemed acceptable to ignore the suppression of individuals in what are perceived as a vulnerable community. The usual enlightenment values which form the standard for many are pushed aside for expediency. This is not a paradigm shift away from these enlightenment beliefs but ad hoc adjustments to usual norms. Pluralism is set aside and somehow minority populations are described purely in homogeneous terms. This is particularly true when dealing with religious or ethnic minorities. A side effect of this is to empower extreme elements in the group at the expense of those seeking to interact with wider society. A pretty distasteful phenomenon but fairly widespread at the far ends of the political spectrum. The certainty principle again re-enforces these tendencies. These are serious matters that need further discussion but perhaps elsewhere.
I now briefly turn to intellectual integrity. There are some examples over the years of when certain individuals or groups have displayed high levels of honesty when dealing with evidence, even at considerable cost to themselves. I have been hugely impressed by the story of how Gotlob Freige a mathematician and logician dealt with a fatal blow to work he had spent decades on. He had authored volumes on ‘The Foundations of Arithmetic’ which was an attempt to place logic at the centre of mathematics. In the early years of the twentieth century he was about to publish a seminal work on this subject when he received a letter from a young Bertrand Russell. Russell with A. N. Whitehead had been working on their Principia Mathematica. This was intended to put mathematics/arithmetic on a sound basis (believe it or not it was not and still might not be). Russell pointed out a paradox in what is known as naive set theory. The technical details of this need not concern us here but it has been described analogously as ‘Who shaves the barber?’ It works as follows:
A barber lives in a closed community where he and only he shaves all those who do not shave themselves. He shaves no others. The question is who shaves the barber? If the barber shaves himself then he cannot shave himself. If he does not shave himself then he must shave himself.
The paradox at the level of naïve set theory ( which Freige was relying on) is unsolvable. The honesty of Freige meant he immediately accepted these findings, although he did try to continue work on the problem in later years. Never the less unlike so many he was prepared to see the work of decades as flawed. Such honesty! Such an admiral attitude! Certainty just not need to go unchallenged.
Incidently both Russell and Whitehead went on to highly productive careers. Russell’s life is well documented and Whitehead studied eastern philosophy in later years gaining many important insights. He also championed what he called ‘Organic Realism’ a set of ideas that posited a continuum of awareness from inorganic to organic matter. A bit contentious that and I will leave it uncommented on.
Those who hold certainties can take illogicalities to extreme ends. They become what has become commonly known as fundamentalists. A fundamentalist strips everything back to it’s basic original statements. Admittedly writing about scientific endeavour, but I think the quoted statements work in a wider context, Nancy Cartwright the physicist and philosopher states
‘Fundamentalists see matters differently. They want laws; they want true laws; but most of all, they want their favourite laws to be in force everywhere. I urge that we resist fundamentalism. Reality may well be just a patchwork of laws.’
Nancy Cartwright – FUNDAMENTALISM vs THE PATCHWORK OF LAWS
She refers to the domain of ideas. That is where such ideas are valid. The universalism so accepted by those with certainty often at best only has limited specific ‘truth’. Different circumstances, different times, different initial conditions: all these limit the scope of how we can view specific ideas.
The use of terms such as certainty, dogma etc. may lead to some confusion. They are not the same. Certainty is a state of mind. It refers to a set of beliefs that are unchallenged by the holder and further more cannot be questioned under normal circumstances. Dogma are accepted ideas that are the kernel of a belief system that forms the anchor of a wider system. To have a dogma in common parlance has become thought of as unhealthy and indeed some dogmas that have degenerated despite rivals are the source of avoidance of proper examination of life’s experiences. Despite that it is difficult to imagine an individual holding on to a sane existence without some consistency in their views. Therefore dogma has it’s value. I have made some reference to scepticism as a bulwark against certainty. The thought that we might just be wrong about something has the chance at least of accepting that our own behaviour needs examination from time to time. Outside dogma the concept of what has been termed ‘auxiliary hypotheses’ is useful in observing how we defend our core beliefs. Some of these lesser concepts may be abandoned or modified to protect the central dogma. The dogma itself is not immune from rejection but in those circumstances a major event has come about in a world view. All this fits in with Kuhn’s concept of paradigm shift in science but I think has wider application. The idea of scope as outlined refers to the non-universal application of concepts. The Janis tradition of logic refers to aspects of reality. See an event from one point of view a certain ‘truth’ appears. Change the surrounding circumstances and the truth appears different. This is becoming incorporated in western thought now but has existed in other (particularly oriental and Indian) traditions for many centuries. Certainty and scope do not easily coexist.
I think that certainty as outlined here causes huge problems in our lives. On a grand scale it leads to bigotry in religion and politics. At a more limited level our way of living and interacting is put on a poor footing if we force our certainties on others.
Certainty of itself is a limiting factor in our views of reality.