Tuesday, 10 December 2013

An Apology to Certainty

In the time since I've written these posts advocating for less emphasis on certainty and more acceptance of uncertainty (link and link), I've moved on my position a little. I have not moved a lot, and I wouldn't feel any more comfortable formulating some kind of Statement of Personal Philosophy on this topic right now, but I feel like it's worth noting that I have encountered particular oppositions to my way of thinking and they are having an effect. A slow effect, but still an effect.

I thought I would round up a few of the things which have made me re-think my position on the subject in lieu of trying to articulate anything coherent. My purpose is so that, if anyone really wants to change my mind, they'll be able to see what kinds of things have traction on my thinking.

1. The conversation I had with Iota in the comments of this blog post. (link)
Iota has convinced me that, however useful I find postmodernism for my own thinking, it's probably not useful to expect other people to find it useful. Moreover, Iota pointed something out that it took me far too long to acknowledge: I need to reconsider my suspicion or anxiety that reducing certainty is the best method of reducing the general unpleasantness of society. Specifically, I am committing an error that I find appalling when others commit it; in the same comments section as my conversation with Iota, a number of people made claims about necessary (or at least overwhelmingly likely) progressions from one kind of belief-state to another. So, for instance, someone argued that Protestantism leads by necessity to postmodernism, and then on to relativism. But this is obviously untrue; you cannot posit necessary psychological progressions like this, particularly not when there is a lot of counter-evidence. You need to take other people's experiences seriously, and positing such progressions fails to take other people's experiences seriously.
Anyway, Iota did not make a parallel between my idea that certainty-->lack of hospitality-->jerk-ness and the grouchy Chestertonian Catholic's idea that Protestantism-->postmodernism-->relativism-->moral degeneracy, but by pointing out that my progression is faulty, Iota put me in a position where I could notice that parallel myself.

2. Real people
Following up Iota's comments, I noticed that I have friends who are certain (about some things, anyway), and manage not to be jerks. In fact, their very certainty makes them even more accepting of uncertainty in others, or so it seems. (It is also possible that they are just nice people, irrespective of how they hold beliefs. But it doesn't seem that way.)

3. Richard Beck's "Doubt and Universalism: Being Hopeful and Dogmatic"  (link)
This post is a short one, so I suggest you read it if you want a sense of what I'm talking about. The gist is that Beck is not so much a dogmatic universalist, absolutely believing that all people will go to Heaven eventually; rather, Beck calls himself a polemical universalist, because he'll argue for universalism without being sure of it. He says that if the Christian God exists, then universalism is the only position which is coherent. But Beck isn't entirely sure God exists. His certainty is in the validity of the if-then statement. It's an argument I find convincing, but I was more struck by Beck's ability to claim he's a polemical [insert position], and I think this way of constructing a belief is helpful, however religious or irreligious that position is.

This might not seem like something designed to inch me toward certainty, but it is. Being fairly confident in an if-then statement is at least a kind of confidence, and I ought to admit that. At the same time, it allows for action despite uncertainty; I may not know whether proposition A is true or false, but I sure do know that if proposition A is true, then result B will happen, while if proposition A is false, then result C will happen. That gives me something to work with, to plan for. So it makes me feel more comfortable with certainty, while giving me a way of articulating what it is I want out of uncertainty. If Beck's post hadn't done the second thing, I maybe wouldn't have accepted the first so readily.

4. Kathleen Mulhern's "Trinitarian Spirituality, 18: Believing in the Right Direction"
If you aren't Christian, this entry won't do much for you. But it has done something for me.

What K. Mulhern's posts in the middle of her series on the Trinity has indicated is that Trinitarian Christianity is invested in a God that is self-revealing. Specifically, if Christ is God incarnated on Earth, then there is something self-revealing about God. Oh, certainly there's a lot about God that remains mysterious, but it does seem that God would like us to know at least some of God's qualities. If God wants us to know at least some minimum of religious knowledge, then I presume it must be possible. This disrupts my tendencies to via negativa and analogous non-religious ways of thinking about knowledge.

5. Black holes
If the last post was rather religious, this one is rather nerdy. In the Philosophy of Mathematics course I took during my undergraduate degree, we were introduced to quite a few theories, including what's called realism or Platonism (numbers are real things that exist either in the Realm of Forms or as extensions of mathematical principles), nominalism (mathematics is an abstraction or approximation of reality relationships; this has an Aristotelian history), or fictionalism (mathematics is a fiction/metaphor we have found useful). My response was pretty much that fictionalism > nominalism > realism. I knew from the outset, though, that the big hurdle which fictionalism had to handle was the fact that math had predictive powers (most attempts to explain this with fictionalism turn fictionalism into nominalism). Most people describe the predictive powers by saying that bridges don't fall (because engineers use math and math works), but I always thought of Stephen Hawking's work on black holes.

The story generally goes that Stephen Hawking took some physical laws, crunched the numbers rather a lot, and then predicted that black holes must exist. Until this time, no one had the slightest idea about black holes, but when astronomers checked, they found evidence which suggested that they exist. It turns out this story might not be accurate, but the general lesson remains the same: physical laws are consistent and therefore predictable, and this predictability scales pretty well. We'd live in a pretty weird world if all this predictability was just a fluke.

So, black holes remind me that a lot of stuff is knowable, and I try to remember them when I start getting too skeptical.

6. Richard Beck's "Gracious Doubt" (link)
You know those times when you encounter something--maybe something a friend says, or a passage in a book, or what-have-you--which shows you, clearly and without compromise, a way you've gone wrong? That's what this post was to me. It is, yet again, a short post, so feel free to go read it.

I suppose what I managed to mess up was this: in feeling demeaned by those who were certain, I (sometimes) became antagonistic against certainty itself. In trying to make space for uncertainty, for doubt, I wasn't at all interested in making space for certainty. I recognize this now as uncharitable. I suppose this post did not really move me on this issue, so much as remind me that I needed to adjust my emotional response. And, possibly, offer an apology if I ever demeaned anyone myself. In which case, I'm sorry.

Which isn't to say I'm OK with people getting on their high horse against doubt, which is still a big issue.

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