The Illusion of Certainty: Empty But ComfortingRadical Bleeding Heart image

Doubt and Certainty

Short version: One, there is no such thing as certainty. Two, we want it so much that we create it out of nothing, pretending that it exists so that we can have something to believe in without having to ever think about it again. Three, our lust for a sure thing makes us prey to the certainty-mongers who use our weakness to manipulate us for their own ends.

The lust for absolutes is driven by our craven terror of the unknown, our fear of our own ignorance . . . of the dreadful possibility of having to think for ourselves. It afflicts us all. Here the difference between liberals and conservatives is a matter of degree only. Conservatives do generally occupy one end of the scale: they are terrified of ever having to really think about anything, so they demand absolute certainty about everything. They love Authority: someone to tell them what to do, what to think and what to believe.

Conservatives Know Everything. That is why it is always a mistake to try to change a conservative's mind. They are never persuaded by facts, no matter how obvious, nor by logic, be it ever so lucid. That would mean having to think, and the most glorious, fabulously comforting, and soul-restoring thing about being a conservative is that you never, ever, have to think for yourself. You have other people to do all that heavy lifting for you.

Trying to get a conservative to think is like teaching a pig to sing: it wastes your time and annoys the pig.

Do you remember when Dubya was asked to recall mistakes that he had made as President? He could not think of a thing. He understood his constituency. Infallibility is most important thing they wanted from him. They demand their Führer to be perfect, to be an Idol, and to provide them with absolute certainty. Total freedom from doubt is what they crave.

The Republican Brain. Don't take my word for it. Check out Chris Mooney's book The Republican Brain. Mooney looks at psychological studies on the irrationality of political convictions, and one of the things he finds is that the more educated Republicans are also the more misinformed and the least likely to be swayed by evidence that goes against their convictions! Conservative think tanks exist for such people. Theo Anderson, in a review of the book for the June 2012 issue of In These Times explains:

In field after field, from economics to political philosophy to the sciences, such institutions and "experts" have created a counter-narrative that challenges and often inverts the mainstream consensus. Their aim isn't to get at the truth as it is commonly understood. Instead, it is to bind believers together and reinforce their faith. In a world that seems increasingly perilous and incomprehensible, this faith offers a measure of security. Indeed, facts seem to matter so little to modern Republicans because the facts are irrelevant to—or else a threat to—the elaborate alternate realities that they've constructed. And the reason the most highly educated and engaged Republicans are also the most detached from reality is that they're aware of the opposing points of view. So keeping the faith requires continual rationalizations. In other words, it takes more than cluelessness to be a reality-denying Republican. It takes hard work.

Acceptance of uncertainty may form a broad scale with total acceptance on one end and utter rejection on the other, but if conservatives gather fearfully at the far end of that scale, do not imagine that liberals all stand boldly at the other. You can find them all up and down it, even some down there with the conservatives clinging to perfect knowledge. The only difference is their perfect knowledge is rather unlike that of the conservatives.

At the other extreme of the scale you will find not liberals but lunatics. Lunatics are interesting folks. We owe a lot to them. If you would like to venture into that murky territory, you can do so here.

Sanity and Certainty. Yes, sane folks demand certainty, yet it does not exist. If you conclude from this that sanity demands a degree of denial, you would be right. Does that make you uncomfortable? Would you like to believe that sanity and the courageous acceptance of the truth go hand in hand? 'Fraid not. But it is possible to face the truth and have something very much like certainty. If you are interested, you can check it out here (with the Madman). Yet for the vast majority of sane people, conservative or liberal, the need for some degree of certainty is overwhelming.

But to be genuinely progressive, it is necessary to accept uncertainty at least to some degree. Conservatives like the way things are (or were in some imagined idyllic past), but progressives want to change them, to move into a different and better future. That means stepping into the unknown. It means wandering off into the dark. And how can we illuminate that murky and treacherous frontier? The only light available is that of our minds; we have to think for ourselves.

That is dangerous indeed, and it will take us in many different directions, most of them dead ends, some of them even disastrous. Exploring new worlds is always full of peril, but if we do not lose sight of our values, and think clearly about our goals, the journey will be worth the struggle and the sacrifice. For there will be sacrifices. There always are.

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