Why We Should Particularly Doubt Our Certainties

Ted Reynolds / RSN Godot

While just thinking around, which I often do when nothing else offers, I recently came across a line of thought which presented an insight into a possible cause of much of the misunderstanding which arises within and between human minds. Since I have not seen this concept mentioned before, and since others may also find it worth considering, I here put it out for what it may be worth.

Both in our communications with others and in our internal monologues with ourselves, we often employ the words or concepts of “certainty”. I here wish to examine the meaning that “certainty” holds for others and for ourselves, as well as the effects that it may cause for the accuracy of our mental conclusions. I will come to the conclusion that in some rather clearly distinguishable conditions, the use of the concept “certainty” serves to obscure, rather than to clarify, the objects of thought. What it conveys at these times is the following:

“I am firmly convinced of the truth of this. I have no doubt about it. I have examined it in every way and cannot be mistaken. I certainly do not need to examine it again.”

This feeling will reappear instantaneously whenever this concept enters one’s thoughts. The result will be that this concept will not be reexamined in any way. None of any possible observations or reasonings which may have once, perhaps years ago, have supported the belief, will be brought before the mind. Instead a very strong feeling of being correct, being justified, not being mistaken will both reinforce the belief, and provide a very pleasant feeling that the mind will quite willingly return to on future occasions. In other words, when the “certainty” feeling is once activated, it becomes more and more unlikely that it ever will be discarded. If it was once in any way an error, that error will continue to remain and strengthen.

A less insistent form of what I am pointing out is, of course, already familiar to us all in the form “we tend to remember what attracts us and to forget what we do not like to think about,”

The concepts “I think that,” “It appears to me,” or “I am of the opinion,” escape the dangerous magnetism of “I know that.” But I think the present analysis brings home more sharply what it means for the high possibility that just those of our beliefs of which we are most certain are most likely to be lacking in adequate authentication.

By the nature of things, these “certain” beliefs will prove to be in the most important matters. Religious, nationalistic, and romantic beliefs are particularly prone to these fixation.

The more people that gain the willpower to habitually investigate (abd perhaps modify) their own certainties, the less intolerant nations, fanatical religions, and unworkable marriages with which we will be encumbered. I would like to think that I could persuade at least some of you to consider this train of thought and to share the results. .

I believe that what will now happen in the reader’s mind may involve two incompatible consequences: (a), to realize that what I portray is an accurate account and at the same time (b) to forget it as rapidly and completely as possible. This is unfortunate. (Although it might help prove my point.)

But I fear most of you may have already forgotten my main point, namely:

Certainty is a feeling, which we cling stubbornly to, not an ascertained fact. This contributes to our frequently accepting false beliefs on the most important matters, thinking that we’ve already ascertained them.

I’ll be glad to hear from anyone who doesn’t think that I am crazy.