Certainty

I try not to rope up with people who are too certain. They tend to do things like walk under seracs because seracs don’t fall when the weather is cold, forego protection because they can just climb it, and cross loaded slopes because they went this way before and it didn’t slide. Some of them are certain because they are fatalists, some because they are true believers, most because they can’t deal with the fear and uncertainty anymore and have decided to just switch off.

For a couple of centuries it seemed like we were poised to untie from certain people in general. A series of uncertain people came along and showed that their way was better. Their questioning lead to an understanding that the earth was really old, Democritus was right, kind of, and our thought and language were a self-referential tangle. These and other revelations of uncertainty eroded the old institutions whose source of knowledge was authority.

But change lead to anxiety, and the certain people saw an opportunity in that angst and in the methods of the uncertain themselves. To people who lived by a belief in authority, relativism equaled Nihilism and statements like “There is nothing but the text.” represented soft-headed weakness rather than caution and humility. So, the certain rejoined the discussion.

Their bid was an appeal to relativism and uncertainty as they saw it. If the field was level, their ideas should merit equal consideration in principle. And they packed their methods right along with those ideas. Debate to replace discussion. Moral force to replace reason. Because, with authority as their source of knowledge, they didn’t need to refine an incomplete understanding, they needed to win. And they did win. They managed to replace real skepticism, which implies uncertainty, with their version, which is synonymous with mere derision. Worse, they managed to draw uncertain people into debate.

Once the uncertain engaged, it was over. They kept trying to be reasonable and have a discussion. When that didn’t work, they tried to be certain. The certain people didn’t care about a discussion, they knew what they knew and just wanted the popular influence all authority craves. And when the uncertain people  expressed certainty, they became vulnerable to a claim of equivalence. They were revealed as authority-based too, so the claim went, so it was a simple matter of choice among similarly valid systems of belief.

The mistake was to allow the premises of certainty in the beginning. Before the uncertain began a defense of their ideas, they should have demanded that the certain defend and explain their own ideas first, with an eye toward divining the premises. When the certain appealed to assertion of authority, whether in the form of a moral sense, supernatural agency, or incredulity, the talk should have ended. A person may certainly assert whatever, but once they do, there’s no point talking about it unless you begin by agreeing with their assertion. And in that situation, it’s best to just un-tie.

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