Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Against Certainty

Certainty, n. Being mistaken at the top of one's voice.

–Ambrose Bierce

This unshakable conviction of rightness represents the logical outcome of everything we've read about  so far. Our sense of certainty is kindled by the feeling of knowing – that inner sensation that something just is, with all ofthe solidity and self-evidence suggested by that most basic of verbs. . . .

We have seen, after all, that knowledge is a bankrupt category and that the feeling  of knowing is not a reliable indicator of accuracy. We have seen that our senses can fail us, our  minds mislead us, our communities blind us. And we have seen, too, that certainty can be a moral catastrophe waiting to happen. Moreover, we often recoil from the certainty of others even when they aren't using it to excuse injustice or violence. The certainty of those with whom we disagree never looks justified to us, and frequently looks odious. As often as not, we regard it as a sign of excessive emotional attachment to an idea, or an indicator of a narrow, fearful, or stubborn frame of mind. By contrast, we experience our own certainty as simply a side-effect of our rightness, justifiable because our cause is just. Remarkably, despite our generally supple, imaginative, extrapolation-happy minds, we cannot transpose this scene. We cannot imagine, or do not care, that our own certainty, when seen from the outside, must look just as unbecoming and ill-grounded as the certainty we abhor in others.

– Kathryn Schulz, Being Wrong

The spirit of liberty is the spirit which is not too sure that it is right; the spirit of liberty is the spirit which seeks to understand the minds of other men and women.

–Learned Hand

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