About a year ago, a former student of mine working toward her PhD in philosophy at the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada, sent out a call through Facebook for anyone interested in talking on the radio show she produces about certainty as a moral problem. I volunteered, she interviewed me by phone for an hour, and the edited version of my comments was part of this week’s program on her show, “Pioneer Radio,” heard bi-weekly on CFRU, 93.3 FM in Guelph. The theme of the show was “Whatever Help You Sleep At Night.” If you would like to hear the broadcast, the link is at the end of this post. Here’s what I said (with apologies that I although I write in complete sentences, I do not always speak that way!):
I think that what might be wrong with being certain is that it is almost always putting a period or an end to something. Whatever it is that you feel you are certain about, once you come to that point, it kind of gives you a “get out of thinking free” card for the foreseeable future on that topic. The reason that might be a problem is that I think the world very seldom comes to us in ways that are divided up neatly and cleanly with sharply defined finish points or boundaries. The world tends to be far more open-ended or blurry or fuzzy.
When we expect that the sun will come up tomorrow, when we expect that gravity will continue to work, when we expect that the people in our life will continue to behave the way that they regularly have—you cannot live a human life without that kind of regularity. But for me certainty is something different than that. The regularity that we need in our lives going forward, whether it is relationships or just being able to get through the day might be something more like extremely high probability or trustworthiness, rather than something like certainty. “Certainty” for me is not a synonym for “it is very likely to be the case that.” Certainty—and maybe this is the philosopher in me—takes me in the direction of someone who says “This is something that cannot be doubted.”
In a relationship, somebody might be very, very confident in his or her relationship with somebody else, but would probably not be willing to go so far as to say that “there is no possibility that this relationship could change, or there is no possibility that I might be wrong about it.” They are just saying that “my experience is that this is something very reliable.” My wife Jeanne and I wrote our own wedding vows, and I recall that she was not so sure that it makes sense to say “until death do us part” about anything. As I recall we still did keep that in, understanding that for a human being with incomplete knowledge of themselves and of the future, as well as of what the future will bring, to say about anything “I will hold this to be true and I will stand on this belief until I die” sounds like—and it is—a real commitment, and I believe people mean it when they say something like that. But at the same time, I think if people talk about it, normally speaking they understand that there certainly are imaginable circumstances going forward that would undermine that promise.
In moral behavior, believing that you have moral certainty is particularly problematic because the moral life is very complicated just like the world we live in. As soon as you believe that you have certainty in the moral realm, not only are you likely to consider your work done there, but in the moral life we tend to impose our principles, our guidelines, on others as well. Believing that you have moral certainty makes it very difficult to have meaningful discussions about morals, about ethics, with those who have different principles. As soon as I think that what I believe is absolute, then I am going to defend it at all costs and am very likely to dismiss those who disagree with me.
Morality, being able to live with others in community, and rules of behavior–all these sorts of things are necessary in order for human beings to be with each other and to be in relationship with each other. But human beings as imperfect and flawed creatures are going to find themselves failing to understand each other, and very frustrated with each other and with themselves, if they are holding themselves and each other to a standard that actually can’t be satisfied. Holding yourself, or myself, or each other to a standard of certainty, saying that a promise only counts as a promise if you can guarantee me that the thing you are promising me will always hold, or that you will never change your mind, or that circumstances will not change such that the promise no longer makes any sense–these are all sources of frustration. We are not the sorts of creatures who have that capacity, to see into the future, to understand ourselves going forward in such a way that we can legitimately make those sorts of claims.
So even on the things that I believe I am most sure about, that I’m most convinced of, I always find it helpful to at least say to myself “This is what I believe, this is what I consider to be (I might even say) absolutely true,” but always tack on “But, I might be wrong,” “But, I have a lot to learn,” or “But, I’m not omniscient.” Otherwise, being convinced that we have certainty—just to put a religious term on it—as if we are omniscient, simply indicates that on this particular issue I believe that I have the mind of God. I don’t believe I could possibly be wrong. I just don’t believe that a human being is ever entitled to take that sort of a stance.
As soon as you start eroding the edges of absolutes, immediately somebody is going to say that “where you are moving, if you are not there already, is relativism, where everything is equally good.” That absolutely is not the position I am taking. I think that there are some moral principles that are far more supportable and justifiable than others, that have better evidence to support them, that are likely to be treated as more highly probable than others, but that all comes out in discussion, not in terms of certainty. We have to close things off and treat them “as if” they are certain on a regular basis just in order to survive, in order to be productive human beings. But I think the problem is that we forget the “as ifs.”
If you would like to hear the audio, here is the link. The whole show is worth listening to–my segment begins about three-quarters of the way through the hour.