An Addition Featured in The Conflict of Mind by O.G. Rose

Certainty Entails a Lot of Unintended Consequences

On Fear, Fragility, Anti-Diversity, Bad Nihilism, Conspiracies, Perverted Rationality, and the Death of Democracy

(This reflection expands on the paper “On Certainty” by O.G. Rose.)

If the intellectual goal of our lives is certainty (and worse yet, if certainty is moralized), then with a single doubt, we lose the goal. However, if the goal is confidence, we can have doubts and even many doubts, and not lose what we’re after. Additionally, if the goal is certainty, diversity of opinion, people, etc. are all threats, because difference creates reason to doubt, and if we must have certainty, we cannot have even a single doubt. But if the goal is confidence, the encounters with difference are not threats; in fact, they can help us expand our views and test our confidence, perhaps strengthening our confidence in ways it should be strengthened and weakening it in ways it should be weakened.

The confident person wants to discover new things, while the certain person (at least subconsciously) prefers what has been discovered to be all there is to discover. No, the certain person probably wouldn’t say this directly, but certainty begets a nervous relationship to new ideas; after all, what are the chances the new ideas help and support the certain person’s worldview? Not that high, and even if they did, what would the value add be? Certainty is already achieved; at best, the new ideas just won’t ruin what’s already established. Thus, for the certain person, new ideas are at best neutral, while for the confident person, new ideas could help increase confidence, and even if the new ideas didn’t, the confidence already achieved won’t necessarily be lost. While people under certainty cannot doubt, the person under confidence can and even should doubt.

Under confidence, doubts are a means to refine what we think, and we will not feel a rigid need to maintain what we already believe, as we must if we believe in certainty. Additionally, it’s not even possible to meaningfully “test” certainty, only maintain it or destroy it. However, confidence can be meaningfully “tested,” for it can be strengthened or weakened. Something cannot be “tested” like certainty that must be all or nothing: it can only “be” or “not be.” Certainty does not allow for growth, only “in” or “out,” “correct” or “wrong.”

The confident person expects differences and diversity, while the certain person must view differences as irrational and wrong. The confident person is confident precisely because he or she is aware certainty is practically impossible (as argued in “On Certainty” by O.G. Rose), and so it only follows that there will be people with different views about the world. But the certain person believes it’s possible to be certain about life, and so if others think differently, it must be because they haven’t done the work, are ignorant, or don’t want to know the truth (to allude to Being Wrong by Kathryn Schulz). Not only is the certain person oriented to resist difference, but the certain person is also primed to view that difference as a sign of laziness, stupidity, or malice. And I think it’s fairly self-evident that if people view each other this way, democracy doesn’t have a chance.

Also, since certainty is mostly impossible, to believe certainty is the standard ideas must meet to be considered true is to set oneself up for discouragement and to ultimately conclude truth doesn’t exist (and so fall into nihilism, as Lesslie Newbigin warns). To require certainty to believe is to require an impossibility, and if certainty is the only option, once the impossibility of the task is recognized, we are thus left with “uncertainty.” In a schema that believes certainty is the only valid standard, “uncertainty” is the same as “nothing.”

Paradoxically then, certainty ultimately finds itself unable to stop conspiratorial thinking, because if we can’t have certainty about anything and it is only with certainty that we can say something is true, then we also need certainty to say something is false (for sure). If we cannot do that, well, anything goes. Certainty takes away both our capacity to accept something as true (because nothing meets the standard) and to dismiss something as false (because nothing meets the standard).

That said, while we stay in our worldview and are certain of it, we are able by definition to define everything outside that worldview as false, but when the day comes — almost inevitably, especially if we don’t accept isolationism — when we realize certainty is impossible, if we nevertheless continue to think we are only justified to believe something we are certain about, we will begin to believe nothing — bad nihilism will appear. But since we can’t even be sure that nothing is true, we have to maintain a strange openness to all possibilities without any capacity to accept or deny any of them. They thus run through us long enough to be maintained, considered, and pursued, but never long enough for us to make a final decision. And so we find ourselves weak to stop conspiracies, and if there are some people who are “certain” about these conspiracies (as is probable), we thus can never make hard stands against the conspiracies, and so the evangelists of the conspiracies run uninhibited, gradually gaining more followers thanks to the power of their zeal. And in a world where certainty is the only valid standard of decision, once certainty is determined impossible, then emotion gradually becomes the dominant standard of judgment. It’s only rational: if the choice is between certainty or nothing, once certainty is gone, what else do we have but emotion? (Please note that this doesn’t mean emotion is bad, but that “emotional judgment” and “emotional intelligence” are not identical.)

Also, if it is believed that “a good argument” is one that gives us complete certainty, since certainty is impossible, no one will ever have to be convinced of anything or compelled to believe something different from what they already believe (a powerful tool of ideology preservation). It’s already hard enough to compel people out of their preexisting ideas, but in a schema of certainty, it’s practically impossible. In this situation, tribalism seems inevitable, for the people who agree with us are the only people who will ever have to agree with us, and so it makes sense to stick with — and only put our trust in — those people. Who knows why those people think like us — it doesn’t matter — but what matters, once they are discovered, is sticking with them. It’s hard to trust anyone, but once the trustable people are found, it’s like an episode of Walking Dead: sticking with them and trusting what they say is a matter of survival.

Emotion is a threat to certainty, for emotion arises from the world of subjectivity and change, while certainty is a thing of objectivity and “solidness.” At best, emotion can be neutral for certainty, in the same way difference can at best be neutral. But for confidence, emotion could be an avenue for new truth or refinement, just like “the other” in general can be. For the confident person, there is no need to be on guard against emotions, “others,” or doubts: all of these could be invitations for growth. The presence of emotions is not the presence of an enemy, and the confident person mustn’t choose between “rationality” and “emotions” like the certain person “practically” must to protect his or her certainty (which anything “unsolid” threatens). Thus, confident people are more likely to strike a balance between rationality and emotion, while the certain person will logically end up “all in” one and “all out” the other (or rather in a nervous and unstable mixture of the two).

In confidence, it is possible for action to inform the mind — for a dialectic to emerge between orthopraxy and orthodoxy, per se — and generally for there to be space for many kinds of epistemologies: for truth to come not just from the mental realm, but also lived experience, emotions, social interactions, and so on. But since for certainty change, diversity, and difference in general are threats, the only “safe” epistemological method is mental and abstract, for only ideas can maintain a kind of “transcendence” out of change and subjectivity (as understood by philosophers like Plato). Hence, though certainty doesn’t necessarily have to exclude other methods of knowing, it practically does and gradually emphasizes mental ascension over all others. Whereas confidence makes space for dialectics, certainty at best can only claim it does.

A confident person is someone who isn’t afraid of challenges or things that are not fully understood, whereas the certain person may look and act brave, but in truth the certain person is no braver than a king hidden away from the battle in a distant military base. Sure, perhaps the king might be brave on the battlefield, but then again, if the king is courageous, why is he not on the battlefield?

The bar of certainty is so high — a single doubt destroys it — that it naturally trains us to avoid risk, and diversity, others, and the like always entail risk. Please note that risk isn’t inherently bad, for without risk, value cannot be created, but for certainty that goal is certainty, and so risk cannot add any more value to the “value” certainty already possesses. Considering this, for the certain person, risk is always irrational.

Generally, the best “outside forces” can be for certainty is “neutral,” while for confidence they can be “positive” and/or “constructive.” Additionally, the confident person is braver than the certain person, and if 1 John 4:18 is correct that the one who fears cannot be made perfect in love, then the confident person is more a reflection of love.

Someone may counter that they are indeed certain, that I am wrong about its impossibility, but that person would be incorrect. We only “act certain” because we have no choice (as Wittgenstein writes). We’re actually “confident” and call it “certain,” and thus think it is certainty and fall victim to all the mistakes listed out in this work (“we’re confident we’re certain” and yet think “we’re certain we’re certain,” comically). Indeed, as discussed throughout The True Isn’t the Rational by O.G. Rose, we have to pick axioms for our worldviews and act like they are true even though we don’t know for sure, but we certainly can’t act like “we don’t know for sure” if we are to function. We have to “act certain” to act at all, but this is actually confidence, and awareness of this situation does not have to lead to epistemic nihilism when we realize that our axioms may in fact be true. Just because we cannot be certain of our axioms does not mean that they are thus false. Instead, regarding starting points, we are in the same boat as everyone else, no better or worse, and considering this, we all share a similar groundwork, thus inviting a sense of equality.

In closing, I’m aware of the counter that might be on the tip of a reader’s tongue: “How can we be certain that certainty is impossible?” The answer: I’m not, for as discussed in “On Certainty” by O.G. Rose, certainty is possible regarding the raw fact that “I am thinking” even if I can only be confident about what I’m thinking. But indeed, I do believe certainty is mostly impossible, but this is not something I’m certain about, only confident. But considering all the unintended consequences of certainty, it’s a confidence with which I’m more than comfortable. After all, there’s far more room to grow.

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