On Certainty & Doubt


Erik Kain

Erik writes about video games at Forbes and politics at Mother Jones. He's the contributor of The League though he hasn't written much here lately. He can be found occasionally composing 140 character cultural analysis on Twitter.

Related Post Roulette

53 Responses

  1. Must be something in the air, because yesterday I wrote this about a small ethical dilemma I faced 20-odd years ago:

    “I can’t say if I did the right thing or the wrong thing, or what I’d do if I had it to do all over again. I only know what I did.”


  2. Avatar ThatPirateGuy says:

    Ihad no idea you were *younger* than me by a year. I have a habit of dividing hd Internet into teenagers, people my age, and people older than me.Report

  3. Avatar Mike Schilling says:

    But if a serious Republican were to run against Obama in 2012 […]

    And if monkeys were to fly out of your butt?Report

  4. Avatar Robert Cheeks says:

    Let me recommend Voegelin’s essay “In Search of the Ground,” as the first step toward recovery. Here the third meaning of ‘aition’ or the ground of existence is explicated as Nous (Reason, or intellect or Spirit). Consequently your search is for rational purpose, what Voegelin identifies as that which can be found in the Aristotlean ‘episteme politike.’
    Voting for Barry is surely the sign of a serious psychopathology, but one that can be overcome.Report

  5. Avatar David Schaengold says:

    “Doubt is cast in our society as a malfunction, something to overcome, something broken.” This seems to me the opposite of the case. Arguably actual doubts about issues of real importance are not charitably entertained by our society, but doubt is certainly cast in our society as an intellectual virtue.Report

  6. Avatar Kyle Cupp says:

    Excellent analysis, Erik. I’ve had similar thoughts over the years. What helped move me along was the realization that truth and certainty are not the same thing and that while the former is important at day’s end, the latter really isn’t. I can strive for knowledge of truth without ever needing certainty to support my endeavor. If I need anything, it is hope, hope that what I’m pursuing is the truth, and hope that all of us stand, walk and search within its light, even and especially in our disagreements.Report

  7. Avatar Francis says:

    Interesting post. Note that the law of unintended consequences cuts both ways: by doing something new and by continuing to do the same thing in the face of changed circumstances.

    But in a world as industrialized as ours, circumstances are always changing. How many gigatons of CO2 equivalent should we release, before calling a stop? What’s more radical — following the path of every other industrialized nation on pooling health care costs, or leaving ever more people without access to preventive health care? Our fishery fleets for the first time in human history can destroy all the fisheries, not just a few at a time (Grand Banks cod, Monterey sardines). What’s the more radical course of action in the face of doubt about how best to save wild fish — do nothing or try incremental change?

    Manzi, as usual, casts his political opponents in the worst light possible. To me, the core message of liberalism is that government can help. As it can also do harm, the actions of government need to be watched closely and reversed if necessary. But as we don’t run society as a closed, replicable experiment, we really don’t know how much worse things would be if “elites” hadn’t at least tried to make things better.Report

    • Avatar RTod says:

      “But in a world as industrialized as ours, circumstances are always changing. How many gigatons of CO2 equivalent should we release, before calling a stop?”

      It seems to me that this question is best answered by reason, and not liberalism or conservatism or even libertarianism. Better still if we answer it with reason, and then observe the results with the same.

      I always find myself worrying when someone explains that we’re going to try a liberal solution, or a conservative solution, or a libertarian solution to a problem. I always imagine that the real goal is not the end result so much as the forcing of a solution that IS liberal, or conservative, or libertarian. I am always more comfortable when someone says “Wait – how can best deal with this?”Report

      • Avatar Francis says:

        Yep. But sometimes that means that the State steps in and says ‘you can’t’ or ‘you must’. (I’m rarely a fan of the latter.). And starting from a presumption that the free market does better always (yes always) has the hidden assumption that costs cannot be externalized (pollution) or socialized (bank failure).

        So for me, the basic rule of State involvement is how is the taxpayer on the hook when things go wrong. Figure out that number — from finance to pollution to health care — and regulate to fill that gap.Report

    • Avatar E.D. Kain says:

      Good points, Francis. I don’t think we can solve everything by incremental change either. Sometimes radical steps have to be taken – think of things like sweeping reforms to civil rights, for instance. I’m less certain about solutions to environmental problems like climate change which require such widespread economic changes. Though I would support a carbon tax.Report

  8. Avatar RTod says:

    “In short, I am not sure if I am a conservative or a liberal or a libertarian or an independent. I only know that I am an adherent to the philosophy of doubt.”

    A well thought and delivered argument, though in all fairness to me you’re preaching to the choir. The extra step I might go from that line above is that unlike most of the other philosophies, doubt doesn’t ask you to abandon your reason at best or your humanity at worst.

    Sooner or later, the dogmatic always place the unreachable ideal above people. Doubt helps counter that.Report

    • Avatar E.D. Kain says:

      The extra step I might go from that line above is that unlike most of the other philosophies, doubt doesn’t ask you to abandon your reason at best or your humanity at worst.

      Very well said, RTod.Report

  9. Avatar Rufus F. says:

    What do we want?
    I don’t know exactly!
    When do we want it?
    After a reasonable amount of time has passed!Report

  10. Avatar ktward says:

    Geminis are a real pain in the posterior.
    At least, that’s what all my friends and family keep telling me.

    An altogether thoughtful post and interesting read, despite the short shrift paid to social science beyond ‘vague direction’.Report

  11. Avatar TKOEd says:

    The whole problem with the world is that fools & fanatics are always so certain of themselves, and wiser people so full of doubts.
    ~ Bertrand Russell

    The above quote is my email signature. I read the title & assumed it would a post more along those lines. As a self-described liberal I was highly disappointed.

    Why? Because I think your characterization of liberal certainty is not a good one.

    I don’t think most liberals are as cocksure about any policy prescriptions as you make us out to be. I think liberals are certain about the things we want accomplished when it comes to a particular policy question. I don’t think that necessarily bleeds into a certainty of success.

    The only lib mentioned in this piece is Ezra Klein. Someone who is just about as far from a fool or a fanatic as it gets.

    Maybe it’s because I’m Black, but I highly skeptical of the collective wisdom of the American people.
    The idea the a whole bunch of people who know little to nothing about a particular subject are going to come to a better solution than those who have studied it is ludicrous. Only in the political/policy sphere would someone make a statement along those lines & be lauded for it.

    I’m especially skeptical of all the doubt that is thrown up when liberals try to do something big. Reagan’s nonsense about medicare comes to mind.

    “I am certain of our individual stupidity but more afraid of the state’s massive, collectivized stupidity.”

    What about the nation’s massive collective stupidity? I feel like there is a bit of this salt of the earth Americans know best stuff running through this piece.

    I don’t believe in the free-market as it now stands because corporations are not trying to get the most efficient outcome, they’re trying to get the most profitable one. I think what we’ve seen in the banking industry over the last few years proves that this two goals are not necessarily aligned.

    I also have to say I’m definitely wondering how much of this piece has to do with the reception to some of your posts at Balloon Juice.

    At the end of the day though I think your doubt, partially based in the fear of the evil that people can do, leads us to stagnation. What’s funny is that you kind of seem to wish for certainty before any govt action. No such certainty exists. All potential solutions come with risks. Some greater than others.

    Conservatives would just have us stand pat. Unfortunately, with a lot of the issues that we face as a nation that is not really an option. Occasionally risk must be taken, doubt cast aside, and replaced with hope.Report

    • Avatar E.D. Kain says:

      TKOEd – I think you’re focusing too much on the Manzi passage (which mentions Klein). That being said, perhaps this was aimed a bit more at liberals, and maybe that is, to some degree, because of the reception I’ve had at Balloon Juice. But it’s not meant as a take-down of liberals or liberalism; rather, it’s just a meditation on my own doubts about everything and since I try to incorporate politics into most of my writing, that’s the direction this piece took. Since I have been thinking a great deal about liberalism and its limitations, this is the strain that emerged. But again – this is meant not as a piece about my politics directly so much as it is a piece on my disposition. I still overcome many of my doubts in order to support positions which I care deeply about.Report

    • Avatar E.D. Kain says:

      In other words, this took on a tone aimed a bit more at liberals because the last time I staked out a place in the realm of Certainty was for liberalism; and here I am saying I should remain in the realm of Doubt. Not necessarily that I should stop pursuing liberalism, either, but that I should do so in my own way, with my own philosophical penchants intact.Report

      • Avatar Rufus F. says:

        Are liberals in line with 20th century progressives? And was eugenics a product of progressivism? I’m seriously asking- I don’t know. But I do live in a part of Canada where well intentioned liberals offer a lot of social services that basically amount to keeping the poor under surveillance, so I have my suspicions. The real problem in America, as Jason basically said, is that you share these suspicions and it’s assumed that you vote Republican, and vice-versa if you share your suspicions about conservatives.Report

        • Avatar Jaybird says:

          Are liberals in line with 20th century progressives?

          Well… they are descendants and share a familial resemblance. Additionally, you will find, in pockets, a handful of knee-jerk defenses of the, ahem, “excesses” of historical progressivism (as well as attacks on the motives of those attacking historical progressivism) to be coming from the left 99 times out of 100.

          Was Eugenics a product of progressivism?

          You say “product” and I think I need you to unpack that. It was one of the things that progressives believed at that time, yes. Helen Keller, of all people, believed in eugenics (her dog was blind too). Margaret Sanger needs no introduction. OWH Jr (ptooey!) was willing to abandon any number of Rights in order to scratch his eugenics itch.

          Then there was that whole “Hitler” thing that sort of tainted eugenics for everybody.

          But, once upon a time, a belief in eugenics was part and parcel with progressivism.

          It ain’t now and oughtn’t be used as a cudgel against modern progressivism, of course. But to gloss over it is like glossing over all sorts of ugly history. There are good reasons and bad reasons to bring ugly history into the conversation… and once the topic of the conversation is now on history, there are good reasons to change the subject something else and bad reasons to change it.Report

          • Avatar Rufus F. says:

            Sure, it’s not intended as a strike against modern progressivism- just a reminder of why one might tread with caution. Also, I’ve had any number of conversations about my misgivings about liberalism with liberals in which I was reminded of the civil rights movement and told I’d probably have had a problem with that as well.Report

      • Avatar TKOEd says:

        @ E.D.

        I see what you’re getting at. I’m full of doubts as well. I think most people are no matter where on the political spectrum they fall. The difference it seems is what we are doubtful of.

        Thank you for the clarification.Report

  12. Avatar TKOEd says:

    BTW, I realize that my reply is rambling & possibly incoherent.Report

    • Avatar E.D. Kain says:

      Not at all. Great Bertrand Russell quote, too.Report

      • Avatar TKOEd says:

        Thank you.

        One more thing. As I said above I’m full of doubts as well. I love that quote because it speaks directly to my fears of certainty. My specific fear is of those who are so sure that they are right that they refuse to hear anything to the contrary. It’s one of the things I love about Obama. He seems to have that inherent questioning of that type of certainty.Report

  13. Surprised Yeats wasn’t mentioned in this thread:

    TURNING and turning in the widening gyre
    The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
    Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
    Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
    The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
    The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
    The best lack all conviction, while the worst
    Are full of passionate intensity.

    Surely some revelation is at hand;
    Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
    The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
    When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
    Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
    A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
    A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
    Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
    Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
    The darkness drops again; but now I know
    That twenty centuries of stony sleep
    Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
    And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
    Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?Report

  14. Avatar Moff says:

    The unpredictable is always with us and never fully accounted for. We know that we do not know but never what we do not know.

    That’s it right there. Why should we embrace doubt? BECAUSE IT’S NEVER GOING TO GO AWAY.Report

  15. Avatar Ian Wolcott says:

    A nice piece. Theodore Dalrymple writes somewhere that “no one is ever converted by moderation,” and I think doubt and moderation face the same PR challenges. Neither is very sexy. But when it comes to forced choices, moderation, perhaps, is doubt in action.

    A few typos:

    “…the temptation of intellectual or spiritual [certainty?] pulls us under…”

    “…would rather by [be] governed by the first…”

    “…further to the right then [than] I would like…”Report

  16. Avatar John says:

    The has to be the best piece I have ever read from you. Awesome. Thanks E.D.Report

  17. Avatar Jaybird says:

    My belief in free markets has similarly developed out of my doubt: I doubt that markets will always or even often provide optimal results, but I doubt more the central planner or the protectionist. I am certain of our individual stupidity but more afraid of the state’s massive, collectivized stupidity.

    This is close to the insight that changed me.

    When I realized that I ought to have been free to make more poor decisions, I realized that others ought to be that free too. I got through my poor decision-making years (or the worst of them, anyway) pretty much unscathed. I know a lot of folks who did not and now have records for a lot of the things that I got away with.

    The cures we have in place are worse than the diseases they’re supposed to alleviate.

    Our government has created an iatrogenic disease.Report

  18. Avatar Amicus says:

    If “doubt” is neither analytically paralytic nor an impediment to action, per se, then it is consistent with “progressivism”, which needs be no more inspired by “certainty” than conservatism to be effectual.

    To assume that all that we might know or might do is already reflected in what our current government, culture, ‘social institutions’, or the ‘commonsense’ of the Boston phone book, is not “conservatism”, but a philosophy of despair.

    What is doubtful is that one can argue that “experts” get it “wrong” more often than the status quo must get it “right”. A captain who turns his boat all the time and one who steers nothing but a straight course will hit the same number of rocks, other things being equal.Report

  19. Avatar Saul says:

    I think you raise an interesting point around the role and value of doubt. I myself have lived my entire life wary of ideological commitment – a certainty to the order of life and society.

    I think though that it is important to recognize that the general decline of party membership and party affiliation – and therefore guaranteed support – is in great decline. I think this points to an emerging expression of doubt, doubt though that may (and you are right here to identify the Tea Party movement) result in a new certainty. In this way I expect to see a 3rd party emerge in America at some point that provides a type of certainty to a people that have only known certainty – with certainty comes choice, choice you can be certain of – an American dream.

    Doubt though must in the end has to make room for certainty. At some moment a decision is made that requires a committment which can only be made from a place of certainty – even if it is in that moment. So – I am doubtfully certain myself.Report

  20. Avatar Oroboros says:

    This is a great piece, thank you.

    As a fellow doubter, I’m quite interested in the transpartisan movement. I believe it is a viable way forward for US politics.

    I’m often able to see “both” sides in an argument and hence, if both positions have merit, than perhaps both are equally flawed?

    We’re often so afraid of being wrong that admitting even the possibility seems like a fate worse than death. I’ve decided that everything I believe is probably wrong, and there is a great freedom in that.Report