On Certainty & Doubt
“A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines. With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do. He may as well concern himself with his shadow on the wall. Speak what you think now in hard words, and to-morrow speak what to-morrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict every thing you said to-day. — ‘Ah, so you shall be sure to be misunderstood.’ — Is it so bad, then, to be misunderstood?” ~ Ralph Waldo Emerson
For a long time I viewed my many doubts as a sort of impediment rather than a philosophical weathervane. From time to time, still, I crumble under the weight of it all and embrace some false certainty, as though I can point myself in some singular direction regardless of the winds of change and time. I set my course and go unblinkingly into the black. Then, somewhere out at sea, I remember myself. I remember that the people who seem most certain in this world are often the least; and that the waters are deeper than I can comprehend. It would be wiser not to underestimate their depths. It would be wiser to treat this ocean of human knowledge with humility.
I think doubt is a much maligned, much misunderstood thing; perhaps because people never really embrace it, never really try to understand why it might be – in and of itself – a positive force, but instead find ways to extinguish it utterly. Doubt is cast in our society as a malfunction, something to overcome, something broken. I don’t see it that way anymore. Yes, some people become mired in it, become paralyzed by indecision – there are reasons we have phrases like “wracked with doubt” or “mired in doubt” and so on and so forth. But doubt is not the same thing as uncertainty. “Speak what you think now in hard words, and to-morrow speak what to-morrow thinks in hard words again.”
Certainty is an alluring trap; the temptation of intellectual or spiritual closure pulls us under, riptide-like, into its soporific current. A release from our uncertainty is a powerful tonic. It explains the Tea Party, the socialist revolutions of the 20th century, American exceptionalism, and essentially progressivism writ large. And our certainty only increases as the subject matter becomes more complex and our expertise (or faith in expertise) becomes more precise.
Doubt should guide us as we edge toward the precipice of social engineering or nation building or legislation that could affect the lives of millions of people; too often, faith in the capability and beneficence of experts and technocrats guides us instead. Numbers and data should inform our decisions as well, obviously, but soberly and with caveats. 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 is why we must sometimes cleave to folkways, to the incomputable knowledge of the past and its inscrutable traditions.
As I was once fond of repeating: The more I know, the less I know. Perhaps this is why I find conservatism – not movement conservatism, mind you, but rather that elusive almost apolitical dispositional conservatism – so much more interesting and compelling than any other political philosophy – why it resonates with me in spite of myself, and why it provides me with some balance to my own rather more hot-headed disposition.
All of which reminds me of a piece Jim Manzi penned recently that I’ve been meaning to write about. In an extended discussion of experts and public policy, Manzi concludes,
Bill Buckley famously said that he “would rather by governed by the first 2,000 names in the Boston telephone directory than by the Harvard faculty.” So would I. But I would rather fly in an airplane with wings designed by one competent aeronautical engineer than one with wings designed by a committee of the first 20,000 names of non-engineers in the Boston phonebook. The value of actual expertise in a technical field like wing design outweighs the advantages offered by incorporating multiple points of view.
The essential Progressive belief that [Ezra Klein] expresses in undiluted form is that crafting public policy through legislation is a topic for which, in simplified terms, the benefits of expertise outweigh the benefits of popular contention. Stated more cautiously, this would be the belief that the institutional rules of the game should be more heavily tilted toward expert opinion on many important topics than they are in the U.S. today.
This would be a lot more compelling if the elites didn’t have such a terrible track record of producing social interventions that work.
An aeronautical engineer can predict reliably that “If you design a wing like this, then this plane will be airworthy, but if you design it like that, then it will never get in the air.” If you were to build a bunch of airplanes according to each set of specifications, you would discover that he or she is almost always right. This is actual expertise. I’ve tried to point out many times that the vast majority of program interventions fail when subjected to replicated, randomized testing.
Our so-called experts in public policy talk a good game, but in the end are no experts at all. They build castles of words, and call it knowledge.
I love that last line: “They build castles of words, and call it knowledge”. While I value the data provided by the social sciences, I think it can do little more than point us in a vague direction. Often it can do little more than provide us with warning signs, and very often only in hindsight. Naturally, this can result in treating symptoms for a disease that has already run its course, with all the unintended consequences that entails; or to treating what is not a disease at all but rather simply another side-effect of being human. Or it can result in pseudo-science – for instance, the racialism practiced by folks like John Derbyshire who cloak their own use of social sciences to promote notions of human ‘biodiversity’ in the thin veneer of biology – another fallacy Manzi has made short work of.
Unintended consequences, moral hazard – these are the cornerstones of the Doubter’s belief system. Acolytes of doubt look always into the dusty corners of ideas and ideology to find cracks in the sediment, to find the faulty beam that will, someday, bring the whole house toppling down. Every idea is a house of cards, a gamble; every step forward runs the risk of collapse; steps backward run similar risks, which is why doubters are rarely activists or revanchists or progressives or populists, nor are they really conservative or liberal – though I think the Oakeshottian ‘conservatism of doubt’ Andrew Sullivan has written about on numerous occasions is essentially what I’m driving at.
For a long time I tried to snuff out my own doubts, my own wishy-washiness. I still do – and such is the paradox of subscribing to doubt as a philosophy. Certainty burns brighter, and doubt casts shadows everywhere – even on its own merits. To truly doubt – to doubt with conviction – means one will constantly question the value of doubting, and will constantly be drawn moth-like to that bright burning candle of faith or certainty or closure.
The assumption, as always, is that one simply must choose a team. From then on, keeping score is easy. You know you’re winning when your team is in power. You know you’re losing when your team is out of power. If you do not choose a team, one will be chosen for you, and their joys and miseries will be ascribed to you, whether you ask for them or not.
Most people never even try to avoid choosing, of course. And the few who stand outside for a while usually acquiesce sooner or later. But this presumably useful heuristic has some funny side effects. The goal of politics is no longer the sensible management of power, let alone its reduction. The goal is power — to get it, to keep it, to bang that gavel. That’s what parties do to us — they place the reality of politics, and the power of it, beyond moral censure. Power is what everyone wants.
Teams give their members, above and beyond anything else, a sort of prepackaged certainty in a worldview and a sense of being right. They validate our certainty, and give us a bulwark against doubt. And recently I gave in to the notion that somehow we must pick a side if we are to ever have anything worthwhile to say, that all those wishy-washy fence-sitters were little better than David Broder, engaging in all sorts of false equivalencies. I was wrong to do so. I was wrong not only to think that I could be part of a team, but wrong to think I could cheer on the liberal side exclusively, that I could fit into that particular box. Oh, I can’t really cheer on the conservative side either, no doubt about that – the conservative “side” being little more than the conservative movement in this case, hardly a movement known for its doubt or temperance. But I don’t have the disposition of a liberal either, really, the faith required to be a progressive, or the certainty required to be part of a team, toeing whatever line is acceptable and appropriate. I distrust all complex systems including government, and if anything, my foray into contemporary liberalism has made me distrust government more than ever. I am not reflexively anti-government, of course, but I distrust it plenty, as I do all complex, entrenched institutions. But the question of liberal/conservative is secondary to doubt and certainty.
Part of what moved me toward the side of certainty and away from the side of doubt was the fact that, as I mentioned at the time, I have always voted for Democrats. But it’s important to understand why I’ve always voted for Democrats. I live in Arizona, first of all, where the right-wing is quite a lot further to the right than I would like. The Arizona legislature and other elected officials in Arizona are consistently passing or pushing radical, revanchist legislation. The only possible way to bring moderation to the state is to vote for level-headed Democrats. Furthermore, I am something of a socialist when it comes to local politics (I kid, to some degree, but I really am much more liberal on local issues, i.e. public schools, local business favoritism, etc.) so I tend to vote for people who will keep my town the artsy, funky, local-businessy haven it is. The same cannot be said for national politics.
On a national level, the only votes I’ve cast in presidential elections were for Gore when I was an eighteen-year-old default-lefty (default, I say, because my politics at the time were largely unexamined) and then Kerry in ‘04 after Bush led us into two wars, and then Obama in ‘08 because McCain was an idiot and Bush and the Republican party had laid waste to the American economy. But if a serious Republican were to run against Obama in 2012 I might very well vote for them. Naturally, my sense of what constitutes ‘serious’ is quite different than much of the GOP base, so this is unlikely. Gary Johnson stands very little chance, and let’s face it: Mitch Daniels is too short.
Likewise, my inclination has always been toward a more traditionalist, localist society: place, limits, liberty – these strike a resounding chord with me – but I am too uncertain of the ramifications of localism to embrace it fully and too sure that my own localism is colored by the affection I feel toward my own town. I suspect romanticism is largely to blame, and I am a Romantic at heart. Besides, people have a nomadic streak, a desire to shrug off our generational obligations, to be something more, always, than what we are or are expected to be. Who am I to suggest that this is wrong when I myself have the same desires? Why not go to the city and leave the farm behind? Become something else entirely. Cast off our old skin, metamorphosize and become butterflies. Sometimes our home towns are little more than ghost towns, places to haunt us, places to leave behind full of ghosts we’d prefer to forget.
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. I am not ideologically a free marketeer, really. It is only, like democracy, the least worst option of the bunch. And I believe in societal safety nets because I doubt the beneficence of my fellow man – or of myself, for that matter.
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 (however often I am lured by its seductive twin) and that, as such, I tend to abhor movement politics, cringe at the faux certainty of those good team players so quick to shut down debate – and sometimes, every now and then, envy the certainty of these movements and their followers. I fear the capacity man has for evil and destruction more than I am able to place hope in his good intentions; and I worry more about the unintended consequences of people who mean well but are given too much power to enact their well-intentioned ideas. I would prefer to keep power as dispersed as possible even if it means giving up on some good ideas. But I am not certain that I am right about this. It is very possible I am wrong. I am a doubter, and a Gemini, and I will continue in this infuriatingly inconsistent philosophy because I am only certain about one thing: doubt is merely the least worse option of the bunch, and from where I’m standing, that is enough. I will undoubtedly be misunderstood, but as Emerson rightly asked – “Is it so bad, then, to be misunderstood?”