The opinions that are held with passion are always those for which no good ground exists.
- Bertrand Russell
The feeling of certainty is a delicious one. When you are absolutely sure of something — the economy, politics, other people’s motives, or your own plans — your mind is at ease. With everything neatly falling into place like this, you feel powerful and in control. Unlike those dithering fools who can’t make up their minds and who answer every question with ‘it depends’, you have cut to the heart of the matter. The world is not that complicated as people make it out to be, you tell yourself.
You’re also probably delusional. Let me gently take your hand and explain why.
Absolute certainty is a double-edged sword, and when used correctly it can help us achieve the impossible. More often than not, however, we deploy it like a bulldozer, razing every counter-opinion, objection or suggestion in our path. Being in the throes of certainty is almost like a form of madness: we are so blinded by this affliction, that we just can’t see it any other way.
The fallout of this attitude is not hard to see. Today, with the ubiquity of smartphones, everyone has a megaphone but nobody is willing to listen. From the expert to the layman, no one wants to admit that they could be mistaken, or only partially right. As a result, the casualties are relationships and sadly, the quest for truth. More broadly, certainty cuts off two vital forces that nourish us as a species: imagination and empathy. As Kathryn Schulz writes in her book Being Wrong:
If imagination is what enables us to conceive of and enjoy stories other than our own, and if empathy is the act of taking other people’s stories seriously, certainty deadens or destroys both qualities.
When we are absolutely convinced about our own story, the stories of others (and they themselves), seem to not matter anymore. There is something really perverse about certainty that it makes us devalue other people, even those who are close to us. What’s surprising is that while we scoff at the certainty of those we disagree with, we are equally rigid when the roles are reversed. What is about certainty that is so pervasive in our species?
Why we are so certain
Certainty is our default mode, and probably for good reason. If you want to get anything done, you have to believe in something. If you go on questioning everything, you will be paralyzed into inaction, or worse become a nihilist. There needs to be some static point off which we can base all our actions. Science provides a good example of this.
The scientific method works on a two-step model: state a hypothesis (or theory) and go out and test it. The reason why science keeps moving forward is precisely because it is grounded on questioning beliefs. The problem with us is that we only follow the first half of the bargain: we accept something as true, but then promptly forget to test it experimentally. In the absence of testing, our beliefs develop even stronger roots over time and become even more difficult to dislodge. Further, it is just a strange quirk of ours that we demand more evidence for disbelieving something than for believing it.
The other reason why certainty feels so natural is because of the social nature of our species. In the brilliant book The Knowledge Illusion, the case is made that most of what we know resides not in individual minds, but in a community of knowledge. This means that knowledge is a distributed enterprise, with different minds knowing different things, in what can be called a cognitive division of labor. The punchline however is this: we are designed to forget where the boundary between our knowledge and that of the community exists. As a result, we often mistake the knowledge that resides outside our minds as being inside our heads. In simple words, we forget how much we do not know.
Lastly, harbouring doubt is unpleasant. When we begin to have doubts about one thing, it opens up everything else to doubt as well. Even an inkling of uncertainty can put the whole enterprise of believing in jeopardy. That is an unnerving proposition because doubt nibbles at our beliefs, which are in turn intertwined with our notion of identity and our place in the community. We therefore shut ourselves against contrary opinion, not because we are stubborn but because the emotional burden of being wrong is almost too painful to bear.
What to do about it
Our commitment to an idea is healthiest when it is not without doubt, but in spite of doubt.
- Rollo May
The world is a complex place with its reality impenetrable to the naked eye. Nobody — not even the smartest amongst us — can claim to know what happens under the hood. We can only create approximations of reality, and call them theories or knowledge. Like maps, they work well most of the time, but not always. Moreover, we individually don’t know much at all. Our confidence about knowing things is an illusion born from the social nature of knowledge. Knowing this is the first step.
Secondly, let’s just admit it: nobody likes a know-it-all. Yes, people are sometimes stubborn in their incorrect beliefs and yes, anti-intellectualism is a real threat. However, wielding your knowledge like a blunt instrument and making people feel stupid is a terrible strategy. As anyone who’s gotten themselves embroiled in a social media argument knows, sometimes the facts just don’t matter. When someone’s whole self-image is tied to a particular stand, they will dig in their heels even harder when confronted with facts. They are not being idiots; they are just trying to avoid the emotional upheaval of a deeply-held belief coming undone.
What should we do then? The answer is as powerful, as it is obvious. For starters, be willing to listen. As long as we are lost in the cacophony of our own rightness, we can’t hope to understand others. So for once, just shut up and hear what others have to say. Another tactic is to actively cultivate doubt in our thinking and speech. For example, when we state our position using words like ‘maybe’ or ‘perhaps’, we show our willingness to engage in healthy exploration, rather than simply prove how right we are. This approach has been proven to lower people’s defenses and make them more receptive to facts and arguments.
Most importantly, learn to accept that you might be wrong yourself. We end up forming most beliefs not because we have rationally evaluated them, but because we unconsciously adopted them from our communities. Over time, the firmness with which we hold these beliefs further convinces us of their validity. By accepting the role of chance in defining our beliefs, we can begin to see what lies beyond our own limited view. This acceptance is not meant to be a self-indictment, but an invitation to explore unknown territory, to hope for something new, and to grow.