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The Lust for Uncertainty

A very interesting article from Julian Baggini in The Guardian came through the reader this morning (h/t: Jesus Creed). Baggini talks about our tortuous relationship with “certainty” in the postmodern west, and questions the notion (set forth by fellow Guardian columnist Mark Vernon) that uncertainty is a virtue. Baggini’s article is worth quoting at length:

For instance, Mark Vernon has borrowed… the phrase “the lust for certainty” to help explain what is wrong both with belief and unbelief. This is supposed to capture a malaise, perhaps contemporary, perhaps perennial, in which human beings crave fixed and certain truths in a fluid, uncertain world. It is a lust because it is excessive and irrational, and can never be sated. It therefore needs to be tamed, and agnosticism is the best way of doing so.

Vernon’s advocacy of passionate agnosticism offers soothing camomile tea to those jittery after the triple espressos of the new atheists and religious fundamentalists. Since he is as genial in person as he is on the page, attacking him does feel rather like kicking a labrador puppy. But if we are serious about religion, being truthful must sometimes trump being nice, and intellectually, if not personally, Vernon needs a good kicking.

Vernon says: “We live in an age intolerant of doubt.” But it seems to me that there is at least a class of educated, liberal westerners for whom the opposite is true. Uncertainty is what they desire more than anything else. This seems to me to have two sources, “dogmatophobia” and binary thinking.

What I call dogmatophobia is the liberal fear of being judgmental of the beliefs of others. Because everyone has a right to her opinion and no one has a monopoly on the truth, there is a tendency to think that any kind of assertion of a truth, other than of the blandest factual kind (“Paris is the capital of France”), is intolerant and morally imperialistic. Hence, people who assiduously avoid factory-farmed meat will go out of their way not to condemn ritual animal slaughter that causes needless suffering. People who would not tolerate even the sniff of sexism in their workplace bend over backwards to allow religious traditions their “right” to systemically discriminate against women.

This breed of excessively permissive liberalism—which is not the only kind, by the way—needs uncertainty to thrive. Where truths are even reasonably clear, there is no scope to say: “Who am I to say?” or “That may be true for you, but it may not be true to others.” And so an understandable and generally laudable desire to be as inclusive and pluralistic as possible ends up with an unhealthy lust for uncertainty.

The second root of the problem is that people who officially embrace fuzziness of values are in other ways as hypnotised by clear but false dichotomies as anyone else. But there is no choice that has to be made between certainty and uncertainty. Rather, certainty is a matter of degree. …

The mark of a mature, psychologically healthy mind is indeed the ability to live with uncertainty and ambiguity, but only as much as there really is. Uncertainty is no virtue when the facts are clear, and ambiguity is mere obfuscation when more precise terms are applicable. Unfortunately, the middle ground in the God debate is occupied by too many people who screw up their eyes to create the illusion of a mist when the view is really clear. And this is not just wrong: it’s dangerous, because if we make too much of our inability to be certain, we make ourselves incapable of clear and unequivocal condemnation of just those extreme dogmatists whom agnostics and moderate but committed believers fear….

So of one thing we can be sure: it’s high time we realised that adopting a moderate position in the God debate is not the same as adopting a non-judgmental one in which uncertainty becomes the new object of veneration.

What do you think? Has the pendulum swung from excessive certainty to excessive uncertainty? Any thoughts?

10 Comments Post a comment
  1. guest #

    I think at the cultural level it is more of a lust to be able to choose everything rather than a lust for uncertainty. People reject certainty because they equate it with limitation. I have found at university everybody wants to experience everything they possibly can and not be limited to any single belief or experience.

    November 2, 2011
    • Interesting…

      I’m inclined to agree—it may have more to do with preferences around unrestrained individual choice than it does with any kind of affection for uncertainty in and of itself. To choose one thing is to reject others; to say one thing is to say something else about other things. To claim certainty is to self-limit, in a sense, and one thing we do not like these days is limitations.

      November 2, 2011
  2. As a political agnostic, I see a high degree of uncertainty in most pressing questions of public policy. There is comfort in that uncertainty, but also a sense of alienation from the accepted views on either side. My agnosticism here is the expression of a kind of weariness, as my whole adult life has been lived in the midst of a war of ideas between the left and the right, both in the media and in the churches. Uncertainty protects me from the war.

    November 4, 2011
    • Yes, I know the feeling, Chris. I have always felt some discomfort with the confident dogmatism of the certain on both sides of the issues that dominate our attention. In my experience, uncertainty sometimes offers protection from “the war,” at other times seems to make me a target. Sometimes, the only thing that seems to matter to some is that you don’t agree with them, regardless of the level of conviction you can muster for a different position :).

      November 5, 2011
  3. Problem is, uncertainty isn’t good as a permanent place to live — it’s more like Londoners sleeping in the Underground during The Blitz in 1940-41.

    In a way I admire those bloggers on CCBlogs who have such rock solid conviction about their political views. I wish things were that black and white to me. But then, there is usually one or more hatreds lurking underneath their certainties.

    The danger in being a political agnostic is that you come to see yourself transcending both sides in your magnificent transcendence. Then you just become a snob, which helps no one.

    Back into the Underground now…

    November 5, 2011
    • No, it’s not a great place to live. Although maybe rather than a bunker under a warzone, we could see it as an apartment overlooking a bustling marketplace…? Of course, then we’re back to the magnificent transcendence problem…

      November 6, 2011
  4. Ken #

    Uncertainty is what we have in modernity, whether we like that or not. I think it comes with freedom. A plurality of ideas about what is real and important is a marker of freedom. The lust is for freedom – freedom of speech, for example.

    Uncertainty, or rather skepticism, is critical to science. Still, science is not really a lust for uncertainty. If it is a lust at all, it is a lust for power.

    Uncertainty tends to be unsettling. A lust for that itself seems quite uncommon. It may be praised in some circumstances, as it is in science, if by uncertainty we mean skepticism, or as it is praised temporarily when someone is attempting to overturn dogma, the certainty or power of others. (This even drives the motion of science.) Still, I don’t think a lust for uncertainty is overtaking desire for certainty at large.

    I think we just accept uncertainty as part of life, like death, and hope that in some way it is ultimately overcome. I think of Yeats poem, The Second Coming.

    November 7, 2011
    • I think you’re right—uncertainty is often experienced as unsettling, destabilizing, etc. For that reason alone, it’s probably not likely to overtake a “lust” for certainty anytime soon. It’s interesting how desires for both certainty and uncertainty so frequently mask what is, at its root, a desire for power. How very human of us.

      I think we just accept uncertainty as part of life, like death, and hope that in some way it is ultimately overcome.

      Yes. Well said.

      November 7, 2011
  5. Dorothee #

    Maybe considering ‘truth at any given time’ is not the same than ‘truth once and for all’. My experience thas been that many of the ‘truths’ of my childhood and early adulthood I don’t consider truth anymore. In this process I have become less forcefull about my opinions / convictions in other matters, The things that I have had a chance to reevalue (though they might only be truth to me at this time or even have allowed me to doubt the truth that does’nt quite make sense anymore) have made me a bigger and more authentic person. I would not want to trade back to ‘just knowing (as I thought) the truth’.

    November 12, 2011
    • I think your comment speaks to the importance of having a conception of “truth” as something to grow into, rather than a fixed, static body of knowledge that one simply acquires and then preserves. I know that the older I get and the more I learn, the more I realize how little I actually do know but, as you say, I think this is part of what it means to grow as a human being.

      Thanks, Dorothee.

      November 13, 2011

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