Every so often I think about certainty, in the sense of being ‘correct’, of having an unwavering belief. Now, with the publication of my book imminent, along with some other bits and pieces I have coming out soon, I find myself questioning what it means to be certain, and whether it’s ok to publish research without being entirely certain of its argument. I know that the concept has a lengthy history in analytic philosophy (and sure, I’ll get around to Wittgenstein at some point), but beyond that, I think most scholars go into research and teaching, and want to do both because they’re uncertain (at least I hope that’s the case). They’re curious about the world, and about the richness of the possibilities of the field of study they’ve found themselves in, and want to share and provoke that in others. In other words, we’re hoping to share the creativity and curiosity of our uncertainty with our students, and with the world.
It’s somewhat ironic, then, that a lot of research is geared towards the production of certainty, and certainly, it seems that the most certain scholars are the most successful.
And, being an uncertain person who constantly questions and revises my positions in relation to different issues and ideas, I am most interested, not in the state of being certain, necessarily, but where that certainty comes from. Who or what provides the permission, or authority, for certainty?
This question makes me think of the pop culturally famous Milgram Experiment (1961), because I think it tells us something about the relationship between human social obligation, cooperation and certainty. It tells us something about the way humans assess circumstances in relation to other humans, and rely on institutional sanctions to provide guidance as to how they should act. So, for example, it’s not necessarily being mindlessly obedient that produced the results of the Milgram experiment, but rather, mindful acknowledgement of circumstance, relationship to personal authority (experimenters, sanctioned by an educational institution), and the application of shocks based on the knowledge that this was permissible.
That said, if we compare the way we think of ourselves in relation to social institutions now in comparison to 60 years ago, I think the results of the same experiment might be different now. In the western context in particular, the individualist way we have learnt to be in the world (particularly in the way social media has trained us) means that we’re more likely to question institutional authority, including that of traditional ‘expert’ authority, and therefore would be, I suspect, less likely to go along with the experiment. We might pat ourselves on the back for critical thinking at this point. Not so fast. We are still certain, we are just more certain of viewpoints that come from alternative sources, which, generally speaking, we find less challenging to agree with.
This means that (I suspect) we no longer trust traditional institutional authority enough to believe it’s fine to inflict electric shocks on someone who provides the wrong answer to a question, but at the same time, we’re also less likely to trust the authority of a medical institution, and the experts who populate it, when they tell us how not to get COVID-19, or that vaccines are safe, and in doing so, collectively millions of people are put at risk.
In other words, it is certainty, and not obedience that is the issue.
Humans want to be certain, and they look for an easy authority to trust in order to gain that feeling of certainty. This is why religion remains so popular, despite the curtailments it places on individual freedom of choice – it provides certainty – the knowledge that you no longer have to feel like you might be wrong. The certainty provided by belief has long stood in opposition to practices like the scientific method, and like critical thought, that produce difficulty, complexity, and, most unsettlingly, certainty only relative to probability.
Certainty is comfortable, it allows us to relax. When we observe the authority of certainty in others, it is this seductive offer of comfort that makes it so appealing, and why it can be so dangerous.