People who come across certain of themselves make me uncertain about them. I am wary of those who allow no wiggle room in their arguments.
There are various forms of this. Confidence is often interpreted as someone certain of their abilities, their opinions, maybe even their destiny. Many religious people are certain of their beliefs, and of God’s existence, though no evidence exists. Having strong convictions about something or someone is another way to define certainty.
None of the above is necessarily a bad thing, or considered a character flaw. Au contraire. Confidence, when genuine, is sexy and appealing. Fervent religious people far outnumber those of us who don’t believe. And having strong convictions about anything is perceived as, well, strength.
So the fault, if there is one, lies within me. My lack of certainty about most, but not all things, is rooted in my embrace of intellectual ambiguity; in being drawn to, and comfortable with, such terms as “maybe, maybe not” when in search of answers; and acknowledging the grey areas of intellectual life, and the subsequent acceptance of them, is as strong a conviction as any other.
Appearing certain is, in many fields, a requirement for success. Being perceived as otherwise; weak, wishy-washy, indecisive will almost certainly (pun intended) keep one out of a position of leadership. I’m not disavowing the idea of certainty. I am simply skeptical of it. I’m certain of many things in my life but was I backed up against a wall at gunpoint, I’d probably have to admit those things I am certain about are trivial in nature when compared to the bigger issues in life, which tend to have more rounded and pliable borders than the sharp corners of a square. In other words, think outside of the box.
One subtle difference may be when I exclaim certainty, I attribute it directly to me, imperically. For example: Barry Bonds is the best baseball player I have ever seen. Which is different from saying he’s the best baseball player ever. I happen to also believe the second statement to be true, but stating as such is, among other things, arrogant, subjective and simply not a provable truth. Opinions are often portrayed as absolute truths, which I find offensive and not worthy of riposte or discussion.
I rarely if ever state something is for certain in theoretical terms. I find the absence of clearly defined certainties in my life have not left a vacuum, but instead have broadened my view and kept ajar intellectual doors that certainty closes. To maybe oversimplify, uncertainty makes life, for me, a lot more interesting.
Being raised a Catholic instilled in me at a young age a black and white prism through which I viewed life. Absolutism is a bedrock principle of Catholicism, of all religions, really. If faith is the platform from which one launches a relationship, any relationship, absolutism removes much of the natural born fears attached to such an endeavor, simplifying things. Religion and absolutism are bedfellows out of necessity.
Lord Acton said, “Absolute power corrupts absolutely”. The very first synonym listed for absolutism is “despotism”. Famous despots in history? Ivan the terrible of Russia; Joseph Stalin, also Russian; Adolph Hitler; Mao Tse-tung; Nicolae Ceausescu of Romania; Idi Amin; Pol Pot; and more recently (deceased this year) Kim Jong-il of North Korea. Totalitarian leaders, all. And very bad guys.
Now, I’m not comparing or associating the cocky guy in a bar who’s so sure of his sports trivia he’ll bet $20 on it, with the cretins listed above. The sports guy is both certain and quite likely right. He wouldn’t be in business long offering sports bets if he was bluffing, especially with an i-Phone every 2 feet and Google available 24/7 as a means of fact checking instantaneously. His certainty lies in that trivial area I mentioned, in this case literally.
The extremists above are not mentioned to make my point. Any philosophy taken to the extreme usually ends up hurting people. I could, if I chose, take uncertainty to the extreme, which I assume would leave me mired in confusion; directionless, and floating through life with no sign posts, guidelines or boundaries. Instead I like my balance.
People who prove to be absolutists aren’t interested in conversations. They talk TO you. AT you. THROUGH you. They aren’t looking for an exchange in ideas, only affirmation of their own, or falling short of that, merely to trumpet their own. The sound of their own voice often soothes them.
In the past, I’ve fallen prey to the naïve but alluring task of trying to convert them to a world where ambiguity is considered a strong intellectual precept. I’ve failed every time. Ambiguity is the land of the unknown, and the unknown scares the absolute shit out of most people. There are more benign code words people use in place of ‘absolutism’, like conventional, established and traditional. These terms tend to show up on the far right end of the political spectrum in America, for example. They tend to be representative of a less enlightened mindset and reflective of an era when certainty was almost universally accepted as healthy and a sign of strength. In other words, Republican.
The secularists, who have the instinctive, survivalist tendency that most minorities have of laying low and flying under the radar, tend to be an absolutist’s worst nightmare.
But no need to drag this into a political or religious debate.
To distill it to its simplest form, I would suggest it is the realm of the unknown that separates certainty from uncertainty. And it is a canyon with no bridge that I can see. Some people enjoy the Rubik’s Cube-like experience of exploring the unknown. Others see it as a dark, mysterious cave full of carnivores. Ironically, there is little grey area between them.
My experience has shown that the two can only very rarely co-exist for any length of time. The philosophical chasm is simply not traversable.
© Copyright 2016 Bill Rayburn. All rights reserved.
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