Doubt and Certainty
My intellectual journey from doubt to certainty and back again
Doubt has had a bad rap since the Apostle Thomas doubted that Christ had risen from the dead until he could see him in person and check out his wounds from the crucifixion. Related in the Gospel according to John, the ten other disciples told Thomas about the resurrection and Thomas told them, "Except I shall see in his hands the print of the nails, and put my finger into the print of the nails, and thrust my hand into his side, I will not believe."
When he finally did see Christ, Jesus said to him, "Thomas, because thou hast seen me, thou hast believed: blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed."
The implication, of course, is that faith is better than evidence and the skeptic is derided as a "doubting Thomas". The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines the term as "an incredulous or habitually doubtful person" though Wikipedia is a bit kinder with "a skeptic who refuses to believe without direct personal experience."
People generally prefer certainty to doubt. In his book Future Babble: Why Expert Predictions Fail and Why We Believe Them Anyway, Dan Gardner speculates on why people believe the opinions of self-styled experts even in the face of countless failures at predicting the future. In a chapter called Everyone Loves a Hedgehog, he recalls a couple of panel discussions on television with various experts on the mortgage and stock markets including libertarian contrarian Peter Schiff. One of the discussions was in 2006 and the other in 2007. All the experts were bullish on housing prices and the stock market except for Schiff. He declared the markets were toxic. Both real estate and the stock market were in for a big fall. You could say Schiff was the doubting Thomas to the other experts' ebullience, but he was not.
Although Schiff turned out to be right, Gardner looks at the bigger picture. "Leave aside who called what for a moment and focus on what is true of every person in these clips, Schiff included. Without exception, they are confident. The message they give to their audiences is that they know what will happen; they are sure of it."
He notes that none were the least bit speculative in their comments. No one hedged by saying "It's very probable but not certain."
He goes on, "They often see things through a single analytical lens, which helps them come up with simple, clear, conclusive, and compelling explanations for what is happening and what will happen.
"They do not suffer doubts. They do not acknowledge mistakes. And they never say, 'I don't know.'"
The book looks at the miserable track record of most alleged experts. Yet even in failure, these experts go on and on with their mantra. He discusses the work of Philip Tetlock, psychologist and political scientist who has done extensive research into the art of forecasting. He found that "the experts who dominate the media won't be the most accurate. In fact, they will be the least accurate.....Using Google hits as a simple way to measure the fame of his 284 experts, Tetlock found that the more famous the expert, the worse he did."
You would think, opines Gardner, that experts who consistently fail in their predictions would be supplanted by those who succeed. But, perversely, this is not the case. Why? Because it's what people want. People crave certainty. They crave authority!
Authorities are often, to use terminology popularized by philosopher Isaiah Berlin, hedgehogs. Berlin quotes the Greek poet Archilocus: "the fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing." Berlin used this as a metaphor for two different ways of thinking. The fox's thinking "is scattered or diffused, moving on many levels, seizing upon the essence of a vast array of experiences and objects for what they are in themselves, without, consciously or unconsciously, seeking to fit them into, or exclude them from, any one unchanging, all-embracing, unitary inner vision." The hedgehog, of course, is the one with that "unchanging, all-embracing, unitary inner vision."
Gardner notes the case of one particularly thoughtful and accurate analyst, Robert Schiller, a Yale economist. Schiller is "the very antithesis of the loud, quick-talking, dead-sure-of-himself pundit. He speaks quietly and is often hesitant, even a little inarticulate. He qualifies his statements and mentions reasons why he may be wrong."
But his financial predictions were accurate enough to get him invited for an interview on CNBC in 2009. The comments on the program's website were negative. "People hated it," writes Gardner. He quotes a typical response: "This guy is really hedging his bet. He doesn't want to be underexposed or overexposed. I sure wouldn't take advice from him."
The attitude is similar to that of "British politician Norman Lamont (who) once said of his favourite newspaper columnist, 'He is often wrong but he's never in doubt.'"
People hate doubt. As I noted above, it gets a bad rap.
From doubt to certainty and back again
The above is by way of set-up to my reason for writing this essay. When I was around twelve, I took part in confirmation classes at my church. My parents were fairly religious and we went to church every week. At around age thirteen, young people are confirmed into the church. To prepare, we took confirmation classes. There we learned that confirmation meant standing up before the congregation and taking a pledge or oath. The oath includes a declaration of faith, that one believes in God, Christ and the Holy Ghost, among other things.
Of all the people in my confirmation class I was the only one who declined to be confirmed. I had doubts. My parents weren't pleased, but I explained that I couldn't in good conscience profess to believe in a lot of things I had doubts about. They accepted that.
Fast forward a few years and I was a commerce student in university. A friend recommended reading Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand. During the summer break I was browsing through a bookstore and came across Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal. I recognized the author's name and snapped it up - the first book of hers I read (a dog-eared copy that I still have forty years later).
I had discovered nirvana! Here was certainty wrapped up in a compelling style. It shattered my doubts. I read everything of hers I could get my hands on. I subscribed to her newsletters and listened to recordings of The Basic Principles of Objectivism by Nathaniel Branden in a study group I joined.
Rand is very persuasive in promoting the importance of certainty. She is a firm advocate of absolutes. The section headings in Atlas Shrugged are Non-Contradiction, Either-Or, and A is A. Her depiction of the person plagued by doubts is the Wet Nurse, the government functionary assigned to babysit Hank Rearden. He is an innocent but lacks convictions. Rearden nicknames him "Non-absolute". Over time, the Wet Nurse grows to admire Rearden and to reject the code of the looters.
One of the most compelling scenes in the book is when the Wet Nurse is shot trying to deliver a warning about a riot that has been planned for the mill, a riot of outside thugs hired to create trouble. Left for dead on a slag heap, the Wet Nurse manages to crawl out and Rearden finds him. He has found some conviction and gives the warning. Rearden calls him by his name, Tony, for the first time. "Not Non-Absolute any more?" Tony asks.
"No, not any more. You're a full absolute now."
Rand's writings were and still are compelling. They are still the foremost influence on my thinking.
Over the years I drifted into the libertarian movement. The early movement was vibrant and intellectual. These were people for whom ideas mattered. And I found myself agreeing with the libertarian creed holus bolus.
The libertarian movement is varied and robust, but it also lends itself to a certain dogmatic approach to ideas. In my university days after I read Rand I had a cocksure attitude that, not only was I right about my understanding of the world, but everyone else was wrong. One of the reasons I had trouble completing university was that I was no longer there to learn but to teach. I knew more than my professors. Their years of learning was all for naught as I knew better. I dropped out.
This is a common problem with many university students who have a fixed ideology going in. It is very much in evidence with those on the radical left. Eric Hoffer was not just blowing smoke when he wrote in Reflections on the Human Condition "It is the malady of our age that the young are so busy teaching us that they have no time left to learn."
This period of certainty lasted ten years before it slowly started to show cracks. The first crack showed up in the early 1980s.
Libertarians were and for the most part are hard money advocates - gold and silver are money. Fiat currency is crap. Various luminaries from Harry Browne to Jerome Smith to James Dines predicted hyper-inflation, complete debauchery of the currency. Smith even headlined a newsletter in 1980 after gold took its legendary run up to $800 - "Hyper-inflation Now". We were past the point of no return. We were doomed unless we embraced gold and silver. Howard Ruff urged his readers to get a wilderness retreat and store up provisions and guns so they could be safe when blood started to run in the street.
I dutifully stood in long lines each payday to buy some gold. I bought a bag of wheat and a grinder so I could make my own bread. I could not afford a wilderness retreat so I packed everything into the attic.
Well, you know what happened, gold crashed as fast as it went up. And it stayed in a funk for twenty years. My faith in the credibility of this segment of the libertarian movement was unraveling. By 2003 I had rejected gold as money and wrote a five part series of articles on The Trouble With Doom and Gloomers. I also got into stock market analysis myself, but not as a gold bug. William O'Neill, Peter Lynch and Warren Buffet became my guides. They analyzed stocks without an ideological bent.
Other cracks appeared over the years. One of my closest friends turned out to be a holocaust denier. He never pushed the idea. It was a personal thing for him. But another member of our Vancouver libertarian group believed that not only was the holocaust a hoax, but libertarians should openly embrace the idea. This led me to look into their ideas and also to read a considerable amount of material on the holocaust. Shirer, Martin Gilbert and other books. I engaged in an online debate with prominent revisionist Bradley Smith who claimed to be both a libertarian and a holocaust revisionist. I eventually gave up on the discussion because, as Deborah Lipstadt puts it in Denying the Holocaust, trying to nail down a denier on specifics is like trying to nail Jello to a wall.
It became clearer and clearer to me over the years that, while I still held to the basic ideals of libertarianism, I no longer had a lot of confidence in people's arguments merely because they claimed to be libertarians. The movement attracted and still does attract a lot of weirdos and nutballs. I started seeing everything through the eyes of a skeptic.
More troublesome yet, it attracted people who had considerably unlibertarian ideas, which they clothed in libertarian language to prey on the unwary. This is the phenomenon of the so-called alt-right which, frankly, disgusts me.
Libertarianism at its best is a philosophy of freedom, of live and let live. Libertarianism is tolerant and open to new ideas. It is intellectual and respectful of other ideas, even if they are contrary to our ideals. It is individualistic, respecting people as individuals and not a part of some collective. In this vein it is anti-racist, anti-homophobic, and anti-sexist. It is for diversity and multiculturalism.
But today there are large pockets within the movement that are anti-feminist, anti-gay rights, anti-liberal and full of venom and hatred for their perceived enemies.
A few years ago I read Karl Popper's two volume book The Open Society and Its Enemies. The book made a strong impression on me. Perhaps the most influential thing I got from it was Popper's admiration for Socrates, and most importantly, Socrates recognition that "I know one thing; that I know nothing." Known as the Socratic paradox, it puts a strong emphasis on the value of doubt.
I also read Eric Hoffer's The True Believer again as well as other writings by the longshoreman philosopher. What Hoffer made clear was the propensity for totalitarian movements to arise from what I discussed earlier - a strong need within some people for an authority to lead them, for a movement or a cause to lose themselves in. There is often a wish for martyrdom, a wish to die for something glorious.
One former libertarian, a Facebook friend, has gone so far as to embrace fascism, seeing mainstream libertarianism as a weak sister in the fight against Marxism.
I also made an effort to understand the thinking of non-libertarians, something I had previously dismissed as a waste of time. You'll find a collection of essays on this theme in the Index to my blog under How Non-Libertarians Think Differently Than Libertarians.
And, as I wrote in a previous essay, my libertarianism today is strongly influenced by epistemic humility, in other words - doubt, rather than from a view that I know it all.
A Philosophy Course Cements My Skepticism
In January 2018 I went back to university and one of the courses I took was The Philosophy of Decision Making and Dispute Resolution. The course looked on different approaches to the problem, including one's personal philosophy and style. One of the assignments was to investigate your "own own beliefs, as they relate to decision-making, dispute resolution, and conflict in -general". The method was to have a trusted friend interview you. You could devise the overall theme for the interview but the interviewer had a set of guidelines on how to approach the topic.
The overall topic I chose was to examine my views in relation to the following questions: How have your political views changed in the last fifteen to twenty years and why? How do you see these changes as integrating into a broad libertarian worldview? And how can such ideas be sold both within and without the libertarian movement?
I asked a long-time libertarian friend to conduct the interview, which he did via Skype. He, like me, had trouble with "isms" and also had a fair number of non-libertarian friends. In other words, he was a libertarian, but not an ideologue. After the hour and a half interview he sent me notes on his observations and I wrote out the final report.
I prefaced the report with this quote:
- For having lived long, I have experienced many instances of being obliged by better Information, or fuller Consideration, to change opinions even on important Subjects, which I once thought right, but found to be otherwise. - Benjamin Franklin, Founding Father of the United States
After outlining much of the above (my antipathy to gold bugs and holocaust deniers) I wrote "In any event, those incidents led me to realize that libertarians did not have a monopoly on truth as many believed they had. It led to the beginning of a continuing skepticism."
My friend asked if these were isolated whack jobs and if I had any issues with mainstream libertarianism. A few arose:
- attitudes on guns
- rationalism vs. empiricism (a tendency to reject empirical evidence if it contradicts the libertarian worldview - most notably on global warming and the value of democracy)
- absolutism - notably on property rights
- the view that economic power is benign
I noted my own view that property rights are contextual and that economic power can be misused and abused.
I also wrote: "The interview brought out that I believe libertarians may have their priorities skewed. Too much revolves around property rights. Some even call themselves propertarians. But I believe individual liberty is the key priority. Contra many, maybe even most, libertarians, I no longer think property rights is the be all and end all of liberty."
The paper goes on for eleven pages. Other areas included the tendency for libertarians to be fault-finding rather than solution-oriented, and a lack of perspective which shows up in seeing everything as black and white instead of shades of gray.
My interviewer made a couple of general observations:
"Marco hates it when libertarians trash our current (Canadian) society, in which we are privileged to live."
"Marco reacts strongly when people don’t respect each other. (e.g. libertarians trashing their political opponents as people.)"
I didn't realize during the interview that these issues showed up so forcefully but they are accurate. I love being a Canadian and value our society greatly. Seeing it denounced as bordering on tyranny is, to me, absolutely ludicrous and totally lacking in nuance or perspective. And the constant name-calling, insults, and generally rude and inconsiderate behaviour on the part of some libertarians is disconcerting. I believe in a world of harmony and respect. It starts with according respect to those we may disagree with. They are not enemies but potential allies.
Post-assignment, I discussed the paper with my professor who said I should think seriously about whether I am, in fact, still a libertarian. Maybe my views had changed so much over the years that I am not.
I should conclude that I still consider myself a libertarian. I believe in the primacy of reason, individualism, individual rights and capitalism. Those are issues beyond doubt for me. But where I have doubts are in some aspects of interpretation and implementation of libertarian ideals.
More and more I have come to a position of libertarian pluralism - an ideal of society where people of different views and goals can live harmoniously.
Where I have doubts are:
- that all matters of taste can be broken down using reason (Rand was big on pronouncing opinions on matters of taste as being rational or irrational, including such things as music and art.)
- that everything is binary - all good or all bad. I believe there are shades of gray - that social issues are on a continuum from tyrannical to libertarian - and that being nothing less than a pure libertarian is not equivalent to being evil
- that multiculturalism and diversity are bad. In fact, I believe the opposite, that they are generally good.
- that any gun regulation is bad. I believe some modest regulation to ensure safe and competent use and to make sure crazy people can't access weapons is not unreasonable.
- that economic power is benign. I believe some regulation of business can be considered rational acts of self-defense
- that libertarians should try and change the world. I believe change begins with the individual.
- that democracy is bad. I agree with Popper's view on democracy which I discussed in a previous essay. (See An Alternate View of Democracy linked at end of this article)
- that people who hold different political philosophies are evil or enemies. I consider myself fallible and everyone else as well. Like most people, those of a different political philosophy will be right on some issues and wrong on others. I consider very few if any mainstream politicians to be evil or enemies. I certainly don't consider myself right on everything (though I used to have the smug and self-righteous idea that I was).
How can I reconcile some of these doubts with libertarianism? Interestingly I have come up with a number of ideas and theories on just that, some of which are still percolating.
One final note: I also took a geography course called Religion and Peace. One of the things that came out of that course was my antipathy towards Orthodoxy. Now libertarianism isn't a religion, but it does have its orthodox positions - positions that brook no contradiction. Witness the outrage in some quarters when Gary Johnson, a less than pure libertarian, won the presidential nomination in 2016. I think my position can be summed up as I am skeptical of orthodoxy, including libertarian orthodoxy.
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If you would like to read more of my philosophical and/or political articles, check out the following:
- An Alternate View of Democracy
- Plato on How Democracy Degenerates into Tyranny
- The Handshake Versus the Fist
- Book Review: Fatherland by Robert Harris
- The Joy of Reading
- Life and Death in Ocean Reef
- Songs About Propaganda
- Propaganda and the Political Cartoon
- Complete Index of my Writing on Vocal (including short stories and poems)