Sunday, July 29, 2007

The wisdom of uncertainty

During my rather short sojourn in hiatus, I have been pondering the difficulties of blogging. I was on the point of giving up because it seemed to be getting too serious and I was developing paranoia. It all started as a bit of fun, pointing out some of the absurdities of modern life, chatting with friends both real and virtual, doing what I like most - communicating with people. I've had some delightful encounters with people here and when visiting other blogs but I've also met a few 'certainty wallahs' and I found that quite a bruising experience.

I enjoy meeting people who have different views and different experience of life from mine. It would be boring to communicate only with those who agree with me, it would also be difficult to find anyone who fits the bill because I like to think that my mind is open enough to new information and ideas for my views to be constantly developing. The recent difficulty has been in coming up against one or two individuals who are inflexible in their beliefs and who want to impose their views on others. Not only do they not listen to another view, they wrongly attribute beliefs and attitudes to other people e.g. when I protested against an accusation of being 'anti-American' I was told that I was 'unconsciously' anti-American. How does one argue with that? I was also accused of 'deconstructionist BS' - I don't even understand that one!

It has been interesting to read the posts of some of the people who hold fixed opinions. It strikes me that their lives must be quite limited; whatever discussion they enter is quickly steered towards their political or religious opinions. It also occurs to me that they must live in a constant state of fear; when you are convinced that you are right you need to defend that certainty against all opposition. For me, the only certainty in life is death and accepting that opens the mind to exciting and unlimited possibilities.

A couple of years ago, I came across David Jenkins' The Calling of a Cuckoo - not just an autobiography; that is where I found the description of the 'certainty wallahs.' It is a book that expounds the wisdom of uncertainty and I recommend it to everyone who has, or aspires to having, an open mind. A taster quote for "the assertively certain believers - ... relax, believe a little less and collaborate a good deal more."

I've decided not to be intimidated off my blog. I will continue to share my trivial and absurd observations with anyone who cares to read them. I've made lots of chocolate cake and hope someone will drop by to eat it.


  1. I'd certainly like some chocolate cake.

  2. When Blogging, it helps to have a thick skin, I think and that unfortunately, you have to put up with the annoying to get to the good. Good luck!

  3. That was short! I'm glad you decided not to be intimidated. Welcome back!

    I don't know if I'm a certainty wallah or not. I have reached some conclusions in my life of which I don't really have many doubts. What I have found is that personality and character matter much more than knowledge. It's more important to treat other people right than to be right. There's no prize for winning arguments in the blogosphere, but there is ample reward for making new friends.

  4. David: there's lots of cake in the fridge with your name on it!

    Bret: Thank you. I'm working on the thicker skin but personality changes take time.

    Duck: No, I don't class you among the certainty wallahs but you are more tolerant of them than I can be. I respect everyone's right to hold an opinion and to express it. I'm interested in trying to understand their view but I expect my right to differ to be respected too.

    The hiatus was short because I'm a fast learner!

  5. Well done heiress-to-Winnie. Don't forget it was she who taught you to make chocolate cake - she and all the other brave Lancashire lasses!

  6. Crinny: She certainly wouldn't have run away from an unpleasant situation as I nearly did, but I'm not sure she would have got on with David Jenkins. Have you read The Calling of a Cuckoo? It is the closest to my views, on more or less all things, that I've come across.

  7. As for certainty, I don't know what to think.

    Just kidding.

    I'm a fan of certainty. First, it just makes for better writing and better blogging, although I'm not great at it myself. A piece of writing with a point of view is just better, all other things equal, than a wishy-washy piece. As a corollary, I think that a lot of the certainty found in blogging, which can be off-putting if you think of blogging as a conversation, is a put-on. If we were really all just sitting around eating chocolate cake, the certainty wallahs would admit to fewer certainties.

    But this is also a touch point in American politics right now, with the war on certainty being waged by Andrew Sullivan, who accuses the "Christianists" (his word) who he believes control the government of screwing things up by having an overly Manichean world view. As is often the case, this is transference. It is Sullivan who actually has a overly-Manichean world view: If you're in favor of gay marriage, you can do no wrong; if you're opposed, you're evil and everything you touch is made evil.

    Another good current example is global warming. There, it is the agw alarmists who are arguing that we must dramatically overturn the established order before we are any where near certain of what's happening and conservatives, mostly, who want to take a wait and see attitude.

    It's always tempting to steer a middle course; but the middle course is always wrong.

  8. I'm not really pleading for a middle-course approach to everything, David, just a little humility even when one knows their view to be the one and only right one!

  9. Hm, that last sentence looks rather tortured.

  10. David:

    I can't/won't comment on American politics but I understand your point about transference. I'm not sure what you mean on the question of global warming - as I read it, those who want to take immediate, dramatic action are the certainty wallahs. I would agree. I would say that those who want to wait for more evidence are showing wise uncertainty but are you giving them as an example of a middle course? Do you think they are too indecisive?

  11. David wrote: "A piece of writing with a point of view is just better, all other things equal, than a wishy-washy piece."

    Are you sure? Maybe. Perhaps. I could see it both ways though.

    Actually, I definitely disagree. I personally am much more open to pieces that don't incorporate overwhelming certitude. Sure, take a position, try and convince me, but if you have absolute certainty, there's no room for discussion. Then the only possible outcomes are that I already agree with you or I don't.

    David also wrote: "...the middle course is always wrong."

    No more wrong than any other course. Indeed, it seems to me that the extremes are generally wrong. Examples:
    1. War on terror - we coulda nuked every Islamic country or we coulda done nothing at all - seems like the middle ground is preferable.
    2. War on drugs - we could legalize all drugs or we could suspend the unreasonable search and seizure amendment and find all drug users and execute them on the spot - seems like the current middle ground is preferable.
    3. Socialism - we could become communist or completely laissez-faire (who cares about the poor - let them eat cake) - seems like the middle ground is preferable.
    4. etc.

  12. Bret said: Sure, take a position, try and convince me, but if you have absolute certainty, there's no room for discussion. Then the only possible outcomes are that I already agree with you or I don't.

    Like David Jenkins, you have articulated my thoughts much better than I did.

  13. Have you ever been convinced of anything by anyone who wasn't themselves convinced?

  14. Sure, that's what brainstorming sessions are about. It's the idea that convinces, not the person.

    More importantly, in my mind there's a significant distinction between a writer who's convinced and a writer who's certain (especially of the overwhelming, true believer variety). I expect that a writer generally believes what he's writing, but I personally am much more likely to respond positively to someone who hasn't irrevocably made up his or her mind on the subject.

  15. The distinction between conviction and certitude can be seen in the language used. Certainty is expressed in words such as absolute, definitive, immutable, authoritarian, dogmatic, uncompromising, incontrovertible, carved in stone and can be summarised with TINA - There Is No Alternative.

    A convinced, but open minded approach is expressed in words such as exploration, enlargement of ideas, engagement, collaboration, development, vision, hope, compromise, tempered,challenge, potential and admitting of paradox.

    Certitude is defensive and turned in on itself. The middle course is not the same as sitting on the fence, it can be a real and positive alternative to extremism.

  16. You seem pretty certain of that.

  17. This is more about conversational style than what you take to be certain or uncertain knowledge. One way to promote a conversation with someone that disagrees with you is to use the kind of language Monix describes. Another way, that is mistaken for certainty wallah-tude, is a dialectic approach where one person says "A is so", and the other person says "no, B is so", and you go from there. I think men are move comfortable with the latter approach than women.

    Of course there are lots of things I am uncertain on, and thats where the Daily Deliberations come in.

  18. I agree that there tends to be a difference between men and women in the approach to discussion. I'm fairly typical in using 'I think' or 'I feel ....' rather than making a direct statement. My daughter is described as very masculine in her ability to argue, she holds her own with her father and brother, while I leave the room when it starts to sound confrontational.

    I appreciate that many of you who communicate on the Daily Duck and TofE etc have studied philosophy and will be using classical conventions in argument which can be misleading to uninitiates like me.


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