On Certitude

It is hard to pinpoint what is wrong with American political discourse, and it is imprecise to sum up all that is wrong in a word. But as I begin to consider the present metastatic condition of our public discourse, one word strikes me as among the root causes: certitude.

As I will tend to do, I am referring to a particular connotation of the word, what I consider its dictionary definition plus a certain emotional freight drawn from cultural usage. In the case of certitude, I’m referring to an attitude of certainty. In traditional argumentation, contesting parties build a case based upon certain premises, logical proofs, and the like, and eventually weave an argument designed to influence an audience to agree with their side of the argument. Argumentation in our time has inverted this traditional structure, inserting conclusions for premises and perverting the persuasive goal of consensual judgment into a cacophony of fractious foregone conclusions.

I must be clear: I am not claiming that certainty per se is the problem here, but rather that the pharisaical costume of foreordained certainty is the problem. I treasure the sureness and conviction and belief and expectation of authentic certainty, but certainty necessarily lives in tension with mystery. Everything you know with certainty, whether it is in religion, politics, or science, has the capacity for the unexpected, the off-script. It is tempting to pretend (at first) and to convince yourself (later) that the mystery isn’t there, that uncertainty is containable. But to do so is to be untrue.

Why can’t I claim 100% certainty? Because complete certainty requires comprehensive and incontrovertible proof. You must have all the data, and you can never have all the data. You can have 100% certainty concerning the facts that you can perceive, but you necessarily cannot perceive all of the facts. If you’re a religious or spiritual person, you believe that there are “principalities and powers” beyond the reach of the temporal conscious senses. If you are a scientific person, you believe that there exist as-yet-undiscovered theorems, maxims, and laws that describe the functioning of the universe. Scientific discovery is never complete and, therefore, all conclusions are fundamentally provisional. Newtonian physics describes reality well enough to fly at the speed of sound, but it does not describe it well enough to travel at the speed of light. For every Newton an Einstein, even, in turn, for Einstein.

To boil my point down into a philosophical premise: this side of eternity, nothing can be fully known.

I do not need to convince you that uncertainty exists out there in the world, because you harbor it within you as doubt. Gnawing doubt is the engine of scientific discovery and of genuine faith. It exists within us all, but it’s buried taproot deep in some and draped with only a thumbsweep of dust in others. We cover over doubt because we cannot long suffer cognitive dissonance without debilitating internal wreckage. And yet, despite our efforts to make it disappear, doubt can unexpectedly buoy up to the surface like an empty septic tank breaching in a heavy rain.

Self-rightness and self-righteousness are twin maladies, and certitude is malicious because it is disingenuous. The bravado of absolute surety often signals one who must drown out the internal static of pervasive doubt. Be wary of insecure sheep dressed in wolves’ clothing.

American public discourse should be a dynamic exchange about potential solutions to our collective problems. If I believe I have all of the answers before we’ve even clarified what the questions are, then my certitude has sabotaged the point of our exchange and contributed to a public sclerosis that places us all in jeopardy.

About Ben Ponder, Editor-at-Large

Ben Ponder, PhD, is Editor-at-Large at Media Rostra. Ben has received decorative pieces of paper conferring upon him an unnamed set of “rights and privileges accorded thereto” from the University of Arkansas, Regent College, and Northwestern University (where he was a Presidential Fellow). He studied (in alphabetical order) architecture, classics, communication, history, political science, rhetoric, and theology. He is the author of American Independence: From Common Sense to the Declaration (“Sizzling.” – TMZ) and the co-editor of Making the Case: Advocacy and Judgment in Public Argument (“Six-pack abs-olutely great!” – US Weekly). Ben is currently an executive in the educational software industry. He and his organic wife, Amy, live with their four free-range kids in a farmhouse Ben designed and built. His personal site on the Interweb is benponder.com, and he can be reached on Twitter @ponderben.

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