Confidence Without Certainty

A prevalent mistake made by critical rationalists and their critics is that a lack of certainty implies a lack of confidence. These critics sometimes denounce the way critical rationalists express their ideas, as if they should be couching everything they are saying in cautious or even probabilistic language. Confidence and certainty are conceptually distinct and it’s worth criticizing the equation of lack of certainty with lack of confidence.

Certainty is a feeling that is entirely disconnected from the truth of its object. Any knowledge may be false and certainty can do nothing to change this fact. It does not follow from this fact that certainty has no pragmatic value, as evidenced by the success of religions and other dogmatic institutions. Certainty is valuable in that it ensures that a person is at least taking the theory that is its object seriously. Certainty can also strengthen the will of a person in the same way other anti-rational ideas and feelings can; by preventing criticism, a feeling of certainty can help maintain a particular trajectory and prevent doubts from entering the mind. Again, certainty is no indicator of proximity to the truth, so avoiding criticism also serves to prevent finding a better theory rejecting the possibility that one exists.

While confidence and certainty both have the advantage of encouraging taking an idea seriously, confidence remains open to alternatives which may show the original idea to be false. Confidence encourages both more readily subjecting ideas to criticism and less readily accepting inadequate criticisms. The important truth that you should be willing to subject any of your ideas to thorough criticism does not mean that you should reject a theory simply because you have encountered a criticism of it. Not taking a theory seriously can cause you to give it up too readily, before it has been successfully criticized.

Another common mistake due to misconceptions about what it means to lack certainty is adopting a position of ambivalence. This position is related to relativism in that it rejects evaluating theories in terms of better, worse, true or false, but is a weaker claim in that it only refers to one’s own ability or right to judge theories and not objective reality. Upon exposure to the idea that any of our knowledge may be false, many conclude that the correct position to take towards theories is one of ambivalence, that one should not adopt any position at all. But this is an overreaction to the nonexistence of justification. Although final justification is impossible, it is possible to make progress by looking for and creating solutions to problems.

Among other motivations for maintaining ambivalence in regard to theories may be: fear in taking a stand that would lead to social discomfort or awkwardness, a desire to avoid the embarrassment of confidently holding a position that turns out to be false, or a fear that taking a firm position will lead to becoming “biased.” I won’t attempt to refute the first two motivations here except to say that fear of embarrassment is useless when it can be applied universally (it is always possible to discover error in idea or action). As to the third motivation, taking a firm position is more likely to lead you into positions that will refute the theory, so long as you do not avoid means of correcting yourself if you’ve made an error, while remaining ambivalent is more likely to lead to a position of never understanding any side deeply enough to come to a clear conclusion. Biases are just a category of error and are equally unavoidable, but piecemeal corrections of them are possible. Remaining ambivalent towards all theories or an arbitrary subset of them is one such bias ripe for correction.

The acknowledgment that it is always possible some action has been taken or some idea held in error may weaken confidence if applied solipsistically, as in that oneself is prone to error and others are not. But the fact that everyone is prone to error can also strengthen confidence in the way of denying the supposed “authority” of “authorities.” Confidence is also valuable for correcting errors in that it can encourage formulating theories so as to allow others to subject them to criticism, offer better alternatives, or find ways to improve them.

Confidence is also optimistic in the sense of acknowledging that while problems are inevitable, they are also soluble. Certainty that events will go a certain way may be irrational, but confidence that there is some way in which whatever problems will arise can be solved is not. Confidence is more likely to put you in situations in which you are solving problems faster than you would have otherwise, and, while it’s important to avoid overreaching, increasing the rate of problem-solving can help increase well-being.

Advice, Thoughts on Responsibility

Confidence is something that is not precluded by a lack of certainty, and it can improve one’s ability to act and think rationally. Techniques for gaining confidence is another matter I am not particularly well-equipped to discuss, but in addition to the rational understanding argued for above I have found the following strategies and arguments useful.

It is important to first clearly recognize that confidence is not something to be avoided. Many people avoid being confident because they think that it contradicts being nice or conscientious, or that confident people are arrogant. It’s important to clear up these confusions in order to avoid sabotaging one’s own efforts. Lacking confidence can even self-reinforce by putting a negative value on all forms of confidence through labeling as arrogant in order to avoid confronting the problem.

It can be helpful simply to recognize and appreciate good (non-arrogant, kind, etc.) people because developing and maintaining confidence is something that requires a good deal of implicit knowledge that may be learned by watching or spending time with people who have had success in this area. It can even be helpful just to spend time with people who value confidence in others with which you can recognize confidence in a non-depracating way, as viewing confidence as a positive trait helps prevent one from sabotaging one’s own efforts towards confidence.

In terms of social fears, confidence may be strengthened by the recognition that most people usually are too busy paying attention to themselves to notice your mistakes, and that even when they do notice, you are not responsible for the way that you have made them feel. People may object to what you have to say or the way you behave, but it is their responsibility to offer reasoning to change your mind, and yours to remain open to sources of error correction.

Whether how one behaves or speaks is moral or immoral is independent of how a listener responds emotionally. It is still wrong to intentionally insult people, or to yell fire in a crowded theater, and a variety of other things. These acts are wrong even if no one is hurt by them. A person operating a vehicle may not be responsible for hitting a person who jumped out in front of them without any time for the vehicle to stop, but the vehicle’s operator is at least partially responsible if they are driving at an unsafe speed or in a reckless manner. But just as it would be preposterous to severely restrict the behavior of the driver to avoid the possibility of ever hitting a passenger who intentionally leaps into traffic, it is ill-advised to take responsibility for the feelings of listeners who have freedom to choose how they respond to your words. Doing so puts them in the position of tyrant by making you responsible for things in their control and outside of yours. It is also impossible to maintain this position consistently, as according to it an obligation to not hurt one person’s feelings may violate an obligation to not hurt another’s.

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