“Certainty is dangerous; it makes people do terrible things to each other.” I’ve heard this view in the learned discourse of scholars and in the rough-and-tumble commentary of day laborers; it comes up in academic journals, at the local book club, and in the social media. Everywhere it is brought forth as something obvious: People who doubt their convictions cannot go to war or kill people for disagreeing. We need to doubt even our sincerest convictions, for the sake of civilization.
The claim appeals in part because it contains a grain of truth: certainty in and of itself leads to action, while doubt in and of itself leads to inaction. As a result, certainty brings the advantages and disadvantages of action, while doubt brings the advantages and disadvantages of inaction. Consider:
- Did slavery in America end because people came to doubt whether the black man was inferior? Or did it slavery in America end because people became certain that the black man was equal?
- Did the push for women’s rights draw strength from uncertainty about whether women should have a different status from men, or did it draw strength from a growing conviction that they should have the same status as men?
- Does an addict kick his habit because he has come to doubt whether he should keep it, or does he kick his habit because he has become convinced that he should drop it?