Sometimes I hear people in the blogosphere complain about philosophers and what we do. This often comes from someone who is largely unfamiliar with philosophy, and you can see this because these people commonly express explicit philosophical positions while they are complaining about philosophy. This suggests they just don’t get what philosophy is. Sometimes I get annoyed at this and try to point out the mistake, but most of the time I let it slide recognizing that the person in question is just naive. Sometimes, though, I read something from a philosopher, and I understand these people’s frustration. After all, this is likely what they had in mind when they voiced their complaint. Now is one of those times.
Andrew Pessin, Chair of Philosophy at Connecticut College and author of The God Question, wrote an article for the Huffington Post a couple of days ago entitled “How to Be Certain Your Religion Is True and Still Get Along with Others.” So, what’s Pessin’s big idea?
Choose some important, life-governing, very controversial thing you happen to believe in with great fervor: the existence of God (or perhaps atheism), the truth of Christianity (or Islam or Hinduism, etc.), absolute morality (or relativism), etc. Focusing on religion as our example, you can now say, first, that you believe, with certainty, on the basis of reason and evidence and testimony, in the truth of, say, the various individual tenets of your version of Christianity, and thus believe, with equal certainty, in all the things entailed by that belief: that, say, all other competing religions and doctrines are simply false.
But then you can say, second, something else: that you may be wrong.
Yes, Pessin thinks the resolution to the world’s religious conflicts is to say you are certain about something, but then say you’re not certain at all. He calls this the “Paradox of the Preface.”
What’s this about? Pessin thinks that someone can say that she is certain about something while simultaneously saying that, as a fallible human being, she is also certain she made a mistake somewhere in their reasoning. Sounds like a contradiction, huh? Pessin agrees. He writes,
Well, there is the implicit, apparent contradiction. To believe of each and every sentence that it is true is to believe, in effect, that not one of the sentences is false; but to believe that there is at least one error in the work is to believe that at least one of the sentences is false, and thus to contradict the first belief.
Even so, he says we can recognize the contradiction while still being certain about both things.
Man, there is so much sloppiness here that I want to bite something. First, in philosophy “certainty” has a specific meaning, and it means that there is no doubt. If that’s not what Pessin has in mind, he should define the term. The point there is that, even if I recognize that I am fallible and capable of mistakes, I likely am not certain that I have made some mistake in my reasoning. Were that the case, I would be going over that reasoning carefully to find the error. Rather, I just see that it is possible that I made a mistake, but that is nothing like having certainty about it. So, even if Pessin means “certainty” as having no doubt when he talks about believing that one’s religious faith is fully correct and all others are wrong, he can’t mean certainty in the same way when talking about the fallibility of one’s reasoning. But which use of the word does he have in mind when he talks about ‘certainty’? There does not seem to be any way to tell. Regardless, there is a big problem here.
Next, I just do not buy the idea that someone can be certain about something, like that God exists, while saying that he might be wrong. That just means you are not certain! In that case acknowledging some contradiction does not seem to be some brave honesty. On the contrary, it seems wholly dishonest. If you are certain, you would not think you had made an error. If you are worried you made an error, and surely if you are certain of such, then you would not be certain of the assertion you are making in the first place. The idea that you can be certain about both things really is a contradiction, and when you have contradictions that means at least one of the propositions in question is false. It is as simple as that. You do not get to brutely assert both as true and not look like either a liar or a fool.
There is a larger point to this whole nonsense, though. Pessin is suggesting that affirming the paradox is supposed to somehow make people get along with each other, but he gives no indication of how this is supposed to work. Indeed, there are lots of things about which I am not certain but which seem reasonable, so those are things upon which I act. Even in those cases, lacking certainty, acknowledging the possibility that I am wrong does not prevent me from acting, and that seems to be the kind of thing for which Pessin is pushing. He seems to think that if people admit to…well, not doubt, but being both certain and not-certain at the same time, that this will alter their actions in such a way that people of different religions can get along. But why would he think this? There are any number of people who admit to times when they question their religious beliefs, but that hasn’t stopped religious conflict yet. Seriously, does Pessin think he is so smart that no one ever realized that there might be room for not-certainty in their beliefs before he wrote this? Surely not. And yet, here he is suggesting that such an admission will result in some kind of large-scale harmony between members of different faiths. But, certainly, this has not happened yet, even though people recognize that they can make mistakes.
Dude, what a dumbass.
Accepting contradictions is not a way to accomplish anything except confusion. Being sloppy in your definitions only spreads confusion. Confusion is not peace. In fact, confusion is often the origin of conflict. Pessin is the kind of philosopher who gives the rest of us a bad name.