Certainty should be left to mathematics and religions.

Anyone who insists they have a final answer is dangerous.

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One of the failings of religion is inflexibility. Religious people may conclude that a god is the source of objective morality. Therefore, they are externalizing and objectivizing a relative, subjective concept. Also, they are obviating the possibility of error correction and progress.

Religious people sometimes see arguments inside their movements and assume that they are engaged in robust debate. In fact, it’s a kind of Overton Window, where aggressive and hostile debate is encouraged, but only within certain very narrow parameters. Freud referred to the tendency for hostility within similar ideologies as “the narcissism of petty differences”.

Religions or other ideologies can be attractive precisely because they provide final solutions to problems we all have and definite answers to questions we all have. For the rest of us, the phrase “final solution” is chilling.

The damage of certainty

Anyone who says there are no final solutions (and therefore no real truths) may come across as weak, but in reality, it’s a strength. Some of the most horrific damage in history was fuelled by some absolute truth which later turned out to be either demonstrably incorrect or otiose. It is very difficult to be equivocal about genocide.

Certainty obviates progress. Once you accept that you have discovered some absolute truth, it follows logically that you’re done. You don’t need to do any more thinking. A final solution cannot allow for special cases or changes in circumstances. However, the real world is full of special cases and changes in circumstances.

Sometimes the best way to learn something is to make a mistake. And to make a mistake, you have to be wrong. Until you accept that your truth might be wrong, you will never learn anything. Furthermore, any final solution to any reality-based problem is probably wrong.

The origin story of Socrates

Socrates was not always a philosopher. He came to it relatively late in life. Before his most famous career choice, he was a soldier in the Peloponnesian War. After that, he was a politician.

In Plato’s Apology, Socrates explains how he got into philosophy. His friend Chaerephon, on a whim, asked the Oracle of Apollo at Delphi if anyone was wiser than Socrates. The oracle, renowned for its vague and ambiguous pronouncements, simply answered: No.   

Socrates found this very surprising and difficult to believe. He had no idea why anyone would consider him especially wise. On the other hand, he absolutely believed that he had a special relationship with Apollo and refused to accept that the god lied.

Philosophy lives in the grey area.

Therefore, for his own peace of mind, he accosted self-styled experts all around Athens and questioned them. Every single time, he discovered that these experts knew nothing at all about their chosen subject, but assumed that they did. Gradually, Socrates came to understand what Apollo meant. Socrates was “wise” because he understood how little he knew. Other men had no idea how little they knew. Socrates discovered the Dunning-Kruger Effect 2,400 years before Dunning or Kruger. 

Later philosophers were less tentative. When Immanuel Kant developed his Categorical Imperative, he believed that he had established a universally applicable test for moral actions. He was wrong

When Wittgenstein wrote his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, he believed that he had ended philosophy. This was a rather grandiose ambition which he admitted was wrong in the exciting sequel, Philosophical Investigations.

Humility is the beginning of knowledge

We should keep our minds open for new approaches, new ideas, new ways of thinking, new opinions which might be better than the ones we have. Always keep in the back of your mind: “I could be wrong about this.”

Our experience should make us wiser and teach us to have more empathy, but how can that be possible if you refuse to accept that what seem like objective truths can always be improved?

Mathematical certainty is for mathematical concepts. Metaphysical certainty is for religion. Philosophy lives in the grey area. And now, so do you.

Barry Purcell lives in Ireland and writes about religion, philosophy, psychology, politics and language for a variety of paper and online publications. He has been involved in campaigns to counteract the...