Bertrand Russell: “The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, and wise people so full of doubts.”
If there’s one word we could do without in the English language, it is certainty. Certainty is the enemy of reason.
Written down like that, it just seems so bloody obvious, and yet day after day, decade after decade, we don’t learn the lesson. We seem to hold to certainty as if it was a life raft; as if everything would crumble to nothing if we admitted to a teeny bit of doubt.
Think of all the damage that has been done to society by people who believe their big idea is the answer to everything. In the last century alone, over a period of just 80 years, a handful of people were so certain that communism and collectivism were the answer to society’s ills that they murdered and starved nearly 100 million people to establish their theoretical form of government. This happened in Russia, China, Vietnam and eastern Europe – a wide swathe of the globe, so it can hardly be blamed on a local blip.
Another example: a lot of people are absolutely certain that religion is the cause of more war and death than any other single factor in history. It’s a common theme of debate at dinner parties and down the pub. But religion cannot begin to compete with Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot.
Mind you, it could still catch up, because now we have Islamic fundamentalists who are so certain that they have a just cause, they are willing to slaughter innocent people simply because they are ‘infidels’ – ie: not muslims.
Try to imagine your state of mind as a moderate Muslim, living in a world where doubt is a given, faced with your religion being tainted by the absolute certainty of those who believe – to their own death, as well as yours and mine – that theirs is the true and only version of Islam.
We see certainty causing untold problems through science, religion, politics, the law, and – yes – even through gossip. Remember when Facebook was full of people absolutely certain that Alastair McAlpine was a paedophile? Some of them, unsurprisingly, are still not convinced he was not.
And we’re absolutely certain, aren’t we, that we are ruining the planet on which we live, and that global warming is unquestionably a man-made phenomenon. Except – it’s worth at least acknowledging that Planet Earth has been warming up and cooling down for 4.5bn years, and has seen off longer-surviving species than Homo Sapiens (200,000 years and counting vs 40m years for Ediacara Biota, 180m years for dinosaurs).
It’s also worth pointing out that the Mayan civilisation was reputedly wiped out by a warming event. I don’t recall the Mayans bequeathing us a Ford Mondeo or running factories that belched out filthy smoke. All in all, they were pretty green, the Mayans.
And then we have Israel/Palestine., Now there’s a situation riven with certainty on both sides and look where it gets them. But as onlookers, we also take positions and sides. There are those who heap opprobrium on Israel and ignore the fact that Hamas habitually and indiscriminately fires rockets at its borders and cities. (Note I say ‘Hamas’, and not ‘the Palestinians’).
In my lifetime I have known Israel as a terrorist nation; a plucky David (The Six Day War); a feared military power; and now as just a big bully, picking on the plucky Palestinians.
Well, life’s just not that simple. To anyone who is firmly on one side or the other in the Israel-Palestine conflict I usually say: “If you think you know the answer, you haven’t been paying attention.”
Towards the end of his life, the philosopher Bertrand Russell offered this advice: “When you are studying any matter, or considering any philosophy, ask yourself only what are the facts and what is the truth that the facts bear out.
“Never let yourself be diverted either by what you wish to believe, or by what you think would have beneficent social effects if it were believed.
“Look only, and solely, at what are the facts.”
I know people who dismiss Russell simply on the grounds that he travelled though Russia after the Bolshevik Revolution and was accused of missing the horrors that were being perpetrated. (In fact, he was excoriated in the Russian media as a shill for what Moscow called the yellow press. We called it The Times of London!).
As a philosophy, curiosity beats certainty hands down. Life is conflict. There are more questions than answers. If we exercise a little more curiosity and a lot less certainty, we might start to better understand some of our more pressing problems.
I’m pretty certain of that.