TEHRAN - Professor Eric Thomas Weber says “the fundamental problem with the feeling and ideal of certainty is that it stops us from learning.”
“The feeling of certainty makes us comfortable, but it is also dangerous, both in religion and in science,” Weber tells the Tehran Times.
Following is the text of the interview:
The Enlightenment in the West contributed both to human progress and to modernity’s problems. Enlightenment thinkers embraced the scientific method and the ideal of pursuing knowledge experimentally. At the same time, Enlightenment thinkers believed in the achievement of certainty and the need to dominate nature.
The philosophical Pragmatist John Dewey called the Quest for Certainty a response to the understandable desire to protect ourselves against the pains that arise in nature, such as in illnesses. The domination of nature and Enlightenment attitudes about it, however, have led to a disregard for the limits of natural resources and the effects that human beings can have on the Earth. In addition, the ideal of certainty leads to this kind of hubris, as well as other forms of it.
Imagining an ideal form of knowledge can be a valuable directive for thinking and continuing the scientific method, but certainty is more of a feeling than something that we can know that we have achieved. Unfortunately, the feeling of certainty generally leads to an end to inquiry. This is part of the problem with the feeling of certainty and the Enlightenment’s embrace of it, both in science and in religion. Why would people try to learn about anything which they think that they have certain knowledge about? The answer is that they do not. Therefore the fundamental problem with the feeling and ideal of certainty is that it stops us from learning, it halts scientific and democratic processes.
Dewey and other Pragmatists believed that inquiry should be considered endless. This is compatible with religious and scientific beliefs. Human beings are finite, therefore the knowledge we achieve will always only be that which we can refine in our lifetimes. Charles Peirce, another philosophical Pragmatist, considered the truth about controversial matters to be best thought of as what would be called true by a community of inquirers after an infinite process of inquiry.
On any given day, however, we will call knowledge that to which our best theories and experiments all point. Even though we say that some things are known in this way, the key is always to remain open to learning more in future inquiry. In day to day life, though, we clearly benefit from modernity’s enhanced knowledge over past generations. Therefore those areas in which our knowledge improves life can be called matters that we are knowledgeable about, yet we can say this while admitting that there may be more for human beings to learn in these areas.
The feeling of certainty makes us comfortable, but it is also dangerous, both in religion and in science. It can lead us to unquestioning faith in falsehoods or immoral directives. This can inspire actions that harm others without warrant. It also breaks down our sense that we ought to inquire further, to learn more. Therefore, the comfort of certainty must be combatted.
The mind that becomes curious at first feels some discomfort. That discomfort, however, can be considered a source of inspiration, instead of pain. The more people come to appreciate curiosity and the need for inquiry, the more science is advanced, and the more leaders' choices are scrutinized for the sake of checking potentially unjustified authority.
Today, we have learned the consequences of the desire to dominate nature and the Earth. We have witnessed the effects of rising global temperatures and the finitude of our energy resources. The senseless belief that we ought always to dominate nature has been largely replaced with an understanding that the world is a finite home which people must protect. With regard to certainty, however, people variously succeed or fail at controlling the impulse to feel sure, to end inquiry. At least some elements of the Enlightenment's problems are coming to be commonly rejected. When the inclination to believe in certainty and in our achievement of it are more widely denied, human beings will take yet another crucial step forward toward moral progress.
Dr. Eric Thomas Weber is assistant professor of public policy leadership at the University of Mississippi in Oxford, MS, USA. His second book, Morality, Leadership, and Public Policy, was released in 2011 and his third book, Democracy and Leadership, will be published in 2013. Visit his Web site: http://www.EricThomasWeber.org and follow him on Twitter, @EricTWeber.
Subscribe to our RSS feed to stay in touch and receive all of TT updates right in your feed reader