Certain Doubt

January 29, 2021

I’m pretty sure I’m broken.

I had a ~conversation~ debate with my boss; he literally owns the business of which I am an employee. He has very specific political beliefs 1 and he wants to debate them. He’s not just trying to get you to agree; no, he actually appreciates a difference in opinion.

Yeah, I know. Crazy. We get along great.

Yet it was during one of our weekly conversations that I realized I am truly broken.

I am incapable of accepting certainty.

There was a point in my life when I knew. There was a point when I was certain of the truth. And it was a life built on a foundation of that certainty. From that foundation, I explored. I never cared so much to prove what I knew to be true, but to explore the many facets of it.

Yet in that exploration I discovered doubt.

And doubt destroyed everything.

A whole lot of people thought 2 I turned my back on “The Truth”, declaring it to be false; but nothing could be further from it. I didn’t discover it wasn’t true. I discovered I didn’t know. I realized I couldn’t know.

I had made assumptions in my certainty, and for much of my life they had remained unexamined. When I did analyze them, I discovered not that they were false, but that I couldn’t know if they were true.

On paper, this doesn’t sound that bad. Yet I’d unknowingly built a fragile life, one whose certainty needed but a hammer in just the right place to shatter. It took years for me to put myself back together, but I was never the same.

Doubt is not a pleasant condition, but certainty is absurd. Voltaire

The end result is that I cannot be certain of anything, and I am incapable of accepting the certainty of others. When presented with it, I will immediately try to tear it apart.

Let me be clear: I infuriate most people.

In most debates there will come a point at which the other person will throw up their hands and declare that facts are fact and if I can’t accept that there is an objective truth, why speak anything at all?

They miss the point. I don’t believe there is no truth. It’s the ‘therefore’ I don’t trust.

“Given x, therefore y.” …well, maybe.

At least in Western society, Aristotelian logic has reigned supreme for thousands of years. If A equals B, and B equals C, then A must equal C. This is a categorically true statement. There is nothing false about it.

This logic, or some derivative of it, is the foundation for much of how we view the world. It’s a powerful tool, and our use of logic has translated directly into our science and math. It’s with this foundation we’ve built our civilization.

Yet like all powerful tools, it can be misused. It can deceive us, luring us into a false sense of certainty. It allows us to take our assumptions and dress them up. It allows us to paint over the ugly complexity of reality with something that looks categorically true.

John did x, and we all know x is evil. Therefore, John is evil.

It is the therefore that lies to us; it is the equal sign we can’t trust. Within it lies a thousand assumptions, and from it we reduce a person to a label. It the essence of over-simplification and the form of dehumanization.

It is the therefore I attack, and with it all those underlying assumptions of truth. It is the absolutes I don’t trust and seek to take apart.

And I might even agree with you. I might believe that what John did was wrong, even evil. I might even believe that John is a horrible human being. But I cannot abide such absolute labels as good and evil. I abhor the reduction of any person to such an over simplification, especially when it’s used as a call to war and an excuse for our own evils.

When my certainty shattered, I embraced doubt. Perhaps is was Stockholm; perhaps it was simply the only way forward for me. Whatever the reason, it is the way I view the world.

It’s not something I’d be willing to give up, even if that were possible. Doubt was an uncomfortable state for a long time, but then it became a form of freedom for me. No longer chained to one way of viewing the world has allowed me to explore possibilities I’d never been able to conceive of. It broadened the world for me and made it a bigger place, a more interesting place. It’s a place filled with mysteries and ideas to explore.

Looking back, it’s clear to me just how restricting my certainty had been. It was like a prison for my mind, one with walls I couldn’t see that kept me from exploring all but the little room I had made for myself.

I refuse to ever go back.

  1. No, I will not discuss the details. They’re not the point. 

  2. Probably, they still do.