What Do You Know for Certain? If You’re Trying to be Rational, Absolutely Nothing

People often greatly overestimate the ease and accessibility of rational decision making. Most choices – from where to eat for dinner to what to buy with disposable income, from who to vote for in presidential elections to what ideas to accept as good explanations for natural phenomena – are not based on a logical assessment of the available facts. On a proximate level, most people do not have enough information to reliably anchor a process of rational analysis. But more fundamentally, most people lack the combination of intellectual fortitude, integrity, and humility to admit that they are wrong, and – on a more rudimentary level – unsure. Uncertainty is the cornerstone of rational decision making. Those unwilling to shoulder the burden of perpetual doubt are forever hobbled in their ability to coolly and reasonably evaluate the relationships between claims and evidence.

Of course, even those willing to accept the reality of ubiquitous uncertainty are not immune from the pitfalls of emotional reasoning, limited information, and practical time constraints. Emotional preferences are a critical ingredient in any process of decision making. This fact is inescapable. What we “feel” about things often matters as much as what we “think” about them. It is also true that people rarely have access to a table set with all relevant information, nor is it reasonable to expect anyone to have the cognitive capacity to fully encompass it all even if they did. Viewed properly, perfectly rational analysis is a mirage – a fiction of Platonic form.

Nevertheless, those willing to nurture a sense of doubt can, at the very least, aspire to rationality. For the doctrinaire and dogmatic, rationality is a hopeless dream. Those who claim to know, absent any and all provisionality, that a certain perspective is best – that their religion is true, that their favorite “-ism” (capitalism, socialism, feminism etc.) represents the best way to view and structure the world – are signally incapable of intelligently assessing whether or not their ideas are actually useful reflections of anything that exists in the world.

Which is not to say one can’t be more or less confident about this or that idea. One can – and must – deploy an unequal distribution of confidence regarding different claims about the nature of the world. But only – as Descartes argued centuries ago – if one is willing to start from a place where all claims have been reduced (at least in principle) to targets of open and honest inquiry. This much is obvious. The more important point relates to how one treats his or her beliefs going forward. No one should hold a view in such high regard, imbued with such a high level of confidence, that they are unwilling to drop it in the face of newer, more reliable information.

All of this begs an important question. Perhaps you’ve already guessed it: how realistic is it to expect people to behave this way, to display this kind of zen detachment toward cherished ideas? The answer, in most cases, is not very. Yet there is value in the striving. The very attempt to apply this kind of balanced skepticism and uncertainty elevates one’s ability to fruitfully evaluate information well above that of anyone mired in a false sense of certitude. The very essence of absolute certainty is irrevocable irrationality, rooted in crass braggadocio or grasping emotionalism. Uncertainty, on the other hand, is not only an expression of humility, it is an accurate reflection of the kinds of knowledge we can realistically hope to attain, giving us the best possible angle from which to test ideas against evidence.

Doubt is the quintessence of rationality.

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