To Doubt With Conviction

A mini-manifesto by E.D. Kain, who has stopped clinging to certainty:

I think doubt is a much maligned, much misunderstood thing; perhaps because people never really embrace it, never really try to understand why it might be – in and of itself 375px-Ralph_Waldo_Emerson_ca1857_retouched – a positive force, but instead find ways to extinguish it utterly. Doubt is cast in our society as a malfunction, something to overcome, something broken. I don’t see it that way anymore. Yes, some people become mired in it, become paralyzed by indecision – there are reasons we have phrases like “wracked with doubt” or “mired in doubt” and so on and so forth. But doubt is not the same thing as uncertainty. “Speak what you think now in hard words, and to-morrow speak what to-morrow thinks in hard words again.”

Certainty is an alluring trap; the temptation of intellectual or spiritual pulls us under, riptide-like, into its soporific current. A release from our uncertainty is a powerful tonic. It explains the Tea Party, the socialist revolutions of the 20th century, American exceptionalism, and essentially progressivism writ large. And our certainty only increases as the subject matter becomes more complex and our expertise (or faith in expertise) becomes more precise....

I distrust all complex systems including government, and if anything, my foray into contemporary liberalism has made me distrust government more than ever. I am not reflexively anti-government, of course, but I distrust it plenty, as I do all complex, entrenched institutions. But the question of liberal/conservative is secondary to doubt and certainty.

That is why I tried to frame a resuscitation of genuine conservatism around this "doubt-certainty" axis rather than a "right-left" one in The Conservative Soul. Kain also notes that "I tend to abhor movement politics, cringe at the faux certainty of those good team players so quick to shut down debate – and sometimes, every now and then, envy the certainty of these movements and their followers." I'm with him on all fronts, of course, although I do not envy the unnerving false certainty of others but rather miss the comforting false certainty of my youth. This struck home:

My belief in free markets has similarly developed out of my doubt: I doubt that markets will always or even often provide optimal results, but I doubt more the central planner or the protectionist. I am certain of our individual stupidity but more afraid of the state’s massive, collectivized stupidity. I am not ideologically a free marketeer, really. It is only, like democracy, the least worst option of the bunch. And I believe in societal safety nets because I doubt the beneficence of my fellow man – or of myself, for that matter.

The question, collectively, is whether Americans can ever grasp this kind of temperament, whether there is something about the American experience that privileges certainty and fundamentalism over doubt and faith. I think there is a space for the truly conservative temperament - and largely it remains in the practical common sense of the entrepreneur, the frontiersman, the individual who knows he is attempting something radically new in new territory and that this requires a certain practical humility in the face of the world. Mercifully, the constitution's myriad checks on getting anything done quickly allows even a more usually restless, ideological and certain populace to survive its own enthusiasms.

On a personal level, though, Kain speaks to me, as does one of his commenters, Kyle Cupp:

I can strive for knowledge of truth without ever needing certainty to support my endeavor. If I need anything, it is hope, hope that what I’m pursuing is the truth, and hope that all of us stand, walk and search within its light, even and especially in our disagreements.


(Photograph: Ralph Waldo Emerson.)