I’m sure it’s best to be uncertain

15 August, 2011

I recently met a friend whom I tend to envy, not because he is wealthy (although he is that), or successful with women (he doesn’t seem to be too concerned with such matters) but because his outlook on life seems untrammeled by any caution-giving uncertainties or by any debilitating doubts.  Every time we discuss a topical question, his views are expressed forcefully and in a manner which, even if it sometimes leaves room for further debate, makes it clear that his views will not be varied by such debate, and that for me to argue against him would just be misguided and/or silly.

But my envy is usually short-lived, and fades away in the light of even the most cursory reflection.  In fact, on such occasions I am reminded of the saying (of unknown provenance) that “I wish I was as certain about anything, as he is about everything”.

In reality, I prefer a more nuanced, analytical frame of mind, an attitude nicely expressed in a Frank Conroy essay, “Think About It”:

Indeed, in our intellectual lives, our creative lives, it is perhaps those problems that will never resolve that rightly claim the lion’s share of our energies. The physical body exists in a constant state of tension as it maintains homeostasis, and so too does the active mind embrace the tension of never being certain, never being absolutely sure, never being done, as it engages the world. That is our special fate, our inexpressibly valuable condition.

Even the super-controlling business hero Steve Jobs once admitted:
I didn’t see it then, but it turned out that getting fired from Apple was the best thing that could have ever happened to me. The heaviness of being successful was replaced by the lightness of being a beginner again, less sure about everything. It freed me to enter one of the most creative periods of my life.

Obviously, as Yeats knew, it can be dangerous to lack conviction about one’s beliefs :

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

So lack of conviction is to be regretted?   Arguably so, assuming one’s beliefs are of a democratic and peaceful nature.  But Yeats himself was anti-democratic and was even regarded as an admirer of fascism.  So there’s a dilemma here:  for society to progress, or even for it to be managed properly, we need people of conviction, “men of action”.  But such men or women are just as likely to be wrong-headed or evil as they are to be clever and benign.

In a multimedia age, where the soundbite is king, voters can too easily confuse certainty with smartness.  TV current affairs and news programme producers avoid panellists/interviewees who express views with caution, and choose instead those who have strongly held views of a black-and-white nature.  Hedgehogs, not foxes.

I have great admiration for public figures and commentators who are prepared to admit that they are unsure of the answer to any given question.  I think I do, at any rate.


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