Certainty is death

I told a writerly friend, a couple decades ago, that the only thing interesting enough to write about is doubt.

She asked me if I was sure.

I have been certain about so many different things over the years. Each certainty has in turn fallen away. What was frightening at first has become exhilarating.

Certainty is a shell that surrounds your world view, like a layer of plaster smeared onto a balloon and allowed to dry. It provides an illusory sense of security. It also constricts and confines. It prevents movement and expansion.

And it’s self-healing, once you apply it. The wonks say that the more certain a person is about something — a political conspiracy or a religious tenet or the surpassing danger of genetically modified food or the complete safety of genetically modified food — the more likely that person is to dismiss evidence to the contrary.

No philosophical tendency is immune to this. Which might be why I’ve been accused of being a shill for coal companies and extreme green groups by people responding to the same article.

Any bit of nuance is a threat to certainty. Certainty requires a clean, uncomplicated surface: no speckles of data that don’t quite fit, no tiny fractal eddies of facts that seem to contradict one another. I call it “poikilophobia,” the fear of complexity, from the Greek ποικίλος, meaning “diverse.” Fear of philosophical messiness, of nuance.

A friend sent me a link yesterday to a video about vulnerability. It’s good and you should watch it. And I began to think about how in the common American parlance, the word “vulnerability” has come to mean something along the lines of “feeling bad if people are mean to you.” Same goes for “sensitivity.”

But I think we miss a lot when we cast vulnerability only in that sense of requiring others to tiptoe around your important feelings. We miss out if we are not vulnerable to new information, sensitive to contrary bits of data.

Certain certainties are a necessary baseline for living in the world. I am certain that all people deserve to be treated kindly. I am certain that we as a species are not more important than all the other species in the world combined. I am certain that I wish to limit the harm I cause and I am certain that I wish to be loved. I am certain that all of us furred finned fanged fungal or foliaged multicellular organisms are kin. I am certain that if I drop my phone in the bath I will need a new one.

I am certain that I will rethink some of my certainties before long.

Breaking that shell of plaster lets the light in. How wonderful to feel the breeze on the back of your neck again, to shed a layer of outmoded certainty like a snake its old skin. What dreadful confinement to have everything figured out so tidily, to fit each mindblowing wonder into its little box and to discard those wonders too ungainly to fit.