Sunday, 11 January 2015

The Certainty of Good and Evil

Bertrand Russell writes: "Most of the greatest evils that man has inflicted upon man have come through people feeling quite certain about something which, in fact, was false." But, to be consistent, the reverse must also be true: most of the greatest goods that man has bestowed upon man have come through people feeling quite certain about something which, in fact, was true. What otherwise is true love? So, it would be mistaken to conclude from Russell's remark that certainty is intrinsically malign or contradictory.

To say that there are no absolutes is itself a straightforward truth claim — an absolute. The argument should really end there, but clearly this has not convinced the doubters. So let me try to explain why I think relativism is an error of reasoning.

What is it to be certain of something? Is a gibbon certain that the branch is really there? What advantage would doubt confer on the gibbon in such a case?

Is this breath I take an instance of certainty? Is the evolutionary exploitation of universal regularities driven by certainty? Or is it more true to say that certainty is merely a characterisation; one of a catalogue of what we take (often mistakenly) to be our commitments?

It seems to me that the relativist begins with the possibility of doubt and extrapolates into barely plausible fantasy and then takes this as sufficient cause for radical doubt. 

But doubt, like certainty, is a concept. Does the gibbon doubt? Does a fly? Nonverbals do not reason. They have no propositional faculties. That is largely why they are called "nonverbals" after all.

Sure, a gibbon might hesitate (not a fly). But the gibbon's hesitation is not due to intellection. The supposition that facts (knowing-that) underlie all knowledge is the ruin of intellectualists BTW. No, the gibbon hesitates because it has insufficient knowhow.

The fact that we can conceive of doubtful things, that we can be ambivalent, equivocal and uncertain is no ground for rejecting all certainty. Likewise, the fact that we can take some things for granted is no justification for supposing that our extrapolations are also true. That, I propose, is the root of all evil.

Nonverbal creatures are never evil. Evil is the product of language users. It is a cultural contrivance—ideas and ideologies—that require systematic planning and, in their worst manifestations, the recruitment of others. Nonverbal creatures can be malign of course, but they cannot plan systematically. Nor can they recruit others because they cannot persuade.

Thanks to Brian and John for questioning my unshakable faith in realism and to Ashok for the quote from Russell.