Being Certain, Getting Along

Andrew Pessin has an essay at the Huffington Post that seems to have earned the Dumbest Thing on Earth Award from my friends in the atheosphere.  They seem to think he's a disgrace to the philosophy profession. (You can get a taste of the outcry here, especially in the comments.  See also here and here and here.)

Let's have a look (because it's a Friday afternoon and nobody invited me to Happy Hour).  Pessin writes that he's had an epiphany, to the effect that the Paradox of the Preface is the solution to all the world's problems.  Here's how he explains the paradox (which is nicely explained and discussed here)--
Imagine an author writing something like this as a preface to her work:

I am certain, of each and every sentence in this work, that it is true, on the basis of various considerations including the careful arguments and use of evidence which led me to it. And yet I recognize that I am a fallible human being, likely to have made some error(s) in the course of this long work. Thus I am also quite certain that I have made some such error somewhere, even if I cannot say where.

Such a refreshingly honest preface! So what is the paradox?

Well, there is the implicit, apparent contradiction. To believe of each and every sentence that it is true is to believe, in effect, that not one of the sentences is false; but to believe that there is at least one error in the work is to believe that at least one of the sentences is false, and thus to contradict the first belief.
Some people seem to think this will all get cleared up by talking about degrees of belief.  Maybe this is what they're thinking: if you believed each sentence in your book was just probably true, it would make sense that you would attach an even lower probability to the conjunction of them all.  Likewise, If you think there's a 97% chance of each of a million things happening, you won't think there's as high a chance of them all happening.

But it seems like this isn't what's going on.  Your certainty in the totality of your book doesn't drop off in the orderly way that probability theory would suggest.  It drops off because of evidence you have that you're fallible, that other smart people have different views, etc.  All that doesn't come into play when you look at the sentences one at a time (you just ponder the evidence supporting each one), but does come into play with respect to the total.

Where do you--you the author--go wrong (as you must, if you have inconsistent beliefs)?  It's not Pessin's goal to figure it out (there are lots of different views on this).  Rather, he thinks there's a moral to the story.   Believers in different religions (and atheism, and other things) would be well-advised to have the attitude of "humble absolutism" that characterizes the author writing a preface, even if that attitude is contradictory.  Believers should both believe they're most definitely right, and believe they could be wrong. If they would do so, world peace would be just around the corner.

Of course, he's not going to object if someone wants to go further and not be an absolutist at all. He's just offering some advice to the very certain. He's saying something lie this: "Go ahead and be very certain--like the book author is of each sentence in his book; but also recognize your fallibility, like the book author does when he thinks of the book as a whole."

How strong can your convictions be, when you are aware of your fallibility and the differing views of people no less smart than you?  Pessin seems to say "very strong."  I say "very interesting question."  FYI--I'll be discussing this in the next issue of The Philosopher's Magazine.

UPDATE:  Brandon has a very illuminating post on the paradox of the preface, with lots of great links.


s. wallerstein said...

Aren't two different uses of the word "certain" being played on?
The first is "I'm certain that I put my eyeglasses on the table" or
"I was certain that she was going to look both ways before pulling out of the driveway": that is,
the feeling of being sure (or certain of) something. That's the everyday use of the word. The second use is that used by Wittgenstein in "On Certainty" or Descartes in his Meditations, that which cannot be doubted or questioned. Many times my convictions are of the first sort, while I take them as being of the second sort: for example, I am certain that Obama is a better president than George Bush, but in technical philosophical terms, those of Wittgenstein or Descartes,
the affirmation that Obama is a better president could be doubted or questioned.

Jean Kazez said...

The word "certain" doesn't play any real role in this paradox. Pessin uses it when he tells the story (his first paragraph) but drops it when he explains the nature of the paradox (his third paragraph). The paradox is really just about belief.

Here's how I explained it a minute ago at B&W--

(1) I go through my book, examining the sentences one at a time, reviewing the evidence for each one. I believe s1, I believe s2, etc. (2) Presumably it’s fair to say that I believe s1 & s2 & s3 … so I believe there are no errors in the book. (3) I then reflect on my fallibility and concede there must be errors. So on rational grounds, I believe a contradiction (there are no errors, there are errors). It can’t be rational to believe a contradiction, yet the argument seems to show its rational. Paradox!

A paradox is just an apparent contradiction, not a permanent contradiction, so calling this is a paradox doesn't (in the least) rule out there being a solution.

s. wallerstein said...

You're very courageous to venture alone into wild Indian territory. I'll see how you're doing there after I write my sister.

s. wallerstein said...

Is English your first language?
As usual, the non-believers assume the worst possible intentions behind the words of believers, for example, willful equivocation.

Jean Kazez said...

The presumption for some people is that everyone else is an idiot. I find that odd. I'm prepared to think someone's an idiot, but only after they've given me very compelling proof.

s. wallerstein said...

The new atheists are generally right, but the way that they are right turns lots of people off.
In any case, I admire your courage and your emotional balance.

Taylor said...

I know that however many times I proofread a manuscript, carefully checking every sentence, the very first time I set eyes on it after it's published, I will immediately -- immediately -- see a glaring error. ("How could I have missed that?!") And I know, with absolute certainty, that this will happen. Okay, so that's not quite what Pessin was talking about. ...

"My ultimate hope, then, is that world peace will break out when enough people simply acknowledge the paradox as well and begin applying it more generally." Wow. Is he serious? Acknowledging a paradox will bring us world peace?

Doesn't Pessin's argument assume that all conflicts of values are only superficial and susceptible to compromise? Some people are humbly certain that the right to abortion is necessary for a better world. Other people are humbly certain that abortion makes the world a worse place. So are we going to allow abortion or not? If we're humbly certain that slavery is evil, or that the Nazis are out to take over the world, should we fight or just say, "Well, we could be wrong..." and put down our guns? Sometimes, even if you admit you're not infallible, you just have to punch the other person in the face, figuratively or literally, because there's no middle ground.

Faust said...

Taylor hits the nail on the head on this one.

The problem here is not epistemological, it's normative.

While some moral questions might be settled by resolving factual questions, others will not. In the latter case, the question of a series of propositions being "correct" or not is unlikely to help matters much.

If I think all _________ need to be converted or killed, then none of the questions being considered by Pessin will apply. And if I take my humility to the threshold of forgiving and forgetting on ANY issue (like some of the ones Taylor mentions) then I'm just going to get steamrolled by opposing cultural forces.

There might be an interesting philosophical issue in play here, but at a glance I don't see Pessin pushing an issue that's going to help much.

Jean Kazez said...

Taylor, I think Pessin's essay is playful and ironic. It can't be wholly OK to have inconsistent beliefs (I'm entirely right, I'm not entirely right). We are to figure out for ourselves what he's really suggesting.

Which is...(I think)...that when you have strong convictions, it's not out of the question to ALSO have some humility. This is not really the solution to ALL of our problems. That's supposed to be funny.

If you were really going to take this seriously, no doubt you'd have to narrow it down. Some times we should have our strong convictions with no humility at all. It's wrong for Jews to be wiped out--no need to be humble about that conviction.

Presumably what he's really worried about is religious (and anti-religious) zealotry. It's when you have strong convictions about Jesus, Moses, whatever, that this tempering with humility is advisable.

I don't think he can really be serious about religious zealots being in the same position as the author who writes a preface. The paradox turns on the assumption that the author has checked the book carefully, so it's rational of him/her to believe all it says. Religious zealots don't do that sort of checking. Nobody can really say it's rational for a person to believe all that _____ (pick your favorite religion) says.

I believe that's why my friends in the atheosphere find this essay irritating. They want Pessin to admit that zealots haven't arrived at their beliefs rationally, not merely to advise them to keep their confidence, but add on some humility.

IMHO--They should have just said that, instead of attacking Pessin as an incompetent because he talks about the paradox of the preface. They just demonstrate their own ignorance of the paradox of the preface. Plus, they show an appalling lack of awareness that philosophers do get trained in their business, and usually do know it quite well.

baitsk said...

Two comments:

Way back when Baginni wrote his not-well-received critique of the "new atheist" "movement," he wrote

This is most evident when you consider the poverty of the new atheism’s “error theory”, which is needed to explain why, if atheism is indeed the view evidence and reason demands, so many very bright people are still religious. The usual answers given to this are not good enough. They tend to stress psychological blind-spots and wishful thinking. For instance, Dawkins says “the meme for blind faith secures its own perpetuation by the simple unconscious expedient of discouraging rational inquiry.”

But if very intelligent people are so easily led astray by such things, then shouldn’t the new atheists themselves be more sceptical about the role reason plays in their own belief formation? You cannot, on the one hand, put forward a view that says great intelligence is easily over-ridden by psychological delusions and, on the other, claim that one unique group of people can see clearly what reason demands and free themselves from such grips. Either many religious people are not as irrational as they seem, or atheists are not entitled to assume they are as rational as they seem to themselves.

I think this ties nicely into the current discussion.

Second, the more I read about this "preface paradox" the more I think it is arguably the basis of Rorty's constant use of "the cautionary definition of truth" which is problem that it is always possible that a given belief might turn out to be wrong in the future. Yet he never explicitly mentions the preface paradox.

Anyway, just two items that come to mind here.

I think the preface paradox in and of itself is a bit of a red herring here (that it's just a nice tight example of a larger issue), but obviously it's part of a nexus of issues that the "new atheists" have allergies to. But they have very sensitive constitutions. Has anyone helped Harris clean the vomit off his keyboard yet? Don't bother. He's soon to vomit again. Chronic indigestion.

Faust said...

"baitsk" is me. Not sure how that got in the name field ;)

Jean Kazez said...

Ha...I wondered about that, because it seemed like you. Could anyone else be wondering if Harris had cleaned up his keyboard yet? I think the NAs get irritated by anyone who's prescribing anything but reeducation for the religious crowd. They are to be argued out of their beliefs, period. Baggini was leaving them a little more leeway, as is Pessin.

s. wallerstein said...

Could someone post a link to Baggini's article? I missed it, although I did notice that he had become persona non grata in certain circles. Thanks.

Faust said...


For Amos

s. wallerstein said...

Un millón de gracias.

Ophelia Benson said...

Very late, but there are enough speculations on motives and aspersions and snotty (given that they mostly refer to a particular website, to wit, mine) generalizations here that I feel a need to correct them, briefly. I suppose I should have checked here for the more invidious version of the discussion of Pessin and the paradox and certainty, but I simply took the one at my place at face value - that is, I thought it was about Pessin and the paradox and certainty. I didn't realize it was about "the atheosphere" (ick, what a word) and buried motivations and imaginary shunning.

that seems to have earned the Dumbest Thing on Earth Award from my friends in the atheosphere

I didn't say anything like that, but including two links to my place imply that I said it most and perhaps loudest.

You're very courageous to venture alone into wild Indian territory...As usual, the non-believers assume the worst possible intentions behind the words of believers, for example, willful equivocation...The new atheists are generally right, but the way that they are right turns lots of people off.

Generalize much?

I believe that's why my friends in the atheosphere find this essay irritating. They want Pessin to admit that zealots haven't arrived at their beliefs rationally, not merely to advise them to keep their confidence, but add on some humility...I think the NAs get irritated by anyone who's prescribing anything but reeducation for the religious crowd. They are to be argued out of their beliefs, period.

I don't know about other "NAs" (and I don't know that everyone who comments at B&W is a NA, either, and if I don't I don't suppose you do), but I was simply irritated by the equivocation between certainty and belief. I'm always irritated by that, and by similar equivocations - not because my brother was scared by a theist when he was a baby, but because they muddle things. I was irritated by what I said I was irritated by, not by some other secret thing that requires psychoanalysis.

Julian isn't "persona non grata" in certain circles, amos, at least not if by that you mean in my circle - and given that Julian is my boss, I'd much prefer people skip the ignorant gossip on the subject. I disagreed with much of the content of that article, and I warned Julian that I wanted to blog about it and made sure he was okay with that.

Here you are priding yourselves on how nice you are in comparison to me - by pointing and sniggering like a bunch of schoolchildren at a lunch table. Pfffffffffff.

Ophelia Benson said...

Then again, maybe it would be more fair to separate amos from Jean.

amos, you obviously despise both me and B&W, but you seem to forget that Jean's blog is on the internet. All this rushing to make snotty remarks about B&W the minute Jean mentions it is not the friendliest thing you could do for Jean. Are you aware that we're colleagues at TPM?

You look, frankly, like a spiteful child, using Jean's blog to make all these little digs. You also look sly, since you've just been commenting at B&W as if you liked the place and as if butter wouldn't melt in your mouth.

If you had any sense you would keep the backbiting for email, rather than publishing it on the internet. If you do it here, I can see it. Duh.

s. wallerstein said...

Ophelia: Actually, I like you a lot, and I think that you have a great blog. What's more, I enjoy your writing style, your irony, your sense of humor, and as I said above, I think that you are generally right. However, I always gossip about people who I like, and the more I like you, the more I gossip about you. I really do believe that it is possible to like someone and to admire their work, without considering her to be perfect and to be above criticism.