Do the Best Lack All Conviction?

Russell Blackford

In his 1920 poem “The Second Coming,” W.B. Yeats laments: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity.” The great Irish poet had in mind the turmoil across Europe in the early twentieth century, not least the 1917 Russian Revolution that deposed Czar Nicholas II and culminated in Lenin’s ascent to power. Whatever the merits of revolutionary Russia, and despite Yeats’s cranky theory of historical cycles (expressed in “The Second Coming” and elsewhere), the lines I’ve quoted are frequently recited or alluded to even now, almost a century later. They powerfully summarize the danger of ideological fanaticism.

So often, ideologues display an intensity of conviction, and an unscrupulousness in acting upon it, against which good, fair, perhaps liberal-minded people seem helpless. So, do “the best,” or at least the fair-minded, lack all conviction? Should they?

Over the past five hundred years, scholars and scientists have added, increment by increment—and sometimes with radical conceptual breakthroughs—to our understanding of human cultures and the natural world. Our collective knowledge base has expanded vastly. Many once-uncontroversial beliefs have been utterly defeated. Think, for example, of the geocentric conception of astronomy, well-entrenched at the beginning of Western modernity but no longer taken seriously by any educated person.

Think, too, of many other claims that we can reject with confidence because they assert the existence of phenomena clearly at odds with our scientific understanding. Investigation of such claims is, of course, the bread and butter of today’s scientific skeptic movement. Reincarnation is just one example. Even if claims about reincarnated souls or spirits are conceptually coherent, they are scientifically implausible. No conceivable mechanism for reincarnation seems to make sense when held up against our current scientific picture of the world. Given the total evidence supporting that picture, reincarnation claims should be almost ruled out. Almost. We should not close our minds completely, but we should view these claims as extraordinary and ask for exceptionally compelling evidence.

To take a very different example, consider traditional ideas about the respective roles for men and women: these have not been defeated entirely, but they have been undermined by many intellectual and social developments. These ideas no longer prevail, at least in Western countries, and their historical waning looks to be permanent, absent some catastrophic reversal of sentiment that would probably require social collapse.

As a species, we have learned a great deal in recent centuries, and our knowledge has been hard won. There are issues on which it would be absurd to “lack all conviction.” Yet we are still confronted with many situations where it is quite proper to reserve judgment, identify murkiness or complexity, or form opinions only tentatively. The mainstream sciences include numerous legitimate and open controversies, and our scientific picture of the world is far from complete.

What about claims made by social scientists and humanities scholars? Some of these are, indeed, very powerfully evidenced, such as the essential facts of the Nazi Holocaust, and people who reject them often do so out of deep ignorance or in bad faith. Holocaust deniers are (surprise! surprise!) often anti-Semites of one kind or another or even outright neo-Nazis. But many claims about historical, social, or cultural matters have nothing like the empirical support, based on extensive investigation, that underpins our knowledge of the Holocaust. The social sciences and humanities are frequently volatile and politicized. There is typically no consensus of experts, and entire schools of, say, literary, social, or economic theory may be built on shaky foundations.

To complicate matters further, nonexperts often feel the need to make judgments about highly complex and contentious issues. For example, politically important questions of economic management—how best to handle a financial crisis, perhaps, or simply how best to minimize unemployment in “normal” times—can become very cloudy indeed. Some economic policy packages are, let us concede, transparently irresponsible or opportunistic or cynically brutal, and in those circumstances it may well be appropriate to have strong convictions against them, to oppose them forcefully, and to unmask the ignorance, recklessness, opportunism, and cynicism of their advocates.

Surely, though, this is not always the situation when rival economic policies, or rival teams of economic managers, are up for assessment by voters. All too often, in fact, there are vast gray areas. Well-credentialed experts can genuinely disagree on what steps should be taken and on what consequences might reasonably be expected. If we are intellectually honest in these cases, we should admit that we cannot make the required judgments with any great confidence. As voters, we can only do our best in assessing our options; if rival parties seem to offer sincere and responsible policy alternatives, we may be thankful that economic management is not the only issue that influences our votes.

Even if you are confident of your judgments about economic policy, there should be many other topics where you rightly feel less so. In a wide range of situations, the evidence available to us is simply ambiguous or incomplete. Getting to the bottom of certain claims may be very difficult given the limitations on our time, cognitive powers, and expertise and on the evidence reasonably available to us (or perhaps to anyone at all). Settling the truth of a particular claim might require first settling the truth of numerous others, and this might require settling still others. Such situations are probably more common, or even typical, than we’d like to believe, but as rational, reasonable people we just have to live with this.

Once again, I am not making a global and theoretical, and perhaps paradoxical, claim to the effect that we can never be confident about anything. Some philosophers have argued for forms of comprehensive epistemic skepticism and have tried to work out the implications for how we ought to live our lives. Perhaps most famously, this was the approach of the ancient Pyrrhonian skeptics. I am making a more modest claim that I actually do feel confident about because it appears to have strong empirical support: in a wide range of situations that we encounter, we are not in a position to draw conclusions with much objectively justifiable confidence. This can apply to such things as how certain individuals really assess or feel about us; the guilt or otherwise of defendants in court cases that are in the news from time to time; many social, cultural, and political claims expressed at a high level of generality; and much else.

Despite our intellectual progress in recent centuries, modern societies are awash with all kinds of one-sided, intellectually dishonest, emotionally manipulative messages—that is, with propaganda. Worse, our minds start to be formed by these messages long before we have the capacity to recognize them for what they are. At the same time, we find it sorely tempting to develop a view of the world far more comprehensive than the evidence really allows, to test new claims in accordance with how far they confirm our existing worldviews (rather than based on the real strength of the evidence), and to cling to our cherished understandings of the world with the passionate intensity of conviction that Yeats complains about in his “Second Coming,” even when many of our beliefs have little rational warrant.

Let us then be forthright in our convictions where that really is justifiable. But let’s also b
e aware of our biases: it is too easy to think that my pet issue is one of the ones where the evidence is all on one side and warrants some drastic, perhaps inhumane or destructive, action.

Recognizing all this, as I think we must, what is to be done? There is much to be said for a habit of mind whereby we stop and consider what might be the strongest arguments against our own positions or in favor of positions that we oppose. Don’t look merely for weaknesses in your opponents’ positions; search out the strengths. If you consider those in an intellectually honest way, you may end up modifying and developing your views, holding to them less fiercely (and weighing the wisdom of acting on them quite differently), deciding to reserve judgment, or changing your mind entirely. This is a good start for not turning into a propagandist, an ideologue, or a fanatic.

In that spirit, Udo Schüklenk and I go to some lengths in our new book, 50 Great Myths About Atheism, to give the best run we can to each of the “myths” we identify, pointing out any grain of truth that we honestly find when we investigate a raft of what seem to be (and by and large, really are) lies, libels, or simple misconceptions.

Likewise, I’ve enjoyed reading Peter Boghossian’s even newer volume from Pitchstone Publishing, A Manual for Creating Atheists (November 2013). This is a brave, clear book whose author is certainly confident in his attack on religious faith. Nonetheless, his insights go far beyond the book’s immediate focus on debates about God. Boghossian’s call for honest, evidence-based thinking can be seen as a strong challenge to ideology and propaganda wherever we find them. In particular, he insists that we maintain a posture of “doxastic openness,” a willingness to revise beliefs: we should consider the evidence against our current positions and accept unexpected truth claims when this turns out to be warranted.

This, I suggest, is how fair-minded people ought to approach important issues that concern them. Boghossian argues, correctly it seems to me, that clear, honest thinking based on evidence will nudge people toward atheism. It will also, let’s take note, lead many people away from their comprehensive and comforting but poorly evidenced secular ideologies. That is just as well, given the track record of comprehensive secular ideologies in imitating many of the worst features of the monotheistic religions—not least, as Boghossian also recognizes, their tendency to override ordinary human sympathies and to inspire persecutions, purges, and atrocities.

If we are honest, we will face up each day to how little we really know—enough, no doubt, to exclude belief systems that fit poorly with robust scientific findings but far from enough to build new comprehensive systems of our own that can be adopted with much confidence. In some cases, as we face grave personal and political choices, the evidence will confirm that something drastic must be done. But in many, many other instances, we ought to accept a reality check and oppose wild plans or dramatic actions justified by propaganda and ideology.

Sorting out which cases are which is never easy, but that is the task we must face again and again. That is our modern condition.


Russell Blackford

Russell Blackford is a conjoint senior lecturer in philosophy at the University of Newcastle (Australia) and a regular columnist for Free Inquiry. His latest book, The Tyranny of Opinion: Conformity and the Future of Liberalism (2019), is published by Bloomsbury Academic.

So often, ideologues display an intensity of conviction, and an unscrupulousness in acting upon it, against which good, fair, perhaps liberal-minded people seem helpless.

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