What if We’re Both Certain, But of Opposite Beliefs?

Conflict about certainty can have a big impact on our relationships. When we are certain of one thing and someone we trust is certain of something else we may have a problem. Can we keep the relationship and disagree?

RenĂ© Descartes was the philosopher who said, “I think, therefore I am” (in the usual translation). He wanted clear and distinct ideas so that he could be certain. If we are confused and unclear, how could we be sure that something was true? And if we were confused and unclear, then how could we give our assent to something?

Descartes’s most famous idea is, “I think, therefore I am”. As he wanted certainty (and clear and distinct ideas were the path to this), he set about doubting everything that he could. This included all our information about the external world (we are sometimes mistaken in our perceptions) and could even include ideas about ourselves (our memory is not perfect, we may not know why we did something). What he couldn’t doubt was that he was doubting. Surely this is clear and distinct — and therefore certain?!

Philosophers are a difficult bunch. Some of them don’t even find, ‘I think, therefore I am’ convincing. Their difficulty is that the two instances of “I” in the statement may be different. The first (thinking) “I” seems to guarantee something about the second (existing) “I”. Descartes seemed to be saying that his thinking meant something more than that he doubted, but then what could his thinking show beyond that he was thinking? I’m not trying to solve this, or even take sides, here. I just want to point out that certainty is something that is awfully difficult to arrive at intellectually.

Does this mean that our certainty is condemned to be irrational? Does it matter that our certainty is illogical?

This leads to turning the question on its head: How could we ever be uncertain? If we found our ideas and experiences entirely convincing, why are we ever uncertain of anything? It seems that there are different aspects of our experience and that these can be in conflict.

Sometimes our reasoning and perceptions are in conflict. We may be unable to fault an argument and still be sure that it is wrong. We want to check where we have arrived even though we agree with how we got there. Sometimes our values and pleasures are in conflict, as when we don’t do something even though we would enjoy it.

Reconciling the conflict between the different aspects of our experience is the subject for another post. Here I just want to point out that we do experience uncertainty as well as certainty.

It seems to me that almost all of us are quite certain about some things. These can be things about our external world: it would be rare to doubt that the floor will be there in the morning. And they can be things about our internal world: we know that we possess certain attitudes and attributes. (While I feel deeply about some core issues, I organise my life by thinking. I haven’t met anyone who thought I was wrong about this.)

How is it that we are so sure about some things?

Firstly there is the amount of experience we have. There has never been one time when the floor hasn’t been there in the morning.

Secondly, there is the agreement of others whom we trust. People agree with me that I’m quite a heady person.

Then there is also our ability to examine our experience. Is the floor a delusion? Not so far as I can tell. Am I absolutely always a thinker? Well, no: sometimes I do things just because I feel like it, but on the whole I’m more of a thinker than a feeler.

As we move away from our immediate experience it gets more difficult to have certainty. We rely on others and being able to copy what they have done. This can be very formal and regulated; there are rules for how philosophy or science are done so that other people can replicate what has been done. In everyday life it may be a story about what someone has done. (For instance, someone assures me that there is a quicker way to drive to a familiar destination. If they can give me a good description of the way that they go I may be convinced. If they showed me on a Google map, I would be less convinced — in my experience the map is not the territory, and the Google map can contain significant mistakes.)

Conflict about certainty can have a big impact on our relationships. When we are certain of one thing and someone we trust is certain of something else we may have a problem. Can we keep the relationship and disagree?

What usually doesn’t work is to attack the other person. When attacked, the usual response is to get defensive and to stick more stubbornly to our position. What can we do?

We may decide that it is OK to agree to disagree. This will depend on how important the issue you disagree on is to you.

However, if you do wish to find agreement then there are a couple of things to do that I find can help.

  • State why it is that you are certain. This may be a personal story of your experience. It may be presenting the evidence and reasoning you have used to reach your conclusion. This leaves more room for disagreement and may lead to a new exploration: there are aspects of our experience that we overlook, and the other person may point one of these out. From this point it, may be possible to find a new way of looking at things that we can both agree on.
  • State the other person’s argument so that they know you understand. This is a good way to avoid leaving the other person feeling attacked. Presenting the other person’s perceptions is also a good way not to get defensive ourselves.

Almost all of us are convinced of some things. About other things we are less so. In my experience it is possible to get on with other people who I’m convinced are wrong about some things.

How much is certainty important to you? Has being certain about something affected a relationship of yours in a significant way? Do you find it possible to maintain a relationship with people who are certain that you are wrong? I’d love to hear your experience in the comments.

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