Comment Elsewhere: Certainty

Context here:

Most comments on blogs – particularly well-read blogs on controversial topics – are not part of a conversation, nor do they add anything beyond a sort of “me too” vote to one side or the other. Hardly anyone actually reads previous comments before posting – I’ve skimmed through, reading more closely what caught my eye – because that’s not the point. The point is to express ourselves, vigorously and publicly: like doing cartwheels in a grocery store, to get noticed briefly and acknowledged, but not really to engage.

So I’m often loathe to comment on well-commented pieces, on the grounds that nobody cares, that what I’d say has probably been said, etc. But Aaron, if you’re still reading comments (Sorry, really), here’s something that hasn’t really been touched on directly here (though I do seem to remember it coming up on twitter).

Sources lie. But they’re all we have.

This is what I tell my history students ( and it’s one of the most fundamental things about doing history: Sources lie deliberately, sometimes. Sometimes by omission. Sometimes accidentally. Sometimes because of their particular perspective, or because they made a mistake. Sometimes they lie because they are lost to us; a kind of 5th amendment right of history, to destroy materials.

In spite of that, we *have* to *use* our biased, incomplete, poorly written, fragmentary sources to come to some conclusions about the world. Absolute certainty about anything other than big events is rare; absolute certainty about causality or human experiences is damn near impossible. Sometimes even “preponderance of evidence” (The American civil court standard) is just not reasonable.

We have to be careful about filling in gaps in our knowledge with “likely,” or “logical,” or “reasonable,” suppositions. Human beings are many things, but they often aren’t logical or reasonable, and they often do unlikely things. That doesn’t mean that we can’t come to conclusions, but it means that we have to learn to be comfortable with uncertainty, epistemological humility. We acknowledge that we have built our arguments on possibly shifting ground. And we move on. We build other arguments on those arguments, and so on. Unless some new source or new perspective comes along and changes them. Then we go back and revise.

Nothing wrong with that. Nothing wrong with uncertainty, as long as we acknowledge it. And nothing wrong with living our lives by the fruit of our uncertain conclusions, as long as we’re satisified with the evidence and arguments that we have.

Certainty is nice, but rare. In its absence, resolve to work towards a better world keeps us moving in the right directions, more or less.