The absurdity of certainty

At the blog Recovering Agnostic I came across the phrase, “… a breach in my previously impregnable certainty”. I rather like this thought – and the blogger’s honesty – that certainty, like some fortress, might be breached. Are our opinions not often like walled cities, defended at all costs? There is a humility in acknowledging that what is self-evident to ourselves might be unsustainable for another.

I am living in Chester, a city which was originally a Roman garrison, surrounded by an ancient wall; not a five minute walk from here is the place where in 1646 Oliver Cromwell’s Parliamentarian forces breached the wall, forcing the capitulation of the Royalist stronghold.

How fiercely I defend my ideas, and how fiercely others seek to assert their own! There’s nothing wrong with conviction – but it too easily ossifies into an impregnable citadel, or becomes the fanatic’s clarion call. Bertrand Russell said it well:

“I would never die for my beliefs because I might be wrong.”


“In all affairs it’s a healthy thing now and then to hang a question mark on the things you have long taken for granted.”

Could we oppose tyranny without conviction? I doubt it. But conviction and purpose need not preclude doubt or self-questioning.

Voltaire noted that “Doubt is not a pleasant condition, but certainty is absurd.” Perhaps we must find a place between doubt and certainty, a place where we permit our opponent a little dignity, without surrendering our own.



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