‘The intensity of a conviction’: Doubt, certitude, and provisionality

A few days ago, I came across this statement by the notable biologist Peter Medawar: ‘the intensity of the conviction that a hypothesis is true has no bearing on whether it is true or not.’ What he says is true: we may have a strong, firm belief that P without its being true that P. But there may also be more to dogmatism indeed, more packed into the case against strong convictions than we may initially see in Medawar’s claim.

I also read an article by Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. Talisse on one of Cicero’s arguments for skepticism. Glossing a short passage in Cicero, the authors write,

Cicero starts from a regular observation about dogmatism: those committed to a view become not only invested in their view, but also less capable of critically reflecting on it. We often form our own theoretical, political, and religious alliances well before we have thoroughly surveyed and critically compared all of the plausible options. That is, we make our allegiances first and critically examine later.

The weak, Medawarian thesis is that a firm, deeply held conviction that P tells neither for nor against P’s being true. The strong, Ciceronian thesis is that strong convictions, so often bred during pre-reflective times, are blindly defended either blindly and often in spite of the evidence pointing in a contrary direction. In a word, dogmatism actually, vehemently blocks the possibility of inquiring into whether some statement we believe is actually true or false.

To see this, think of the fervent, enthusiastic, strident individual who believes so strongly something about how the world works that he can’t even conceive of its being false, mistaken, or a bit skewed. He is absolutely sure that he is right, and this surety blinds him to actually looking at his belief or his web of beliefs, binding him thereby. Present him with a counterexample, and he will not even register it as a counterexample. Invite him to be receptive to what is actually occurring–i.e., to be open–and he will not be able to do it, possibly going so far as to deny that he is even closed. I am open!

Owing to his enthusiasm, how could ever say what he believes without insisting that it must be true, how hold to this belief provisionally for as long as it makes sense to do so, and all the while wonder whether what he believes is true or consistent with the other beliefs he has? Will he let go of a belief, hitherto provisionally held onto, should it turn out to be false? Will we?

For us who are without the deepest and firmest of convictions, it is not a question of falling immediately into doubt and of finally dwelling there. This is so since it is not as if certitude must be replaced by doubt; certitude, falling off, can happily gave way to provisionality. I will hold this belief and I will submit myself to being tested, to testing it myself because I am more concerned with finding the truth, whatever the truth turns out to be than I am with having to be right.

This–I believe until I am shown otherwise–is the right attitude to have toward most things in life.

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