Is certainty dangerous?

When I re-read Sam Harris’ The End of Faith several months ago, I noticed a passage that at the time I thought Harris could not possibly have meant, and (I thought) was probably just carelessly repeating from the more ecumenical religious writers. Here’s the passage:

Once a person believes–really believes–that certain ideas can lead to eternal happiness, or to its antithesis, he cannot tolerate the possibility that the people he loves my be led astray by the blandishments of unbelievers. Certainty about the next life is incompatible with tolerance in this one.

On this, I wrote:

Harris gets something importantly right here, that the belief that infidels are damned is very dangerous. But the way he says it is just begging to have believers complaining about atheists being so certain and intolerant.

The right response to this sort of criticism is that it’s the content of the beliefs that matters, not the level of certainty with which they’re held. Better to be certain the Earth revolves around the Sun, than think that God probably wants you to kill infidels. And “tolerance,” sadly, has become a meaningless feel-good word that Harris would’ve been wise to avoid.

To elaborate: if someone only thinks there’s a 50% chance that Christians go to Heaven and non-Christians go to Hell, that’s enough to motivate some pretty extreme measures to get people to convert to Christianity and stop people from apostatizing. On the other hand, nothing of that sort would follow from being certain that beliefs won’t have any effect on the afterlife, even if there are some small bad effects from that kind of certainty.

I initially assumed that Harris would agree if this were pointed out to him. But now one of Natalie’s posts has made me realize that some people really do, as their considered opinion, think certainty is dangerous. I’m very puzzled by this. I mean puzzled–I’m not using that as a euphemism for anything dismissive.

I can give one reason I have for being skeptical of the alleged dangers of certainty. It’s that it seems to me that it’s totally normal to be certain about some things. We don’t normally think there’s anything insidious about answering “yes” to, “are you certain?” I touched on this in the Not so Different posts:

It’s better to respond to believers who complain about atheists being so certain by asking them, okay, how certain are you (if you’re not a Mormon) that Joseph Smith didn’t really dig up a set of golden plates, containing the writings of a series of ancient Native American prophets, who were genuinely guided by God, and then translate them accurately into English with supernatural help? And if you’re going to claim no one can be 100% certain about anything, what percentage chance do you assign to the possibility that Joseph Smith really did all that stuff?

Now there actually are some interesting philosophical arguments as to why no one can be 100% certain about anything, but I get the feeling that most people who say that aren’t motivated by a deep understanding of the arguments. They’re just repeating something they vaguely remember from the one philosophy course I took in college. And even if you thought seriously about the issue and think those arguments are right, the most you can say is that while nothing is 100% certain, some things are just so astronomically improbable that our brains can’t even keep track of the tiny probabilities, so their chance of being true may as well be 0%. That’s my response to people who complain about atheists being so certain.

Now maybe in these cases we really should say we’re not 100% certain, we should say we’re ninety-nine-point-however-many-nines-you-feel-like percent certain. I’m not denying that. But I have a hard time believing anything of great importance rides on that distinction. It’s an arcane philosophical dispute, and I can’t believe coming down on the wrong side of such a dispute would be dangerous.

But the thing I’m really hoping to hear from people on in the comments–is this a question people find interesting? Is it worth beating my head against a bit more? Do many people share Natalie’s point of view? Or would I be better off just shrugging at this one?

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