Thursday, May 27, 2010

Certain Paradoxes Aren't Paradoxes

In nothing more than a brief posting at Huffpo, Andrew Pessin has rid the world of religious conflict forever. Behold "the paradox of the preface," which will have the lion lying down with the lamb by this time tomorrow:

What is the Paradox of the Preface?

Imagine an author writing something like this as a preface to her work:
I am certain, of each and every sentence in this work, that it is true, on the basis of various considerations including the careful arguments and use of evidence which led me to it. And yet I recognize that I am a fallible human being, likely to have made some error(s) in the course of this long work. Thus I am also quite certain that I have made some such error somewhere, even if I cannot say where.
... Imagine, now, that all parties came to acknowledge the Paradox of the Preface as well. Then they could say that they are certain that (for example) Islam is true and everything conflicting with it is false -- and yet acknowledge that they may be wrong without taking away their certainty.
Better yet, they could recognize that they are not certain that (for example) Islam is true; they could do so in the service of the recognition that labeling a contradiction a paradox does not turn the contradiction into a paradox. I am certain of it.

As Ophelia Benson has noted so ably, fudging with the word certain is the trouble here. Certain comes in binaries, not in degrees -- one is either certain of something or not. To be certain -- not colloquially certain, but literally certain -- is to really, really, really-to-the-Nth-degree know something to be true, beyond all doubt. If we're honest, certainty does not come along often, in and beyond matters of grand metaphysics.

So, in the case at hand, no: those who profess certainty that (for example) Christianity is true are professing too much. They are writing checks on their beliefs that reality will not cash, no matter how loudly they pout or fervidly they wish. The profession of certainty is the problem, not the solution.

I am not certain I am right in this. Maybe by this time tomorrow, universal peace and religious fervor will coexist. I have my doubts.

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