Against Ideological Certainty
I recently completed a multi-post deep dive into the book Conservatism: A Rediscovery by Yoram Hazony. My own views have relatively little alignment with Hazony on many significant issues. Yet, I suspect that may not have come across in the review itself – my review, I believe, cast Hazony’s work in a very positive light. There are a few reasons why that is, and they seem worth unpacking.
The first reason is fairly simple. When doing these sorts of reviews, I dedicate the bulk of the review to presenting the author’s argument as forcefully as I can, in a way I believe they themselves would sign off on. Or, to put it another way, I try to make sure my summary of their work passes the Ideological Turning Test. This includes how I respond in the comments – for the purpose of that discussion, I am also attempting to pass the ITT.
In my final critique of Hazony, I also ended on what seemed like a very positive note, when I said “Hazony has written an excellent and thought-provoking book” and that on “many points I agree with what he says, and I think he offers strong arguments for many of his views I don’t share.” So why would I have such kind words for a book I disagreed with more often that not, written by someone with a worldview very far from what I believe is true?
Let’s start with thought-provoking. This may be a personality quirk of mine, but I find it almost impossible for someone to write a book that’s thought-provoking without it arguing for ideas different from what I hold. A book that’s filled with nothing but things I already think is going to have a hard time provoking thoughts in me. This isn’t always the case – I’ve mentioned before how Dan Moller’s book Governing Least took things that were only nascent, poorly formed ideas in my own mind and was able to articulate them in a way that brought those ideas into much clearer focus for me. But as a general rule, it’s the books filled with ideas I don’t already agree with that are the most thought-provoking (and also most fun) to read.
I also say Hazony’s book has strong arguments in the many areas I disagree with him. This, too, may seem odd, but it really shouldn’t. Our ideological opponents are not made up entirely of morons or knaves, after all. Hazony is a smart guy who’s been thinking and writing about these things for decades. If he managed to spend hundreds of pages outlining his ideas without ever presenting any decent arguments, that would be odd. The world is complex, and virtually everyone is overly confident in their political ideology. So when an intelligent, well-educated person like Hazony writes an entire book arguing that perhaps I’m mistaken in my political ideology, I have to read that book with serious consideration that he may be right and I may be wrong. He didn’t change my mind in any fundamental way, but I can still acknowledge that he has some good arguments on his side.
There is a trap I think we can fall into if we’re not careful, a trap that leads us to reading someone’s argument only to try to figure out why they must be wrong, rather than trying to see if perhaps they are right. There’s a popular trick of mathematics one can find online “proving” that 1 = 2. When someone puts forth a set of equations they claim proves 1 = 2, the natural reaction is to immediately hunt for the error we know must be there, because obviously 1 does not equal 2. In a nutshell, I think that is also how many people approach the work put forward by their ideological opposites. Hazony has written a book arguing for a particular notion of conservatism, and we know that conservatism is wrong just as surely as we know 1 does not equal 2, therefore Hazony’s book should be read (if at all) for the sole purpose of finding the errors we know must be there. But this is a mistake. Neither you nor I should hold a level of certainty in our political views within a lightyear of the certainty with which we know 1 does not equal 2.
Stepping away from politics for a moment, I found a nice example of the mindset I’m advocating for in a science video a while ago. The video explores the possibility that there may be a ninth planet (with apologies to Pluto!) in the solar system. But this hypothesized planet has some pretty extreme parameters – a terrestrial planet with about five times the mass of Earth, and a highly elliptical orbit that takes 10,000 years to complete a full revolution. The host of the video discusses the idea with two different scientists, one who supports the idea and one who is skeptical. In the opening seconds of the video the skeptical scientist, Professor David Jewitt of UCLA, calls the idea “wishful thinking” with a big smile and through a big laugh. The scientist who supports the idea, Professor Konstantin Batygin of Caltech, describes what he thinks are key pieces of evidence supporting the idea. This is usually followed by the host talking to Professor Jewitt, who offers a counterpoint explaining why he doesn’t think the evidence holds up. At one point, Professor Batygin talks about how certain bodies in the solar system have orbits perpendicular to the planets, and others orbit in the solar system in the opposite direction of everything else, and there has never been a good explanation for why that would be. However, this observation is exactly what you would predict if Planet 9 did exist and had the properties ascribed to it. And when the video turns to Professor Jewitt being asked about this, he responds by saying the Planet 9 hypothesis would indeed explain this, and it counts as good evidence in favor of the idea.
This, I contend, is an example of what we should all be capable of doing. Professor Jewitt can simultaneously laugh at the idea of Planet 9 and describe the whole project as wishful thinking, while also effortlessly acknowledging there is at least some good evidence in favor of it. The world is not divided into Correct Ideas That Have All The Evidence, and Bad Ideas That Have No Evidence Whatsoever. Even well-established, good ideas have fair arguments against them, and even ideas that are ultimately incorrect can still have good arguments and evidence in their favor. We should not feel at all troubled in admitting this – as William Graham Sumner noted, someone who has truly developed critical thinking “can hold things as possible or probable in all degrees, without certainty and without pain.”
A good exercise in mental hygiene can be taken from this. Every now and then, think about the things you believe, and think about what people of opposing political views believe. What are the legitimate criticisms they could level against your views? What are the good arguments and evidence supporting their ideas? If you cannot think of anything to put forward in response, take that as a sign there is something wrong that needs to be fixed.