On uncertainty


Smug people who claim that there is so much we can learn from children annoy me. Really? You have lived on this planet for several decades and you still want to learn from infants?

And when teachers say they learn a lot from their students I am tempted to suggest they trade places and give the children part of their salary.

Even so, there is a sense in which I agree. My views have changed so much in the last 20 years that I sometimes find myself in sympathy with someone I would once have dismissed as a crank, moron or child. Maybe if I had learned from them before I could have got to where I am now sooner. But of course, that was then I wasn’t ready. Now I am.

Unlike five years ago, I no longer think Christians are nuts. I still think they are factually wrong but I put their wrongness down to what they have read and heard, not madness. To some extent I have even come to prefer some of their daft beliefs to the nihilistic attitude of godless people. Maybe religious people are right in the way they choose to live but wrong about all the rationale.

Similarly I used to think that white people who defended their race or their ethnic group were irredeemably primitive and stupid. Now I find such attitudes natural and no more stupid than defending your own family and children.

I used to find my Japanese students’ lack of competitiveness weird. They seemed very passive to me. Yet having taught them now for 12 years their desire for cooperation and group cohesion strikes me less as some feminised affectation as a perfectly sensible alternative to my own attitude, which is ‘Me vs the Rest of the World’.

Given that I have changed my views so much over the last decade I shouldn’t rule out it happening again. It therefore behoves me not to hold my views too dogmatically. Yet this doesn’t mean I believe my views just go round and round without ever getting closer to the truth, or that my change of view from BBC leftism to paleo-conservativism was just a matter of swapping one set of unexamined views for another. Just as 50-year-olds generally know more than 5-year-olds and experts know more than beginners, so my present self knows more than did my 20-year-old self. Okay, I am still unaware of all the things I’m unaware of but at least the bubble I inhabit is bigger than it used to be. Now I know in a way that I previously didn’t that the Clash was not the last word in political sophistication.

Of course, having more of an overview doesn’t guarantee I will choose correctly but that’s a different matter. And even if I no longer hold my views with the same certainty I once did, I still don’t hold them so tentatively that they crumble on contact with the first counter-argument they encounter.

As an aside, there are people who say that referring to yourself as ‘an atheist’ is an unsupportable position. They say that if you are willing to concede there is a 0.0000001% chance that God exists, as any honest person must, then you are really not an atheist at all but an agnostic since your mind is still open on the subject. If these people are right then every intellectually honest person is an agnostic. This would include both the Pope and Bin Laden, were the latter still alive. Yet a category that includes everyone is useless. Words are tools that help us describe the world; they are not there to muddy the waters even further.

Anyway, these linguistic nit-pickers are wrong since atheists don’t claim to know that God doesn’t exist; they merely say they believe He doesn’t exist. This position is no different from that of the Archbishop of Canterbury, who believes in God’s existence without claiming to know it for certain. The former is an atheist while the latter is a Christian.


Believing without being certain is how I feel about most things. And there is an important difference between believing without being sure and shrugging your shoulders and saying you have no opinion because you can’t be certain. If you wait for certainty before acting you will never do anything.


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