We’ve all seen this, or something like it. There’s a look you get from someone who has expressed an opinion contrary to your view that you have countered. As the discussion continues and you keep presenting new facts and new formulations to show that what he/she is asserting is in error, occasionally you receive this Look. Almost a smile, a barely repressed glint of mischief in the eyes, a kind of smugness that says, “You just don’t get it, do you? You just can’t see that none of that matters and that I’m right.”
It is an infuriating look. But it is also the look of a true believer, perhaps a zealot, someone who has learned to rewrite reality so well that all the facts, truths, and ideas in the world fail to persuade.
What then becomes more infuriating is when you ask them to explain themselves, offer the whys and whereofs of their position, and tell you how what you have said is so wrong—they refuse. Perhaps it is because they believe the evidence for their position is so strong, so obvious that they do not need to explain it.
More likely, it is a combination of two primary factors: one, that what they believe is to them so right that evidence to the contrary, regardless how fact-based it may be, is by definition irrelevant, and two, like any faith-based assertion, explaining it is always a reduction.
Personally, I think a third factor renders the first two less important—a refusal to entertain the idea that you might have a point.
Because that would admit doubt. And doubt is kryptonite to zealotry.
We saw that look recently, on the face of Congressman Matt Gaetz when being schooled by the Chairman of the Joint Chief of Staff on the utility of learning, of understanding. Gaetz, smiling and slightly shaking his head, was trying to convey his astonishment at the general for holding opinions which Gaetz found incomprehensible. There is truth in this—Gaetz did find them incomprehensible, because he likely did not comprehend them. He certainly did not expect them. Rather than draw back and reconsider, that expression on his face suggests he would simply double-down on his expectations and disregard what he had heard. Given a little time, he will regroup and proceed as if the general had said nothing.
The philosopher David Hume established the groundwork for our apprehension of fact. It seems obvious today, but till Hume it was not, which is that all that we know or can know comes through our senses, and therefore absolute knowledge—about anything—is mediated by filters which are utterly subjective and by degrees unreliable. In other words, while we can make any number of accurate statements about the world, and can over time refine our observations so that they more and more accurately approximate reality, we can never know absolutely and with the kind of certainty which obliterates error. Because we are sensate creatures and our sense are tied to desires and a host of responses that mitigate objectivity to one degree or another, our conclusions must always be conditional.
This is not to say we cannot “know” anything in such a way that we cannot rely on our knowledge to navigate the world and even understand it to a very large degree. Those same senses tell us we’re on the right track and allow us to perceive the consequences of our learning in action in such away that we are justified in a high degree of confidence. Rather, it means we can never reach a final state of knowing anything, not to the extent that we can claim absolute comprehension.
We get along quite well with the margin left us. To claim that we can know nothing at all is the same error as claiming absolute certainty in anything. Knowledge, like experience, turns out to have a statistical valence, even as we may be caught up in the kind of illusion of certainty of which zealots dream.
We can even be certain at times. For the purposes of making the next decision, for choosing among options, for planning, we can rely on certainty. At least for a short while. It’s an impression, necessary for moving reliably through the world.
The problem is when we take hold of certainty and declare it absolute and never allow it to pass into the probabilistic stew from which our actions are determined. When we stop allowing for the possibility of error or misjudgment or change.
“Why would I doubt something I know to be true?”
For the sake of argument, let’s set that aside for a moment. It’s not so much the thing invested with absolute confidence that can be a problem, but the array of secondary ideas and next-steps that evolve from it. If you are so convinced of a then obviously b must follow. You can construct a causal chain of decisions which can lead to a profoundly dysfunctional place (the Crusades, anyone? Flat Earth? 6000 year-old-Earth?) Doubt is the necessary ingredient to keep our options open to the possibility of getting the logical conclusions of an idea wrong. Doubt, to return to my kryptonite statement, may not stop the zealot, but it may stop us from following him. (The zealot may have several motivations and bases for belief and action apart from the immediate subject, most not amenable to reason.)
But if Hume is correct—and I believe he is—it doesn’t matter which part of the chain you look at, doubt is essential at every link because the source of knowledge can only ever be grasped by way of the senses, which are by no means open to all aspects of any subject. (Knowing god, for instance, can only be an assertion of will on our part, because even according to our descriptions of god, it is an impossible thing to “know” because it exceeds the limits of our senses. We ought, if we’re going to adhere to that path, recognize that we can only ever know an idea of god, and that the doubt comes into play when attempting to determine right or wrong based on that incomplete knowledge, because a large part of that claim to “know” god is Expectation.)
The ability to usefully deploy doubt, though, is the flip side of the problem. Disciplined skepticism is a skill and requires learning. Otherwise you end up as ineffective as the zealot, doubting so automatically and universally that decisions can never be made, or at least not constructively. Consequently, doubt can scare people. If they think by doubting everything they stand on is sand, their lives will be buffeted by a world in which they find no purchase. It would only be sensible for them to grab hold of the first certainty they feel they can rely on.
Those are two anchors of the curve. Most people utilize a combination. Investing their faith in certain things while dealing with everything else out of a utilitarian skepticism.
Unfortunately, there will be times their skepticism fails them simply because something appears to be part of the area of certainty in which they invest.
But about that “look” I mentioned at the beginning. That’s the look you get very often from someone who has decided on a posture of absolute certainty not because of any survey of options or counterarguments, but because a decision has been taken to ignore everything else, and then turn the responsibility for error on everyone else.
What seems to have been decided is that anyone speaking doubt to this person is engaging in either duplicity or is, in fact, unintelligent. (A third possibility is that they are holding said certainty in bad faith, because what they are actually after is control and power.) In either case, they’re regarding you with a self-satisfied smugness born of “knowing” they know better than you. They have to believe, on some level, that you’re stupid. And if you ask them to explain it to you, to show you what you’re missing, often they won’t. They’ll give some version of “you wouldn’t understand” and move on.
The reason they do this is that they can’t explain it. Not in such a way to show you how you’ve erred. In order to do that, they would have to understand it themselves, deeply, in such a way that would allow them to engage in a dialogue about it. That willingness to engage indicates humility. Humility and absolute certainty have an uneasy relationship.
Now, let me state here that this is not always the case. Many people who live in certainty, especially about matters of faith, are genuinely humble. You can tell them from the zealots because they will engage. They’ll do their best to explain, they’ll discuss it. You may find yourselves in a bog eventually where the limits of engagement butt against that certainty, but there will be dialogue.
But you won’t ever get That Look from them.
That Look denotes someone who has finally substituted Absolute Certainty for the kind of openness that leads to understanding. The next step will be to silence criticism, denounce alternatives, and snuff out inquiry.
That look Matt Gaetz gave General Mark Milley. Gaetz possibly knows very well that Milley is right, but acknowledging that will not aid Gaetz in his agenda. So Milley has to be wrong or stupid. Regardless, Gaetz can’t explain. He can only offer The Look.