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Bernard Warnick
Illusions of Certainty: thoughts about thinking
A close examination of our powers of reasoning shows certainties, especially in fields of morality, values and ethical social behavior, are illusory. Even in science, understandings are based on the best evidence at the moment. When we consider that neurobiologically our subjective feelings invade the beginning of our reasoning process, the pervasive ambiguity and vagueness of language and the fuzziness of the concept of truth, we start to wonder if certainty of conclusions is available. Patterns of reasoning themselves contain the seeds of failure to produce certainty. The concept of relevance is basic to reasoning, but how can one be certain of taking into account all relevant factors and nothing else? An examination of logics shows that either they do not claim certainty, just probability, or are restricted to syllogisms which require assumption of the truth of the premises. The ills that flow from unjustified certainties range from mere annoyances to dangers to civilisation. One turns to consider alternatives to deductive reasoning and finds much discussion about how experts actually think and the application of common sense and pragmatism. Finally, questions of why our reasoning faculties evolved and how accepting the absence of certainty might change society are discussed.
“This book condemns the certainties which pervade Western society,” Warnick writes at the start of Illusions of Certainty. Illusions of Certainty urges readers to acknowledge that humanity bases both the “truth”s that we hold to and the decisions we arrive at on factors other than the exercise of pure logical thinking. Warnick examines factors that shape our choices and understanding of the world, such as the gulf between the subjective and objective, the ambiguity of language, and our failure to acknowledge the role of emotions in our conclusions. Arguing that our not-necessarily logical certainties are often rooted in “preconception and prejudice” and shaped by shifting “social and political environment”s and even “hive mind”s, he offers guidance toward taking steps to make better choices—and to demonstrate that we are “blind to the evil of our certainties.”

Warnick’s advice for arriving at independent conclusions is clear and practical, as he urges readers to challenge our subjectivity, exercise precision in language, and to be aware of our preconceptions and modes of reasoning. Also persuasive is his contention that “Even our strongest convictions are still opinions,” though he’s less clear on which contemporary societal convictions qualify as “evil.” He poses impertinent questions about “certainties” like belief in animal rights, “innate human rights,” and the “evils of child labor,” demonstrating that these are complex ideas based on contested terms and propositions but not that such beliefs are condemnable.

Warnick asks readers to think deeply about societal assumptions (the death penalty, the impartiality of judges, evolving definitions of marriage), but his individual examples tend toward vagueness. Warnick considers the case, thinly outlined, of a “sportsman” facing outrage after posting on social media that “homosexuals” are damned to hell. “Can society not tolerate unpopular views when expressed by well-meaning people?” he asks. That language exemplifies the ambiguities he elsewhere deplores, making it easy for readers to ask whether online “outrage” in defense of a minority still being persecuted around the world truly constitutes “intolerance,” much less “evil.”

Takeaway: Polemic urging recognition that our “certainties” are not necessarily logical.

Comparable Titles: Anthony Simon Laden’s Reasoning: A Social Picture, John MacMurray’s Reason and Emotion.

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