On Certainty: Bertrand Russell's First Commandment

Monday, March 31, 2014 - 4:30pm
Photo by Cornelia Kopp

On Certainty: Bertrand Russell's First Commandment

(1) Do not feel absolutely certain of anything.

~Bertrand Russell, from his "Ten Commandments" of the liberal outlook as it appears in his 1951 New York Times op-ed, "The Best Answer to Fanaticism—Liberalism."


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Trent Gilliss

is the cofounder of On Being / KTPP and currently serves as chief content officer and executive editor. He received a Peabody Award in 2007 for his work on "The Ecstatic Faith of Rumi" and garnered two Webby Awards (in 2005, and again in 2008). The Online News Association nominated his journalistic work multiple times in the general excellence and outstanding specialty journalism categories. Trent's reported and produced stories from Turkey to rural Alabama, from Israel and the West Bank to Cambridge, England.

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The fact that this piece of advice is a 'command' makes an important point, and one I need to be reminded of. I often find myself craving certainty about my future or other things out of my control, and when I somehow find a bit of certainty I have the desire to rest comfortably in it. But Russell's point is that certainty is 1) false and 2) that if we have it we aren't really in touch with the very fluid, ever-changing human experience. I try to be comfortable with uncertainty and am not good at it. A friend of mine said she's made it her Lenten challenge (she and I are Catholic) to embrace the uncertainty about her future. I am attempting this as well with little success!

I think this point also is hugely important for religious people to remember today. Certainty usually leads to fundamentalism or extremism. I teach religious education classes for confirmation candidates at my church in Jordan. I always tell my students, especially in our units about belief and doctrine, that it's ok--and GOOD!-- to question and wrestle. Some people feel guilty when they don't have certainty about a part of their faith--for me that would be the resurrection of Jesus (and I'm Catholic!). But faith in God is not about certainty. As Augustine said, faith is about "seeking understanding." Faith is a process. As a Muslim theologian I know here said, it's about swimming in the ocean and looking at all the beautiful things around you, not holding a stone and saying, "I've got it!"

Leaving with the stone analogy, thank you. giving you a 'thought' - as long as you have certainty, you are without faith.

I am certain of life's uncertainty...

I love this one! I really work at questioning my own assumptions and beliefs, which isn't easy. Believe it or not, G.W. Bush helped me with this. He so often said "There's not a doubt in my mind!" and I got so annoyed because if there was anyone who needed more doubt, it was him! So I began to check myself in that regard and found I had work to do of my own. I'm making progress! Trent, you do such fine work on this blog. Thanks!

I like Brene Brown's definition, too - Faith minus vulnerability (or openness) and mystery equals fanaticism.

Thanks for all of these, a couple of others: We Don't Know What We Don't Know; "Doubt is Good, for doubt leads to questioning, and questions precede truth" Peter Ebelhard

We Don't Know What We Don't Know......(: