Monday, October 03, 2011

Conviction & Certainty (Draft)

This little "meditation" puts together some of the ideas from recent posts. Either the end is silly, or it manages to function as a "reminder" (which is an idea I explore briefly within). As always, comments appreciated.

Up next (I think): "The Courage of Conviction."


  1. This is a comment from Philip Cartwright (who was having issues posting it here):

    I enjoyed the paper very much. My main reflection on it is that concepts such as "conviction", "certainty", "devotion" and "belief" are interwoven in such a complex way that it's hard to make any substantive claims about them. At times "conviction" is more like "devotion" than "certainty", at other times I'm not so sure.

    For example, you say that experience tests our convictions by trying our patience rather than by disconfirming them. Well, yes and no. We may say that of the vegetarian who lapses because adhering to his conviction becomes too much of a chore - he can no longer swim against the cultural tide, so to speak. In that respect having a conviction is quite like having taken a vow.

    However, I don't think that's what happens when, say, someone committed by conviction to the death penalty finds his son on Death Row. There he may find that experience very much disconfirms his conviction (and, of course, the same might happen to an opponent of the death penalty whose child is murdered). We might, of course, say that such a person has "fallen beneath" his own values; he has been wrongly swayed by personal grief. But the other way of putting it is: his experience has exposed the barbarity of the view to which he was committed. And whether we take the former or latter route will usually depend on whether or not we share his conviction.

    Anyway, I think you're right to point out that "conviction" and "certainty" do not have a straightforward relationship, but I felt at times your characterisation of the link between "conviction" and "devotion" was a little too straightforward.

    One more point: your paper gave the impression that we have a conviction and then (maybe) we reflect on it - ie, that reflection has no role in the formation of convictions. I think that can be the case, but often it is not. Often convictions arise after reflection, but without the issue having been decided conclusively. Where a conclusive decision is not possible but action must be taken, there is where a conviction is likely to arise. It turns its face away from doubt - not because doubt is senseless, but because doubts, like reasons, must end somewhere. It says "I know there are arguments against this, but I refuse to be swayed by them: this is how we should proceed".

  2. I should say that I think Philip has some very nice examples above, and I will think about them when I revise. I agree that the concepts I'm dealing with are interwoven in ordinary language in complex and messy ways, and so it's hard to say much "substantive." I'm trying nonetheless, in part by restricting what I want to deal with as "convictions" to the sort of things I discuss in the essay (i.e. not just "strong beliefs" or "moral certainties" of the sort listed by Lichtenberg...)