Book review: Thought in the Absence of Certainty
by Gordon Dye
Gordon Dye’s new book (which is only part 1 of a 4-part series) is meant to help us think humbly but responsibly. Some questions we have no justification to pretend certainty about. His playground for the topic is religion, which is a perfect arena, since we all think we know all about God.
Dye’s point is that we don’t. Not really. And suppositions compound, so that as we add assumptions on top of assumptions, the probability of accuracy continues to decrease. Yet religious people tend to define “certainty” in a way that questioning the possibility of error threatens their religious beliefs.
So Dye introduces what he calls a “certainty notation” early in the book, and from that point on, he labels each of his suppositions/projections/claims with his level level of certainty. These notations are (without getting into details):
C1 = possible
C2 = probable
C3 = extremely probable
C4 = certain
C5 = true by definition
Brilliant! I wish all religious writers would do the same. This methodology definitely reinforces the concept of “absence of certainty.” Of course, Dye’s level of certainty often differed from mine; what he feels certain about at the level of C3 or C4 I would measure a C1 or C2. I’m a more practiced agnostic than he, ha.
The point, however, is that C1 through C3—no matter how probable—should be categorized in our brain separately from the known facts. That way, when we build upon the foundations of our assumptions, we know which foundations are shaky. Dye uses this approach to discuss the authority of scripture, the need for an afterlife if God is fair, the appropriateness of exclusivity, and the concept of good and evil, among other things.
I admit, I kept waiting for Gordon to get to the point. Can’t we use these techniques to answer some of the big questions about God? Can we at least decide on the odds of whether there’s life after death? No, sorry, Gordon never goes there; he merely uses God as a basis for conversation, beginning with assumptions about His existence, approachability and moral fiber in order to provide practice of “thinking without certainty.” Dye’s most significant conclusion so far is that pluralism is logical. If this book sets the groundwork for more in-depth exercises in later books, then maybe we’ll attack the harder questions later.
This book (part 1) is a bit slow, spending an inordinate amount of time on definitions and ideas, so I’m hoping for more engrossing discussion from of the next three books.