Skepticism and Certainty

And this I pray, that your charity may more and more abound in knowledge, and in all understanding: that you may approve the better things.

Philippians 1:9-10

In a profoundly pertinent and provocatively penetrating essay, Gary Saul Morrison explores the wise skepticism of Leo Tolstoy.

Against those who believe that human affairs can be reduced to a science, Tolstoy’s fictional heroes demonstrate that “wisdom begins with the recognition that one cannot possibly take all contingencies into account,” and that “surprise belongs to the very nature of things.”

On the eve of the battle of Austerlitz, Russian and Austrian generals burn the midnight oil, while their commander Kutuzov dozes. He realizes that no amount of “military science” can anticipate the factors that will decide the morrow’s victory or defeat, whereas the alacrity required to see and respond to those factors may depend on “a good night’s sleep.”

Levin is “like other progressive landowners,” whose attempts to “modernize his estate according to the latest scientific methods from abroad” runs aground on the shoals of the “elemental” and unshakable habits of the Russian peasantry. Humbled by his failure, he acknowledges the wisdom of a peasant family who have prospered by adapting new techniques to “local conditions and traditional practices.”

Morrison is correct to link the futile scientism Tolstoy castigates to the totalitarian tendencies of our own age. As philosophers from Plato to Thomas More emphasized, “nothing causes more evil than attempts to abolish evil altogether.”

Where Morrison falters is in believing we can resist technocracy by rallying around the flag of resolute and unadulterated skepticism.

“Suppose a Turk were about to murder a Bulgarian baby right before your eyes,” Levin is asked. “Wouldn’t you kill him if necessary?” Morrison praises Levin’s diffident response: “He does not know. He would have to decide on the moment.”

Morrison understands that “from a philosopher’s point of view, this answer makes no sense because it fails to specify the criteria that would guide Levin’s decision.” Given the “many unforeseeable contingencies [that] might operate” in such a scenario, he insists, “it is better to trust to the spontaneous action of the moment guided by wisdom acquired over a lifetime” than to “theory.”

Taken this far, skepticism quite literally throws the baby out with the bathwater. Such “wisdom” misses the most crucial point of all: that just as sound theory recognizes the contingency of affairs, and therefore the irreducible need for prudence in human affairs, so too does prudence depend on knowing what principles to apply when variable circumstances arise.

If scientism ridiculously seeks to pick fruit from a plant with hypertrophic base and an undergrown stem, skepticism ignores the fact that no trunk grows strong, and no limbs bear fruit, without a firm and extensive root system.

This is worth pondering today, when a totalitarian technocracy behaves very much like the aforementioned Turk, slaughtering millions of our babies, and blocking the birth of millions more, in the name of an increasingly preposterous conception of progress.

What are aspiringly sane souls prepared to do in response? We can neither “abolish evil altogether,” nor remain complacent in its monstrous presence.

What we desperately need is knowledge of the first truths, and understanding of how to affirm them in the face of satanic suppression.

For this, nothing but a healthy grafting of skepticism and certainty will suffice.

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