Is it bigoted to be sure we’re right?

Is it bigoted to be sure we’re right?
Everyday Philosophy

How open-minded should a Christian be? On the one hand, open-mindedness is generally a good thing. Being open to the possibility of learning new things, and to the possibility that one is mistaken, is a mark of a healthy mind. It’s also a sign of humility. Openness to being wrong is an acknowledgement that we are not infallibly clever, perceptive, or wise.

But on the other side of things, Christian faith is supposed to require a sort of absolute certainty”

What’s more, open-mindedness is a way of respecting the people we’re talking to or arguing with. By being open to the possibility that they’re right and we’re wrong we treat them as having something at least potentially worth listening to, something that could at least potentially change our minds and actions. There’s something depressing about disagreeing with someone whose mind is completely closed. It feels as though there is no genuine dialogue happening at all, that our own contributions are essentially pointless because there’s no chance they will alter our interlocutor’s position. And if we hate arguing with someone whose mind is closed, can we expect others to listen to us if we’re absolutely certain we are right?

But on the other side of things, Christian faith is supposed to require a sort of absolute certainty. At least, many great Christian thinkers have thought so, Sts Thomas Aquinas and John Henry Newman among them. If we are still open to the possibility that it is all false, that Christ is not risen or that God isn’t real, our commitment to Christ and to the Christian life seems less than total. Here we are not supposed to be relying on our fallen intellects, but on the supernaturally given virtue of faith.

It’s not just faith that seems to demand absolute certainty. There seems to be something off about holding certain ethical beliefs with anything less than absolute certainty. And there seems to be something more admirable about the person who is completely unwilling to entertain the possibility that torturing a child could ever be permissible than the one who is willing in the name of intellectual humility to entertain the possibility.

How to solve the problem?

G.K. Chesterton once wrote “It is not bigotry to be certain we are right; but it is bigotry to be unable to imagine how we might possibly have gone wrong.”

This statement, like others of Chesterton’s, is a bit mysterious. If we can really imagine how we might have gone wrong, how can we actually be certain that we are right? It’s unclear. Or is the imagination of how we might have gone wrong completely theoretical, requiring only that we imagine how we might be wrong if things had been different, perhaps in some other possible world? Then it doesn’t seem like much of a concession to humility.

I have a guess at what Chesterton may have meant, though whether it is the right interpretation I am (perhaps appropriately) not sure. He might have been saying that confidence and certainty in your own beliefs may actually be helped, not hindered, by an openness to being wrong.

Imagine I am arguing with someone about the existence of God. If I am completely certain that God does exist, I will, presumably, be certain that his existence will stand up to questioning. So by honestly entertaining the possibility that God might not exist, and genuinely considering and evaluating the arguments to that effect, I could be described as acting from that certainty rather than against it. I can risk genuine openness to being wrong because I am so confident that I am right.

If this has a whiff of paradox about it, well, par for the course for Chesterton. But at least this time I think there is something to the paradox. If I was arguing with someone and they closed their ears and refused to listen to me, I would take that as a sign that they had doubts about their own position, not that they were supremely confident. If they said to me “I am only engaging in this conversation to help correct your errors: I have no need to consider the possibility that I am wrong”, I’d have a similar suspicion. By contrast, when I talk to someone who really seems to be thinking about my arguments and actually testing them against their own belief, I’m more inclined to think they’re confident and free from insecurity.

But it’s the best way I have now of resolving the tension between the virtues of open-mindedness and faith”

So I think there is something to the idea that openness to being wrong and certainty are not as incompatible as they seem at first. I’m not completely satisfied with this Chestertonian solution (for example it sometimes seems good to refuse to entertain arguments, as in cases of temptation). But it’s the best way I have now of resolving the tension between the virtues of open-mindedness and faith. Of course, I could be wrong.