Friday, February 17, 2012

The Certainty of Doubt

NY Times
February 12, 2012

THE building at No. 11 Piazza del Sant'Uffizio is an imposing ocher-and-white palazzo that stands just inside the gates of Vatican City, behind the southern arc of Bernini's colonnade. Above the main entrance is a marble scroll. It once held a Latin inscription, placed there in the 16th century, proclaiming that the palazzo had been built as a bulwark against "heretical depravity." This was the headquarters of the Roman Inquisition, the arm of the Roman Catholic Church that tried Galileo and created the Index of Forbidden Books. You won't see the inscription above the entrance now - it was chiseled off by French troops during Napoleon's occupation. All that's left is some mottled scarring.

The Roman Inquisition was one of several inquisitions conducted under the auspices of the church. These had in common a deeply rooted sense of fear (of heretics, of Jews, of Protestantism) and a deeply rooted moral certainty, a conviction that the cause was not only just but also so urgent that nothing must stand in the way: not practical considerations (workers were diverted from the unfinished St. Peter's to complete the Inquisition's palazzo) and certainly not competing considerations of principle or moderation.

That's the way it is with moral certainty. It sweeps objections aside and makes anything permissible if pursued with an appeal to a higher justification. That higher justification does not need to be God, though God remains serviceable. The higher justification can also be the forces of history. It can be rationalism and science. It can be some assertion of the common good. It can be national security.

The power of the great "isms" of the 20th century - fascism, communism - has dissipated, but moral certainty arises in other forms. Are certain facts and ideas deemed too dangerous? Then perhaps censorship is the answer. (China's Great Firewall is one example, but let's not forget that during the past decade, there have been some 4,600 challenges to books in schools and libraries in the United States.) Are certain religions and beliefs deemed intolerable? Then perhaps a few restrictions are in order. (Bills have been introduced in several states to ban recognition of Islamic Shariah law.) In a variety of guises, a conviction of certainty lurks within debates on marriage, on reproduction, on family values, on biotechnology. It peers from behind the question "Is America a Christian nation?"

An "ism" that retains its vitality - terrorism - is justified unapologetically by moral certainty. In a vastly different way, not always recognized, so have been some of the steps taken to combat it. Necessity overrides principle. The inventory of measures advanced in the name of homeland security during the past decade would fill a book. In the United States, the surveillance of citizens and noncitizens alike has become increasingly pervasive. The legal system has been under pressure to constrict protections for the accused. The National Defense Authorization Act, signed into law in December by President Obama despite his own reservations, gives the government enhanced powers to detain, interrogate and prosecute.

In Britain, a new Green Paper on Justice and Security has laid out changes in the legal system that would extend the circumstances in which evidence may be presented secretly in court without being made known to defendants. It would also allow government ministers to withhold from certain court proceedings information that the ministers deem sensitive. Visitors to Britain for this summer's Olympics will notice the CCTV cameras - there are reportedly more than four million of them - that monitor ordinary daily activity throughout the country. This effort, the most advanced in the world, is supported by the slogan "If You Have Nothing to Hide, You Have Nothing to Fear."

Meanwhile, to a degree that Americans of a generation ago would never have thought possible, the argument is made that torture can play a legitimate role in interrogation, the practice justified with reference to a greater good (and with the help of semantic fig leaves). Three of the Republican presidential candidates still in the race, Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum and Mitt Romney, maintain that waterboarding, which the Inquisition matter-of-factly considered to be torture, really isn't, and Mr. Gingrich and Mr. Santorum openly support its use. (Mr. Romney hasn't said what he'd allow.)

The theoretical arguments for torture are slippery and dangerous. The inquisitors of old knew this all too well, and even popes tried to draw the line, to little avail - and in practice torture is more slippery still.

The idea that some single course is right and necessary - and, being right and necessary, must trump everything else, for all our sakes - is a seductive one. Isaiah Berlin knew where this idea of an "ultimate solution" would lead - indeed, had already led in the murderous century he witnessed: "For, if one really believes that such a solution is possible, then surely no cost would be too high to obtain it: to make mankind just and happy and creative and harmonious forever - what could be too high a price to pay for that? To make such an omelet, there is surely no limit to the number of eggs that should be broken. ... If your desire to save mankind is serious, you must harden your heart, and not reckon the cost."

The French soldiers who erased the inscription from the Inquisition's palazzo in Rome didn't know that they were replacing one form of certainty with another - in their case, the certainty of faith with the certainty of reason. The key words here are not "faith" and "reason" but "didn't know": the right way forward is always elusive. The drafters of the United States Constitution - fearful of rule by one opinion, whether the tyrant's or the mob's - created a governmental structure premised on the idea that human beings are fallible, fickle and unreliable, and in fundamental ways not to be trusted. Triumphalist rhetoric about the Constitution ignores the skeptical view of human nature that underlies it.

A long philosophical tradition in the Roman Catholic Church itself - admittedly, not the one most in evidence today - has long balanced the comfort of certainty against the corrective of doubt. Human beings are fallen creatures. Certitude can be a snare. Doubt can be a helping hand. Consider a list of theologians who have found themselves targets of church discipline - Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, John Courtney Murray, Yves Congar - only to be "surrounded with a bright halo of enthusiasm" at some later point, as the late Cardinal Avery Dulles once put it.

Doubt sometimes comes across as feeble and meek, apologetic and obstructionist. On occasion it is. But it's also a powerful defensive instrument. Doubt can be a bulwark. We should inscribe that in marble someplace.

Cullen Murphy is an editor at large at Vanity Fair and the author of "God's Jury: The Inquisition and the Making of the Modern World."