The Certain Danger of Certainty

It is said that Socrates began his career as a philosopher because an oracle told him he was the wisest man in the world. Socrates’ response was disbelief, and he sought to prove the oracle wrong by seeking out men wiser than he was. He never found his superior, instead he found a lot of men thinking themselves wise. Most of the great writings about him entail the debates where he seeks to test the philosophers through a series of logical questions about their beliefs, a method which has now immortalized his name. His questions eventually not only brought doubt to the philosophers he tested, but also brought out the conclusions that we hale today as great moments in classical philosophy. Socrates never found his “wiser man” but what he did find through this process is that “True wisdom is knowing that you know nothing.”

This quest of Socrates’, and the eventual conclusion, is as true today as it was back then. Learning to admit the limitations of your knowledge is the first step in gaining better understanding of the world. Were we to accept these limitations in what we know, we would see exponential growth in our understanding of belief, science, and politics. Unfortunately, we are not a culture that likes to admit our vulnerabilities. As a result, our belief systems, our science, and our politics are often contaminated by the antithesis to healthy vulnerability: Certainty.

Certainty is the state where you declare what you know and believe to be beyond argument. Certainty is different than knowledge and faith, but is often confused with both. All knowledge has context and limitations, and to truly have knowledge of something is to also have an understanding  of these contexts and limitations. In short, part of knowledge is the knowledge of where your knowledge ends. Faith is about learning to function outside of the limits of knowledge. It is “confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see.” (Hebrews 11:1). Faith is not intended to contradict what is seen or in evidence, it’s a way functioning where the knowledge is absent. Will you survive your drive to work today? you don’t really know one way or another. Faith in the relative safety of the drive helps you get into that car. Without that faith, you would be too scared to drive. Certainty is confused with knowledge when it refuses to admit the limitations of the knowledge, and it is confused with faith when the belief refuses to adapt to the knowledge that is present. When certainty infects both knowledge and faith, it creates a rigidity, ignorance, and arrogance.

When previously discussing how smart people make disastrous mistakes, overestimation of the rightness, morality or competence, and a refusal to consider dissenting information along side the evidence or feedback were identified as common factors. In short, the decision makers were so certain that they didn’t see obvious warning signs that could have averted their mistakes. They were certain. But despite the dangers of certainty, we fall into that trap constantly, and repeatedly make severe mistakes.

When certainty infects belief, dynamic systems of complex thought and metaphor get reduced to rigid literalism that often contradicts the evidence of the world around us. What is worse, when certainty is combined with the authority within belief systems, the systems shift from being enlightening to damaging. As a result, these belief systems are lead astray down roads of violence, oppression, and hatred, again and again. It is only when those of a belief system abandon their certainty, that we have leaders like Martin Luther King Jr and the Dalai Lama who enlighten themselves and those around them.

As doctor who was trained in a science-practitioner model, and as a student who loved the sciences as a child, I often find it maddening how certainty has tainted the popular understanding of the field. What science knows, it knows well because it spends its time separating what is and is not beyond the limits of its abilities to discover. Theories have to be falsifiable (defined with conditions in which they can be proven false). Theories are never proven, but “highly supported by evidence”. Results are never declared in absolute terms, but in terms of probability and power of influence. We have peer review systems intended to reduce bias and introduce competing hypothesis to explain data. But when science is infected by certainty, many of these controls are abandoned, and we get bad science. If you were to watch the TV show “Ancient Aliens” for instance, you would see some legitimate scientific anomalies that science needs to acknowledge. But what you also see is the same literalism that leads other belief systems astray, anomalies that have been disproved, internal logical consistencies (like aliens taught us to use science, yet we also always misinterpret alien science as magic), lack of allowance for competition of theory other than “Aliens,” and the alien hypothesis that gets modified so that it can never be proven wrong. In popular culture, there is a rise in anti-religious sentiment that believes that it can replace religion with science. This idea is also bad science. It seeks certainty by declaring anything unproven by science to be false, ignoring the limitations of what science can prove (for instance, science can only study the concrete and objective, which not only avoids messy concepts like “God,” “magic,” and “prayer,” but, in reality, also excludes other subjective and abstract concepts like “love,” “justice,” and ironically, “reason”). This type of bad science can be just as dangerous as bad religion, as it ignores the real causes of the problems that some religious systems perpetuate, and, in declaring themselves certain in their immunity, fall into the same bad practices.

Finally, when politics become infected with certainty, the results are often catastrophic. If you look at modern political discourse, you’ll see it rife with certainty based logical fallacy. We don’t actually debate politics anymore, we just attack people. We are so unwilling to actually evaluate if a notion has merit that we would rather insulate ourselves and attack dissent with name calling like “traitor,” “un-American,” or “liberal/conservative.” When many news sources, for instance, are reporting on information that contradicts conservative ideas, they get attacked as being “biased” towards liberals. But as it turns out those same news sources are actually better at informing their audience, so it is not a matter of bias, but of information. Those leading the attacks on the fictitious “liberal media” are so certain that they are unable to consider their information is wrong. This political certainty has lead to increased teen pregnancies (through ideological abstinence only education), attacks on groups that prevent abortions, and economic collapse.

So why are we so drawn to certainty?

I’ve frequently discussed the existential crisis that comes from the duality of Man. Because we are aware of our mortality we are terrified of it. We learn to survive using our symbolic mind, creating structures like culture, society, religion, and character in order to protect against this mortal fear. When these structures do their job, they teach us to eventually shed the fear and live in acceptance of our mortality. But when these structures fail, we latch onto them desperately, and need them to be 100% comforting and true. We need them to be certain.  I’ve previously discussed how this failure has created the stupidity seen in the modern political stage. But the same manifestations we see in the politics, such as the rise of unweilding culture warriors, have been seen in religion (as seen through the many vitriolic fundamentalist preachers in the news), as well as in science (as seen by scientists who seem to use science to create division instead of enlightenment). In our quest to have an absolute defense against our own mortal existence, we abandon the faith from our beliefs, the knowledge from our science, and the reason from our politics, and replace them all with a dangerous certainty that we can pretend will protect us.

So what is the solution?

Each of these fields have within them natural checks against certainty. In politics, we have votes, filibusters, and checks and balances. In religion, we have wisdom traditions that focus on metaphor, analogy, parable, and reasoning out the unknowable to help people learn to function in a lack of certainty. In science, we acknowledgements of the limitations of the scope of scientific knowledge. But the trick is, when we operate in the realms of politics, religion, or science, we have to be intentional about using these natural checks. Without their disciplined use, our terrors creep in, and we fall to the traps of certainty. But if we can manage to rise above, when we can shed our fear and our need to be certain, we can truly find the excellence of these fields. For, when we live in the uncertainty of politics, we have compromise and bi-partisan fellowship that focuses on the good of the nation over ideology. In the uncertainty of religion, we have the belief exchange and interfaith sharing that has, in the past, initiated axial ages. In the uncertainty of science, we have the wonder and thirst for exploration that takes science through the leaps and bounds of discovery.

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