Monday, 18 October 2010

Our craving for certainty

Certainty, and people who are certain, keep coming up. Once again, I'm reminded of one of its side effect by another MOI post.

The face value of certainty is obvious. We all want a simple life, in which X is true and Y is not. How are we ever to get anything done if we're always hedging our bets against the possibility we may be wrong, or to placate others? But these "others" may have their own certainties, opposed to ours. Does this mean I must face passivity and abject surrender? No it does not, because opinions and our view of what is right is much less the problem than is certainty itself.

The best science is the elucidation of uncertainty, by presenting a better approximation of what the truth may be.

A small example might be my personal take on religion. I believe in something which I call God, and very vague, but very marvellous it is. I feel my beliefs to be true but, even in so doing, I have to acknowledge the fact that my sense of god as some kind of distillation of the best of which we are capable, may simply be an externalised version of my conscience on a good day. I have no means of proving this not to be true. This makes a crucial difference to my attitude to my own version of truth.

Certainty is the enemy of humility, and without humility, the various ideological log jams which currently bedevil humanity can never be broken. Even the smartest human being is a creature of finite intelligence. In some measure therefore, we all possess the potential to be wrong. If our disagreements are born of the uncertainty inescapably part of the human condition, can we not take common cause in the preservation of the planet for all its people, and the future welfare of our grandchildren? If we can't be certain of the disease, let's start by treating the symptoms. You never know, we might all get along better in the process.


  1. Reg,
    Love this: "Certainty is the enemy of humility." May I use it in my email signature. Wise words indeed. Can we all agree to be uncertain together? I'm not sure that we can.

  2. "Can we all agree to be uncertain together? I'm not sure that we can."
    No, nor am I; but I'd rather contemplate an unlikely consensus than contemplate an unthinkably awful future, which will be the result of trench warfare between proudly certain adversaries, more interested in their righteousness than in its consequences.