The Myth of Certainty

Who with question 6-27-10

Have you ever come across someone who just has to be “right” all the time? I’m not just talking about someone with a strongly-held opinion, even one bolstered by any number of well-curated “facts” and supportive “sources.” I’m talking about someone who makes it very clear, if inadvertently, that his or her entire understanding of the Universe and its functioning, and his or her place in it, will be totally obliterated by having to say, even once, something like, “I’m not really sure,” or “You have an interesting point there,” or even, “Hey… How should I know?”

Someone who has to be right all the time exhibits an impressive vigilance. In any disagreement, he or she may quickly summon a phrase or two as the first line of defense: (1) “If you knew the facts, you’d see that I am right,” or (2) “Everybody agrees that…” If these fail to persuade you (at least to give up, if not to agree), you are then likely to hear some version of, “I just can’t waste my time with you any more on this right now; I have to cut my toenails/blow my nose/go see if the mail’s come yet/check my emails/scratch my backside.”

People who must be right all the time do not recognize the validity of opinions, hunches, or intuition, because these things are not easily proven “right” or “wrong.” They do not have “opinions,” ever; they have “well-reasoned conclusions” based firmly on their collection of “facts.” (Fortunately, it is a relatively simple task for any of us to select any number of opinions, from anywhere, label them as “facts” simply because someone else said them, and proceed with our arguments.)

The older I get, the more comfortable I have become with the notion that I do not actually know EVERYTHING (although I know plenty); that I AM wrong from time to time, and that nobody dies – not even myself – from my acknowledging these revelations.

Real “facts,” I have come to believe, are actually few and far between – but many an opinion can be found all tricked out in a Shiny New Fact Outfit… Is the proverbial glass half full, or half empty? It’s both. Is the person who eats half a pizza really “on a diet” just because he used to eat an entire pie at one sitting? Yes… And no. Half a pie may well be a “diet” for that person, and considered wanton indulgence by someone else who regularly scrapes half the cheese off a single slice before eating just one.

Ideologies, religions, economic theories, moralities, and almost all of the other Big Things, are based on hunches, opinions, inclinations, and feelings – and on our backgrounds, both personal and cultural. Every proponent, of every position, brings along a suitcase packed with his or her personal load of “facts.” And then we argue not about the beliefs, but about whose “facts” are the best. Of course, we don’t know any more about that than we do about any number of other things, but it rarely slows us down…

Generally, our yearning for certainty causes little harm, and enables us to move along in our lives with optimism and good cheer. But when one, and only one, obsessive ideology is brought to bear in a given situation, and labeled a certainty, we are very likely to get into trouble – sometimes serious trouble. This, it seems to me, is why sound bites, clever phrases, slogans, and “memes” are so dangerous, especially when dealing with the Big Things. They are single-minded and exclusionary, and designed to shut down any possibility of thoughtful debate. In short, they suggest that they – and only they – are “facts,” and that they are CERTAIN.

I have never seen any real certainty, anywhere, in the living natural world. There are plenty of likely probabilities, and a world of potentialities, but I am hard-pressed to think of any natural law that always functions in precisely the same way, without fail, in every single case. Why would any of us think that only we humans, in the midst of all this, might find any real certainty?

It seems to me that the real wonder of life, and the essence of creativity in all its forms, is the very opposite of certainty – life is full of contradiction, mystery, surprise, unthinkable tragedy, unanticipated joy, unpredictability, unforeseen consequences, and absolute nonsense. I believe it was designed to be exactly what it is. Real certainty comes only when life ends – at least as far as we know!

But, as I’m well aware, this is just my opinion, isn’t it?