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?

Gato

Previous Post
Leave a comment

14 Comments

  1. Terry Waggle

     /  January 27, 2014

    Love it but I have to ask, “Are you certain of that?” :o}

    Reply
  2. Jc

     /  January 27, 2014

    Death may be the only certainty! Something to ponder, at least!

    Reply
    • Hi, Jc – Well, yes, that and taxes, as the old saying goes. These posts always seem to get more “cosmic” as I’m typing them out on wordpress. Who knows why that happens?

      How did you find me, if you don’t mind my asking…?

      Reply
  3. Linda Hayward

     /  January 27, 2014

    The only Certainty is that there is No Certainty. (Paraphrasing, I think.) Nice piece, CN.

    Reply
    • Yep; that’s pretty much what I was after. You said it in one sentence… But a blog lets me just wander around all over the idea. Still miss our diner lunches! And probably always will… Always glad to have you as a friend, and the World’s Best Editor. Lucky me! XOXO, C

      Reply
  4. Terri in NY

     /  January 27, 2014

    Well said! Being “certain” all the time is something we all need to guard against. Thanks for the reminder

    Reply
  5. That Jan

     /  January 28, 2014

    My favorite is Mara’s “That’s not my area of expertise.” For an archaeologist, that’s large; for a human being, such a relief.

    Reply
    • What a wonderful and wise woman you are, and That Mara, too. I am thrilled to hear from you here. Truly and absolutely.

      Reply
  6. Deanne

     /  January 28, 2014

    One thing I am certainly certain – and that is that I love reading your blog. Hope all is well with you.
    Deanne
    P.S. And I certainly do hope that we will meet again.

    Reply
  7. What a great essay on embracing uncertainty – in all its permutations. I read this at the top of a day that includes a number of uncertainties and what-ifs, and feel a little lighter in my need to try to define them while drinking morning coffee. Let’s spin the wheel and see where we end up, shall we?

    Reply
  8. lori

     /  January 28, 2014

    Nice job Gato! ❤️it!

    Reply
  9. jsri

     /  January 28, 2014

    Gato

    Thanks for a clear introduction to an annoying subject but after reading your contributions on another site, I’m not surprised. I sometimes tend to be less detailed, almost to the level of a bumper sticker but I like your approach to the subject better.

    Reply
  10. I agree- nothing is certain except death and we don’t really even know what that is. It is all perception and all in constant change. So maybe the name of the game is to learn to roll with it with curiosity and deep appreciation for the gift ALL of it is.

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: