The Conceit of Certainty

Earlier, I had written about controversial court cases, such as the trials of George Zimmerman, Dominique Strauss Kahn & the Duke Lacrosse Team. We discussed our tendency to jump to conclusions & assume what must have really happened, based on flimsy pieces of evidence and our own preconceived notions & biases. In truth, this isn’t isolated to sensational current events. This is endemic to the way we live our lives & perceive the world every single day.

All too often, we see people who are so unwaveringly certain. Certain that their lifestyle & way of doing things is best. Certain that their God is the one true God & all others are heathens or infidels. Certain that their political beliefs are correct, and their opponents represent everything that is wrong with the country. Certain that they are right & anyone who disagrees with them is wrong.

Personally, I find this certainty to be unbearably stifling. Even when I’m with like minded peers who subscribe to my political or lifestyle beliefs, I often find myself ill at ease with how certain they are of themselves, and how dismissive they are of anyone or anything that disagrees with their mental model of how the world works. Isn’t it possible to believe in something, while still holding reservations about the possibility of being wrong?

Hence why I found the following article so refreshing & insightful:

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“One aim of the physical sciences has been to give an actual picture of the material world. One achievement of physics in the 20th century has been to show that such an aim is unattainable.” For Dr. Bronowski, there was no absolute knowledge and anyone who claims it — whether a scientist, a politician or a religious believer — opens the door to tragedy. All scientific information is imperfect and we have to treat it with humility. Such, for him, was the human condition.

This is the condition for what we can know, but it is also, crucially, a moral lesson. It is the lesson of 20th-century painting from Cubism onwards, but also that of quantum physics. All we can do is to push deeper and deeper into better approximations of an ever-evasive reality. The goal of complete understanding seems to recede as we approach it.

There is no God’s eye view, Dr. Bronowski insisted, and the people who claim that there is and that they possess it are not just wrong, they are morally pernicious. Errors are inextricably bound up with pursuit of human knowledge, which requires not just mathematical calculation but insight, interpretation and a personal act of judgment for which we are responsible.

… the genesis of Werner Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle in the hugely creative milieu that surrounded the physicist Max Born in the 1920s. Dr. Bronowski insisted that the principle of uncertainty was a misnomer, because it gives the impression that in science (and outside of it) we are always uncertain. But this is wrong. Knowledge is precise, but that precision is confined within a certain toleration of uncertainty.

… Dr. Bronowski thought that the uncertainty principle should therefore be called the principle of tolerance. Pursuing knowledge means accepting uncertainty. Heisenberg’s principle has the consequence that no physical events can ultimately be described with absolute certainty or with “zero tolerance,” as it were. The more we know, the less certain we are.

In the everyday world, we do not just accept a lack of ultimate exactitude with a melancholic shrug, but we constantly employ such inexactitude in our relations with other people. Our relations with others also require a principle of tolerance. We encounter other people across a gray area of negotiation and approximation. Such is the business of listening and the back and forth of conversation and social interaction.

For Dr. Bronowski, the moral consequence of knowledge is that we must never judge others on the basis of some absolute, God-like conception of certainty. All knowledge, all information that passes between human beings, can be exchanged only within what we might call “a play of tolerance,” whether in science, literature, politics or religion. As he eloquently put it, “Human knowledge is personal and responsible, an unending adventure at the edge of uncertainty.”

The relationship between humans and nature and humans and other humans can take place only within a certain play of tolerance. Insisting on certainty, by contrast, leads ineluctably to arrogance and dogma based on ignorance.

At this point, in the final minutes of the show, the scene suddenly shifts to Auschwitz, where many members of Bronowski’s family were murdered… The play of tolerance opposes the principle of monstrous certainty that is endemic to fascism and, sadly, not just fascism but all the various faces of fundamentalism. When we think we have certainty, when we aspire to the knowledge of the gods, then Auschwitz can happen and can repeat itself. Arguably, it has repeated itself in the genocidal certainties of past decades.

The pursuit of scientific knowledge is as personal an act as lifting a paintbrush or writing a poem, and they are both profoundly human. If the human condition is defined by limitedness, then this is a glorious fact because it is a moral limitedness rooted in a faith in the power of the imagination, our sense of responsibility and our acceptance of our fallibility. We always have to acknowledge that we might be mistaken. When we forget that, then we forget ourselves and the worst can happen.

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To me, the central message that I gleaned from above is one of humility, and admitting the fallibility of our knowledge. The truth is, we live in an extraordinarily complicated world, and we ourselves are such humble, small & flawed creatures in comparison with the size, breadth & depth of our universe. Any certainty that we may ever hold, reflects more on our conceit, than on the world we live in. No human knowledge is ever certain, not even scientific knowledge. For centuries, Newtonian laws of physics were extremely well tested and formed the cornerstone of science… But they too were proven wrong by Einstein’s  theory of relativity.

Of course we should still act and make the best decisions possible in the face of limited knowledge, but we should be aware of the lack of certainty. For a patient with heart disease, getting open-heart surgery is the right decision to take. Not because of absolute certainty in its effectiveness, but because it’s reasonably well proven and better than the alternative of doing nothing. Even with something as small as driving to work, we have to accept that there is no certainty of us reaching there safely. You could meet with an accident and die any day. This is very unlikely since we’ve made this same drive thousands of times safely, but we still have to acknowledge its possibility.

Living under the false delusion of absolute certainty will lead one to drive recklessly and not pay close attention to danger signs. The belief in absolute certainty closes off our minds, and stops us from learning anything new. Only by acknowledging the fallibility of our knowledge can we avoid making catastrophic mistakes, correct our mistaken prejudices, and continue learning & bettering ourselves.

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Related Links:

Neurologist Robert Burton shows that feeling certain—feeling that we know something— is a mental sensation, rather than evidence of fact.

Certainty & simplification in Politics & the Media

About OutlookZen

Ex-Journalist & Columnist. Loves exploring the world.
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2 Responses to The Conceit of Certainty

  1. Glenn says:

    Certainty sells rhetorically, portrays self-confidence. Nothing says someone is a “bad man” with such certainty as saying they just had a bomb dropped on them and then God Bless America.

    So many things that turn out to be true are counter-intuitive (like the earth going around the sun), so I tend to give a good listen before dismissing an argument. That looks to a casual observer as being indecisive.

    I guess it depends on whether one is searching for a truth or trying to sell something as a truth.

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