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The Quest for Certainty

What is certainty? It’s not knowledge; rather, it is the mental-emotional sense of assurance that one’s knowledge is correct. But feeling certain is no guarantee of being correct. An individual with paranoid psychosis may feel certain that extraterrestrials are trying to kill him before he can warn the world of their invasion. Most Christians feel certain that God exists and that the Bible is his word revealed to us. I feel certain about factual matters, such as the fact that all people die and that a lead weight will sink in a water-filled basin.

The psychotic’s certainty is based on a mental aberration. Christians’ certainty is based on faith (trust in an idea for which there is no supportive or refutative evidence). My certainty is based on factual evidence.

Faith and fear

We need not address psychotic delusions. As for religious belief, it is very evident to me that many believers need to feel certain about their beliefs; that is, they cannot abide uncertainty. But why? The most obvious answer is fear of death, which they avert by feeling certain of eternal life. I suspect another kind of fear is also relevant: fear of damnation.

For most of its history, Christianity has preached eternal damnation for sin, and the predictable result is terror; Christians need certainty, a feeling of assurance about their salvation. The terror is so intense that they dare not let themselves think about the fact that “sin” has no coherent meaning other than imperfection and the notion of damnation for imperfection is wildly blasphemous. To think about these things and ask questions means there is some uncertainty, and that is intolerable. Absolute certainty demands absolute faith.

This mindset contributes to bibliolaters’ hostility to the science of evolution. They are defending not just their idolatrous primary faith in the Bible but also their desire for sameness in which things never change—because change means that what is true today may be false tomorrow, and therein lies stark uncertainty.

In contrast, rationalists recognize that few things in life are stable and certain. Even scientific understanding is subject to change as new information is acquired. Indeed, the scrupulously honest rationalist would deny ever feeling absolutely assured about anything. In this mindset, one must always be willing to consider new evidence and new ways of looking at things. It is a mentally alert stance whereas religion’s cocksure certainty and aversion to change reflect mental torpor.

And yet…

The desire for a reliable formula or a script to follow is nigh universal, even among those who consider themselves rationalists. No one goes through life pondering every trivial situation and occurrence; we handle routine things in a routine manner, and that is sensible, not robotic.

Here is something that is not routine: the presentation of a speculative idea. A speculation or conjecture is an idea for which there is not only no evidence but no foreseeable way of obtaining evidence. Consider this idea: “There is intelligent life on several planets circling stars in the Andromeda Galaxy.” It’s certainly possible, but we have no evidence that it’s true or false, and no way at present of obtaining such evidence. Should a rationalist accept the idea as probably true or reject it as probably false? A prudent response is to take no position at all; we are not obliged to opine on every topic—especially topics that have no direct relevance to our lives.

Now consider a different kind of speculation: “We are spiritually connected to other sentient beings.” Again, there is no evidence for it or against it, and no obligation to take any stance on it. Yet in this case, many rationalists take a strongly dismissive stance, deriding the idea as “Woo… Religion in disguise… Faith-based foolishness…”

Why the difference in attitude? Two reasons, I’d say: First, the presence of intelligent life on other planets is currently unknowable but completely within the bounds of physical reality, whereas “spiritual connection” is, by definition, non-physical and thus non-provable. Second, religion makes countless claims in which the term “spiritual” is used; and some people have an allergic reaction to anything that looks or sounds or smells like religion.

Many intellectuals take this hardline stance: Believe only that which can be proven or at least supported by real evidence. Obviously, there is nothing wrong with the goal of limiting beliefs to those that are supported by evidence. (For this discussion, let’s ignore the question of whether beliefs are volitional and whether the very concept of belief has any place in rational thought.) The question is whether that attitude is mandatory. Automatic rejection is a reflexive response, and reflexes are not intellectually founded; as such, it is no more rational than automatic acceptance.

Assessing the non-assessable

Excluding all ideas that cannot be supported by evidence means treating the unproved and the disproved as interchangeable. But they aren’t—possibly false is not the same as definitely false. This policy—epistemology in action—drastically reduces the risk of accepting false ideas, but it incurs the possibility of rejecting true ones. False Until Proven True is a formula, a script, just as is True Until Proven False; we are drawn to the simplicity of a formula but we are not obligated to follow it.

In the world of clinical medicine, diagnostic tests offer varying sensitivity and specificity. A highly sensitive test will detect most cases of the condition for which the test is performed, but will sometimes report the condition as being present when it is not; that is, some positive results are false. Conversely, a highly specific test may miss some cases in which the condition is present, but will not mistakenly report the condition as present when it is not; that is, some negative results are false. No test is perfect. We would like the sense of certainty that comes of having a test that is both 100% sensitive and 100% selective, for then we will know that all results, whether positive or negative, are true results; but we must make do with tests that are imperfect.

Knee-jerk rejection of unproven ideas is akin to relying on a highly specific diagnostic test: It affords us the certainty of excluding all false ideas from consideration but may mistakenly exclude ideas that are true. The fact that we cannot know if a speculative idea is true does not prevent me from considering it. And if I consider that actions based on the idea offer desirable outcomes at an acceptable cost, why should I reject it?

I am certainly not urging routine acceptance of speculative ideas as a basis of social policy; I am saying that knee-jerk rejection of such ideas is not a mandatory basis of personal decisions.

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