The Certainty of Uncertainty... I know that I don't know and it's Okay to say so
by: Reverend Earl Lee
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Ever since our brain and there by mind evolved to the point of thinking about the universe and our place in it, the age old question has been why is there something rather than nothing? Built into this key question is the innate desire for an answer or what I call certainty in an uncertain world. From this wonder, three institutions have emerged and have tried to answer this question and satisfy our need for certainty; these institutions are religion, philosophy, and science. Therefore, I must ask what is certainty and why is it important? Certainty comes from the Latin certus, which means "sure, fixed, settled, and determined..." In other words, we want consistency, knowledge, i.e., a way to control and manipulate our environment in order to survive but the universe seem to be indifferent to our desires or as Albert Camus called this feeling, the Absurd, our need for the universe to give us an answer and its refusal to do so. Nevertheless, we want to live, we want to survive and we don't know why? Perhaps this desire is what Arthur Schopenhauer called the will to live and Immanuel Kant called the thing in itself, we want to avoid suffering and reduce our chances of ending our life because of the uncertainty of what happens after death. I agree with Epicurus about a fear of death, when he stated "Why should I fear death? If I am, death, is not. If death is, I am not. Why should I fear that which can only exist when I do not."
As I stated above, I think uncertainty is the creator of religion, philosophy and the sciences. I think humanity want certainty because it gives us a sense of security and safety and this gives us an illusion of control. The desire for control over our environment and its resources creates an idea at least that we are increasing our chances of survival. The reason or the evolutionary drive for survival is our will to live, or the emergence of life and its continuance. I think uncertainty was an important precursor to religious ideology because it gives the practitioner the false impression of control or influence over the outcome. As a result, if you throw divination bones, read the intestines of a goat, the oracles of the cracks of a heated tortoise or turtle shell you get the delusion of control. Even in the so-called dominant religions of today, where people believe in a god who created the universe and who will make life for his believers better, they read his so-called word, pray, there is still an idea of control and certainty. I think prayer has replaced the manipulative functions of divination, because in prayer the person is trying to influence the outcome by control or influencing the source of power (the god) behind their situation. As Voltaire once wrote if god did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him. For Plato wrote in The Republic, his idea of the ideal society, that a belief in the gods and an afterlife is necessary to keep the societal order, in other words, it's all about our need for power and control. This is why people avoid agnosticism like it is the plague because it is an uncertain position. Even though it is the most intellectually honest position, just to say "I don't know" to most people is unacceptable and people who default to belief or non-belief according to psychologist are happier than people who are uncertain, even when people know something bad they are happier than not knowing, this seems to go against the old saying or idea by William Blake "where ignorance is bliss tis folly to be wise..." Although uncertainty is essential to the pursuit of science, for it gives scientist a problem to investigate, I still feel that the motivation is still the desire to control the unknown and uncertain, because not knowing can be detrimental to survival, in other words, our evolutionary will to live drive us to do whatever is necessary to pass on our genes to the next generation.
Finally, while thinking on the certainty of uncertainty, I watched a documentary online by Jacob Bronowski entitled "Knowledge and Certainty", which is part of a 13 segmented series called the "Ascent of Man". I think the film goes along with what I have been discussing and I feel the film's message was we can be certain within limits of a principle which Professor Bronowski called "The Principle of Tolerance" which he borrowed from Heisenberg called the "The principle of Uncertainty". Tolerance is an engineering term in that when parts are manufactured with a certain degree of tolerance or "a give or take" that is, an approximation is incorporated in the product for it is not possible to make anything to perfect dimension, not because of human fallibility, however, because of the uncertainties in matter and energy itself. In other words, our scientific facts or laws are approximations because of the give or take i.e. the uncertainty that is innate in matter and energy. However, when our approximated truths become a dogma it is no longer science it is another religion, which means it is something that binds us and our thinking. I think we can be reasonably certain of some things but understand that in this certainty there are areas of uncertainty and limitations. I am advocating a philosophical position that falls under agnosticism called Fallibilism, a doctrine that nothing can be known for certain, that is, there is no infallible knowledge, but there can still be knowledge, or as the Philosopher Rick Roderick stated it "That means something like this, a fallibilist is someone who passionately believes certain things.. Some of them quite bizarre ... But about those beliefs, they believe that those beliefs could be wrong." On the one hand, I understand that we have evolved by the will to live and the more certain we are the happier, confident, and more inclined to survive and pass on our genes. On the other hand, arrogance or thinking that we are infallible is dangerous because if matter and energy, the very foundation of all we know is uncertain, then the only certainty is the certainty of uncertainty, that is, the give and take innate in the universe. Any ideology that does not allow for give or take is static and dead because it leaves little room for tolerance or the "give or take" for the universe is about change. Because of our innate desire to survive, or as Schopenhauer called it out will to live, I think the scientific method that is, wonder, hypothesis and testing is the best method that we have in finding an approximated truth because built in it is a self-correcting system that understands that it could be wrong. In summary, I think the evolutionary drive to pass on our genes or "the will to live" necessitates the creation of certainty in order for life to continue but in our need of certainty we need to be open to the hypothesis that we could be wrong and the best way to do this are through critical thinking, the Socratic and Scientific Methods, but I am open to the possibility or at least remind myself that this too could be wrong. In other words, what it all boils down to is I don't know and I know that I don't know and it's okay to say this for life will continue whether I am certain or not.