The Impossibility of Certainty

In modern political and religious discourse, it seems that many people talk as if they know everything. They shout at the opposition. They scream “You’re wrong!” without ever truly listening to the other side. They believe that they have all the answers and that they could never be convinced otherwise. Often these people proclaim “Nothing you could say would ever change my mind.”

The real problem is–we are all victims to this kind of thinking.

We all wish to believe that we are always correct. After all, we would hopefully never knowingly believe something that is false. Therefore, we believe that all of our opinions are valid. However, being personally convinced of something does not in any way increase its objective validity. Just because I believe something does not make it true. We all do believe that we certainly have the right answers, and we often scoff at any opposition.

The core problem with this thinking is the philosophy of certainty.

Certainty is what convinces us of an argument. We are persuaded by the presented facts, logic, and arguments; therefore, we become certain of that opinion. However, can we ever truly be certain? Figuring out this question may lead us to a more civil society and elevated discourse.

The philosopher René Descartes once pondered the possibilities of certainty. He reasoned that we cannot ever truly trust our senses and experiences; therefore, we cannot be absolutely certain that the world around us actually exists. We cannot be certain that other people actually exist in our own lives. We can doubt the world. We can doubt each other. The only thing we cannot doubt is our own doubting. “I think; therefore, I am.”

This discovery by Descartes raises an important notion–nothing is absolutely certain. We are left to our own mental faculties to discover the truth. We humans consist of faulty wiring and imperfect brains that must utilize reason, logic, and evidence to acquire the truth. Furthermore, that “truth” will never be for certain for the reasons that Descartes concluded.

This is the essence of the scientific method. We first must raise a question–a hypothesis. Then we investigate the evidence. We test that evidence under laboratory conditions. After multiple tests, we come to a conclusion if possible. That conclusion can stand on merit only if it contains tested evidence and logic. Then, those tests are performed by other independent minds to determine whether the same conclusions are reached. This is the only way that knowledge can be acquired.

Do not forget that this knowledge rests on a probabilistic certainty. We faulty humans came to these conclusions based on our reasoned methodologies. We can be wrong, and we ought to be open to the possibility of being wrong. Absolute certainty is never possible. That is why the scientific method never claims absolute facts; rather findings are determined as tentative or scientific facts. This goes for all beliefs in life. They are to be believed on the present evidence and logic unless they are proven to be false by new tests and experimentation.

If there is no evidence for a hypothesis, then we should not be convinced by it. We are to remain agnostic on a proposition that is not supported by evidence, experimentation, and logic. Agnostic means: “a”=”without” and “gnostic”=”knowing.” Therefore, since we cannot present reasoned argument and experimentation for an opinion, it should be discarded without evidence and argument. We can remain forever curious about the hypothesis, yet we are not validated in believing in until such evidence and experimentation exist.

This is where the balance between doubt and certainty is necessary. This may sound counter-intuitive, yet doubt is the only method that can lead us to the greatest amount of valid certainty. Only through intellectually honest inquiry and experimentation can we find the truth. That truth is–of course–still tentative, yet rigorously evidenced, tested, and reasoned “truth” is the closest thing possible to certainty. From such evidence and testing we can reasonably have probabilistic certainty.

This is the mentality that will return civility and merit-based discourse to politics and religious conversation. If we truly wish to solve political problems and find out about the supernatural, we ought to first doubt. We should doubt at all times even when we have probabilistic certainty. We never know when we could be wrong. We may hold a belief based on bad or misleading evidence. Our reasoning faculties may have been under stress when we decided such an opinion. We are humans; we are imperfect. If we genuinely wish to live in harmony together, we ought to work together to solve our disagreements. We can resolve those disputes only if we converse with one another honestly and respectfully. We must question all things even our most sincerely held beliefs. Question without restraint.

Furthermore, if you are not convinced by an argument that lacks evidence and logic, then do not expect others to be convinced by your argument if it lacks the same. No one is validated in believing something that lacks intellectual rigor. That is why personal attacks and shouting that you are right do not solve anything. Those methods only strain relationships. We can be best friends even with people with whom we fervently disagree when we argue based solely on the evidence, logic, and reason.

So let’s elevate the discourse. Never be absolutely certainty about anything; it’s impossible to be so after all. Be skeptical of all things. Never be afraid to be wrong. Demand evidence and logic at all times. Follow that evidence wherever it leads regardless of how unpopular the conclusion. Only then can we achieve the correct answers on politics, religion, and all other epistemological areas. The best and most reasoned argument will win out as the majority in the end. The current majority opinion may indeed be wrong, but the minority opinion, which may be correct, will only ever become the majority if the minority is always treated with respect. We ought to listen to all sides of a debate. If we are right, then we will be strengthened by the opposition’s faulty arguments. If we are wrong, then we should be open to doubt our own position and be convinced by the correct arguments of the opposition. However, that will occur only if we discuss those opposing arguments, and if you care about the truth, then we must discuss the difficult issues.cropped-new-logo.jpeg

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