A Certain Problem

The wise know too well their weakness to assume infallibility;   and he who knows most, knows best how little he knows.

– Thomas Jefferson

 

Certainty is a supposition.

Webster’s dictionary defines certainty as follows:  suggests a firm, settled belief or positiveness in the truth of something.  A belief; further defined by Webster’s as:  1. conviction or acceptance that certain things are true or real, or 2. Faith    

 It follows that few things are absolutely certain. Extrapolate: what do we know to be true?  And how do we know it?  Are we certain based on what our senses tell us, or what historically has been accepted as fact?  Sometimes certainty simply springs from decades of common experience that lends itself to an explanation of the world we live in. We may cling to a sense of certainty that offers some rationalization for the application of luck and misfortune, life and death, ease or misery. We don’t like to admit how little we understand of the random nature of events, so we give labels to notions in order to make them concrete and compact, easily carried. We say we know, meaning we comprehend. Like the explanation that gravity is what keeps us rooted to the surface of a ball that spins in space, certainty lends itself to the notion of control.

Yet we remain uneasy. Our comprehension of the universe is still under construction. Even science acknowledges that the theories we operate on are limited by what we think we understand: current evidence might support them as true but science expands, changing with our increased understanding through exploration and experiment, and theories can be radically influenced or entirely eradicated as a result.

And not all apparent truths relate consistently. Gravity is what we call the observation of the apple falling.  The apple or indeed anything falling suggests the theory of gravity is correct.  We cannot see gravity, only its effect.  I can be reasonably sure that if I drop my laptop, it will unfortunately fall to the ground. But the effects of gravity are not certain everywhere.  In space, my laptop would float; on the moon, it might settle as gently to the surface of that pitted rock as a feather seesaws to the floor here on the earth.  Gravity is not a fixed constant.  The evidence supports the theory of gravity but the application varies. We can be certain of its effects in some environments: a limited truth.

A sense of certainty often arrives from experience – all the more reason, in my opinion, to distrust broad assumptions.  I’m uncomfortable with assertions.  The only one I’ve come to trust is that one day I will die.  I’m being neither pessimistic nor fatalistic here:  whether through the effects of age, disease, or accident my body will at some point cease to function.  The notion of whether or not some aspect of my consciousness continues beyond my physical death is a matter for faith, or hope.  What we choose to believe reveals what we are, or are not, or perhaps what we hope to be.  And we may speak of what we know to be true regarding faith but this certainty stems from internal conviction, not external proof.  The period of time we enjoy on this earth is an opportunity, the length unknown. With that understanding, comprehension does indeed lend itself to greater responsibility, personally and to the larger world.  Though we personally cease to be, our accomplishments may linger, and can have a lasting impact on future generations.

It is an interesting aspect of human nature that we seek a concrete explanation for our world. And I don’t condemn that. But in this time of political silliness – when we seem to face off like rival football teams; when religion seems to some a handy weapon; when, with the immediate access of information as a result of technological advances, the world is both larger and smaller (and sometimes meaner) – I worry that we forget how much we don’t know.

Thomas Jefferson, in a letter to Richard Henry Lee, asked, perhaps rhetorically, “What is it men cannot be made to believe?”  The world of supposition is open and a healthy skepticism is a requisite for any intellectual endeavor.  Skepticism, the Greek philosophical position that certainty on any issue is unattainable, suggests limitations on knowledge. Some level of doubt – in the veracity of an argument or theory, in our own comprehension of an issue, or our general lack of knowledge – is essential. But it should not discourage our curiosity. To question is to engage: when we stop questioning, we stop exploring our world.

The best place for us to be is uncertain.  What curiosity is aroused in certitude? What invention or discovery ever sprang from contentment with the way things were thought to be? In The Quest for Certainty, John Dewey reminds us:  “Every great advance in science has issued from a new audacity of imagination.”

Intellectually, certainty suggests stasis.  How do we hope to advance by standing still?

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