The Dangers Of Certainty

To be certain is to close the eyes, ears, and mind.

Doubt is an uncomfortable condition, but certainty is a ridiculous one.

Voltaire

There will always be things in our lives we feel confident in our knowledge of. The sun will rise tomorrow, all living things require water to survive, whichever line we join will immediately become the slowest moving. There are many things in our lives which have a great deal of evidence, both anecdotal as well as resulting from dedicated and detailed study, supporting our assumptions and assertions about them.

But the truth is the more we examine a ‘rule’ or phenomena the more variations and outliers we discover. Certainty should be reserved for those extremely rare instances where the communally agreed upon evidence is staggeringly overwhelming, not used to falsely bolster our every emotional reaction to the latest sensationalized headline.

The most tempting aspect of reducing our outlook on the world around us to our immediate emotional first reactions is how seductively simple it makes that world appear. We either like something or don’t like it and once we’ve branded it either way we never have to examine or consider it again.

Not only are things, and their impact on our lives, never that simple reducing our scope and duration of consideration to such a drastic degree leaves us intensely vulnerable to the biases and agendas of those who are presenting us with information.

Is a recently released movie is worth seeing, are the contents of new piece of legislation good or bad for a certain sector, did a major independent special counsel’s investigation reveal criminal liability of a person in power, does the global emergence of an infectious disease need to be taken seriously or not.

From the minor to the immensely significant if our first emotional reaction forms our permanent perspectives not only are we laying ourselves at the mercy of those providing the information we are reacting to we are also taking an enormous risk that any further or future information might turn out to be profoundly relevant and important.

To be absolutely certain about something, one must know everything or nothing about it.

Olin Miller

Even if we reach our conclusions after thought out and researched consideration once we commit ourselves to being certain we close our minds to any further growth or development. And as simplifying as being certain may seem, as much of a hassle as hashing and rehashing or examining and re-examining our perspectives may seem, we ultimately wind up consuming far more energy digging in our heels and defending our certainty than is ever consumed by deliberation and adaptation.

Think of all the energy and effort and anger and hostility expelled railing against contradictory information or opinions. Once we have declared ourselves to be certain we not only close our minds we also throw our sense of self-worth onto the table as part of the stakes. Our reputation, value, trustworthiness, and self-image become lashed to and thus dependent upon that certainty. Our defense of that certainty instantly becomes far more vehement to the point of desperate because we are now defending ourselves not merely our perspectives. The actual issue itself becomes virtually irrelevant.

People, places, things, issues, moments in time do not simply freeze in amber the instant we declare our certainty about them. There is always more information out there and there will always be more information discovered over time. Some of it may support out current perspectives, some of it may challenge our perspectives, and some of it may completely contradict and up-end our perspectives. That is simply the truth of life and while the desire for things to be simple is natural and understandable, wanting things to be simple does not make them so.

The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing.

Socrates

There is a pervasive cultural notion and stigma that not knowing the answer is a terrible thing, a failure, a sign of weakness. Fear of the unknown is a natural, reflexive, and universal fear. But not knowing the answer is not the same thing as the answer being an unknown. That may sound like a semantic splitting of hairs but it is an important difference.

If something is an unknown it has no qualifiers, boundaries, characteristics, or behaviors. Our fear of such an unknown is hardwired into our reptilian brain survival instincts. If we feel unsure about whether the approaching animal is friend or foe our nervous system errs on the side of self-preservation and sparks the ‘fight or flight’ impulse to first and foremost try and make sure it doesn’t eat us.

Research has even shown our neurological response to an unknown is more stressful and exhausting than a known and guaranteed negative. That has been at the heart of some of the worst ongoing impacts of the pandemic, the rolling and consistent unknown factors. Even if we had known with actual and genuine certainty that we would be dealing with this pandemic for three years it would have taken less of a toll on our collective mental, physical, and emotional health than even the first few unknowing months of last summer.

As a way of illustrating the difference between an unknown and not knowing the answer imagine you are seeking shelter in a large cave in the dark of night. If the potential contents or occupants of the cave or unknown, if you don’t if anything might be in the cave, the potential amount of fear and stress and anxiety is enormous as your mind would be free to panic off in literally countless different directions.

Now shift the consideration to not knowing whether or not there might be any bears in the cave. The prospect of a bear being lurking in shadows is undeniably a frightening notion, and justifiably so. But when the considerations are focused that specifically, when it is one specific answer we are considering, it arms us with a specific question. And an actual question is something we can attempt to answer.

Are bears known to live in this area? Are there any signs of bears living in the cave? If there is a bear would it be a particular type of bear and thus likely to behave in certain ways? Once we are dealing with a specific and actual question the process of gathering information takes form we can act upon. We can aim at searching for answers rather than simply further feeding our fears.

An amorphous unknown is more terrifying because we don’t even know where to start attempting to address it, or if we even can. Once we have an actual question we have a place to start, we have parameters to work with, and we are armed with the empowering reassurance that an answer is possible to find and that it is possible for us to find it.

The quest for certainty blocks the search for meaning. Uncertainty is the very condition to impel man to unfold his powers.

Erich Fromm

The deceptive and seductive allure of polarizing and hyperbolic figures is that the main thrust of their approach is to claim they have the answers. Not that they understand the questions or how to go about finding answers and solutions, which is the hallmark of true and genuinely effective leaders. They have the answers, all the answers.

We don’t have to any of the time consuming or confusing examining or deliberating. We don’t have to listen to them explain all the processes and considerations they worked through thereby reminding us how complicated and non-certain the world around us is. We don’t have to do any thinking of any kind about the issues at hand or even about who the good guys and bad guys are. Anyone who doesn’t agree with their answers is a bad guy, nice and neat and simple.

It’s a deeply tempting image, especially in a world so overflowing with information and often conflicting diversities. But it is a hollow and false one which ultimately takes us hostage rather than set us free. We do not gain our sense of purpose, our empowerment, our freedom from answers. We gain those things through our asking and exploration of the questions.

And it is important to note we are talking about actual, legitimate questions. Accusations which end in question marks are not actually questions, no matter how much those who use such tactics in order to be polarizing and divisive claim they are ‘only asking questions’.

Any supposed question which is asking whether or not something is ‘true’ is not actually a question it is a request for confirmation or denial of someone else’s answer and a recruitment filter for the ‘good guy’ or ‘bad guy’ teams. Genuine questions seek answers they do not claim to already have them.

Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.

Maya Angelou

People do not become doctors because they read every medical textbook there is. They gather information through study and then explore that information actually being confronted with questions by interacting with patients during their residency. People do not become PhD’s because they read all the books on a subject. They take their gathered information and then use it to conduct research in an effort to explore a specific set of questions.

The advancements in technology which have produced more and more astounding visual effects in movies didn’t come about because the folks at ILM had made every possible movie, they set themselves targets to achieve and then set about trying to tackle the question: “How do we do that?” All innovations in technology and industry from the light bulb to the radio to television to the internet were developed not by people who just suddenly had answers but by people exploring questions about what might be possible.

It is the asking and then exploration of questions which generates actual growth, innovation, progress, empowerment, and fulfillment. And in order to ask questions we must first be willing to allow ourselves, and each other, to admit we do not know the answers. We cannot set the only bar for success and wholeness at certainty because then not a single one of us can ever truly and genuinely achieve it. And if none of us can achieve anything there is no reason to try. No growth or innovation occurs and we are all still hunkered down in caves eating raw food with our bare hands.

Anyone who is trying to prevent you from asking genuine information seeking questions, from examining and considering things for yourself is not trying to empower you. They are attempting to take you hostage and have you act as servants to their whims and agendas. Complexity and uncertainty can be challenging and difficult but they become a great deal less so when we give ourselves permission to not know the answers and therefore permission to ask the questions.

The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, and wiser people so full of doubts.

Bertrand Russell

A professional dancer, choreographer, theatre creator, and featured TEDx speaker with an honours degree in psychology, two black belts, and a lap-top.

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