Billboard Heckler – Certainty is overrated

Okay, I’ve gotten through a busy patch and am hopefully back to regular transmission. Time to continue the billboard series.

This one is from Katoomba Uniting Church:

Certainty is overrated. It stops the searching.

What a beautiful sentiment. It’s not the destination that matters, but the journey. Sigh. I’m picturing green rolling hills and fluffy clouds as we speak.

Okay, I don’t think I need to say that I disagree with this statement, and indeed find it highly ironic. Particularly in light of Hebrews 11:1, which says that “faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see” (NIV, emphasis mine).

But it raises an interesting question, and one that I had to think about for a while. How is this different from the scientific method? One of the fundamental principles of science is that no fact is sacred – that any claim must be falsifiable, that we must be ready to abandon our acceptance of any theory as soon as it becomes apparent that it does not fit the evidence. Michael Shermer wrote in Why People Believe Weird Things, quoting from an amicus curiae brief to the US Supreme Court during one of the many attempts to get “creation science” (or more recently, “intelligent design”) taught in public schools:

It follows from the nature of the scientific method that no explanatory principles in science are final. “Even the most robust and reliable theory… is tentative. A scientific theory is forever subject to reexamination and – as in the case of Ptolemaic astronomy – may ultimately be rejected after centuries of viability.”… “In an ideal world, every science course would include repeated reminders that each theory presented to explain our observations of the universe carries this qualification: ‘as far as we know now, from examining the evidence available to us today’”.

So it would appear, on the surface, that science agrees with the Uniting Church that “certainty is overrated”. Then what’s my problem with it?

It took me a while to really pin it down, but I think there’s a fundamental difference in intent between how this idea is used in science and how it’s used in religion. This is a quote from someone I’ve had an email conversation with over the last couple of weeks:

Whether or not we accept something as a fact depends as much on whether or not we want it to be, as on whether or not it is.

In my reply, I disagreed with this. It’s certainly true that this is how many people do perceive facts; but I don’t think that this is the correct approach, or that we have to resign ourselves to never being able to really understand the world beyond our own preconceptions. Instead, I think it’s well within our ability to accept ideas based on whether they are supported by evidence, regardless of whether we want them to be true. Indeed, this is the approach people need to have if there’s any hope to reach agreement on anything.

I suspected that he would use this line later to claim that I wasn’t accepting his facts because I didn’t want to. Sure enough, half a dozen emails later:

Do you remember in one of my earlier messages I said, “Whether or not we accept something as a fact depends as much on whether or not we want it to be, as on whether or not it is.”, and you didn’t agree. Well, this is one of those situations. You have no reason to doubt [my statements] apart from a fear that if you did admit to it, then your objection to the existence of God falls in a heap.

I should point out that he kept this position after I repeatedly asked for actual evidence.

In my general experience, when religious people use the line that there’s no such thing as absolute certainty (and not all do), it’s usually an attempt to put all claims on equal footing. You can’t be certain that God exists, but you also can’t be certain that God doesn’t exist, so which side you choose to believe is a matter of faith.

In science, while you can never reach absolute certainty, you can approach it. You can’t say with certainty that a particular theory is correct, but you can say that it fits the evidence better than another theory, which makes it likely to be closer to the truth. By applying this repeatedly to new theories, you get progressively better theories that are more likely to be true. Certainty is not an attainable goal, but it is a valid target.

Think about the value of pi. You can never write a number that represents it exactly. But you can get arbitrarily close to it, and you can know how close the approximation you’re using is. 22/7 is a good approximation; 3.1416 is a better one; 3.141592653589793 is better again. 3.0 (as implied by 1 Kings 7:23) is a bad approximation, and 7.0 is just plain wrong.

Nobody would ever say that each of these approximations is equally valid, or that choosing between them requires a leap of faith. Given any two approximations, you can say with certainty which one is closer to the actual value of #, and therefore which one will give you more accurate calculations.

The general situation in science is a bit more complicated, because there can be disagreement over which of two theories fits the evidence better. But this is only the case when the two theories are reasonably well-matched. It may be that, for example, the Copenhagen and many-worlds interpretations of quantum physics are on roughly equal footing, so that there is some dispute about which one is closer to the truth. But there is no doubt that the round-earth theory is closer to the truth than the flat-earth theory.

My point is this. I agree that absolute certainty is unattainable. And, for that matter, I agree that anyone who claims to have achieved certainty is shutting themselves off from improving their understanding of the world (something that Christians should consider more often). But I don’t agree that this leaves us in a position where we’re wandering in the dark with no way to believe anything except by sheer faith. We can never reach the point of certainty, but we can move progressively closer and closer to it; and the closer we come, the more our understanding of the world improves.

In this sense, I’d say that certainty is decidedly underrated.

For myself, I always have to admit the possibility that I’m wrong about the existence of God. My eyes are open to evidence that a divine being of some kind exists. But as long as the opposite conclusion fits the evidence better, I’m staying an atheist.

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