The Uncertainty of Certainty

The human need to be correct, while being important to the advancement of humanity, is also the source of its greatest blunders.

In the dark they huddled, desperate to find comfort in the arms of whomever they found near, knowing what was to come. They welcomed its release but feared it as well. So many others had come to this point and none had emerged into the light. Through the black a low voice could be heard but the words were too soft to be understood and the meaning could only be understood by the rhythm they created, a cadence he had known since he was a child.  He closed his eyes and the words came to him as if he was reading them from the Torah, “Sh'ma Yis'ra'eil Adonai Eloheinu Adonai echad”. He begged inside,hoping that what he believed to be true, was so, and as it began a tear rolled down his cheek, leaving him full of just as much fear as of hope.

Seventy years ago, something like that may have occurred in one of the Nazi gas chambers in any of the concentration camps. Inspired by the certain faith in one man, nearly an entire country had accepted that they were a chosen people and all others in the world were beneath them. Those who looked at Hitler’s teachings with skepticism and searched through his writings looking for truth, instead of blind acceptance, had to hide or risk being punished for their disobedience. Many people will say that it was Hitler’s atheism (although he was likely a Catholic) that led to the atrocities of the second world war but a belief system or rejection is not the architect of such egregious errors.

Christianity in itself was not the cause of the deaths during The Crusades. It was the unquestioning certainty that one man’s opinion was correct, creating a situation where if he was absolutely correct then another’s conflicting opinion must therefore be wrong. Whether the beliefs are true or not would no longer matter for if they were wrong, the counter opinion would need be concealed at all costs even if it was ultimately the correct one.

It is at this point that the dogma or doctrine surrounding the beliefs becomes more important than the truth of the beliefs and it then begins to inform the actions of the people that believe it. Sometimes that certainty allows good things to occur but it is just as likely to allow acts of unspeakable violence and atrocious decisions to be made and then rationalized regardless of the negative outcome.

Skepticism as a Path to Knowledge

The truth does not fear the open light of skeptical inquiry but welcomes it, for it is only by asking questions that the truth can be ascertained and falsehoods can be filtered out. The assertion that one has absolute truth on any given topic ignores a fundamental aspect of the human experience; that we are all failing regularly and we have no way of understanding when those moments are without an external, unbiased viewpoint.

I can believe that I was born on a Thursday but it is only through the consultation of multiple calendar sources that I can be relatively sure that I am correct. And even within that confidence is the understanding that I and the calendars could still be wrong. Perhaps a mistake by a single programmer when repairing the Y2K bug created a situation where the calendars prior to the year 2000 are off by a single day. Perhaps the nurse that filled out my birth certificate was working a late shift and, since I was born very near to midnight, she failed to take down the correct time, leaving the hubbub of the moment to hide the error from everyone. Perhaps my father bribed the hospital to change the date of my birth from late December to early January so I could wait an extra year before being put into hockey, making me more developed than the other children and more likely to fulfill his dream of having a son to play in the NHL.

This is a small, meaningless example of an event that occurred less than 40 years ago. Not only were there plenty of witnesses that could give their view on what occurred but photographs were taken of the event and the fact that I am here writing this essay proves, at the very least, that my birth had to have occurred at some point. That being said, we can see there is no way to remove all doubt from the basic things we take for granted in our lives - the nuggets of knowledge that define our perceptions of whom we are.

I can, at the very least, state as a fact that I was born.

Or was I? There are a great many people in the world that believe that there is no way of knowing if we really do exist as we perceive (solipsism) and while that line of reason leads to a completely useless conclusion, I cannot show that they are wrong. Their world view is just as valid as people claiming the Earth is flat, that the moon landings never occurred or that aliens visit our planet on a regular basis to experiment on its inhabitants.

These claims are occurring now by people that exist in the present and, even with all of the scientific evidence to the contrary, any number of the people that we routinely think of as nut-jobs could be correct. We cannot be certain they are wrong or that we are correct and any claim of knowledge must therefore be accompanied by an asterisk accompanied with a warning like on a car’s side view mirror.

“Caution. Thoughts in this person’s mind are far closer to uncertainty than they appear.”

“Do you believe that's air you are breathing?” - Morpheus in The Matrix

This idea must apply to all ideas if it applies to one, for there is no way to work around both the fallibility of the human mind or  the science we use to investigate the universe we live in. If it does not, it creates a situation of dogmatic assertion where the assessment of the inevitable contradictions will be skewed towards the person’s belief system rather than what logic and observation are trying to tell us.

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Many scientists are very prone to this problem, holding onto a theory or hypothesis they created rather than accepting contrary fact-driven ideas, in an effort to avoid potential embarrassment, loss of stature and loss of funding for research. There is no reason, however, to fear these things and the eminent physicist Stephen Hawking is a great example of this fact. Through the years he has put forward a great many hypotheses and other scientists around the world have taken his ideas and begun an assessment of them. Most have proven to be false even after they have initially been shown to be likely true. The ones we still hold true may be shown to be false at any time.

An example of this is in the understanding of the event horizon of black holes.  Early equations supported the idea that once matter or energy passes the point of no return in a black hole, known as the event horizon, it continues inward to the singularity. However, current understanding of quantum mechanics instead shows that any information carried by the matter or energy cannot be destroyed and must therefore never actually enter the singularity. This means that the information would instead be imprinted on the event horizon itself where it would remain for eternity.

Hawking himself has admitted and accepted that this may in fact be true but his stature as one of the top physicists has not been sullied in any way. He has taken this new theory and moved the understanding of our universe in the direction that the science and evidence is leading him, not in the way that he wishes it to go.

Failure as an Opportunity

Within all of this uncertainty is a great opportunity to discover more about our universe because it creates questions that can be asked and explored. Uncertainty is not the weakness that many of the religious would claim it is, for true weakness would be holding onto beliefs that, to the best of our ability, have been shown to be false.

“God did it.” has been used for thousands of years to explain things about ourselves and our world that didn’t have obvious, rational answers. It was used as an excuse to stop trying to advance our knowledge and to settle down the minds of people that were unsettled by the phrase, “We don’t know.” Alone that assertion stands while the things we learn from the questions we ask support our eventual understandings just as arches and cables support the longest bridges in the world.

People didn’t understand the weather in the past thousands of years (although judging by the inaccuracy of most TV weather people, it may be justified to say that we still don’t). This must have been quite unnerving. Wondering why the rain stopped for weeks or months on end during a drought or why devastating hurricanes and tornadoes that killed thousands were occurring must have made primitive man quite frightened and desperate to stop these unpredictable events. The sun, moon and stars in the sky would also have been a great mystery and it isn’t a very great leap of faith to believe that one controlled the other.

Most humans are very uncomfortable with the idea of not having explanations for the big questions in our lives, whatever they may be. For housewives it could be having to know why one of her friends seemed in a bad mood when they bumped into each other at the mall. Ideas of “why” could begin rolling around in her mind until various hypothesis begin to form, which she could test out by gossiping with her friends about it. If none of the women actually went to the grumpy friend, testing out their guesses, then how likely is it that the gossiping women would discover what the real reason was, and if they did happen to guess correctly, how would they ever realize it?

This pattern can be seen all through the history of humanity and our struggles to find truth among the chaotic tapestry of our minds. It is only when we use a structure that is independent of our mind that we are able to see the truth, confirming what we hope or think the truth is, or showing it to be false and perhaps pointing us to another possibility that we hadn’t considered before. The most difficult part of all of this is truly keeping an open mind to being right or wrong, realizing that being wrong does not mean you have failed but instead have learned something new which can be applied to later situations.

You Are Wrong. Congratulations!

Willingness to be wrong is something that I find most people have a very hard time doing, even when it is something as trivial as whether an upcoming movie is opening in one week or two. Both parties with differing opinions are likely to hold to their opinion in their subconscious even after a commercial comes on showing the pair what date is actually correct. They get quiet about the subject, unable to admit to the other person that they were wrong in the first place and any demonstrations of correctness from the correct party will bring those defensive emotions to the surface.

If this reaction can be seen in something as trivial as movie showtimes, then how are we to have people that see the Bible as an unwavering truth ever consider anything other than their dogmatic, close minded viewpoint? Surely part of the answer is the fight that we are currently engaged in.

On a daily basis we are battling those that want skepticism removed from the science classroom in favour of blind assertion and acceptance of scripture. Sadly, by this point the children in the classrooms have already been programmed by their parents, pastors and friends to dismiss the scientific theories that contradict church doctrine before they are even mentioned in the curriculum. “Were you there?” has become a familiar phrase heard in classrooms throughout America and as a Canadian, I am beginning to see the first signs of that mindset creeping into my country, polluting the malleable minds of our children.

A Chance to Avoid Repeating Our History

I want this to stop before it has the chance to take hold and I think that critical thinking skills need to be added to the curriculum of primary aged children continent-wide. Our children exist in a culture of pass-fail, where not being right is seen as a blot on their record, something to be ashamed of, rather than shown to them as an opportunity to better understand something. Pass-fail. Right-wrong. Good-evil. These are examples of  polar thinking. It is something that we battle against as an adult but seem determined to encase our children within.

I hate to say that it took me this long, but I am finally on board with the idea of revamping how we teach our kids and how we mark them. We need to encourage the questioning and original thought that we value as adults and stop trying to force our next generations into the boxes that we were forced into. The boxes that failed us. The boxes that still show the marks from when we were trying scratch our way out of them.

We need to accept that to truly want a better future for our children means that we must be sure not to try to mould our children into ourselves.

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