In this week’s spotlight, I’d like to address the nature of certainty. Stanislaus is credited with saying, “To believe with certainty we must begin by doubting.” “Doubt everything,” admonished Buddha.
The Course In Miracles begins by imploring you to doubt even the floor upon which you stand, the walls of your home that protect you from the fury of nature—doubt even the suggestion that nature itself exists. Indeed, the exercises in the Course are designed to convince you that everything is an illusion, including the idea that you are somehow a separate being—for separation is itself the grandest illusion of all.
Think about the value of doubt and contrast it with the notion of certainty. What is certainty after all? Can we ever be truly certain of anything? Bertrand Russel had this to say about certainty, “The demand for certainty is one which is natural to man, but is nevertheless an intellectual vice.” What did he possibly mean by that—certainty as a vice?
Oliver Wendall Holmes viewed certainty this way, “The longing for certainty… is in every human mind. But certainty is generally illusion.” Certainty—as a vice and/or an illusion?
We all want to feel certain about many things. We’re certain the world is round. We’re certain that the earth is much older than 7000 years. We’re certain that in 1969 the United States put men on the moon. Or are we really? Think about all of those folks who doubt what most of us would hold as absolute certainties. But then, do we need universal consensus in order to be certain of anything?
Certainty from Doubt
René Descartes argued in his syllogistic proof for being that because of doubt, he could assert that he existed. “I doubt—therefore I am.” Descartes is often heralded as the father of modern philosophy and perhaps rightly so because of his break from the traditional Scholastic-Aristotelian philosophy prevalent at his time, and to his development and promotion of the new, mechanistic sciences.
How important is certainty to you? Are you certain that you are not but a character in the dream of some greater being? Are you certain that you’re more than some artificial life existing in a computer game or simulation? What can you say with a certainty that you are absolutely certain of?
And yet, with all the potential uncertainty, we somehow know with great certainty many things. We know for example that there is no such thing as a number to which we can’t add one—and we know this without knowing how we know. Indeed, the old clean slate theory that can be traced back to Aristotle cannot be totally correct if we know things that we have never been taught.
For me, certainty is a moving target. As Russel put it, “To teach how to live without certainty, and yet without being paralyzed by hesitation, is perhaps the chief thing that philosophy in our age can do for those who study it.” Remember this the next time you decide to argue with absolute certainty about anything. It seems to me that certainty is certainly a good way to fool ourselves into ignorance.
Those are my thoughts, what are yours?
Thanks for the read,