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The Quest for, and the Illusion of, Certainty

In his 2004 book The Science of Good and Evil, and subtitled "Why people cheat, gossip, care, share, and follow the Golden Rule," Michael Shermer stresses the importance of what he calls "provisional truth." Thatís the assumption in scientific conclusions that subsequent discoveries might render a conclusion wrong. Evolution, for example, is the best explanation we have of how life came to be as we perceive it, up to now. Most scientists agree that while itís pretty darned close to established fact, the possibility always exists that someone will come along with a more convincing alternative. Thatís provisional truth.

Humans have what seems to be a built-in tendency to seek patterns, to look for generalizations that explain their experiences, and to express these generalizations in dichotomous terms. For example, "He is either guilty or not guilty." Our legal system, growing as it did from ecclesiastical doctrine, reinforces this absolutist way of thinking.

Shermer says that nature isnít organized that way. Nothing is purely black and white; all variations are shades of gray. Our need for organization produces categories, groups of like-appearing things or events, even though many distinctions turn out to be more or less arbitrary. Otherwise, the world would be even more confusing than it is. We owe our present system of categories to the ancient philosophers such as Aristotle, who insisted that everything can be distinguished as "either A or not-A." They enabled us to develop systems of counting and measuringóthe stuff of science.

The lack of certainty about the state of things makes us nervous. We continually look for guideposts to point to the direction we ought to go. Biblical scripture does this for us, provided we know where to look and how to interpret what we find. "Faith" is our willingness to accept the advice of scripture when we donít have experiential knowledge about something. Other people depend upon their horoscope found in a newspaper. Some use advice columns. There are many sources of information.

Iíve not personally tested the predictive power of a daisy using the "she loves me, she loves me not," routine, but Iíve wondered, in the past, whether I could depend upon a simple criterion like that for committing myself to a relationship. Usually, Iíve believed her if she said, "I love you." And sometimes it didnít turn out to be quite so simple. When the shoe has been on the other foot, so to speak, I didnít always have much confidence in my own ability to speak those words truthfully. Because the "truth" didnít seem so clear to me, at least at that moment.

People, being products of nature, often find themselves unable to decide between two courses of action simply because the factors involved are complex or indefinite. Sometimes itís easier to take our chances on chanceówe flip a coin and accept what we consider an impartial outcome. Statistically, a large number of coin tosses will produce an equal number of heads and tails. Finding that the previous ninety-nine tosses ended in all heads, we may guess either that the particular coin "likes" heads and bet that the next one will also be heads, or that the "law of averages" will correct the string of heads by coming up with a tails. What the statisticians insist is that the probability of each toss is independent, and each one has a fifty-fifty chance of coming up heads or tails. Either-or, as Aristotle said. The daisy-petal method is only uncertain if we donít count the number of petals on the blossom beforehand. (Do you know how many petals a daisy has?)

Michael Shermerís book is about moralityóthe distinction between good and badóand he says that humans have a "moral sense" that urges us in the direction of good, but which is seldom specific enough to guide us in our everyday lives, especially in our relationships with other people. We depend upon the opinions of others, or upon rules of various kinds. Probably the oldest guideline in human history is the Golden Rule, which has appeared in nearly every culture that we know of. Religion codified the rules, carving them into the stone of tenacious institutions.

Other impulses, often as strong or stronger, may conflict with that moral sense. Our culture helps us sometimes, giving us the benefit of the experiences of others over extended periods of time. Since the invention of written language, this cultural reach has increased enormously.

The problem with ancient texts is the difficulty in interpreting and deriving principles that can be used for current situations. Modern systems of information transmission provide us with so many interpretations that we sometimes are left as confused as we would be with no help at all. Our quest for certainty becomes mired in obfuscation.

"Provisional truth," frustrating as it might seem at times, is compatible with the methods of scientific inquiry. What Shermer says is that true knowledge is based upon the world as we encounter it and try to make sense of it, and that knowledge is cumulativeó"We stand on the shoulders of giants" as someone put it. Our culture grows in wisdom, and while we may contribute to that wisdom, none of us has the last word. Certainty is an illusion. We may act upon what we learn from the past and discover in the present, but we need to be prepared for the next discovery, and the next after that.

The facts of reality are independent of us and our felt needs. Even if the path to Truth is murky, an open mind is our best hope for finding it.

August 25, 2006

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