Certainty fucks me off

I had a conversation last night, in a pub (drunk) that about where we each ‘come from’.

It was good-natured banter, but I’ve realised this morning what it was that got my goat. Certainty really fucks me off.

The gist of this banter was that I look a bit non-English, whatever that means, and this friendly guy was trying to guess where I was from (which is fine), and what pissed me off was the certainty that I was or wasn’t something. How can we know? How can we absolutely belong or come from somewhere? (This guy thought he was ‘English’, which when pressed he considered himself to be ‘Anglo-Saxon’, which is pretty funny).

Anyway, that’s not the real nub of it for me. This isn’t about nationality – it’s about certainty.

The last conversation I had that agitated this same sense for me was about humans as rational beings.

In this conversation a mate of mine was staunchly advocating the idea of humans as being frequently rational – making rational decisions, thinking sensibly, thoroughly, rigorously.

I think that’s bollocks πŸ™‚ Personally I believe that even when we’re making ‘rational decisions’ or ‘being rational’, that we’re not at all. Utter guff! But this friend was utterly convinced of the certainty that we are often rational.

I just don’t get certainty. I can’t seem to tolerate it. It doesn’t fit with what I see and have experienced in my limited quaint little life.

What also excites this intolerance in me is the religion of Science, and those espousing a kind of fundamentalist atheism, both of which seem to be all the rage in my world of otherwise likeminded left-leaning liberal folk.

I really appreciate and admire the work of science and its huge contributions to the world we live in. That’s all good. And I agree that lots of religious stuff is silly, oppresses millions of people, is the banner and excuse for war and unnecessary pain, and mostly doesn’t make any sense. But there’s a kind of certainty – sometimes – that I can’t bear.

Won’t there always be things that elude or surprise us? Can’t we only really know stuff and account for it once it’s happened (Black Swan kinda thing)? Doesn’t history tell us that we have a track record of convincing ourself of stuff and then later finding out that we were, in fact, completely wrong? Isn’t the world always going to be partly unknowable?

For me, certainty is the preserve of haughty pompous fools and can fuck right off πŸ™‚

3 comments

  1. udo

    Right on, well put! It’s unbelievable how unscientific science often is. Just another religion to avoid not knowing – which is scary stuff, apparently!

    My aspiration in life is to cultivate this constant sense of wonder…”is that so?” And as Socrates is quoted… “I know that I know nothing”.

  2. ade

    On the contrary, science isn’t something you should believe in, but it’s something you can trust – it’s a method, a process for reaching a higher level of certainty than gut feel. It’s a tool that can be used well or badly, as any tool can.

    The one thing science shouldn’t ever do though is to deal in absolutes – results from practical experiments are expressed as percentage certainties, or degrees of probability. With some tests (“If I drop this weight in a vacuum will it land at the same time as a feather?”) that level of probability is so infinitesimally high that it’s indistinguishable from 100% certain. Life could get pretty tiresome if every assumption of certainty was pedantically expressed as a probability, so we naturally take conversational shortcuts.

    Addressing your mate’s assertions, there are numerous scientific experiments that that show, quite accurately, how non-rational the average human being can be. I recommend Prof. Richard Wiseman’s “59 seconds” for some examples of these. In your shoes in that conversation I would have challenged his bold certainty with some of the huge number of examples seen in daily headlines – for example the Republican-supporting populace of the US regularly voting for policies that actively empoverish them, because they’re “values voters”.

    As for “fundamental atheism”, I know what you mean despite being 99.9999% confident (see what I did there?) in my atheism. It’s why I’m identify myself as a card-carrying Humanist – it suggests a tolerance of people’s right to hold their own viewpoint, yet a desire to ensure that a person’s religion is their own private domain (like their sexual choice or choice of media consumption). I don’t wish for my children’s education to be combined with proselytising of a religion. Teach them to be curious and respectful of the many viewpoints and cultures that exist, just don’t teach them that your invisible friend is an immutable fact.

  3. will mcinnes

    Ade, I love the response. Thanks for the thoughts.

    The point you make that doesn’t quite match with what I see in the world is that science shouldn’t ‘deal in absolutes’. That’s exactly what upsets me – the absolutism and certainty in how Science with a capital S expresses itself.

    So certain, so sure. It reminds my of the poem Ozymandias, in fact πŸ™‚
    http://www.online-literature.com/shelley_percy/672/

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s