The 100% Solution: On Uncertainty, And Why It Doesn’t Matter So Much

There’s a good piece over at Daylight Atheism, and I wanted to call it out and blog about it a little. It’s called The Curiously Postmodern Modern Apologists, and it’s about… well, the curiously post-modern twist that many modern apologetics for religion have been taking.

The gist of these apologetics: Nobody knows anything for 100% certain. Atheists and believers, scientists and philosophers: nobody can be 100% certain that the things they believe are true. Whether secular or religious, we all have some version of faith.

Therefore, religious faith is as valid as any secular kind. Believing in God, in angels, in reincarnation, in 72 virgins awaiting us when we die, in Jesus dying to save our souls, is every bit as valid as believing that the earth goes around the sun.

Let’s take a look at this thought process, and see if we can spot the logical flaw.

The thought process goes like this:

One: You can never be 100% certain that you’re right about anything.

Two: Therefore, all ideas are equally likely to be true, and equally valid.

(Three: Therefore, my idea is right. But I think it’s pretty obvious why that one’s wrong, so I’m not going to bother shooting that particularly slow fish in that particularly small barrel.)

Okay. First of all, Two does not follow from One. Yes, it’s true, we can never be 100% sure of anything (except perhaps our own existence). The history of knowledge is full of mis-steps and false assumptions… and besides, everything we see and experience could all be an illusion. We could all be in the Matrix, or something.

But the fact that we can’t be 100% sure of any idea doesn’t mean that all ideas are equally likely or unlikely.

The fact that we can’t have 100% certainty doesn’t mean that we can’t assess which ideas are more or less likely. We can’t know for 100% certain that the earth orbits the sun — it could all be some horrible Satanic deception, or space aliens playing a practical joke — but we can be pretty darned sure that it’s very likely indeed. And we can’t be 100% sure that Bertrand Russell’s china teapot isn’t orbiting the sun — maybe it’s too small to be seen by our telescopes, or maybe it’s an intelligent teapot and is playing a cheeky game of hide and seek — but we can be pretty darned sure that it almost certainly isn’t.

And of course our beliefs are influenced by our preconceptions and assumptions, biases we can never completely filter out. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. That’s the whole point of the scientific method. Everything about it — control groups, double-blinding, placebo controls, peer review, transparent methodology, the expectation of replicability, all of it — is an open acknowledgment that scientists are just as prone to seeing what they want and expect to see as everyone else. It’s an open acknowledgment that scientists are fallible… and that they therefore need to try to screen out fallacy, as much as they can. These techniques don’t eliminate uncertainty — but they reduce it, and by a fair amount. They give us a significantly better chance that our theories might be right. They can’t give us absolute truth, but they can give us a pretty good approximation of the truth… an approximation that gets better and better over time.

That’s why I’m always astonished by religious believers who accuse scientists of being arrogant… when it’s the scientists who are saying, “Yes, we can make mistakes; no, we’re never 100% sure that we’re right,” and the believers who are saying, “I know in my heart that I’m right, and my faith is all the evidence I need.”

And yes, for the record, I do think religious belief, while not 100% disprovable, is highly implausible. I’ve discussed why I think that elsewhere — here, and here and here and here, and here, and here, and here, and here and here, and here — and I’m not going to do it again here. Besides, I digress.

The point is this:

No, none of us can ever be 100% certain that anything we know is really true.

So what?

Does that mean we should give up on trying to understand the world? Does that mean we should give up on trying to separate the implausible from the plausible, the likely from the unlikely?

No, we can’t be 100% sure of anything. But we can be sure enough. We can be sure enough to make reasonable assumptions, and to make further explorations and investigations based on those assumptions. And if it turns out that one of our assumptions is wrong after all… well, okay. We’ll change it, and move on from there. Yes, it’s important to understand that we can’t have total certainty… but it’s also important to accept that fact, and move on.

Wanting certainty is understandable. We all want it, and try to create it, and feel betrayed when we don’t get it. But I think it’s something of a childish desire. Grown-ups are supposed to understand that there are no guarantees in this world. We’re supposed to understand this, we’re supposed to accept it, and we’re supposed to work within the world we have: the world of likelihood and probability and reasonable educated guesses.

To do otherwise — to assume that, because we can never be absolutely certain about the world, therefore we shouldn’t even try to understand it — is like a child crying for the moon. It’s like never falling in love because you might get your heart broken. It’s like a stoned college freshman being backed into a corner in an argument, and trying to get out of it by saying, “What is reality?”

It’s an abdication of responsibility.

And grown-ups aren’t supposed to do that.

The 100% Solution: On Uncertainty, And Why It Doesn’t Matter So Much
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13 thoughts on “The 100% Solution: On Uncertainty, And Why It Doesn’t Matter So Much

  1. 1

    I suspect that religion continues to be pervasive because it does guarantee certainty. At first glance, one may think that a certain world would be a more attractive one in which to live. That’s not true, however, because the only way certainty can exist is if all conditions are static, never changing, never growing. Change and growth are the factors that introduce uncertainty into the world and they are also the factors that make life worth living.

  2. 2

    The classic take on this of course is Asimov’s “The Relativity of Wrong”. As he so eloquently puts it:
    My answer to him was, “John, when people thought the earth was flat, they were wrong. When people thought the earth was spherical, they were wrong. But if you think that thinking the earth is spherical is just as wrong as thinking the earth is flat, then your view is wronger than both of them put together.

  3. 4

    Another excellent example from Asimov’s essay was along the lines of:
    John and Jill are asked by their teacher to spell the word “sugar”. Jill spells “shugger”. John spells “qwzdresx”. They are both wrong, but surely Jill is less wrong than John?
    A postmodernist response to that would be either strongly negative or entirely meaningless.

  4. 5

    My ears are burning. 🙂
    Even if we disregard everything you said about the self-correcting nature of science, Greta – and I certainly wouldn’t, it’s an important truth well put – but even if we did, that still wouldn’t help the religious believers. In fact, it’d leave them far worse off than before.
    I say this because, as we all know, there’s a vast number of incompatible religions and belief systems out there. If there’s no way to decide between them, no evidence or test that can settle the question, then all that’s left is to close your eyes and take a blind leap, and hope against hope that out of the millions of false religions out there, you’ll somehow land on the one true one and escape condemnation. It shouldn’t need pointing out what a desperate and vain hope that would be.
    That’s why religious believers, far from disdaining science, should welcome it. It’s the only thing that might ever tell us what the real truth is, including the truth about their doctrines. That so many of them choose to deny its power, I think, says a lot about their confidence in their own beliefs.

  5. 6

    The number of things that “COULD be true” is infinite. This is the thing that pushed me from an agnostic to an atheist. At one time I thought, well, maybe there is a god, there could be one. I thought about gods, vampires, fairies, werewolves, and all of the other supernatural creatures I could believe in if I so choose. And it seems to me there is about equal evidence for any one of them. It’s inconsistent to say, “I don’t believe in ghosts, fairies, etc… they are not real. But god. . . this ONE type of supernatural creature . . . well, yeah this one is REAL.” There is just as much “evidence” for the existence of vampires as there is for the existence of gods. So, in order to be consistent, and NOT be a hypocrite – if I accept the possibility of god(s) then I must also accept the possibility of all those other creatures – ghosts, leprechauns, etc. And I just wasn’t willing to go there.

  6. 7

    One of the things I like about math is that it, uniquely, has truths that we can be 100% certain about. Even if it turns out we’re living in the Matrix, there are still infinitely many prime numbers!

  7. 8

    Thanks for a(nother) good post.
    Whenever I encounter someone who clings to the fact that we cannot actually prove or disprove anything (except in maths and logic) as a crutch to their faith, whether it be in invisible friends or that the world doesn’t actually exist outside their own minds, I happily concede this point and tell them I came to the same conclusion in my early teens. Then – just like I did in my early teens – I move on to question the utility of this claim. What is the point to saying we can’t be sure we even exist? Does it aid our understanding of the world? Does it help us make our lives better? My opinion is that it most definitely does not. The assumption of science, however – that of methodological naturalism – does. Science can only work from the assumption that there actually is a world that is possible to investigate with our puny human brains. And so far, well, it’s worked pretty damn well!

  8. 9

    As always, well said. Can I be 100% certain about anything? No. But not being 100% certain that jumping off a building will hurt doesn’t mean I want to do it.
    A person professing an unwillingness to change their position on less than complete certainty is cordially invited to position themselves on the motorway and decide if an oncoming lorry is justification enough.

  9. 10

    I’ve been a statistician for a couple of decades now (now I feel old).
    I think it definitely affects my feelings about uncertainty.
    I like being able to figure out that “extraordinary” coincidences are rarely very extraordinary at all. I like being able to debunk stories in the media – it gives me more of a sense of control of my own life; I can spend my angst on problems that matter, rather than non-problems.
    I like the fact that you can learn things in spite of uncertainty, by dealing with randomness properly.
    Statistical/probabilistic thinking doesn’t remove uncertainty, but it lets you think about it, measure it and deal with it, instead of shrugging your shoulders or running screaming for someone to take away all the big bad randomness.
    I’m kind of surprised that there are statisticians that can believe in any kind of interventionist God – they’re strongly opposed ways of trying to understand the world (one of which kind of works when you do it right, and one of which only works if you fool yourself). But they’re there all the same. It’s weird. I guess it’s the same doublethink we see everywhere. On the other hand, it seems like there are also a lot of skeptics, atheists and agnostics – and deists, I suppose – among statisticians, so maybe some of it does go in somehow.

  10. 12

    Define God! If your God is some ancient Person living beyond the Universe, I don’t know if there is such a person. It has never contacted me. Usually such a person is described as having a wide array of super powers including super benificents. All the suffering I see and experience in this world proves no such a person exists. There are other definitions of God that are interesting, I like the end product of Universal evolution, but I have no way of knowing that such a definition is correct. In all of this I donot claim a 100% knowledge so it seems your thesis has a problem.

  11. 13

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