Are You Sure You’re Sure?

January 12, 2011 at 12:47 am 11 comments

Ask any former fundamentalist Christian what was the hardest thing about giving up the faith, and many of them are likely to tell you that at least part of it was the loss of certainty: a fundamentalist knows, not believes, but knows, beyond all possibility of doubt or error, what the Truth is.  Those who have never been tempted by fundamentalism are often mystified by this aspect of it, for nowhere else in human experience is this degree of certainty thought possible or even necessary.  For them, this way of thinking is probably so alien as to be unable to be taken seriously as an option.  We can all be wrong, about anything.  Everybody knows that.

 But not everybody.  Certainty is near to the heart of most if not all fundamentalisms, and it’s intuitive appeal is not hard to see.  To know for sure what is true about the world and where it is headed, and moreover, where oneself is headed, to know for sure one’s purpose in life, and to know with perfect knowledge that one is loved and adored and will be protected in perfect bliss forever – all this needs no apologist to make it appealing. 

For those of us who leave fundamentalism, learning to deal with doubt and uncertainty – which suddenly and in a most unwelcome way take up permanent residence in our psyches – can be wrenching indeed.  It is a much harder way to live.  Why is it harder?  Well, for one, it is not exactly galvanizing to raise up ones fist with a crusader’s fervency and chant: “We’re Not Sure!”  But there is an even better answer, I think.  Certainty is, I suggest, at the center of the fundamentalist psyche because it serves to ward off the primal dread, helplessness – the gut sense of human limitation and vulnerability that is our biological heritage as physically weak and therefore interdependent social primates. This anxiety, basic to life, is both ordinary and terrifying. We are frail creatures, really.  Each of us knows this.  What better way to prop up our flagging courage than telling ourselves extraordinary stories of Specialness and Rescue?  And what good are the stories if they are mere stories, or, just as bad, if they are merely probable?  When one is alone in the dark, the prospect of probable rescue doesn’t steel the nerve much.  Only certainty can do that.

 So how does one learn live with uncertainty about life?  How do we make our peace with our vast limitations, individually and collectively, in what we can know, predict, accomplish, or ward off?  How do we accept the horrifying and everpresent possibility of being wrong, even and especially about things that are important – our ethics, our meanings, our ultimate fate?  These are the questions I want to explore here.

 I have my own proposal for why certainty exists in fundamentalism.  It has to do with the basic psychology that I think drives the fundamentalist psyche.  This model is my own construction, though it is drawn together from various other (perhaps more reputable…) psychological sources.  From what I can tell, no one really knows why such rigid and weird certainty is claimed by so many adherents of so many different religious fundamentalisms.

 Its not epistemological, that much is clear.  Certainty exists very infrequently within most accounts of knowledge.  Generally speaking, it occurs only within what is formally known as deductive logic, the kind of logical reasoning wherein the conclusion is in a sense “contained” within the premises.  For instance, consider the classic syllogism: “Socrates is a man, all men are mortal, therefore Socrates is mortal.”  If the first two statements are true, you know that the third, the conclusion, must be true.  It is certain because it is essentially just a rearrangement of the premises.

 The overwhelming majority of everyday and scientific reasoning is not like that.  Most of the time we employ what is known as inductive reasoning, where the conclusion is supported by the premises, but not guaranteed by it. “The early bird usually gets the worm, here is an early bird, therefore he is likely to be well-fed” would be a (somewhat silly) example. The conclusions follows, but only probabilistically – not certainly – from the premises. Perhaps there have been no worms available recently.                                             

 Again, it is important to emphasize that virtually all scientific and historical theories overwhelmingly use inductive reasoning.  Few scientific theories could ever be properly said to be certain, no matter how much evidence accrues in their support. Not even Newton’s Laws are certain – any honest scientist will tell you they are open to empirical revision if such data comes in. 

 Moreover, certainty has been claimed by many religious and ideological adherents, as well as every conspiracy theorist on the planet.  Logically, they can’t all be right.  Logically, in fact, it must be the case that the majority of people who claim perfect certainty in their conclusions, are in fact wrong, and their feeling of being certain must be just that – a feeling.  A feeling, that does not feel like a feeling; that feels, rather, like an accurate assessment of the world.

 So, it is not epistemological, it is a psychological.  Believers have something going on inside their emotional and psychic lives that makes them feel so strikingly sure.  But whatever it is, its not rational.  In the next installment of this three part series, I’ll look at some possible explanations for this psychological curiosity.


Entry filed under: Richard.

Peace or the Sword? On Certainty, part II: Behind Good and Evil

11 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Certainty by choice « Inner Circle Culture  |  January 14, 2011 at 11:49 am

    […] Are You Sure You’re Sure? ( […]

  • 2. Eve's Apple  |  January 16, 2011 at 4:56 pm

    I just wonder what Dr. Martin Luther King would have to say to this. After all, he was pretty certain that it was wrong to discriminate against others based on the color of their skin. Come to think of it, he was a minister. Read any of his speeches. It’s obvious that he was inspired to act by his religious views.

    In the very first episode of the BBC series “Lark Rise to Candleford”, young Laura is protesting the fact that she is being asked to partake in an act she feels is unjust. Her aunt tells her that these things are nuanced, that she is just a child, and when she grows up she will understand them better. Laura says, “I do not think I want to understand.”

    I am very deeply concerned that by blurring the lines here and there and condemning so-called “black and white” thinking that we may be opening the doors to all kinds of cruelty and injustice (dare I say evil?) or at the very least robbing ourselves of the very tools needed to identify and fight them.

    I am sure that there were plenty who said to Dr. King that racial discrimination was not a simple issue, that there were all kinds of shades of gray, and wouldn’t it be better perhaps to pursue a different course, one that–ahem–might not be so cut-and-dried in its thinking? I for one am glad that Dr. King did not listen to them.

    Just a thought here from the sidelines . . .

  • 3. Richard  |  January 17, 2011 at 1:30 am

    Eve- I appreciate your concerns and your thoughtful remarks.

    In response I would want, first, to draw a distinction between black and white thinking, and unwarranted certainty. They often do track together, but are not identical. And so, the point of my article is that certainty is rarely if ever warranted by evidential reasoning. And in a common sense way, I think its not hard to see why. Its hard to imagine a context, even regarding a topic such as racism, where feeling that one has all the answers — the Fixed and Final answers — and thus has nothing to learn from anyone or anything, would be virtuous. But that is, after all, precisely what certainty amounts to.

    And although you may be right that there are some cases in life in which black and white thinking is appropraite, I think they are few and far between, and in fact, racism I dont think would be one of them. The issue of racism doesnt just amount to, is it good or is it bad, but rather, specific issues like: is racial profiling justified? What if it could be shown that racial profiling would improve, in a small but measurable way, airline safety? When would concerns about public safety trump concerns about discrimination, if ever? Is affirmative action justified? In what form? For how long? Under what circumstances? Does it really work? And what do we mean by “work?”

    I dont believe any of these issues admit to simple black and white answers. Life is almost always more complex than our thinking about it, and there is always more to learn and understand. And so I guess in the end my reply to your very insightful critique is that Im not sure there are very many instances in which the tools needed to fight cruelty and injustice, as you mentioned, will ever turn out to be dogmatic absolutism. I think those tools turn out to be: the better argument. But arguments can only help where there is room for persuasion and the changing of minds — which is precisely what is not possibly with false certainty. You cannot argue with someone who is certain.

    I think you are veering towards the erroneous conclusion that if one is not a moral absolutist then one can have no moral bearings at all, and I just dont think thats true.

  • 4. Richard Conner  |  January 17, 2011 at 6:15 pm

    First let me say I think your article is a fine and thoughtful one. When we continue to ask questions,as you did about profiling, racism, affirmative actions,etc.we can come closer to possible answers and make better decisions. To those who have “already arrived” and satisfied with their conclusions will probably not even listen to reason or want to ask questions. Religiously, I have gone from a conservative christian to Atheism, to what is more in line with Deistic thought. I now feel more comfortable with what I think I know of “Deism.” It provides me with questions. Politically, I lean to the left, but will listen to rational discussion that may go counter to my opinions. I feel life is all about learning. Again, “cirtainty” is not my goal.

  • 5. Richard Conner  |  January 17, 2011 at 6:34 pm

    Sorry, I forgot to commnent on your final comment about morals. I do believe in morals as defined by ME through what knowledge I have to determine what I feel is right or wrong for me. I also abide by the moral laws which may go counter to mine. For instance, when my wife and I were traveling through Texas near the Arkansas line, we decided to stay over night in a Texas county that did not sell liquor of any kind. I enjoy a nip or two, and feel it is not wrong for me, but did abide by their law. I also believe that an Atheist can be ever as much a moralist as I…or as any fundamentalist Christian. Any society who wants to exist for very long must arrive at some means to be protective of its citizens.

  • 6. Eve's Apple  |  January 22, 2011 at 5:31 pm

    Richard–I certainly appreciate your comments. No, I certainly do not believe that morality is the monopoly of any one viewpoint.
    However, while you and I can talk about nuances and questions, and arrive at a mutual understanding, there are people out there who take advantage of that to take advantage of their fellow humans. I think this is why many people like myself are a bit leery when we hear this kind of talk. Perhaps our fears haven’t been addressed as well as they should.

    I will give you a personal example. When I was in early elementary school, I was diagnosed with an undefined “perceptual disorder.” It was explained to me that I did not see things the way others saw them. Well, that may have been true, but the effect that this label had was to silence and dismiss my validity as a person. It seriously undermined my self-confidence and took away any ability to stand up or confront bullies. Worse yet, the people who labeled me thus did not take into account that not every person in authority, whether parent, teacher, doctor, minister or whoever, always has my best interests in mind. It left me wide open to manipulation because if I could not trust myself–if my perceptions were wrong–then who could I trust? All it took was someone denying that they had done something, and I was undone. I had no tools with which to fight.

    I have noticed that throughout history, it is precisely people like Dr. King who were certain that they were right that ended up having the most impact. Yes, there are a lot of questions that need to be asked regarding race; but there was a time that those questions would have never come up (at least among whites). Likewise, the abolitionists were accused of not understanding the full situation in the South, of not caring about what happened to the slaves once they had been freed, and so forth. And those are valid accusations. But if they had sat down and allowed themselves to be sidetracked by all these considerations, perhaps it would have taken far longer for slavery to be abolished. I could name many other examples.

    So I think we need to be very careful that we are not inadvertently giving aid and comfort to those who prey on the weak. That we don’t provide smokescreens for unscrupulous people to hide behind. It is a lot easier, for example, to say to a bully “What you are doing is wrong. Stop it!” when we have a clear idea of what that wrong is. Otherwise we give the bully an out–and believe me, that’s what they love. That is why bullying remains a problem.

  • 7. Richard  |  January 27, 2011 at 12:24 pm

    Eve – what happened to you sounds horrible, and Im very sorry that it did. I can see, from your description, why you felt defenseless when others pigeonholed you into this category, leaving you undermined and assumed to be wrong no matter what happened. Youre right: there are times we need to stop debating and start acting, despite any emotional doubts.

    At the same time, it seems to me that those in authority around you were guilty of false certainty and lack of nuance. Even if you did have a “perceptual disorder”, it does not follow from that, obviously, that everything you did or felt or thought could be wrong or dismissed. They were wrong to be so sure you were wrong, to treat the issue as black and white.

    So sometimes the world is simple, and sometimes it is complex, and it can be hard to know when is when. I suppose it takes all kinds. But there does seem to be some need, it seems to me, to draw some distinction between “good”, moral certainty, and false or immoral certainty. For every MLK, theres a dictator somewhere, equally certain, much more destructive. I suppose I tend to se that as a bigger problem, though I certainly (!) understand and appreciate where youre coming from.

  • 8. evangelically incorrect  |  February 8, 2011 at 1:43 am

    Certainty…. that’s the need.

    And what more does one need certainty about than the origin, meaning, purpose, and destiny of life… particularly MY life??

    I have sought for that certainty most of my life, and it is once again eluding me.

  • 9. Mikem  |  September 17, 2011 at 1:50 am

    If there is no certainty then all efforts toward understanding or existence are simply equal efforts by larger and smarter cellular forms toward their own survival and continuance beyond the certainty of death. Death is one thing that is certain and once our eyes close for the last time everyone will know if there was a certainty beyond life.

    I watched Bill Maher tonight briefly and a person with such anger toward anything conservative proves another thing that is certain. Hatred is not tied to a particular belief system but is deeper and more primal. Unless this primal disregard is changable then we truly are without certainty and our future one continual ugly mess.

    And that raises even more interesting quiestions.

  • 10. Alban  |  May 23, 2014 at 5:01 pm

    Certainty is controversial, no doubt, on it’s surface quite subjective. Our brains are a filter of analysis. They are influenced to huge degree by extraneous thought. And there are not many original thoughts that pop up on a regular basis. So certainty, relatively speaking, would consist of a selected grouping of observation, historical facts based on others’ observation and results, and bias.

    Concerning aspiration of divine connection or assertion of the impossibility of that connection or even the existence of God, from everything we have classically observed and hypothesized (in some instances boldly declaring”fact”) there is only certainty beginning in life, and ending in death.

    So to gain a possible ‘alternative’ hypothesis that may result in discovery of long forgotten facts and perhaps a certainty that is based in unbiased observation, consider pure perception. Feeling is the greatest of all our senses. If the other 4 senses are not outwardly available, feeling, which is internal and external, just like the other 4 (one of the forgotten facts) if still alive, is the greatest perceiver. (and receiver for that matter).

    Classically tied to emotion, many in religious circles are warned against relying on feeling because those warning, are not aware of the internal feeling that is not united with emotion! (emotion with this feeling can be alongside, but is not intrinsic in it.)

    An example of this internal feeling is the spontaneous witnessing of a sunrise or sunset. Why spontaneous? No EXPECTATION from previous experience. FRESH, brand new in view and in acceptance, a seeming phenomenon takes place. For an instant a small amount of time we witness something beautiful WITHOUT conceptualizing it, naming it or describing it. Most significantly to this conversation, we feel it. For simplicity’s sake let’s say “it feels beautiful”.

    The feeling is not emotional! It is lovely for sure, maybe profound on some level and you may wonder why it touched you that way, BUT NOT IN THAT MOMENT. For in that one moment the feeling was pure. No thought process, no agenda of yours tainted that moment.

    Most of us have that kind of moment or other moments in other settings, but the most obvious place to feel purely or to feel pure beauty IS WHERE the feeling comes from! Imagine and that is all that is possible for many now, that you were able to have those moments INSIDE within yourself. Nothing and no one else entering the domain of THAT feeling but you.

    Then consider the prospect of your other senses being able to enter as well, purely without any baggage or thinking. The last thought would be directing your awareness-your focus to that ‘point or ‘doorway’ for lack of accurate wording. AFTERWARDS thought will do what thought does, think, analyze, label describe etc.

    Many have come for as long as we have forgotten these facts are a designed feature of the human body, to remind us of this missing piece, or is it peace and is that piece related to the sustenance of life?

    If you were hungry and I described the most delicious food, would the description satisfy? Would believing the food was there curb an appetite? No, and for some, it has-respectively.

    To which group would the certainty be an unbiased fact? Is it more satisfying to enjoy a beautiful sunrise or talk about other people who have, or just dismiss the phenomenon as woo?

    For those dismissive, there are other aspects of this to consume, theology, philosophy and psychology for instance, to discuss why anyone should want to discover their already existing greatest treasure. Could be a flaw or an asset. To some those discussions are inspiring, but not for those who are genuinely hungry and who want certainty.

    Am I sure I’m sure? About as sure as sure can be! I am also sure people will find that hunger in their own time. For me it’s been fun to see the sparks of interest catch as the reminder of a certain incredible celebration begins to light up all people.

  • 11. Alban  |  October 5, 2014 at 5:48 am

    rightafterthen, did you like the subsequent posts?

    I personally enjoy the passion and the insight contributed on this entire website. Glad your brother found this and and recommended you to it.

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