Nothing is but what is not

Certainty has always been an issue for me, I think… Okay, I’m not entirely sure about when I began to wonder about it, but it seems like a long time. My earliest recollection of this scepticism was in my lack of confidence that what I was being told was correct. After asking my mother ‘why’ innumerable times in order to question each of her infinitely regressive sorties into progressively unrelated contingent explanations, she would inevitably resort to a ‘Just because’, or ‘Because I say so’ and walk away as if certainty had been attained. To say that she had actually succeeded in her attempts to satisfy my curiosity and managed to insert a modicum of predictability into my life would be to assume that I was also taken in by the fairy stories I was read each night. To tell the truth, I didn’t know what to make of those either; I was very young and assumed at that time that perhaps magic was the certainty of adults. I’m not as confident about that now, though; I’m not convinced that anybody is sure about anything anymore.

Take Science, as an example. When, exactly, does certainty arrive in Science? The correct answer likely rests in how we envisage Scientific methodology. No doubt because it is difficult to find absolute certainty in empiricism, in 1620 Francis Bacon felt that the best way to steer inquiries between the Scylla and Charybdis of emphatic certainty and suspicious doubt was to venture along a path of increasing probability -what we now think of as the Scientific Method: observe, then come up with a hypothesis to explain the observations; then, experiment to test the hypothesis and see if the explanation still holds. Clever.

Of course, the problem of lack of certainty still remains. If you conclude that all crows are black because all of them in a huge counting investigation involving thousands -no, millions- of crows were black, and then someone finds a white one, well then… You take my point.

And then there’s the seemingly infallible aphorism that ‘absence of evidence is not evidence of absence’: just because you can’t prove something doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. Naturally, that brings me to the philosopher Bertrand Russell’s famous ‘Celestial Teapot’. If, he said, you doubted his assertion that there was a teapot orbiting between Earth and Mars that was too small to be seen with a telescope -ie not verifiable- you would be entitled to think him mad. Unless of course, he insisted that it had been verified in ancient sacred books, and was taught and believed by millions in another country where he was from -then he might be entitled to be outraged at your doubt. Of course he was poking fun at our insistence that God exists even though we can’t prove it -I won’t get into that, but at least it suggests that one person’s certainty may be another’s doubt.

And how about Occam’s Razor: ‘never postulate more assumptions than are necessary to explain something’. But, aren’t they are still assumptions until they themselves are proven…? And surely the more examples (proofs?) you bring, the more likely that the explanation is indeed the ‘correct’ one… Damn, I’m back to probabilities again on that one. You can see why I would never again be allowed into a Philosophy program, eh?

How about the role of certainty in everyday life, though? My friend Jerry once told me that certainty is true knowledge -we were having coffee at the time, and caffeine, if nothing else, makes him talkative. Authoritative… Certain.

I thought about that for a moment; it seemed reasonable at first. “But hold on Jerry, knowledge keeps changing as we learn more and more. It evolves… Are you saying that certainty evolves as well?”

“Why not, G? We’re only certain about it at the time, aren’t we?”

I had to nod, although something didn’t seem right about it… certain about it. “But if certainty changes, then was it ever really certain?”

“It’s as certain as the knowledge was, G.” Jerry has a way of always sounding certain too, I find. “You have to judge what‘s certain at the time you’re asking…” He closed his eyes so he could look around at the files in his head, and then suddenly smiled. “There are times, for example, when even a stopped clock is always certain.”

I rolled my eyes. “Don’t you just mean correct?”

He shrugged -somewhat arrogantly, I thought. “And isn’t certainty the knowledge that something is correct?”

I stared at my empty cup of coffee. “But surely certainty isn’t so evanescent, Jer. If it were, then it would be a meaningless concept except at the moment when it was true.”

A wry smile captured his lips. “Carpe diem, G. You avail yourself of knowledge when it applies, and reject it when it doesn’t, don’t you? Certainty is contingent as well; it only lasts as long as it lasts -otherwise it’s only yesterday’s news, read too late.”

Somehow that seemed wrong -or maybe just disappointing. I mean, part of the joy of finding certainty is that you no longer have to search for it. After all, it comes from the Latin word certus, meaning ‘settled’, or ‘sure’. But maybe things didn’t change as quickly in those days… I thought I’d try again.
“So then how can we ever know that something is certain if it changes all the time, Jerry?” My voice sounded whiney and almost pleading; I couldn’t help it. 

“I didn’t say it changed ‘all the time’, G,” he said, italicizing my words to show me I’d got it wrong again. “I actually said that something could be certain only ‘at’ the time. Now is where we live; we can’t know the future.” Then he shook his head gently and stared at me as if I was a slow student in one of his seminars at the university. He knew that infuriated me.

I tried to sigh quietly but he noticed, and a genuine, quite empathetic, smile surfaced on his face. “I also used to think there was something magical about certainty, you know, G. It was the Holy Grail in Philosophy, I supposed, but I soon discovered that it was more like a Holy Horizon that receded as quickly as I approached it…”

“And are you content with that, Jer?” I asked, wondering if I could ever accept the idea.

He shrugged and then chuckled, but more to himself, than at my question. “Content? No. But after all these years, it’s one of the few things about which I can be reasonably certain…”

Figures, eh…?


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