On certainty and uncertainty

Where has all the certainty gone? We never had more than a bit; but now the Covid monster has gobbled up much of what we had.

The lockdowns have knocked us off kilter. Our economic life has lost its bearings and we face challenges not only for today but ranging into long term alteration whose dimensions we can only imagine. As a restaurant owner said on TV, “It’s just been chaos, absolute chaos.”

Anxiety, the mortal enemy of certainty, is invading the field of mental health with fear of infection and displacement of careers. The stress of it all is even beckoning some people towards a tragic escape into the certainty of death. Neuroscientists have defined the essence of stress as the state of uncertainty; it provides high-octane fuel for worry.

Where do we find certainty in an uncertain world? The question brings to mind the role that certainty and its opposite play in the great drama of life. They’re type cast actors aiding us in our perceptions of good and ill like a lighthouse guiding ships in the night.

Moments of certainty exist sometimes for everyone, but possibly the most famous example is the case of Archimedes and his bathtub.

Hiero, the tyrant of Syracuse, used to recruit him for particularly difficult tasks, as he was reputed to be the wisest man in the realm. In gratitude for a pivotal victory in battle heralding his rule, Hiero commissioned the court goldsmith to create a gold votive offering to the gods, shaped as a laurel wreath.

The goldsmith presented Hiero with a magnificent one, but as soon as he did rumours began to fly around. Was it really pure gold or was silver added to reduce the cost? To settle the issue, Archimedes was called in.

For days the great physicist pondered the problem but could find no solution, try as he might. He was seized with worry, as he knew Hiero was a demanding monarch. Then, one day when he was at the public baths, as he was lowering himself into the cool bathtub at the end of the bathing process, he observed that the water level rose, spilling over the edges. In a flash an idea came.

What if he could use the fact that the volume of water displaced equaled the volume of an object such as his body that went into it? If so, he could apply that insight to determine whether the wreath was pure gold or not.

All he had to do was measure the volume of the wreath against the volume of a lump of pure gold that weighed the same, by putting the wreath in a tub of water filled to the brim, and then putting the lump of gold into the same tub (after he had emptied it), filling it back up. If the amount of water spilled by the wreath was greater than what was spilled by the lump of gold he would know the wreath was impure because if it was adulterated, say with silver, it would have a greater volume than the gold lump of equal weight, gold being nearly twice as heavy as silver.

The revelation, sparking with the certainty of truth, so excited Archimedes that he jumped out of his bath and rushed into the street, running all the way home, naked and soaking wet, shouting “Eureka” (I have found it). His sense of certainty was justified, for it led to a new law of physics – the Archimedes principle.

As it turned out, the rumours were right; Archimedes proved that the goldsmith had in fact cheated, with silver. We can only guess what happened to him; Hiero was a tyrant after all.

Ardent reliance on the perception of certainty lifts confidence in action, as we often see in leaders, expressed either in good sense or in error. Its influence is so fundamental to our thinking and emotions that philosophers, scientists, religious leaders and politicians take great pains to deal with it, and always have.

What is certainty? Like the issue of truth, and fundamentally related to it, its definition has exercised the human mind since before history. After much discussion over the eons, it has been generally accepted that it exists, if at all, in two forms. The first, objective or absolute certainty, lies in the knowledge –based belief in something about which there is no rational basis to doubt, whose truth is not given to mere degrees of probability. An example would be the mathematical proposition that the angles of all triangles add to 180 degrees. But then along came Heisenberg with his principle of uncertainty. He showed that at the subatomic level certainty does not exist; it must yield to probability, however close to certainty.

Skeptics long have doubted whether there can be any certainty at all. Democritus opined, “we in actuality grasp nothing for certain but what shifts in accordance with the condition of the body and of the atoms which enter it and press upon it.” And Heraclitus compounded the problem by introducing the concept of change, a phenomenon that undermines certainty. An entity that undergoes change, and everything does according to him, calls into question the certainty of its identity. Famously he said; “no man can step into the same river twice”. If so, what is the nature of the river we see?

Benjamin Franklin carried on the skepticism, saying that while the new constitution he helped to craft had the appearance of permanence, “Nothing can be certain except death and taxes.”

On the other hand, Rene Descartes disagrees with a total denial of certainty, citing human life as an example. In the case of himself, the fact that he is conscious means he is certain to exist. In support of this he says: “Cogito ergo sum” (I think therefore I am). It is implied that the observation applies to others too.

Nevertheless, when it comes to most things, he is a champion of doubt, the grit in the oyster shell of thought, the enemy of certainty but the progenitor of knowledge. He handles the conundrum of whether certainty applies in specific cases by taking refuge in agnosticism – advocating a suspension of judgment about beliefs that are even slightly uncertain.

Avoiding the risk of being wrong is cognate with the famous Pascal wager. The renowned 17th century French mathematician and philosopher dealt with the uncertainty felt by many at the time whether God exists by opining that a rational person should behave as though He does exist. If God does not exist they will not lose much, but if He does they stand to gain all that is promised in Christian theology.

In any event, the issue of uncertainty is clouded by internal contradiction. Pascal sighed, “It is not certain that everything is uncertain.”

The second form, subjective certainty (sometimes called moral certainty), is more open to verification because it depends on a feeling; a state of mind that the individual knows for certain exists. The belief itself is a state of certainty. It refers to the highest possible level of belief that something is true, regardless of whether or not it is capable of being false.

In most instances we make decisions based on a probability that we know is less than a moral certainty. We have to if we are to get anything done. Indeed we criticize people who can’t make up their mind as vacillating. But in cases where a negative outcome of a wrong decision can be personally calamitous we tend to require moral certainty before we take the risk.

As a youngster, on some cold winter days I would skate on the bay that separates Toronto from a small island in Lake Ontario. It was a wonderful foray into freedom uninterrupted by boundaries, and comforted by a feeling of moral certainty that the ice wouldn’t crack. I only went on deeply freezing days, when the ice appeared thick, with water daring not to appear. There didn’t seem to be any possibility of falling in, fatal though that would be. That was enough for me; I didn’t think of any possibility that I could be mistaken. But of course I could have been.

Moral certainty can lead to mistakes, even ridiculous ones. One time I was walking through a Mopani forest in Botswana’s Okavango region on safari with a guide who was a friend. Suddenly he said, “Look at those nuts on the ground; they’re good eating; try one”. Certain he was right, I did; and as soon as I started chewing, he and our Black African trackers doubled over in laughter. What I had put into my mouth was a giraffe dropping, small and round. It tasted like dried grass.

However, moral certainty has a more serious application. It is the basis of judgment in criminal law. There, two possible states of belief can exist, one level of certainty higher than the other, but both subjective and given to falsification. In cases based on direct evidence, the accused’s guilt must be of a degree of certainty defined as beyond a reasonable doubt. And in a case dependent upon circumstantial evidence, the finding of guilt must be based on the only rational conclusion the court could come to. Notwithstanding this guide, error can intervene, and sometimes does.

Pyrrho, acknowledged as the first Greek skeptic philosopher, turned the acceptance that nothing is certain into a psychological benefit. By ruling out the possibility of certainty, the worry about whether something is certain or not falls away, allowing tranquility to spread into the consciousness of the individual, a benign state he called ataraxia. After him, the Epicureans and the Stoics explored it at depth. Pyrrho had traveled east with Alexander the Great’s troops and encountered Buddhism, a form of thinking that concentrates on calming the perturbations of the mind.

Pyrrho’s remedy for worry takes intense discipline, in his case sometimes practised beyond the limits of good sense. It is recorded that he was so committed to his proposition that, at one time when he was walking in the direction of a precipice, at the brink his friends had to pull him back suddenly before he fell over. Blithely applying the logic of his philosophy he refused to be concerned about whether the danger was certain or not.

The quest for certainty underlies thinking at the deepest level, for it provides a base of security, a sense of stability, without which there would be no meaning in life. All religions and political systems are animated by it.

A consciousness of certainty was critical to the renowned longevity of ancient Egypt. The religious and political systems of that profoundly admired civilization were dedicated to it, arguably to a greater degree than in most other societies.

The people were blessed with an environment that stimulated the sentiment.
The eternal Nile spilled its moist and fertile silt onto the land in a regularity that generated one of the most fecund agricultural economies in history. That sometimes its floodwaters would register too high or too low on the Nilometer did nothing to detract from the sense of certainty it afforded at a fundamental level. And the formidable desert that surrounded the population like the protective arms of a Titan was certain to keep the nation safe from foreign marauders. But, above all, the ceaseless transit of the sun, rising next to the great river of life each day without fail and dying west of its waters only to be resurrected on the other side in the morning, gave proof that the gods had bestowed a benign certainty on their favoured people.

The sun’s predictable journey encouraged the belief that underlying the entire universe is a holiness and unity out of which a cosmic harmony is composed. While this hallowed state maintains its certainty, nothing can threaten a return to chaos, the formless disorder out of which gods and humans had emerged.

Chaos was the big fear, chaos in all its manifestations, from civil breakdown to natural catastrophe. Though well before the Second Law of Thermodynamics was revealed, the Egyptians intuitively knew that in an enclosed system, such as a nation, over time order tends to degrade into the uncertainty of disorder. It was central to Egyptian thinking. Only the energy of the state in harmony with the cosmos could preserve the ordered certainty that was required to sustain civilization.

The Egyptians developed a system of how people should behave so as to avoid chaos, worshipping a goddess who would provide guidance. Her name was Maat, whose identifying symbol was the feather of truth. She represented the ethical and moral requirement of all Egyptians to act with honor and truth. Where Maat was present, cosmic harmony followed; where she was ignored, disturbances arose, both in the individual and the state. Nothing was more certain.

The basic spiritual principles of the ancient Egyptians have flowed down the ages to inform religions that came after, notably different though they are in important respects. Among other things, they demonstrate that a sense of ultimate certainty, which is vital to a life of well-being, requires symbols to animate it. These can be temples or other places of worship where deities are present, but they can also be special buildings dedicated to secular affairs such as political governance.

The truth of this sprung to life in the shocking drama of January 6, 2021, when a frenzied mob incited by a President who refused to accept his electoral loss attacked the Capitol of the United States of America. Symbolically named after the Capitoline, one of the Seven Hills of Rome, on which the temple of Jupiter resided, and standing on high, the building houses the bicameral legislature, representative of the peoples’ will.

Rioters, fired up by unsubstantiated claims by President Trump that electoral fraud was the cause of his loss, rushed up the steps and broke windows to enter the legislative chambers and even the office of the Speaker of the House. Never since the British burned the building in 1814 during the War of 1812, had the Capitol been so assaulted.

The desecration tore the nation’s soul. It violated the sacred symbol of the peoples’ spirit and for a moment shook it from its uplifting demonstration of certainty, a sentiment held by all, ironically probably even the rioters as they tried to smash it.

At times, conditions of life fall into a state of unbearable horror, propelling the sufferer, in desperation, to search for comfort in some benign certainty wherever it can be found. Such was the case when in the 14th Century the Black Death stalked the lands of Europe and scythed down one in three in a ghastly death of fever and suppurating boils the size of an egg.

Random it was but so ever-present that everyone woke each morning in dread of seeing the swelling on their skin that contained the bubo, the fateful sign of mortality. Giovanni Boccaccio, a contemporary and forerunner of humanism wrote, “How many valiant men, how many fair ladies, breakfast with their kinfolk and the same night sup with their ancestors in the next world.” He spoke of, “vast multitudes of bodies, which were heaped by the hundred in vast trenches, like goods in a ship’s hold and covered with a little earth.”

It was accepted that the Black Death was God’s punishment for the sins of the current generation, so prayers for relief were not likely to be answered. Salvation had to lie elsewhere, outside the mortal coil. The after life was the only place. The dreaded uncertainty concentrated the mind to a pitch unprecedented even in that deeply religious period. It was the only escape from the horror and the only source of comfort that could make the calamitous threats bearable. Unfortunates can no longer suffer when they do not exist in this world. Treatises, called “the art of dying” were written that advised Christians how to prepare their souls for their passage, which could arrive at any time. They stressed the fragility of life and despised the vanity of earthly glories.

Uncertainty isn’t always a prompt to negative or escapist sentiments. Sometimes it creates enjoyable interest. Wouldn’t life be boring without it? Films, plays and sporting contests are dependent on it. Indeed suspense, uncertainty’s tease, is one of the characteristics demanded of what aspires to be dramatic. It’s included in the formal definition of drama. Little interest is aroused when we know the ending.

And sometimes a similar uncertainty stirs us in real life. The 2020 presidential election in the United States was such an event. For those passionately involved in the outcome together with those but peripherally affected, few theatrical or sporting contests could match its drama for compelling suspense and intriguing dramatis personae. It was of a stagecraft worthy of Shakespeare or Sophocles. A Capulet – Montague hatred and violence divided the country as never before since the Civil War, and the two principal players were as different from each other as imagination could conceive.

Possibly the uncertainty that stirs the greatest concern and, indeed controversy, in the world today resides in the challenge of Climate Change. That the globe is recording higher mean temperatures, year by year, is a fact cognate with objective certainty (if it were ever to exist) and that it is in a warming cycle destined to continue to some extent seems to be a moral certainty.

However, the amount of human contribution to the cause of the movements (implying a moral duty to take remedial action) and the prospective degree of future warming reside in a state of probability generated by scientific modeling, which by its mechanism is influenced by falsifiable assumptions, however astute. Some people claim that to be a moral certainty; others deny it. No one can prove it to be an objective certainty, but that is not necessary, for human action almost never requires that degree of certainty.

In the face of so much uncertainty and possibility of harm, it would seem that there is a role for the precautionary principle here. Many people think so. This is a philosophical approach (arising in 1970’s Germany) to dangerous problems that lack sufficient scientific knowledge to solve. It has been defined as, “caution practised in the context of uncertainty.” In a way it is similar to what Pascal wanted to do, – have a bet both ways. Or what insurance does in balancing the cost of the premium with the possibility of loss.

While applying this principle would not eliminate controversy over the cost and nature of actions to be taken to deal with Climate Change, it would at least provide a sound basis for taking some action rather than ignoring the problem on the grounds of the incertitude surrounding the nature of its existence.

Human life is bounded by a constant of uncertainty, but interludes exist of what can reasonably pass for the appearance of certainty. They create a rhythm for history’s verse. The twentieth century’s martial turbulence gave way to a double decade of perceived stability in the Western world that linked traditional values and economic reconstruction to a widespread feeling of social certainty.

All that changed in the social revolution of the 1970s where human values began to be interpreted differently. In 1977 the noted economist, John Kenneth Galbraith, wrote a book entitled The Age of Uncertainty. In it he opined, “In the last century capitalists were certain of the success of capitalism, socialist of socialism, imperialists of colonialism, and the ruling classes knew they were meant to rule. Little of this certainty now survives.”

And he wrote this before the explosion of computing capacity, the arrival of the Internet and the discombobulating social media. At the time, experiences of pandemics were not allowed out of the history books.

Gargantuan inventions always foment widespread change, and uncertainty is their confederate, for science is a struggle with uncertainty. Salient instances include the 4th millennium BCE creation of writing and the 15th century printing press. Both altered human society to a condition unrecognizable to prior generations. And today, to a degree equally if not more determinant, we have the computer and its daughter product the digital revolution. All these changes give proof to the unalterable law of the universe that everything, including life, moves inexorably towards greater complexity, abandoning stations along the way where the simplicity of certainty seems to reside.

However, though many-dimension uncertainty is as unavoidable as evolution, we can take comfort in the sense of certainty that continues to thrive in our souls. The love we feel for our family and friends, the trust we repose where warranted, the faith we have in humanity, and for many, in God, sustain the quality of certainty within us that gives meaning to life.