Most of us like to think that our beliefs are logical and based on the evidence. But we also know that very few things can be known with certainty – after all, this may all be a dream.
But we need to live our lives and make choices. So sometimes we have to act despite the uncertainty.
I have been thinking how this relates to my beliefs (and yours too). How certain am I of my beliefs, and how much do I live with uncertainty?
In a philosophical sense, it is very hard to be certain; generally the most we can hope to achieve is likelihood or probability. And many of the most important things in life are the least certain – for example, which party to vote for, which company to invest in, which person to marry, which job offer to accept, or which religious belief (or disbelief) is true.
Sometimes we can take account of the probabilities of various options when we make our decision. For example, if we think one investment is better than another, but can’t be sure, we can invest in both, in proportion to our confidence in each.
But many decisions, like voting or accepting a job offer, require us to choose just one option, even though we may be uncertain about which is best.
In a sense, we have to act with more certainty than we feel or know.
But of course we know that just because we, or someone else, feels certain doesn’t necessarily make us right.
Psychologists have found that our brains seek certainty.
The future is uncertain by definition, but brains see uncertainty and ambiguity as a threat. Therefore our brains are always looking ahead, predicting what is coming next, and preparing for it.
When something unusual occurs or we feel uncertain, our brains have to focus their attention on the unexpected situation, and often tend to generate a plausible explanation, which is sometimes why false rumours can spread.
People hold a variety of beliefs, values and attitudes to many questions that cannot be answered simply, on matters like religion, ethics and politics. So we can often feel uncertainty and doubt about our conclusions on these matters, and we find this doubt uncomfortable too.
Change can be hard for some people. When we feel uncertain, we can often “seize and freeze” – take hold of a plausible idea that resolves the uncertainty, and then hold onto it whether the evidence continues to support it, or not.
But both certainty and uncertainty can be helpful. Uncertainty (if we react rightly) can increase our willingness to gather new information, and certainty can help us persist in right beliefs.
And both can be unhelpful. Uncertainty can make us anxious and prone to a hasty and irrational response, and certainty can lead to us being dogmatic and inflexible.
I have examined all this in greater detail in Certainty and uncertainty.
Faith and knowledge
Ever since I was first a christian believer, I have examined and tested my beliefs. I haven’t changed the basics, but many details have required some change over the years. So I think that I have a sound evidential basis for my belief.
But I wouldn’t say I was certain of even my basic beliefs. I would say I am something like 90% confident that belief in God and Jesus is soundly based, and somewhat less confident about some of the less important details.
Sometimes I have significant doubts or questions, more an emotional thing than a logic thing. And considering the evidence has always been an antidote to those emotional doubts.
But having decided, and continued to believe, that christianity is probably true, I have to live with that conclusion. I can’t be a christian 13 days a fortnight and an agnostic on the other day. So in everyday life, when I am not thinking about why I believe or writing about it on this blog, I live as if it is 100% true.
My faith has logical probability but day-to-day psychological certainty.
Studies show that it is like that with most people, including atheists and sceptics – logical probability but psychological certainty. It seems we cannot easily live with too much uncertainty, and we are more at peace when a problem feels like it has been resolved.
This partly explains why religious discussions can be so polarised. And it seems to be even more true in politics, where polarisation seems to be getting even worse.
I wonder if you think the same about your beliefs, whatever they may be?
I have found exploring this whole question of certainty, uncertainty and doubt has been fascinating. Read more at Certainty and uncertainty