Certainty and uncertainty

This page last updated June 5th, 2020

This page in brief ….

We are programmed to want to resolve doubt and so feel certain about things – about the future, and about our attitudes, values, beliefs and opinions. Yet uncertainties abound, and dealing with them well is the way to reach greater maturity and wellbeing.

We will be happier and more at peace, and grow to greater maturity, if we learn to embrace uncertainty and resolve it in positive ways. Religious believers and sceptics both can gain from these approaches.


Our brains seek certainty. We tend to like firm answers to questions that concern us and we don’t like unpleasant surprises (we can cope with unpleasant things much better if we have been warned).

Our brains monitor sensory inputs from the outside world and try to keep on top of things by seeing patterns and predicting what will happen next. If something unusual happens, this is seen as a threat, as our brains have to divert from other tasks and work harder to make sense of the unforeseen event and to decide how to react.

When we have resolved the situation and things are predictable again, our brain feels at peace. Certainty feels good. In fact, we crave certainty using the same brain circuits as when we crave more tangible benefits like food or sex. People who are certain in their beliefs and attitudes are generally happier.

Reaching certainty in our attitudes and opinions

We all have opinions, beliefs, values and attitudes that are at least partly subjective. We may be aware that many around us hold different opinions and attitudes, and our beliefs and values may be challenged, which can make us feel uncomfortable. There are various ways which we may, consciously or unconsciously, gain greater certainty in our attitudes and opinions:

  • by feeling we have obtained complete and accurate information about the question that is worrying us;
  • if we feel we have thought deeply about the subject;
  • if we are feeling angry;
  • if we are self-confident or just feel our approach is right;
  • if we express our views repeatedly, or
  • when our views are affirmed by our social group.

When we feel certain …..

When we feel certain, we are more likely to:

  • think we are right (though in fact certainty is not necessarily an indication of being right)
  • make a decision and take action;
  • defend our actions;
  • try to persuade others to take a similar view; but
  • we may find it difficult to change our minds.


Most of us find uncertainty and ambiguity about our values, beliefs and attitudes to be disturbing to varying degrees. Most times we are uncertain about something, we seek “cognitive closure”, that is “a quick and firm answer to a question and an aversion to ambiguity and uncertainty” (Kruglanski).

Our need for closure and resolution of our dilemma, can be greater if we are experiencing time pressure or stress, if we are fatigued, or if the environment about us is changing.

The effects of uncertainty

Our typical response to uncertainty is to seek find, or generate, a plausible explanation, and so resolve the tension we are experiencing.

On the positive side, uncertainty can be exhilarating and motivating. It will often lead us to deeper examination of the issue, from which may come resolution and peace. It may also lead us to feel more compassionate and to connect with others.

In fact it seems that in order to reach emotional and ethical maturity we must go through different experiences, and face and work through dilemmas and difficulties. Often, it really is true that “no pain, no gain”, although facing dilemmas doesn’t have to be painful.

However, uncertainty isn’t always so positive. It can make us anxious and push us to make inadequate and hasty judgments – as for example can often occur on social media, where false rumours can spread quickly. And once we have expressed a view, it is psychologically much harder to subsequently come to a different opinion.

Uncertain people are more easily persuaded, even by poor arguments and evidence. But a fearful response to uncertainty can make changing our minds very difficult. This is sometimes called “seize and freeze” – quickly forming a view and refusing to budge from it.

Our response to uncertainty will often depend on our self confidence – we will respond more positively if we feel we have the resources to cope, but more negatively if we feel out of control.

Being part of a like-minded group is one of the most effective ways to reduce uncertainty. However if our need for certainty is great enough, group identity can lead to extremism.

Certainty and uncertainty

We actually need a little of each.

Uncertainty that makes us feel uncomfortable can motivate us to seek more information and, eventually, to change. On the other hand, certainty in our views is necessary for us to stick to our convictions and to act on them.

And it turns out that presenting a single view with certainty is generally not as persuasive as presenting both sides of a question, with some ambiguity.

Living with uncertainty

We cannot avoid uncertainty. And while it can make us feel uncomfortable, we need uncertainty to provoke us to think and possibly change our minds.

Dr Kellie Cassidy suggests four steps to learn to live with uncertainty:

  1. Recognise that total certainty is an illusion, and generally we can only be reasonably or sufficiently certain. We should learn to accept uncertainty as part of life, and notice when the need for certainty takes hold, and name it.
  2. Build an openness to uncertainty and learn to “ride the wave” of uncertainty to gain from it, rather than respond by making hasty judgments. We can learn to see uncertainty positively.
  3. Practice mindfulness, that is, live in the present moment and don’t allow the uncertain future to consume us.
  4. Do something positive if we can – take a considered action, or take deliberate steps to get more information.

Certainty, uncertainty and religious belief

As you’d expect, religious belief is related to certainty and uncertainty, in both positive and negative ways.

We need here to note two different aspect of most religious belief: religion, which will generally be a group thing, with particular beliefs, values, rituals, acceptable behaviours and an underlying ideological framework and worldview, and spirituality, which is more personal and individual. Both elements are present in many (most?) believers, but it is the group aspects of religion that seem to be most relevant to certainty and uncertainty.

As we have seen, group identification tends to reduce uncertainty, for the group will generally provide guidance and answers to questions of values and belief. Virtually all groups provide this to some degree, but religious groups are more successful.

Religious ideologies have a greater explanatory reach than most other ideologies because they address questions of existence, ultimate causality, and absolute morality

Hogg et al

Thus people will tend to be happier if they are part of a group or follower of an ideology that reduces uncertainty and provides answers to questions of value and belief. Since religious belief generally provides both a group and an ideology, this explains in part why religious people generally report higher levels of happiness and wellbeing, and have lower mortality rates.

However the downside can be that if the group or ideology is strong, and/or the need for certainty is strong, groups and ideologies, especially religious ones, can lead people towards extremism.

Evidence, doubt and belief

If we were all perfectly logical, we would base our beliefs and values, on the available evidence, and hold them with a level of certainty and uncertainty that matched the evidence. We would doubt any idea that is only poorly supported by the evidence. That’s the theory.

But we all know real life’s not always like that. For a start, none of us is perfectly logical. But more importantly, most important issues – which party to vote for, personal ethics, who to marry, which job offer to accept, who we can trust, and what to believe about God, etc – are not soluble by pure logic alone. If we tried to apportion our values, attitudes and decisions exactly to the provable evidence, we’d never do anything much of value and we’d never believe much.

So doubt and uncertainty can provoke us to seek more information, but too much doubt can cripple our ability to decide.

The reality is that we all use a mix of intuitive and rational thought to make decisions on these more personal matters. And the interesting thing is that even though we may not have proof of the truth of a belief, we may still hold that belief very strongly.

You might expect that to be the case with religious belief – that believers hold their beliefs more strongly than the evidence might suggest to a neutral observer. And you’d be right …. often. Scientist Richard Feynman expressed a common view when he spoke of “that really religious understanding, that real knowledge that there is a God — that absolute certainty which religious people have.” But it isn’t always the case, and more progressive Christians and Jews will tend to be less dogmatic and more humble about their beliefs.

But it seems that unbelievers also often disbelieve much more strongly than the evidence might suggest to a neutral observer. In this respect, there seems to be no difference between the believer and the disbeliever. (This come from a very old study by Thouless in the references below, but seems to be confirmed by more recent work.) Again, there will be exceptions to this, especially among the more agnostic.

So we find an interesting human trait – on some issues people tend to mostly agree, and our opinions are scattered around the most common view. But on other issues, our beliefs polarise to two extremes. Religion is one of the polarising ideas, but so can be politics and other more innocuous ideas. It seems that on some matters, our thirst for certainty often leads us to one of opposite extremes.

The challenge then, for religious and non-religious alike, is to balance doubt, uncertainty and an open mind with belief, conviction and the ability to act decisively.

Taking this personally

What does this mean for you and me? Here are my initial thoughts …..

Uncertainty is part of life

Doubt and uncertainty serve a useful function in helping us grow and change, if we respond rightly. In a pluralistic society, everyone needs to be able to deal with doubt and uncertainty about values, beliefs and attitudes.

Certainty isn’t proof

The fact that we (or other people) may feel certain of our (or their) opinions and beliefs is no guarantee of the truth of those opinions. It is possible to be certain but wrong.

Logical and psychological certainty

On important ethical, spiritual and political issues, our sense of psychological certainty will generally be greater than our logical certainty – and this probably isn’t a bad thing, but is necessary for peace of mind. So we shouldn’t be surprised or shocked when other people hold strong opinions we think are poorly based.

Being open-minded doesn’t always come easily

Most of us, in most situations, are more comfortable when we feel relatively certain of what we believe and think. But this can mean we will find it easier to refuse to reconsider our values and beliefs. If we want to open to change and growth, we may have to work at it. To reach maturity will require facing up to uncertainties and dilemmas. All this is as true for sceptics as it is for believers.

Christian belief can help deal with uncertainty …. or hinder

Religion can both help or hinder how we address uncertainty, depending on our choices. If we allow our beliefs or our religious community to make us fearful or closed-minded, then we will not deal with uncertainty well.

But Christians whose beliefs are both religious and spiritual should find it easier to follow Kellie Cassidy’s guidelines for living with uncertainty. Our faith should give us sufficient assurance and confidence that we can accept uncertainty and gain from it (Kellie’s point #2), while prayer and meditation should serve a similar function to mindfulness (#3).

A thoughtful and less dogmatic faith will likely equip us to deal well with life.

A wake-up call for some sceptics?

It is common for sceptics about religion to say they don’t have anything to prove, they don’t have a strong disbelief, they simply lack belief in any god. I’m sure this is often true. But in that case, they have no reason to hold a strong opinion.

Yet studies and experience show that sometimes sceptics hold opinions as strong as, or even stronger than, believers, with less reason. This suggests that their worldview and the community of sceptics to which they may loosely belong, are helping them reach a level of psychological certainty that is little different to the theistic faith they decry or deny.

Try a little kindness

We are all mere humans running the uncertain race of this life together. Most of us will struggle with doubt and uncertainty at times, and we won’t always respond in the best way. A little kindness towards those we disagree with, especially those who are struggling, might help us all.

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