The Quest for Absolute Certainty

The Quest for Absolute Certainty

When I was a teenager, I was very involved in electronics, something that has stuck with me. My first real efforts at understanding science came in working with electricity. One day I was discussing the theory of electricity, and specifically how it “moves” through a circuit with my father, also an electronics hobbyist. We had gone through electrons moving from one atom to the next, and the reasons why some things are better conductors than others, and why some things are so bad as conductors that they are insulators. This all applied to some circuit or another I wanted to build.

Then my father dropped a bombshell. “You know this is all a theory,” he said.

“What do you mean by theory?” I asked. To me at that point a theory was something not so well established. There were facts and then there were theories. Facts were good, theories were not so good.

“Well,” he continued, “we don’t actually observe subatomic particles in motion. We don’t know that an atom looks like those drawings you have.”

“So we don’t really know any of this? What good is it then?” Of course I well knew that I could build circuits based on it, but teenagers aren’t required to be logical with a parent.

“The theory does what it’s supposed to. It explains what we observe. It works. That’s all it has to do.”

“Oh.”

But somewhere deep inside I was upset. I liked my little pictures of atoms. I wanted to believe that they were just that way, and that if I could get a good enough microscope, I could actually observe those little electrons doing their thing. Now electricity is based on very good theory, and it does work. My dad was himself a young earth creationist, though we never discussed that much. I suspect now that he was more along the Kurt Wise type–there may be substantial evidence for evolution, but the Bible says otherwise, so we must believe–only he never felt the need to work on a real theory.

A few years ago I was asked by the youth director of my church to talk to a group of her students about the genealogies of Matthew and Luke. When I arrived at the class she introduced me and told the students that she wanted a “real Bible expert” (a dangerous title which I eschew) to explain the genealogies to them. So I took out a bunch of overhead transparencies. I went through the ways in which Matthew created his 14 generation pattern, and how Luke used the LXX text for part of his. I talked about multiple ways in which they are reconciled, and discussed positive and negative points about each. I also presented the case for not trying to reconcile them, and advantages and disadvantages of that.

Having, in my view, covered the ground, I summarized and prepared for questions. There was complete silence for a considerable period of time, enough that I had begun to think there would be no questions. Then a hand went up. The question? “But what is the right answer?”

Well, for my money, not reconciling the genealogies, and only asking what each author wanted to accomplish by the material he presented and the way in which he did so, would be the “right” answer. But that is just my opinion, an educated opinion, I hope, but an opinion nonetheless. The bottom line is that we don’t have absolutely certain data on the genealogies, and we can’t absolutely rule out even some of the schemes that I regard a laughably improbable. But the discussion the followed proved that those young people wanted the answer. Not a survey of many answers, not even a ranking based on my view of the probabilities–they wanted to know, and knowing meant certainty.

For many people, degrees of certainty are just too difficult to work with. Like my teenaged self said of electricity, if we aren’t absolutely sure, what good is it? This comes into play in topics like the existence of God. Can I prove God exists? Well, if I can’t, I must obviously reject that idea. Are we certain about an intelligence report, such as the WMD report for Iraq? If not, let’s hang around until we are.

In historical study, this type of certainty is unattainable. Christians speak of the resurrection. They speak of overwhelming evidence. Some think that the resurrection is a proven historical fact. I especially enjoy reading Christian apologists who will apply legal standards of evidence to this issue, and tell us that it is proven “beyond reasonable doubt.” I guess it is then just as certain as the convictions of those many folks who have been exonerated by DNA evidence recently, often after serving many years in jail.

Now ideas like “preponderance of the evidence” and “beyond reasonable doubt” are quite useful, provided that we think about what they mean. They don’t mean beyond all doubt. They are not the same even as a result which can be replicated. They are essentially probability based standards, even though the probabilities are based on the feelings or personal assessments of jurors. They are not truly absolute proof. I really enjoy those occasions when someone will inform me that I can’t believe someone is guilty because he hasn’t been convicted yet. “Innocent until proven guilty,” they remind me. Well, not so fast. That’s a legal standard, not a reflection of the state of reality. In fact, O. J., for example, was either guilty or innocent. The reality was the same before and after his acquittal.

Also I must make a remark on another funny comment I hear from time to time. “You can’t regard so-and-so as guilty. He hasn’t been convicted. It’s unconstitutional!” As though the constitution gets to control my thought processes. A similar thing has come up in the presidential campaign where some have said it’s unconstitutional for a voter to exclude a candidate based on religious. After all, the constitution says there will be no religious test for office. Again, the constitution doesn’t control the thought processes of voters.

But back to the subject. I think this is a major reason why we have such massive debates about a topic like evolution. After all, scientists actually present us with uncertainties all the time. We’re just responding as we do in daily life. They don’t know precisely who the land-dwelling ancestor of whales is? Evolution must be wrong. There’s no time machine to let us go back and look? Well, one opinion is as good as another in that case.

But all of those views make the error of assuming that everything is either proven or not proven, rather than decided based on the available evidence, which may be equivocal.

Face it! We live in a world with many uncertainties. We make decisions based on incomplete and partially untested knowledge. Whatever I think today may need to be modified tomorrow as new evidence comes in.

We can run away from this into indecision, assuming that all ideas are equal, because nothing is proven. I’ve responded to this at times in discussions of post-modern Biblical interpretation. “You can’t know what the original author meant to the original audience,” says someone. “Well,” I ask, “is the text talking about pink elephants?” “No.” “OK, then we know something about the text.” (To all actual post-modern folks out there, I don’t mean to smear all post-modern ideas with that caricature, but unfortunately there are plenty of folks out there who live the caricature.)

On the other hand we can pretend certainty where none exists. Many people, unfortunately, are drawn to the person who expresses himself more forcefully and more certainly. We so like to be certain that the simple fact that someone is certain draws followers. That’s the most dangerous point of all. The folks who are absolutely certain the UFO is coming and will take them if they just ingest the proper amount of poison attain certainty–and then death.

Being certain is often not nearly as good as it promises to be.

12 thoughts on “The Quest for Absolute Certainty

  1. Great post. I won’t be so vein as to think that I inspired it, but it is a good response to my recent writing none the less. (kind of like when you go to church, and you think the pastor wrote that sermon just for you?)

    I am someone who puts together arguments that make it sound like I am absolutely certain of what I say, and that you can be, too. The reality is, I never am certain, and do not expect to be. So, in fact, I agree with you.

    That said, I am currently analyzing a position on Creation that few people hold. The main proponent has a strong personality that rubs some people the wrong way, while convincing others. But, I am analyzing it, because it satisfies a few of my questions that other theories do not, and it’s fascinating. But, enough about me.

    I see the importance of your message in regards to people who are in danger of falling away from faith, because they are not completely certain, and the church just tells them “have faith, have faith.” Well, those people think that certainty is what they lack, but it isn’t so. They’re problem is that they are being told conflicting statements by their Christian brothers and sisters. “God gave us science, but it doesn’t mean what you think.” “God gave us scripture, but it doesn’t mean what you think.” “God gave us science and scripture, and they appear to conflict, but God’s message is eternal”, and on it goes. Faith doesn’t require certainty, but neither should it contradict itself, for a kingdom divided against itself cannot stand, and so people fall away.

    I apologize for the length of this, but here is my point: My hope is that people who doubt will see that there are explanations for what they perceive as conflicts. Explanations that explain the evidence and even predict what else they might see… theories, as you so eloquently penned. Theories do not provide certainty, and quite often there is more than one theory consistent with the evidence we know so far. That theory may not be the right one, but if a doubting Christian can be convinced, not that the theory is true, but that it is consistent with the evidence known, then that evidence need not be a stumbling block anymore. That is where I arrived at… perceived conflicts between scripture and science are not a stumbling block for me now. Sure, I think I’ve resolved a bunch of stuff, but so what? What matters is that I believe the bottom line of scripture has no conflict with science, because I have found at least 2 theories that are consistent with the evidence in my mind. I still am not certain which is right (if either), but a lack of certainty no longer makes me stumble, because if there is one theory that fits the evidence, then I can believe there is a correct theory, even if I do not know it (yet?). So, I know my knowledge is partial. But, (to paraphrase Paul) when that which is perfect returns (Christ), that which is partial will be made complete. And that is the certainty that I wish to pass on.

  2. I would agree that all things are uncertain, however there are degrees of uncertainty. Your example of building electronic curcuits shows that there is a level of testable uncertainty that allows us to produce functional knowledge. This functional knowledge results in the ability to design, build, and engineer things that behave in a predictable manner.

    In my opinion, sciences like evolution haven’t reached that level yet. It’s uncertainty is far greater and less testable. It shouldn’t be a surprise that it still makes people uncomfortable. It’s far more useful that Voltage = Amperage X Current because the theory, measurement, and practice have all borne that out and are clearly demonstrable. Natural Selection is far more nebulous and much less measured and practiced than the more established sciences. That is not to say that it won’t be born out. It seems that it has been given it’s due without the rigor of other hard sciences. There needs to be some clarity in the level of uncertainty in the theory of evolution as well. The uncertainties are not the same.

    1. Counterexample: the recent discovery of the Tiktaalik transitional fossil. This was discovered by first working out that, if such a fossil existed, it should be possible to find it in such-and-such a set of strata. Then they went out and dug, and found a perfect transitional.

      Counterexample: the discovery of haemocyanin in stonefly blood. No other fly has this oxygen-carrying, but the water-living organisms from which they evolved nearly all do. It’s known that the stonefly respiratory system is very primitive so, based on the hypothesised ancestry, it was suggested that stoneflies might have this ancestral molecule. This turned out to be the case.

      Counterexample: the identification of a vitamin C pseudogene in primates (including humans). No primate has a functioning vitC gene but, based on our ancestry from other mammals (who apparently did have vitC), it was predicted that there would be debris of a broken vitC gene still present in the human genetic code. A team of scientists then did the research and found out that there was indeed such a gene.

      Counterexample: the fact that every “family tree” drawn with gene data from several species gives the same family tree for those species. You can try it yourself.

      Evolutionary biology is capable of generating predictions as strong (if not as easily testable) as those in electronics. There are plenty of questions that evolutionary biology can’t yet provide a good answer to. But we don’t understand much about high-temperature superconductors either.

      Personally, I studied maths at uni, so I think both sciences are for pantywaisters who can’t handle real logic 🙂 There’s just not as much differentiation between them as you were suggesting.

        1. Meh, the first three are just anecdotes – cute, sure, but not exactly Ultimate Proof.

          It’s the fourth point that’s the real killer – it’s an hypothesis that any of us could test in 15 minutes with a bit of browsing – but many people have real trouble grasping what it’s about and why it’s convincing. Hence the leavening of user-friendly stories.

  3. I don’t mind long comments, but you didn’t provide a link. After looking over the last few entries on your blog, I would suggest readers start with this entry and work forward to see the relationship between what I am saying here and what geocreationist is working on.

    I may promote some of this discussion to a regular post to call greater attention to it. I would be very interested in engaging you on some of the material involved in your recent posts.

    One note–Luke follows the LXX genealogies, which is where the extra name comes from. There’s some interesting aspects in the way the genealogies are arranged based on adding that name. I did a paper on it back in college, but haven’t really looked at it in detail recently.

  4. I would agree that at least certain portions of evolutionary theory are established with less certainty than certain aspects of electricity. I’m a little out of my field to get extremely precise. Historical study is always less certain than study of the present. I can see how in reading a few of my recent posts one might get the idea I didn’t believe this to be so, so I affirm it here.

    One has to answer two questions here, however. First is how much less certain is evolutionary theory, and what specific aspects of evolutionary theory are more or less certain. Common descent, for example, seems to me to be at the high end, while the sufficiency of mutation+natural selection seems to be somewhat lower. That mutation and natural selection occurs is higher, and is testable in the lab. The extent of its creative possibilities is a bit lower. But how much lower? That relates to the next question.

    How does this impact our assent to the theory? Well, first we do have to ask just how much less tested any particular element of evolutionary theory is before we can answer that. But second, we would have to look at alternate explanations. Note that I said that all historical study is less probable than study of the present.

    Thus any alternatives to evolution, or any objections to current views in evolution suffer from precisely the same difficulties. This is where certain creationists look just a bit silly, in my view, as when you announce that evolution is “just a theory,” inherently uncertain, and therefore we should accept their view.

    What should happen instead is that we compare each individual theory and see how well it holds up. They are all historical in nature, and therefore all suffer similarly in terms of how they are tested. But in this case uncertainty is supposed to cause me to treat all views equally. (I’m not alleging this as your argument–rather, this is the view to which I was responding.)

    Just as an example, evolutionary scientists were able to predict that they would find a creature like tiktaalik in certain strata, and then they did. What aspect of creationist theory–young earth, old earth, or ID–would make that same successful prediction?

    So in my view while tiktaalik is discovered in the midst of quite a number of uncertainties, those uncertainties are more probably true than anyone else’s uncertainties, and by a substantial margin.

    I don’t object to anyone pointing out the uncertainties in evolutionary theory, provided they don’t go on into a sort of historical agnosticism, or even further emerge from that agnosticism claiming that some form of creationism must be true because evolution involves uncertainties.

  5. I see the importance of your message in regards to people who are in danger of falling away from faith, because they are not completely certain, and the church just tells them “have faith, have faith.” Well, those people think that certainty is what they lack, but it isn’t so. They’re problem is that they are being told conflicting statements by their Christian brothers and sisters. “God gave us science, but it doesn’t mean what you think.” “God gave us scripture, but it doesn’t mean what you think.” “God gave us science and scripture, and they appear to conflict, but God’s message is eternal”, and on it goes. Faith doesn’t require certainty, but neither should it contradict itself, for a kingdom divided against itself cannot stand, and so people fall away.

    I just wanted to highlight this as well. Perhaps I’ll post on it separately, but what you say here relates closely to my own experience. Church leaders who don’t recognize the difficulties one my have with one doctrine or another can often respond with a sort of “apologetic of certainty,” i.e. don’t doubt or you’re lost, which will drive the person who is questioning away.

    I eventually found my way back, but it was a difficult path, and I can tell you that the folks who empathized with doubts were much more helpful to me than those who exuded certainty.

    So, I know my knowledge is partial. But, (to paraphrase Paul) when that which is perfect returns (Christ), that which is partial will be made complete. And that is the certainty that I wish to pass on.

    [Nodding head] Yep! That’s it!

  6. I’m with you on this. While I enjoy puzzling through new ideas (or, well, ideas that are new TO ME!) I have reached a point where I’m content with the limits of my understanding. I figure God’s pretty resourceful, and if there’s something that he needs me to know, he can make it clear to me.

  7. That’s a good clarification.

    I totally agree that the same uncertainty problem that I raise here is a problem for any other theory such as new earth creationism. I agree that things like natural selection and mutation are quite certain and will be key building blocks in the future. Evolutionary scientists should give themselves some time and quit trying so hard to defend it to the public. The hard physical sciences have had quite a long time of observable testable phenomenon to work with and even then there were periods of disagreement in many of these subjects.

    (BTW I wasn’t trying to start a new theory of electricity in my previous post. Voltage is really equal to Current times Resistance. I shouldn’t be posting in the early morning when i have a cold!).

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