Monday, August 11, 2008

It's OK to be uncertain

Humans may crave absolute certainty; they may aspire to it; they may pretend, as partisans of certain religions do, to have attained it. But the history of science — by far the most successful claim to knowledge accessible to humans — teaches that the most we can hope for is successive improvement in our understanding, learning from our mistakes, an asymptotic approach to the Universe, but with the proviso that absolute certainty will always elude us.
—Carl Sagan

I'm fairly new to this skepticism business. Well, I am and I'm not. In many ways, I've been a skeptic since I was two years old, when I used to ask my parents where God came from. However, I have always craved certainty, and my religious history reflects this. I'll save the full story for another time, but let's just say that although I have always asked deep questions and sought true answers, I have never allowed myself the freedom to be uncertain.

Even now, spilling my thoughts to the world, I feel like I need to have everything figured out before I propose even the simplest idea. If I want to talk about the cosmos, I ought to have a Ph.D. in astrophysics. If I want to talk about science and skepticism, I ought to be an expert in philosophy, and I ought to have extensive scientific research experience. If I want to talk about religion, I ought to have an M.Div. and speak half a dozen ancient languages. If I want to talk about the human condition, I ought to be an expert in psychology, sociology, political science, and so on.

The fact is, I am an amateur. I am educated, and I am always becoming more so. I have a point of view, which I try to base on evidence, but I am not an expert. I am uncertain of many things, and I am trying to allow myself to accept this. It is impossible to know very much with certainty, yet I strive for better understanding. Mostly, I think I would like my understanding to be complete, but I am coming to grips with the fact that this will never happen.

One huge benefit of uncertainty is its flexibility. I am open to new evidence, and I am willing to be persuaded. I try to accept good ideas and reject bad ones, no matter where they come from. In this way, I hope to learn much about how the universe really works. This is how science works as well, building upon imprecise understanding in order to fit our theories to reality, not the other way around. I guess this blog is my peer review.

I started with a Sagan quote, and I think I'll end with one too. This quote is from The Demon-Haunted World, and epitomizes the attitude I strive for.

I’m frequently asked, “Do you believe there’s extraterrestrial intelligence?” I give the standard arguments—there are a lot of places out there, the molecules of life are everywhere, I use the word billions, and so on. Then I say it would be astonishing to me if there weren’t extraterrestrial intelligence, but of course there is as yet no compelling evidence for it.

Often, I’m asked next, “What do you really think?”

I say, “I just told you what I really think.”

“Yes, but what’s your gut feeling?”

But I try not to think with my gut. If I’m serious about understanding the world, thinking with anything besides my brain, as tempting as that might be, is likely to get me into trouble. Really, it’s okay to reserve judgment until the evidence is in.

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