Knowing: The Uncertainty Principle.

Knowing: The Uncertainty Principle. February 16, 2015

We’ve been talking this past week about re-learning how to learn after leaving religion, and today we’re going to talk about one of the hardest aspects there is to that journey: learning how to recognize false certainty and how to become a little more comfortable with uncertainty.

When talking to Christians I often run into this absolute terror they have of being unsure about anything. If a Creationist Christian asks, for example, how the universe began and gets back an honest “I don’t know,” then they point to that as absolute proof that obviously since they feel sure about their answer, they must have a superior one. If I say I don’t know if there exist any gods, then I get back “Well, I do,” as if that makes their answer superior.

The problem comes in when they don’t really know what they think they know.

In a word? Yes. Yes, it is. (Credit: Mike Souza, CC license.)
In a word? Yes. Yes, it is. The answer isn’t changing anytime soon. (Credit: Mike Souza, CC license.)

It’s not a good thing to make assertions about stuff without support for it. Sounding very sure of something isn’t the same thing as having actual certainty about it. But I see it constantly in the religious world. Part of the problem is that nothing in religion really rests on real supports. Religions constantly make assertions without any backing whatsoever, and their flocks simply take for granted that those assertions are true.

Certainty is very important to a lot of Christians, to state the obvious. When it comes down to it, “faith” as a concept is, as the Bible points out, a type of certainty; Hebrews 11 goes to some pains to talk about faith and it’s hard to read it and not think that what the author is communicating is how Christians can feel sure that they’re on the right track. Philosophers and theologians might argue about exactly what form of certainty we’re talking about, and about certainty’s role in (or even requirement for) religious belief, or whether certainty leads to or grows from belief, but on an informal level it’d be hard to find many Christians who’d ever say that they’re even a tiny bit uncertain about whether or not their god is real or if their major beliefs are actually true. Some denominations and flavors of the religion have elaborate verbal rituals built around the expression of this very certainty. Most ex-Christians, meanwhile, can remember that exact pinpoint of time when they suddenly realized that their certainty might have no basis in fact.

Sometimes in psych-speak I see this idea expressed as “a need for closure.” We’ve been (largely erroneously) taught as a culture that we need “closure”–external validation–to make us sure that something’s over or that something happened the way we think it did. All closure really is is a quest for certainty. And we get addicted to the feeling of certainty. This thing we’re calling closure gives us a false assurance that life is linear and progresses along definable points, rather than being the messy mishmash it more often is, and that we can be sure about some stuff that maybe isn’t as cut-and-dried as we’d like it to be.

Some of us have trouble functioning in situations where we have less of that closure and certainty. We start doing really self-destructive things to achieve that sensation–like buying into really bad ideas or putting ourselves in the path of mental or physical harm, or pushing away people we love and who love us. In the book The Princess Bride (and if you’ve only seen the movie, then know that the book is ten kinds of stupendous and really “the best thing in the world, except for cough drops”), Buttercup almost loses her shot at love with Westley because her need for certainty comes close to outweighing her desire for him; after Count Rugen’s wife gives the Farm Boy come-hither eyes during a visit, Buttercup attributes the Countess’ attraction to a surprising (and ad hoc) reason (italics are from the book):

It was really very strange that a woman as beautiful and slender and willowy and graceful, a creature as perfectly packaged, as supremely dressed as the Countess should be hung up on teeth that way. Buttercup shrugged. People were surprisingly complicated. But now she had it all diagnosed, deduced, clear. She closed her eyes and snuggled down and got all nice and comfortable, and people don’t look at other people the way the Countess looked at the farm boy because of their teeth. “Oh,” Buttercup gasped. “Oh, oh dear.”

And in the same way, we can latch onto explanations that don’t really fit to explain stuff that troubles us–and then we cling to those explanations long past their observable usefulness so we can keep intact that illusion of knowledge. Creationism is only one way of expressing and fitfully meeting a Christian’s need for certainty. Any conspiracy theory fills that role beautifully; there is a good reason why so many of them involve some ultra-organized, ultra-powerful cabal of baddies controlling some aspect of our government or culture. If you’re about my age and were Christian when I was (up to the mid-1990s), chances are you remember the Satanic Panic and the books and movies that resulted from it, like This Present Darkness. Time has rolled on, but the mentality hasn’t changed much.

Uncertainty can rip a Christian’s entire worldview apart in more than one way. I really think that’s one reason so many of them oppose equality for LGBTQ people and women’s rights; those two societal changes mean the most change for hardline, conservative Christians’ extremely hierarchical, extremely linear worldview–as well as the biggest challenges to their dominance. Even moving away from the culture wars that desperate (and angry) Christians started, one other problem with having an excessive need for certainty can lead to a Christian becoming close-minded. When Ken Ham studiously avoided answering the question during his debate with Bill Nye about whether he’d ever change his mind about his childishly literalist belief in the historical veracity of the Creation myth (an obstinate stance many of his followers are far more open about expressing), he was demonstrating not only his inherent dishonesty but also a propensity toward being close-minded–as well as his own ultra-high need for certainty:

5. What if anything would ever change your mind?
Ham: Well the answer to that question is, I’m a Christian. And as a Christian, I can’t prove it to you, but God has definitely shown me very clearly through his Word and shown himself in the person of Jesus Christ. The Bible is the Word of God. I admit that that’s where I start from.

Meanwhile, of course, Bill Nye flat-out stated what it’d take to change his mind and said that of course he’d do so in a heartbeat if he found that evidence did not support what he thought was certain.

What’s important to stress here is that being certain–or uncertain–about a fact doesn’t change the fact that it’s a fact. The truth doesn’t really care how we feel about it or even what we plan to do with it once we have it. If a relationship’s over, it’s over regardless of what kind of “closure” we’ve scrabbled together for ourselves. Evolution doesn’t care how many people feel sure it happened. What matters is what’s true. It’s up to us to make peace with what’s true as best we can, so we can build our opinions and worldview on the right foundation, and it’s up to us to remain open to the idea that as unlikely as it might be, something we’re sure about might be wrong.

Indeed, uncertainty brings us the gift of development and learning. Someone who’s totally sure that Creationism is true is far less likely to expose him- or herself to the numerous debunks of it that exist. Someone who’s sure that 9/11 was “an inside job” is highly unlikely to take seriously all the materials debunking that idea. Someone who absolutely must have closure for a bad relationship is that much less likely to heal and mourn that old relationship so that progression can happen. While we’re stuck in false certainty, we’re not growing and moving forward.

It’s simply remarkable to me that so many Christians resist uncertainty to the degree they do. Some don’t, obviously; one whose work I deeply respect, John Shore, has come out on the side of not having any idea what the afterlife might look like. That’s a type of honesty one doesn’t often see in Christians. But most of them use false certainty like a bludgeon on non-believers, at least while they still can.

I know these oh-so-certain Christians feel change in the air; I know they see it written on the wall. And oh, I know they hate it.

I hear Christians complaining about being unsure of how to talk to others nowadays, or how to follow their religion in a way that doesn’t offend and alienate others–which are both concerns they didn’t really have back when their religion was a lot more dominant. I sure never worried about it on that kind of scale; I tried to be a generally “good witness,” but I don’t remember it occurring to me until my deconversion that I was pursuing Christianity in a way that actively damaged its credibility in the eyes of the people I cared about most. One thing about having privilege: those with it don’t usually worry about how their actions will be perceived by those they see as being beneath them. It’s only when that privilege gets challenged–and peeled back a little–that the cracks between its holders’ long-cherished self-image and the reality of how they are perceived starts to become more obvious.

At that point, uncertainty comes flooding in; all the old rules no longer seem to apply and non-Christians are finally showing the anger they’ve always felt about being mistreated. The anger was always there; it just wasn’t always safe to express it, make no mistake, and those feeling it thought that expressing it wouldn’t change much except to bring wrath upon themselves. But now it’s a lot safer to express it. (That’s why the genie isn’t going back into the bottle, incidentally; these feelings of anger over mistreatment and of alienation aren’t new at all–we’re just finally talking about them nowadays.) I suspect that Christians kind of know deep down somewhere that outsiders have always felt mistreated by them, and it’s thrown their entire way of life and their entire philosophy of how to treat people into a tailspin.

But instead of asking the hard questions like “Why were we so falsely sure about how to treat people? How did we fall into this pattern of advocating for control, marginalization, and domination of others? When and why did rejecting rigorous scientific consensus ever become a major platform of this religion?”, they’re still in denial that they are falsely certain in the first place. They still value their false certainty over the scary specter of real uncertainty. I imagine that’ll last until Christian leaders have exhausted literally every other way possible of maintaining the current course.

There are things I’m very certain about. Evolution is how all the forms of life on Earth came to look so different from each other. No religion makes valid claims about the supernatural. Terrorizing and controlling people is the opposite of loving them. People own their bodies, so consent is of tantamount importance when weighing social stances and interactions. A government headed by George W. Bush and all his cronies together couldn’t figure out how to shit in a hole, let alone orchestrate a huge, secret, national-level atrocity against American citizens on American soil. Those are opinions I feel are rock-solid, because they are based on facts that can be and have repeatedly been shown to be true. But do I accept that maybe one day some demonstrable, observable, testable fact might come out that changes one of these opinions? Yes. To me that’s the only honest way to live. That’s when I start asking “How do you know?” and asking for support for the claim, without worrying about whether I’m wrong or right.

When I began to apply a version of the uncertainty principle, to loosely borrow the physics idea that there are hard limits to what we can be absolutely sure about, I became free to examine counter-arguments and to assess the claims of those opposing my views. A lot of my own views began to shift and change as a result. I wasn’t always right! This sea change could not have happened while I was convinced I was already in the right and that nothing could possibly change my mind.

Now I trust an honest “I could be wrong” or an “I don’t know” over the false certainty that religion offered me once, especially when those sentiments are followed by a “let’s look and see, shall we?” The change in my thinking didn’t happen overnight at all and to some extent I’m still sometimes resistant to new ways of doing or thinking about things. But the important part is to keep trying.

We’re going to talk next time about a situation I experienced that did the most to shake me out of that feeling of false certainty and that fear of change, and I do hope you’ll join me.

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