Thursday, March 13, 2008

The Danger of Certainty

Apologies for not posting more at the moment.

One of the things I've been thinking about this term is the nature of knowledge, and more to the point, how we can know things. Of course it's very important in science and in theology, but isn't studied enough in either.

It's wrong to be certain about a fact

The first point I think it's worth making is that it's wrong to be certain. We can never know all the possible information about something. Nor can we ever be sure that our reasoning is right. The traditional answer is that certainty is only possible in maths, but I don't think it's possible even there because human reason is fallible. I can make mistakes. So can anyone else. So can everyone in the whole history of humanity.

Because of this, if people say they are absolutely certain of something, I find it very offputting. If someone says they are certain that climate change is caused by human activity, or that humans evolved from the same ancestors as apes, or that Paul did or didn't write 1 Timothy, that makes me think they are delusional and overstating their case. In my opinion, people should state their case and present their arguments, but not overstate it.

We can know things

But at the same time, it's stupid to say that we can't actually know anything. I am sitting on a chair at the moment. Can I prove that? No. Can I even prove it to myself? No. But all the evidence I have got suggests it. Maybe I am having a vivid dream, or am a brain in a jar or something, but the idea that I am sitting in a chair perfectly fits all of the evidence, so I'm going to say that it might as well be true, even though I can't be totally sure of it. And yes, if things happen that make me question the nature of my assumed reality (as in The Truman Show), then I'm willing to change my opinion.

Tom Wright describes the situation very well by talking about stories. We all try to find the story that best describes the world around us. If there are things that don't fit, it might be that we need to add some small details to our stories; it might be that the stories we tell need to be changed completely. Other people's stories of how the world works might well be different because they have been designed around different bits of information. A perfect story will fit absolutely everything into it and help us to see what we should be doing in life. But because we can never know absolutely everything, we can never see whether we've actually got the perfect story or not.

In fact, not only can I know things, I can know things with enough confidence to bet my life on them. So when I get onto a plane to fly to the US, I'm willing to bet my life that the plane will make it across the Atlantic, and I'm willing to bet that on the basis of the evidence. If I'm feeling worried about it, I'll reassure myself with stuff like a knowledge of how aircraft work, the fact that lots of planes fly across the Atlantic and almost all of them make it with no problems, and so on. If the journey was a lot more dangerous, whether I did it or not would depend on how important it was.

In exactly the same way, I'm willing to bet my life on the trustworthiness of the God and Father of Jesus. Tom Wright goes on to ask how the life, death and resurrection of Jesus fits into our stories, and argues that they can only fit in if our stories end up built around them. That doesn't mean that I'm absolutely certain of everything - I have doubts. Everyone does. It doesn't mean I understand everything - I don't. It means that I know God well enough to trust him with my life.

I love the old hymn by Daniel Whittle:

I know not why God’s wondrous grace
To me He hath made known,
Nor why, unworthy, Christ in love
Redeemed me for His own.

But I know Whom I have believ├Ęd,
And am persuaded that He is able
To keep that which I’ve committed
Unto Him against that day.

I know not how this saving faith
To me He did impart,
Nor how believing in His Word
Wrought peace within my heart.


I know not how the Spirit moves,
Convincing us of sin,
Revealing Jesus through the Word,
Creating faith in Him.


I know not what of good or ill
May be reserved for me,
Of weary ways or golden days,
Before His face I see.


I know not when my Lord may come,
At night or noonday fair,
Nor if I walk the vale with Him,
Or meet Him in the air.


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