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.

Refrain

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

Refrain

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

Refrain

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.

Refrain

16 comments:

Otepoti said...

Since induction can't be proved, you can't know that the airplane will fly this time.

But following Bishop Berkeley, can't we be sure of at least some categories of facts because of the unceasing attention of God (to be is to be perceived)?

Or, more simply, "Let God be true and every man a liar."

There is circularity here, though, unless you grant to the the account of Jesus' resurrection the veracity of the average newspaper report, and thus find reason to accept the truth of Scripture. And I'm not sure this manoeuvre is sufficient to outwit the circularity, since you have to believe the fact of the report, but you have to start somewhere!

As a parent, I'm up the proverbial creek without some certainties, and my children need me to be certain of some facts, too.

Or at least I'm pretty certain of that :-D

Daniel Hill said...

You say: `The first point I think it's worth making is that it's wrong to be certain'.

The Bible says: `Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see' (Hebrews 11:1).

Why do you think it's wrong to have faith, as the Bible sees it?

John said...

Daniel - good question.

Young's Literal Translation has "And faith is of things hoped for a confidence, of matters not seen a conviction,".

ESV has "Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen."

NASB has "Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen."

I think it's a dodgy translation by the NIV team.

Daniel Hill said...

Custard, there are lots of references to certainty in the Bible.

For example, at the beginning of Luke's gospel:
3Therefore, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, it seemed good also to me to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, 4so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.
(`certainty' here is preserved in Young and the ESV (though not the NASB)).

So, it's the very purpose of Luke's gospel to give us certainty -- the thing that you say it's wrong for us to have.

You might also like to compare Genesis 15:13:
13 Then the LORD said to him, "Know for certain that your descendants will be strangers in a country not their own, and they will be enslaved and mistreated four hundred years."
(Even the NASB preserves `certain' here (though Young doesn't).)

Here God commands Abram/Abraham to have the thing that you say it's wrong for him to have.

John said...

Both the examples you give would give greater certainty (if I'm being pedantic, to Abe and Theophilus rather than to us); neither would give absolute certainty.

Would Abraham have woken up the next day and have had an unshakeable total absolute certainty that it hadn't all been a dream? No. But the kind of faith that is commended in Hebrews 11 is believing something enough to act on it even in the absence of sight.

That belief is of course evidence-based (which is why the evidence you cite is given), but we don't have the full reality yet. Hence the need for trust.

Daniel Hill said...

I'm confused, Custard. You said in your post `it's wrong to be certain' -- did you mean `it's wrong to be absolutely certain'?

And how do you know that the Bible instances aren't talking about absolute certainty? For example, how do you know that Abraham wouldn't have woken up the next day and have had an unshakeable total absolute certainty that it hadn't all been a dream?

What do you mean by `(absolute) certainty'? And why do you think it has to be based on evidence?

Otepoti said...

Hi, again, Custard, I noticed that the hymn you quote had a last verse unfamiliar to me, and sure enough, when I looked I found this verse missing from our book. Presumably the compiler gave way to some a-mill certainties of his own!

So, my question is, are such certainties unacceptable in your book, or not? And yet, if we are not to even try to interpret prophecy, what is its purpose for us?

Cheers

John said...

Daniel - by (absolute) certainty I mean confidence in a fact A such that the perceived probability of A, P(A) satisfies 1 - P(A) = 0. And I don't think it has to be based on evidence; I think there is good evidence and I find that evidence for something increases my perception of its probability.

Otepoti - So, my question is, are such certainties unacceptable in your book, or not? And yet, if we are not to even try to interpret prophecy, what is its purpose for us?

I think it would be wrong for me to say I'm certain that a-mill is the correct interpretation of those verses in Revelation. I think it's very probable.

Don't get me wrong - I'm not saying we shouldn't use our brains. I'm very keen for us to use our brains and work out what is the most probable answer. But can anyone say categorically that a-mill is right and post-mill is wrong, given that so many wise and committed Christians have been post-mill? Or indeed vice versa.

I don't think so. So what we need is a bit of humility.

What is the point of that prophecy then? To transform our vision and expectation. We can know that the future is glorious even if we don't know all the details.

Speaker for the Dead said...

I think we can have absolute spiritual certainty or faith while acknowledging the impossibilities of epistemological certainty.
(http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Munchhausen_Trilemma)

I guess we can "know" things we can't "prove."

John said...

What do you mean by spiritual certainty?

Anonymous said...

When I say I'm certain about an issue, I'm still open to changing my mind based on new information. It's just that I've reached a point where I don't think any is going to turn up, and I'm prepared to live my life as if none is going to turn up.

The degree of certainty people display can vary depending on the context they're in and the linguistic form they're using. If I'm being polemical, it's my job to show the good points about an issue, not the bad ones. A lot of people who get accused of being arrogantly certain do, I believe, have doubts about the issues they talk about - they just know when not to dump them on everyone else.

John said...

John Dickson has written an interesting piece on the Resurrection and what people say about it here.

Speaker for the Dead said...

What I mean by spiritual certainty is this.

The certainty in our faith is not so much an issue of mental, logical belief but an issue of the heart. There are, in my opinion, many people who "believe" in God who don't believe in God, who don't ever really feel God or know He is there. (That sounds incredibly corny.) And I think Paul is speaking more about feeling God then believing in God, so to speak. Interestingly, you can be certain in your heart without being "absolutely certain" in your head, just as you can be "absolutely certain" in your head but not certain at all in your heart.

At least, that's what I think.

Daniel Hill said...

Custard, you said:
by (absolute) certainty I mean confidence in a fact A such that the perceived probability of A, P(A) satisfies 1 - P(A) = 0.

Probabilities are defined relative to background information. So whether one has the right to be certain depends on one's background information. Necessary truths are probable on any background information, and so satisfy your definition. I perceive the probability of 1+1=2 to be 100%, i.e. to be 1. So I am certain of it, on your definition.

But you started by saying:
if people say they are absolutely certain of something, I find it very offputting.

When people say that they are absolutely certain of something I don't think they are using your definition above. I think they are not so much talking about the probability of the proposition as their own feeling of sureness. So, I don't think you need to be put off by people like me saying that we are certain that God exists. Also, I don't think you need to attack the NIV translation's statement that `faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see', as I don't think that your conception was what the author(s) of Hebrews had in mind either.

John said...

Ah, well in that case I agree with you, and that's how I feel about some things (but annoyingly not about others).

John said...

My last comment was to "Speaker for the Dead".

Daniel - my use of "certain" was how a lot of people actually use it in practice. Maybe that's just my friends though...