100% Absolute Certainty

Posted by on March 30, 2012 in Featured, Thoughts | 13 comments

“Doubt is not a pleasant condition, but certainty is absurd.” – Voltaire

The universe is an incredibly complex place. At any given moment there will be more actions taking place universally than a human mind can possibly comprehend. Add to this, even the most advanced computer simulation will not be able to predict with absolute certainty the outcomes of a given situation. Things are just too complex, there are too many variables, there are factors we may not take into consideration, and there is human error; all of these factors can change the outcome of a situation being tested.

Even daily occurrences cannot be predicted with absolute certainty. There is enough going on outside of your control that you can’t possibly know for absolute certain that your plans for the day will pan out as you want them to. For instance, let’s imagine that every night before you go to bed you set your alarm for six in the morning, with full expectations that it will sound giving you enough time for your daily constitutional and to arrive at work on time. But maybe a storm cut power to your house while you were sleeping, the cat kicked out the cord from the wall socket, or maybe you went to bed late and slept through the alarm. To your mind when you went to bed there was no reason to suspect that any of these things would cause you to be late for work. In any case, the certainty you had that you would get to work on time turned out to be outside of your control. If you had known all the variables in advance, you may have been able to take action to avoid being late. But there is no certainty there, there is only reasonable expectations based on expected reasonable occurrences.

These occurrences, while unlikely, are much more likely than waking up to find that your cat had turned into a pumpkin, or waking up to discover that while you were sleeping that you morphed into a cockroach (as happened in the Kafka story “Metamorphosis“); that is so unlikely that we could label it impossible, within reason. And you could say with a reasonable level of certainty that you will not wake up in the body of an insect. Has something this ever happened before in all of human history? Outside of the Kafka story, I’d say not. And with this in mind, some things are more likely than others, and this should give us a basis for the level of certainty we hold about given situations. The more spurious the claim, the lower the likelihood that it is true, and the less certainty there should be given to this claim.

If however a friend told you that they’d woken up one morning to find themselves in the body of a giant cockroach, and that they still inhabit that form, although it is clear to you that they are in human form, you would tell them that maybe they should seek help for their obvious delusion. Perhaps medication and counselling would assist with their problem?

But these kinds of unliklihoods can be written off as impossible, there is no precedent for them, no known way they could occur, and are far more likely to be the product of an ill mind than the laws of the universe conspiring together for this outcome.

While the ridiculous situation outlined above may seem too far fetched to even be worth consideration, claims of this sort are made regularly and with apparent 100% certainty by people who believe in the literal interpretations of the holy books. Water, which has no grape juice in it, can turn to wine, and bread made from wheat can somehow turn into a complex living organism in the form of a fish. In fiction, things like this can happen all the time, but in reality, the world we all inhabit physically, these things are not only very, very unlikely, but are so unlikely to occur that we label them impossible.

In science, outcomes from experiments may vary from time to time, but there is a level of predictability that can be ascertained by repeating the experiment. The level of variation in outcomes is not as great as in the Kafka example, but there is some variation. Through controlling the environment of the experiment (sterile equipment, removal of anything that may interfere with what is trying to be measured), persistence and repetition we can arrive at a reasonable level of expectation of outcomes, but 100% certainty of outcomes is not one of them. There are simply too many variables for every possible factor in the universe to be taken into consideration.

There is even an entire physical principle which hinges on uncertainty. Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle shows that within quantum mechanics, “the more precisely one property is measured, the less precisely the other can be controlled, determined, or known.” (from Wikipedia) This has been a fundamental discovery in the understanding of quantum physics and quantum mechanics.

The recent “faster than light neutrino” claims coming from CERN, which instantly drew skepticism from people in the scientific community, for it went against the accepted laws of physics. As it turned out, it was too good to be true, and the results of the experiment could be blamed on a faulty cable. In this case, something too good to be true was in fact false. This skepticism from the scientific community shows fact that a single result is not enough to make something factual. And note, the results coming from CERN were not announced as “absolute proof of faster than light particles”. Rather the question was posed based on the fact that further testing was needed. If in fact we do discover that a particle can travel faster than light, it will not be decided by one single test, rather from many tests.

Uncertainty is part of reality, part of science. In fact, if it weren’t for uncertainty, mankind would never have asked what was beyond the next hill, why we stick to the ground instead of floating away, and what is beyond the stars. It is the uncertainties about our existences that keep us moving forward. Without uncertainty, we would still be stuck in the Dark Ages courtesy of the apparent “certainty” that religion offers. Religion placates the uncomfortable doubts about our existence and the nature of the finality of death by replacing them with the “certainty” of the existence of God, heaven and the afterlife. There are no worries, then, of doubting the purpose of your existence.

Benjamin Franklin is often quoted as saying “In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.” I’d like to add a third, that a person claiming absolute certainty is certainly deluded.

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13 Comments

  1. I am 100% certain that this post is truly awesome, and a real takedown of religionists who are certain of things that they can’t even define coherently.

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  2. I love what you wrote. The skeptical thinker must understand degrees of certainty.
     
    markjoseph125, the religious need only be certain of 1 specific thing: that history contains at least 1 miracle. That can be any miraculous event described by their religion that is (not merely a fluke of nature but) an act of the God they have in mind. For example, that this universe was created by a someone, and not merely by a natural consequence of nothingness (as suggested by physicists such as Lawrence Krauss).

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    • The above (religious certainty about divine miracles) seems necessary but not sufficient for the grooming of religionists.

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    •  @blamer I consider the term “miracle” to have no meaning. If an event occurs, then it is ipso facto natural, and can be studied with a view to explaining it. If it is in the so-called supernatural realm, then by definition it cannot interact with us (at least, not without thereby becoming natural!). “He couldn’t believe in ghosts or demons. He knew that supernatural happenings tended to break down, under detailed examination, into eminently natural events. The ones that didn’t break down—stopped. Ghosts just wouldn’t stand still and let a nonbeliever examine them. The phantom of the castle was invariably on vacation when a scientist showed up with cameras and tape recorders.” (Robert Sheckley)

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      •  @markjoseph125 I tend to agree. Even if history is full of events that were physical “glitches” in naturalism, modern humans are still no closer than Abraham to providing a trustworthy explanation of why those rare events even need a cause (let alone a causal mind, that our ancestors thought of as gods).

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  3. “bread made from wheat can somehow turn into a complex living organism in the form of a fish” — What religious story is this alluding to?

    /@

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    •  @AntAllan I thought perhaps it was some kind of mis-memory of the myth of the 5 or maybe 7 loaves and 2 fishes that fed thousands.
       
      Not that the original version was ever very convincing, either.

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      • @JohnSpraggs That’s what I thought, but I was just trying to give Martin the benefit of the doubt…

        In school, it was explained to us that the boy’s example encouraged others to share what food they’d brought. Which I’m sure the writers could’ve made more clear if that “had” been what happened!

        /@

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        • Damn you’re right… It was a brain fart. I’ll fix that asap.

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  4. Great post Martin!  I must say you have some strange cats in your house!  In all seriousness, it seems to me that it is the religious who demand absolute certainty.  As you rightfully point out, science does not work that way.  Dawkins says something to the effect that it is the uncertainty, the unknowing that keeps the scientist from getting bored in The God Delusion.  Science is constantly questioning what “is” and looking for a better answer.  By its nature, it rejects many things as absolute.
     
    Religion on the other hand does not have that luxury.  If we start to pick apart parts of the stories, it is not long before the whole thing unravels.  They “must” be certain of their beliefs, even in the face of an overwhelming lack of evidence.  The religious know better than or at least as well as anyone that their books, dogma etc, will not hold up to skeptical thinking.  This is why skeptical thinking is discouraged and has, for long periods of time been punishable by death, torture, etc.

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  5. There are people who fear reality even more than death.  Thus, as long as they remain alive they have no choice but to offer others the delusion of certainty. 

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    •  @Clyde Baxter That’s right. Psychologists tell us certain personality types (conservatives, authoritarians) care more about certainty than tuning their beliefs to match the facts.

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  6. Voltaire was half right. Absolute certainty is absurd. As an absurdist, I know this all too well. What Voltaire got wrong was doubt. It’s a very pleasant condition to be in, and I just dropped in to see what condition my condition was in. (hic) 
     
    I am 100% certain that the god i used to believe in never existed. I know this, because I could not scientifically prove the god I believed in to myself or anyone else. If something that resembles my god shows up in the future, it still won’t be my god cuz i couldn’t prove he existed before he showed up. Belief without proof that happens to be right later does not mean you were ever correct. That’s like saying after you win the lottery that you always knew those numbers would show up. No you didn’t. You guessed. Or you just used a quickpick and let someone else guess for you. That’s cheating. And by the way, the Torah, New Testament, or Quran are like quickpicks. It’s letting someone else guess for you. 
     
    I am also 100% certain that anyone else’s god also does not exist, cuz they cannot prove their god exists now. If something that happens to resemble their god happens to show up later, that’s coincidence or luck. That’s not certainty. It’s still not their god, even if it claims to be their god. They couldn’t prove their god now, so winning the lottery later doesn’t mean they were ever right. 
     
    Maybe you call that 99.9% repeating certainty. As Vi Hart once explained in her YouTube videos, as far as mathematicians are concerned, that’s the same as 100%. Check out her stuff about infinities. Can I be certain something that might resemble someone’s god might exist now? No. Of course not. THAT would be absurd. I CAN say I am 100% if something YOU might call a god shows up later, I WON’T call it a god. I AM 100% certain of that. Except for SubGenius gods CUZ THEY ARE ALL FREAKIN ABSOLUTELY 100% REAL I’M SRS AS A HART ATTACK!  
     
    Saying we can’t be 100% certain based on what we currently know is like saying no one can ever know who murdered someone by observing the crime scene and following the evidence where it leads. Cuz you weren’t there. You didn’t see it happen. How can you be 100% absolutely certain? 
     
    Our law system has put people in jail for committing crimes and then 25 years later DNA shows up and proves beyond a reasonable doubt that they were wrong before when they proved beyond a reasonable doubt that they were right. You can be 100% absolutely certain now, and still be proven wrong later. 
     
    I am 100% certain that the god i used to believe in never existed. I look forward to the day when He shows up and proves me wrong. Not gonna lose sleep over it or hold my breath cuz I couldn’t prove he exists scientifically. Besides, i got some sinnin’ to do.

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