A Case Against Certainty


bloompiece in The Atlantic, by Paul Bloom, not long ago, took for granted a few issues that may not have been settled to everyone’s satisfaction quite yet. He asserts, as many scientists do now, that human beings are strictly physical creatures, that (with some small exceptions allowed for the randomness inherent in quantum physics), human beings are basically machines: every aspect of our behavior determined my measurable and predictable causes in the brain. Free will, he says, is an illusion. You are your neurons and little else and your neurons aren’t capable of random, spontaneous behavior — that’s allowed only for subatomic particles. And yet, he urges us to choose reason as a guide for behavior, even if choice itself is an illusion.

His praise of reason is something to celebrate in a society where rationality is seldom drafted into service where we need it most: politics, the world of business and many other areas of life. But what strikes me as odd, in my modest role as a layman when it comes to science, politics, many other subjects, is how we’re bedeviled by certainty about many things (Bloom’s assurance that consciousness is merely physical, and free will is an illusion). The human brain is one of the least understood aspects of the physical universe. However, areas of the brain can be manipulated to produce predictable effects in a person’s behavior and experience. This suggests to Bloom and others that as rational, conscious agents, we are merely the puppets of electrical activity inside our skulls. But I think it’s safe to say it may not follow from this that our consciousness is nothing but a physical byproduct of electrical activity in the brain — and that we are nothing but our bodies. In the addict or the psychotic, the brain may indeed turn a person into something of a robot. But is this true for all of us? Whence this certainly about the nature of the physical universe, by the way? Zoom out to cosmology and physics and you face our fragmentary understanding of nearly everything. Ninety-five percent of the universe consists of dark matter and dark energy: inaccessible to scientific observation. What science can measure and observe represents about five percent of the physical world. It would seem to me that certainty about anything therefore seems a bit premature, doesn’t it, if we can scientifically observe only a tiny portion of the physical world around us? Dark energy and dark matter are supposedly everywhere and yet out of reach to our investigations.

I’ve begun to wonder if the need for certainty may be the real problem. We’ve become intolerant of doubt, especially self-doubt: we don’t know how to live with the notion that we might be mistaken while continuing to strive to be reasonable. (By contrast, Socrates built his entire approach to life and thought based on his assurance that he knew nothing.) Let’s put aside the philosophical issue of determinism vs. free will. Even if B.F. Skinner was right and our behavior is entirely determined by past events, nonetheless we experience life as a sequence of often difficult, even agonizing, choices. Accepting that we aren’t actually free, philosophically, has little bearing on the way we experience choice: the struggle of the diet, the joy of picking the winning horse, the pleasure of stopping and doing something self-sacrificing for someone else. Most of the time, we choose uncertainly, based on what we know.

Yet sometimes we need to choose before we understand. In the context of faith, this is especially the case. A recent piece by Noah Millman about Charles Taylor’s writing states this remarkable and insightful truth early on and then moves along to other issues: ” … the nature of hearing the divine command (is) that we can’t really hear it until we’ve performed it.” This Zen-like paradox goes to the heart of religious faith. Until you practice it, you don’t understand how it works, or what it actually is. To a materialist like Paul Bloom this would doubtless sound like nonsense, but it echoes what Karen Armstrong asserted as the central thesis of her wonderful book, The Case for God. Her simple but nettlesome notion: religion is primarily about learning through behavior, rather than thought. For an academic, this would be anathema. Being faithful to God is a state riddled with painful hesitations and uncertainties, as the story of Abraham illustrates. You choose to be faithful, you choose to do what you believe you should do, sometimes against all your deepest impulses, and you hope that the truth of your actual behavior will become clear to you down the road. Faith isn’t about knowing, or about certainty, but about choosing to obey to something more important than your own self-interest. Most of all, having faith doesn’t mean that you memorize a set of propositions about the world. It isn’t about that sort of certainty. The only proof of God is in human behavior, the humble choices people make, from day to day. Reason is one of the best tools for helping us make them, but it isn’t the only one and it only takes us so far. And the simple fulfillment of doing something altruistically for others provides not only a sense of personal happiness, but a life with meaning. And that isn’t an illusion.