It’s pretty scary to stop and think about how little we can be certain of.
Death and taxes are pretty much it, and if you’re rich enough you don’t even need to worry about taxes. I mean, a few years ago, the entire internet ground to a halt because we discovered we couldn’t even be certain about the colour of a dress.
Complex moral issues, globe-spanning political problems, the question of what happens after we die, some people feel so certain about these impossible questions that they’re willing to oppress, dehumanise and even kill anyone who disagrees with them, and through this is enormously problematic and may even seem counterintuitive, there are good reasons why this is the case.
The dangers of doubt.
Back when our early ancestors were roaming the Earth, being certain was a matter of life and death. Which plants were safe to eat, whether an animal or environment was dangerous, how best to store food in preparation for the winter, there was no room to be unsure about the answers to these questions. Either you were right or you were dead.
But there were other issues too, which they couldn’t be certain about: whether the winter would be too harsh or the summer too hot, whether there would be a drought or a flood, whether a mysterious sickness would come along and wipe out the village. Our ancestors were intelligent enough to understand that the answers to these questions held the key to their survival, but not yet intelligent enough to solve them.
So realising that they couldn’t tame the sun and the rain as they had so much of the rest of the world, they did the only thing they could; they reasoned with them, and when that didn’t work, they pleaded with them. “Shine and we’ll offer you some of our harvest,” they said to the sun. “Fall, and we will dance for you,” they said to the rain.
Of course, this never actually worked. The sun and the rain are indifferent to dancing after all, yet they still carried on dancing and offering. They did this because it was far less important for the shamans and priestesses to succeed than it was for them to convince those around them that they knew what to do. The people just needed someone to sound certain enough that they felt safe doing as they were told while they waited for things to get better.
Our instincts still operate like this today, the only difference being that the things we want to control have changed. For each thing we’ve come to understand, like the sun and the rain, there are new mysteries like gerrymandering or trickle-down economics, new questions like how to unleash our true potential or how to find true love.
The forces that control these things appear just as vast and remote to us as the sun and the rain must have seemed to our ancestors, so once again, we look for someone who sounds certain enough that we feel safe doing as we’re told while we wait for things to get better. Just as before, it doesn’t matter if they’re right. The free market/politics/love is at least as unpredictable and powerful a force as the sun after all.
So here we are. Living in an age where it’s more important to be certain than it is to be right. Where it’s more common for our politicians to attack each other than to admit they don’t know everything. Where admitting doubt is the same as admitting weakness. And all because somewhere deep down inside of ourselves, we still believe that being certain is a matter of life and death.
But the truth is, none of us is certain of anything, or at least none of us should be. Certainty is why war has raged in the Middle East for over a century. It’s what allowed the Nazis to persecute and exterminate millions of Jews. It’s what allowed terrorists to fly planes full of innocent people into buildings full of thousands more. Nobody could do these things from a place of doubt, that’s why doubt is so desperately important.
Instead of striving for certainty, what if we learn to accept that there are things we don’t know? What if we recognise and learn from our mistakes? If we talk in good faith with people who see things differently to us instead of fighting against them? What if we’re honest and hardworking and sensible?
The tragedy of our existence, the great threat to our existence, is that this seems increasingly unrealistic. That claiming knowledge we don’t have and digging our heels in when it’s challenged seems more palatable to us than admitting that there are gaps in our understanding of the world.
But the truth is, despite the discomfort uncertainty can bring, we thrive on those gaps. Doubt has led us from worshipping the sun to firing rockets into it. Doubt has taken us from believing that disease was caused by evil spirits, to developing vaccines which most people are intelligent enough to use. Doubt is simply the recognition of the fact that there’s still more to learn. Does any of us truly doubt that?