On Being Certain

Edward W. H. Vick
We had gone away for a vacation, were far from home, had left it all behind and in spite of the weather were enjoying ourselves. Now it was Thursday evening. Before turning in for the night, we decided to listen to the news on the radio. So we turned it on. To my very great surprise the announcer said it was the Friday news. Friday? But it was Thursday. Since announcers make mistakes, and since events are not reported before they happen, we waited. But he went on acting as though he knew what he was talking about. I was certain that it was Thursday. But it turned out that I was wrong. It was Friday.
Someone whom I knew very well celebrated his birthday on the fourteenth of September, and had done it for years. on one occasion he had reason to examine his birth certificate, which informed him that he was born not on the fourteenth but on the fifteenth of September. He was for a very long time certain that it was the fourteenth. But he was wrong.
A family of expert naturalists went into the woods as they had done many, many times before. They were especially good at mushrooms. They went home with a bagful and ended up in hospital, fighting for their lives. They were certain the fungi were edible. They were wrong.
One thousand five hundred and thirteen people boarded the great boat that was making its maiden voyage across the Atlantic. It was the year 1912, and she was the most advanced liner ever built. She was called the Titanic. They were certain of comfort, luxury and of safety. One thousand five hundred and thirteen people never reached their destination. They were certain but they were wrong.
A young couple were quite certain that their proposed marriage would be a happy one. Other people were not so sure. The psychologist who counseled them advised them that the marriage would be disastrous. But they were certain it would be all right. They were married. The marriage ended in disaster. They were certain, but they were wrong.
So we could go on.
It is a fairly common human experience to be quite sure about something and yet to be wrong. Now that raises a very real and very interesting problem. What’s the point of being certain if you may be wrong? What is the status of your certainty? When I say, I’m certain or ‘I’m quite sure’ that says something about me, as much about me as about the way things are. In fact, as our examples show, it often says more about me than about the way things are. To be certain about something does not mean that what I’m certain about is true.
You can put it in a sentence. Certainty is not the same as truth. Now that is something well worth thinking about.
I learned, when they taught me about public speaking, that I must speak with confidence, even if I may not feel confident. After all, you can’t convince people about what you have to say if you don’t act as if you were certain. The fact is, I’m sure you’ve noticed it, that when people speak as if they were certain, other people will take what they have to say as true. But that is a confusion. When the speaker says, ‘Let me tell you something I’m quite certain about’ we can’t then simply assume that he is right. To be certain is not the same as being right.
If one hears something long enough one is apt to believe it. If you go on telling people something long enough, there is a good chance that they will end up believing what you tell them. The fact is that most of what we believe we have taken on authority. We do not, we did not question everything in all of the books that we were given to read. In fact we were in no position to be able to do so. So we had to rely upon being taught what was reliable.
But, instead of saying, ‘I’m certain’ people sometimes say ‘I know’. Then there is real trouble. You can, as we have seen, be certain of what is not true. But you cannot know what is not true. So when someone says, ‘I know’ when they only mean, ‘I’m certain,’ it is easy to be taken in if one is not careful.
Some things you should only be certain about if you have sufficient evidence. There is evidence which settles whether it is Thursday or Friday, whether one’s birthday is one day rather than another. If we are not aware of or have not given due weight to such evidence, our certainties are neither here nor there.
You have heard people arguing. Sometimes they argue about their certainties. ‘I’m sure it is’, says one. ‘I’m sure it is not’, says the other. But what are they arguing about? Nothing is more fruitless than a futile and unnecessary argument. Being certain is a state of mind, and you can get yourself into a state of mind. You can get with people who are more sure than you areor read only the arguments which support your own point of view, or refuse to listen when evidence is discussed. But the state of mind we call being certain may be neither here not there. It may not be worth a fig.
This means that some people who appear very serious are not half serious enough. I mean, you can make confident noises and gestures about your certainties and never really get down to brass tacks and ask not only, ‘What am I certain about?’ but also, Why am I certain about it?’ and the more important question, ‘Do I have grounds for being certain?’ For the fact of the matter is that we ought to reserve our states of certainty for what is in fact true We should be able to give reasons, cite evidence for our certainties. I believe that it is a moral obligation to examine our certainties with these and other questions in mind. Only so can we call ourselves honest. But we cannot, if we are honest, be superficial about it. It may go deeper than we thought. So ask yourself three questions and stay with them for awhile, for a life time. That should be long enough. What are you certain about? What do you claim for your certainties? Why are you certain? That means, What grounds do you have for being certain.
What all this implies is that some certainties are unreasonable however much they may please us and however much the prospect of giving them up may distress us. Perhaps in the most important areas of our human life, our illusions are just too expensive. A bigot or a fanatic is certain beyond what is reasonable, beyond what the evidence warrants. And a facade of certainty may be a cover for a real insecurity. But that is another matter – an important one, mind you. Very important! Since some certainties are unreasonable, and we ought to be as reasonable as we can, there is a moral aspect to our question. We ought to examine our certainties.
Have a look at the following argument and see what you make of it. It sums up what we have so far been saying.
We are sometimes mistaken when we are certain. To be certain cannot mean that we know the truth. To know the truth some other conditions besides being certain must be fulfilled. If such conditions are fulfilled then a feeling of certainty is irrelevant. Such a condition is the presence of evidence, or of sound reasons. So we ought to seek for evidence and for sound reasons when we wish to attain to the truth.
The pilot will trust his instruments in spite of his own feelings. His instruments are the windows to reality, his indicators of truth. However, intuitively, he may be certain, he must not trust his intuition in defiance of the readings of his instruments. They provide him with appropriate evidence. So when it is a matter of checking my certainties there is often appropriate evidence to which I can appeal.
However certain I may be that it is Thursday, if I have not examined the evidence for that certainty then my feeling of certainty is irrelevant. I could get the morning paper, or look at the calendar, I could recount the days from the one I was last certain (!) about, no not that – you see how easily we say the wrong thing – from the one I knew. I could have kept a diary.
Some people who have considered the matters we have been talking about have ended up by abandoning all claim to be certain. But we must not do that. In fact you can’t
do it. Just think for a moment about the claim, ‘You cannot be certain of anything’ and you will find it very unusual. It’s queer, this skeptical claim, since it seems to say no and yes at the same time, to deny and to affirm simultaneously. To say, ‘You can’t be certain of anything!’ means that you must be certain of that. So it is self-contradictory, or rather self-refuting, as the following conversation shows.
Anyone who says he’s certain is a fool.’
Are you certain of that?’
Of course I am certain.’
Even if you try to question every certainty you’ll find that you can’t doubt them all. So watch out.
Now, there are predispositions to believe certain kinds of people, provided they speak confidently. If a scientist says you can be certain of it, especially it he has a white coat on, people are apt to believe that what he says is true and in turn to speak with certainty about the matter. But the history of science shows that one man’s certainties were another man’s questions. One person’s answer is another person’s quest. One person’s orthodoxy is another person’s scandal. But it is only when the appropriate methods and evidence are forthcoming that one can speak about truth, or even a quest for truth.
The history of science also provides us with instances of certainties which were abandoned with the understanding of the evidence. It also provides us with examples of bigotry and of foolishness in clinging to long-held positions. At the outset of the modern era, most people who asked the question held that the universe was earth-centered They were certain. They were unanimous, but they were wrong. There are some things the truth of which is not settled by the counting of hands, by disputations, but by the appropriate interpretation of the evidence. The Aristotelians appealed to Aristotle and produced their arguments, but Galileo offered them his telescope. When they refused to look through it, and instead demanded a discussion on Aristotelian lines, they could no longer be said to be reasonable. Since they were no longer reasonable, their certainties were not longer reasonable certainties. Moreover they were in error.
In religious matters we hear a lot about certainty. So we have to be especially careful, and it must be said – deliberately honest in such things. To say, ‘We are certain’ is not the same as saying ‘We know the truth.’Of course religion is a disputed matter, inside and outside Christianity. You can usually be sure either of long silence or of a good discussion when the question comes round to religion. Since one person’s certainty is another person’s query, the question arises very seriously here. What is the status of my certainty? May I not be projecting my certainties on to reality and calling it by religious names, such as God, revelation, heaven, immortality? Of course I may. It does happen. Not all believers worship the same God, even in the same community. So we must beware.
The believer confesses the certainty of his faith. The preacher declares it. The theologian examines it. The theologian, if he is worth his salt, refuses to let you take your certainties for granted. He asks the why, the wherefore. He faces outward to the non-believer and asks the questions from without. What are the grounds for your faith, for your beliefs? What are your grounds for your claims about Jesus Christ, for the authority you accept, the Bible, the church? What are the grounds for your understanding of God, as for example, Trinity? What are the grounds for claiming that there is some relation between what you believe and how you live?
The honest Christian theist is not afraid to face the hard question, to try for an answer. Honesty is one of the Christian virtues most to be valued. If you seek it, you will need patience as well – the ability to face the crisis, to suffer the unknown and to keep trusting when perhaps much seems lost. The prize is theological, intellectual and personal integrity.
But let is now put the glove on the other hand. For our observations work both ways, for the theist, the believer in God, and for the non-theist, the one who does not believe in God. For it is true of the atheist that his certainty is not necessarily relevant, when he claims, ‘I’m quite certain that God is not as Christians claim him to be, a God of love’, or ‘I’m quite certain that there is no God’, or ‘I’m quite certain that God is not a God of strict justice.’ There is such a thing as a superficial and unreasonable atheism, as there is such a thing as a superficial and unreasonable theism. In neither case can one simply appeal to one’s certainty.
We feel, I think, that being certain, the mental state of certainty, is only really warranted when it has due support. In our off moments, we may well be fooled by someone’s certainty, especially when we want to believe what he commends. But when we reflect we are not so easily taken in. We’re not taken in when the lunatic says he’s Julius Caesar, or when the actor declaims that he is Richard III, King of England. We then have our critical wits about us. But in cases where the matter is not so clear-cut, we have ways of getting at the truth or falsity of the matter, if we are serious enough.
Yes, it’s when we value truth that we must examine our certainties. So what are you certain about? Take a long hard look at it. Remember, it ain’t necessarily so.


PS. And now I want to write a postscript. I’m quite aware that there are some certainties which my being certain about is enough to show that they are true. It is true that I am awake, that I am thinking (when I am thinking), that I am in pain when I am awake , thinking and in pain, and that is enough for me to know the truth in these instances. It’s quite different for me to say, ‘He’s awake, he’s thinking, he’s in pain,’ because I am not directly aware of some one else’s states of mind. But the religious certainties are about beliefs and relationships and these are mediated. Someone witnesses to me about God. I read things in books which someone has written about Jesus Christ. So they are unlike my immediate self-awareness, and I must therefore seek to show that the religious certainties I have are well grounded. I must talk about them being true and in doing so produce reasons and evidence which point to their truth. Then I can be reasonably certain.
(Edward W. H. Vick is author of History and Christian Faith, The Adventists’ Dilemma, and the forthcoming Energion title From Inspiration to Understanding: Reading the Bible Seriously and Faithfully, which will begin shipping next week.)

Similar Posts

One Comment

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.