Uncertainty

Humanists will recognise that science does not give us certainty. The truths of science are provisional. Further evidence can and often does change our understanding of the world. Nor can evidence from the past give us guarantees about how things will behave in the future (the fact that an experiment always leads to the same results does not guarantee that it always will). This means we can never be absolutely certain of anything.

A consequence, then, of the humanist approach to knowledge is that humanists have to be prepared to live with uncertainty. To embrace the scientific method is to embrace scepticism and doubt. For many humanists, however, this is a virtue of science rather than a vice.

There may possibly be questions about ourselves and the world that we will never be able to answer, questions beyond our most powerful microscopes or telescopes. For humanists, however, this does not mean we should say the world is simply too mysterious and abandon our search for the truth. Nor is it a reason to fall back on supernatural explanations. Sometimes we simply have to accept that we do not have an answer to a question and accept that perhaps we never will.

Accepting that we cannot have certainty does not mean that we cannot have confidence in our beliefs. We have seen how beliefs can be both reasonable and reliable. Scientific theories are given the status of knowledge or truth because the evidence for them is sound and there has been no evidence against them. The belief that we can accept propositions of knowledge even though they cannot be proved with absolute certainty is called fallibilism.

However, if we are ever to make progress on the quest for truth then we must be prepared to admit when we are wrong and to change our minds when we are confronted with new evidence.

‘Rationalism is an attitude of readiness to listen to contrary arguments and to learn from experience. . . of admitting that ‘I may be wrong and you may be right and, by an effort, we may get nearer the truth’’

Karl Popper, The Open Society and Its Enemies

We must also be prepared to hold back from proclaiming definitive conclusions on those things for which the scientific jury is still out.

‘I try not to think with my gut. If I’m serious about understanding the world, thinking with anything besides my brain, as tempting as that might be, is likely to get me into trouble. It’s OK to reserve judgement until the evidence is in.’

Carl Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark

Uncertainty need not be something to be feared. The absence of certainty, and the recognition of our epistemic frailties, opens the door to one of life’s great pleasures… curiosity.

Uncertainty should not stop us from pursuing knowledge. We can and we do make progress. Science might not give us cast-iron guarantees that our beliefs are true, but it is extremely reliable at informing us about what is likely or unlikely to be true about the world. We owe it to ourselves and to others to search for truths about the world, and to not be afraid to challenge perceived wisdoms. Even if we accept that we can never know all the answers, it is unlikely to stop human beings from looking. Curiosity is part of human nature.

We can perhaps, then, conclude by returning to Socrates, who, as we learned, instructed us that ‘wisdom begins in wonder’. Another phrase attributed to the philosopher is that ‘the unexamined life is not worth living’. That is something many humanists would agree with.

Question: Can uncertainty be a positive thing?

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This article is from the free online course:

Introducing Humanism: Non-religious Approaches to Life

Humanists UK