The Sin of Certainty

“… let me tell you that the one sin I have come to fear more than any other is certainty. Certainty is the great enemy of unity. Certainty is the deadly enemy of tolerance. … If there was only certainty, and if there was no doubt, there would be no mystery and therefore no need for faith.”

(Cardinal Jacopo Lomeli, in “Conclave”, Robert Harris)

That quote really jumped out at me when I read it on Christmas Day. It seemed to sum up so much of what is wrong with the world today.

Certainty is the great enemy of unity”. That makes sense to me; if one is certain about something, then only that thing can be correct. And all other opinions must be erroneous. Instant division – either right or wrong, nothing in between.

Certainty is the deadly enemy of tolerance.” Same thing – if you’re certain about something, you’re not going to be particularly tolerant of those who don’t share your view.  At best you’re going to pity them, at worst despise them. Again that separation into the right-thinkers and the wrong-thinkers.

The trouble with Certainty is that it’s an absolute; it doesn’t allow for any shades of grey between black and white, between correct and incorrect, between right and wrong. And my experience of the world is that it’s a technicolor dream, with every possible shade available, depending upon your particular perspective.

Remember that Facebook post, where someone got the world arguing about the colour of a dress? Was it black and blue, or white and gold? Each side was completely certain about their view, based on the empirical evidence they experienced. Only later did it come out that because we each process colour differently both views were capable of being correct.

So it’s not just the airy-fairy stuff like opinions, morals and ethics – and dare I say it, religion – that is subject to unreliable perceptions, and therefore doubt. We can’t even rely on what we can see with our own eyes.

And that brings me to the last part of the passage: “… there would be no mystery and therefore no need for faith.” We need to understand that the vast majority of our experience of this reality is based on our own perception.  That means we take pretty much everything on faith. That might be faith in some higher being, or faith in what we are told by scientists, or some combination of the two.  That’s for each of us to choose for ourselves.

Because unless we have observed the behaviour of the quantum particles of an atom for ourselves, and with our own senses (hint: not with an electron microscope – that uses the very things we’re using it to observe!), then we are reliant on what the priests of the science dogma tell us is going on. Just as the churchgoers of the middle ages were reliant on their priesthood for their understanding of the world. And as the warriors of ancient times were reliant on the medicine man to explain the things that they experienced.

We have faith in science. Or in religion. Or in mumbo-jumbo. Whatever works for you.

The problems come when the adherents of one set of priests start to believe that their lot have got it all right. In other words, when they become certain. Because that means they have to tear down the followers of all the others.

History has shown us that there’s always trouble whenever anyone thinks they have all the answers. And especially if they think they’ve found The Answer. Because then they feel they have to defend their Answer, and impose it on those too stupid to see it for themselves.  And some new knowledge or perspective always pops up later, proving them ‘wrong’.  The sensible ones back down, and shuffle, shamefaced, into the canon of ‘people who got it oh so wrong’. The less sensible battle on, desperate to save face, thus taking the world into dangerous schisms, and even into war.

If you ask me, so far at least, only one entity has ever got The Answer right.  The Deep Thought computer (in Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy) said the answer to life, the universe, and everything is 42 – which just happens to be the ASCII code for the asterisk. Which happens to represent, well, whatever the hell you want it to be!

To me, the mystery that pervades all of life, that uncertainty about the world, that doubt that makes faith necessary, that’s what makes the world such fun. If there was one single, certain truth, then there would be one single, certain, inevitable way to get on in the world.  Like robots – or denizens of The Matrix.

And I thank God, Yahweh, Allah, Gaia, Spirit, and the Scientists – that there isn’t.

Because that would be so boring!

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Photo by Léa Dubedout on Unsplash