The Certainty Trap: weekend reflections on The Primacy of Doubt

“You lye, you are not sure; for I say, Woman, ’tis impossible to be sure of any thing but Death and Taxes.” – Toby Guzzle, a character in a play The Cobbler of Preston, by Christopher Bullock (1716)

(“Nothing is certain but death and taxes?” Usually attributed to Benjamin Franklin, but the priority really traces back further.)  


Do you want to contribute your bit to progress in basic physics as well as branches of applied and social science that people care about – e.g., meteorology, economics, the science of the brain, the science of war?  The physicist/meteorologist Tim Palmer, in his delightful and substantive book The Primacy of Doubt, suggests to succeed you should embrace uncertainty-and-the-way-it-shapes-reality as your starting point, in whatever direction you set out.

Actually, in his book and its structure, he hints at something more rather more grand and encompassing: Acknowledging the primacy of doubt is the way to do life.

In his Opening Note, he says to the reader, “ …you may wonder, since pretty much everything in life is uncertain [emphasis added], why I focus on the particular, seemingly disparate [scientific]topics singled out in this book…”

In his Introduction, he picks up the theme again: “UNCERTAINTY IS AN ESSENTIAL PART OF THE HUMAN CONDITION. We don’t know if we will be run over by a bus in the coming week or win some stupendous prize…Perhaps we might wish for supernatural powers to predict the future and relieve us from the stress of living under such uncertainties. But what sort of people would we be if we had these powers? If we knew for certain what was heading our way, would we still be the creative, get-up-and-go species we are?”

And at book’s close, he makes a foray into the spiritual, and into conjecture on the existence and nature of God, he draws a parallel to the cosmological invariant set. He makes a final mention of the Lorenz attractor, drawing attention to its butterfly-like appearance, and Lorenz’ discovery of the butterfly effect. He asks hypothetically if we were to construct a picture of the global fractal geometry of the cosmological invariant set (which he acknowledges is well-nigh impossible), might it not look like the multi-faceted face of God? His final sentences? “It feels like an intriguing idea. But of course I have my doubts.”

Wow. Doubt: the alpha and omega of real-world living.

But there’s more to this story. Just as Franklin didn’t originate “his” ironic aphorism about the unique certainty of death and taxes, this idea of doubt as fundamental to real world living isn’t uniquely Tim Palmer’s[1].

The world has come at this in a variety of ways. One fairly recent articulation is the so-called  Certainty Trap (apologies for the link here, which only shows the large variety of starting points for pursuing this idea further).

Ilana Redstone is an eloquent voice in this space. An example, with respect to politics; she says this:

“In the case of thorny issues, certainty can be an invisible trap… [by recognizing it] we can better understand and navigate disagreements far beyond those that concern the existence of God. Certainty often leads to a tendency to be dismissive or disdainful of ideas, positions, or even questions that one doesn’t agree with—particularly when those ideas, positions, or questions touch beliefs we hold dear. The most difficult problems set in when we hold them so closely that we cease to realize they’re personal beliefs at all.

One of those problems is political polarization. The term is vague, but here I’m using it to refer to multiple, interrelated factors. One factor is the way the primary political parties have adopted increasingly more extreme positions, especially in the United States. Another is the growing tendency to express disdain not just for the position one doesn’t agree with, but for the moral character of the person who holds it… 

Her perspective merits a read in its entirety; hopefully this whets your appetite. For example, later in that same piece she writes (those of us who are scientists might take special note):

“The fight against mis- and dis-information—a worthy goal—is often based on two flawed assumptions. The first is that definitive answers are known to the disputed points. The second, related to the first, is that the right people to provide those answers can be identified and agreed upon. Both assumptions are themselves often steeped in the Certainty Trap—a resolute unwillingness to recognize the possibility that we might not be right in our beliefs and claims.

Here’s another more recent piece by Redstone, focusing on tumultuous events at Stanford Law, but offering more general truths. An excerpt (again, you might want to read the fuller context):

So how can we avoid the Certainty Trap and engage without compromising core beliefs or countenancing views that we believe cause harm?

There are two basic ways. One is to be aware that the tendency to condemn the character of someone who disagrees with us comes from a certainty that is fundamentally inconsistent with the world we live in — even if that means examining our certainty around what constitutes harm itself.

The other is to recognize that no idea, value or principle is exempt from questioning, examination or criticism — by oneself or others. This second piece means clearly articulating our principles. After all, it’s difficult to question what hasn’t been named. But, again, it doesn’t require letting those principles go.

Ultimately, we don’t have to abandon our principles or our values — we just have to be willing to hold them up to the light and examine them. One way to think about avoiding the Certainty Trap is that it’s less about answering questions than it is about generating them.

Much to chew on!

A concluding thought. Avoiding the certainty trap, acknowledging the primacy of doubt, is a key first step to working with others to solve real-world problems, ranging from terrorism and war; to poverty; the environment and natural resources; and much more.

All this has been summed up in another aphorism: “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.”

Of course, Mark Twain coined that truth. (Or maybe not…)



[1] In fact, there may be a general truth here; the only truly unique ideas are minor, flawed ones. Truly good ideas are widely, perhaps even universally held; however vaguely, by all eight billion of us and those who have gone before. Our contributions lie, and are limited to, unique articulations of those.

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One Response to The Certainty Trap: weekend reflections on The Primacy of Doubt

  1. Or, as Nietzsche said, “The lies of Great Men are often more fruitful than the Truths of Lesser Ones.”

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