Wednesday, October 11, 2006

On Certainty

So hey, guess what! I forgot to tell you blog people about this when it happened, but a few weeks ago I officially became a published author. A research paper I wrote with two professors was accepted for publication in a psychology journal. Can I call myself an "author" because I published a research paper? Bah, whatever, I'll just add that title to myself anyway.

The paper was about a concept called uncertainty orientation. It's the idea that people differ in how they react to uncertainty. Some people (certainty oriented) avoid it at all costs, wiggling out of uncertain situations in whatever way they can. Others (uncertainty oriented people) approach uncertainty, determined to resolve it themselves. It's kinda interesting, and it's funny how after you study something like this for a few years, you start to see these differences in everyday life.

Speaking of which, here is something I wrote in a comment on another blog a while ago. The owner of the blog is most definitely certainty oriented. She is absolutely convinced that her beliefs are true, and avoids any uncertainty regarding them, no matter what. She asked, "what makes being 100% certain about something a bad thing?" I'll paste my reply below, just because I thought it had some pretty nice points in there and I want to show off:

Why is being 100% certain about something a bad thing?
It's not, unless you happen to be a human being. All humans are fallible, subject to biases in their thinking and errors in their reasoning.

If one does not recognize these fundamental features of being human, then they can make themselves 100% certain in something, but it is not 100% certain to be true. If human reasoning does not always lead to truth, then beliefs are never guaranteed to correspond with reality, no matter how strongly held they are.

The more realistic human will realize their fallible nature, and maintain a certain degree of uncertainty in their beliefs. I know you may see this as a flaw, but as I've said many times, it is actually a strength.

Here's why:


when you are comfortable being uncertain and you refuse to acknowledge other possibilities which would lead you to be certain that isn't a good thing.
I think it's actually the opposite. When you are 100% certain of something, there is no point in even considering another possibility - it can't possibly be true if you are already 100% certain. On the other hand, if you hold even a bit of uncertainty - just .0001% - then there is still a point in having curiosity about conflicting viewpoints. There is a reason to examine information about the world, which is constantly increasing in volume and leading to different conclusions than the information before it. This will allow beliefs to be modified if the evidence about true, absolute reality reaches the point where the previously strongly held (but not 100%) belief becomes unlikely to be true.

For example, people used to think the world was flat. All the evidence they were exposed to verified this. I mean, look out the window, it's friggin flat. Now let's say two people believe the world is flat, but one believes in flatness with 100% certainty, and the other believes with 99%.

A few years later, people begin to travel. They discover that they could actually travel past the "edge" of the world they thought they saw before. Philosophers posit that maybe the earth is curved. People on high mountains swear that they can see a slight curve on all horizons.

The dude who believes 100% that the earth is flat ignores this liberal crap. He's already rejected all possibilities except flatness, so why even bother listening to this new evidence? The 99% person is skeptical, but listens, just in case the new evidence can wedge into that 1% chance that she is wrong.

Eventually, space travel is invented. The 100% guy ends up living in a cabin in the woods eating worms and wearing a tin foil helmet because he believes the government is involved in a grand conspiracy to fake space travel and convince everyone the earth is round, to brainwash children with their evil round-earth agenda. The 99% girl, however, becomes 90% girl, then 50% girl, and eventually 1% girl, because the new evidence about reality becomes too strong to maintaing belief in a flat earth. She lives a normal, healthy life, and doesn't have to resort to ridiculous extremes to maintain the belief which was proven wrong.

I hope you realize that this has little to do with religion; little to do with atheism. It's about belief in general. I just want to convince [people] to reserve that .000000001% uncertainty, so that [they] are slightly open to other possbilities. Not to accept those possibilities, but just to listen to them. [...]

Unless you like worms.


Yup. There you go...now there's some philosophy on this blog (since I mention philosophy in the description to the right there). Enjoy (?).

10 comments:

Jason said...

I couldn't agree with you more on this. The process of continually proving/disproving models and learning from it why I love science/mathematics (scientific method). We don't reject something merely because it conflicts with our held beliefs.

Salem said...

Yes, you are correct. I think you are correct to say it not about religion or atheism. It is as easily applied to any field where orthodoxies creep in.

Great post.

Timmy said...

congrats on the publication!

great post!

Phronk said...

Thanks dudes. I like it when people agree.

Dani said...

Congrats on your publication! Did I get any credit for it?

Personally, I like being 100% confident in my beliefs instead of in a constant state of fog and confusion, but that's just my radical worldview.

Perhaps one day you will believe something to be 100% true?

Until then - happy hunting!

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Phronk said...

Yes Dani, it's 100% dedicated to you.

Personally, I base my beliefs on what I think is true, not on what I like, but that's just my radical hippy view on things.

Anonymous said...

Like Randi said:
People forget the misses and remember the hits.
That's how mosta us folks try to
navigate this here ocean.
"If you prove me right,
you're family-
Prove me wrong?
no brother, but Evil itself."
People kill each other over sports rivalries- does it make sense we'd be better behaved in disagreements over religion or ancestral land?

Steven said...

I don't care what people say since I'm always right.

And, I'm certain of that.