Mystery and Certainty Radical Bleeding Heart image

Those Who Accept Mystery vs. the Lovers of Certainty

The desire for certainty also splits conservatives from liberals. But only as a matter of degree. No doubt we would all like to be sure of things, to feel that we have a solid grasp of certain truth, but some of us are more comfortable accepting the idea that we might be wrong about something, even about our most cherished beliefs. We see value in a searching, questioning and open mind. We understand Socrates’ insistence that wisdom is knowing how little we really know. We are wise only when we accept our ignorance. Others find this horrifyingly unacceptable; they must have Absolute Certainty, total and unquestionable truth.

This is about the tolerance of mystery. What this means is acceptance of one's own ignorance. (Mystery, in this sense, is not about the “occult.” Believers in the occult actually think that they have all the answers. “Mystery” here just means that we do not have a clue and we know we have no clue.)

But surely, you think, we can be absolutely certain about some things, can't we?

The Truth About Certainty

Actually, no. The operative word here is “absolutely.” It is possible that we are wrong about everything that we think that we know. But we need not worry about that. Just because something is possible does not mean that it is likely. This is clearest when we are dealing with events for which we can actually calculate probabilities, such as the lottery. There are some things that are only improbable that can be treated as impossible and others that are merely probable but can be regarded as certain.

That is why it is foolish to buy lottery tickets. While it is technically possible that you will win, the likelihood is so small it might as well be impossible. For all practical purposes, your chances of winning the lottery are the same whether or not you buy a ticket.

We believe what we want to believe. That way we believe something to be possible that is virtually impossible (like the lottery) and believe others to be certain that are only probable — or perhaps not even that.

Next: What can we say about certainty?