Before I was rudely interrupted by a crashing computer, I was preparing a post exploring how we know what we think we know. Many people in the modern world think that the only way we can know anything is through reason and some form of what today we call science. I have a huge respect for science. I am a scientist. Science has been an incalculable contribution to my understanding of the world, and has, at times, willed me with awe.
But valuable as science is, I am under no illusion that it is a potential source of infallible truth or certainty. Scientific “facts” are not absolute, and are changing far more often than most people realize. Facts must constantly be verified with evidence. And then re-verified and re-verified in an unending process. When we learn something new or take a different perspective, we often change our minds. Things which we assumed to be absolutely beyond question are no longer accepted. Science, in other words, is our best guess based on the evidence we have before us at any given time. But its conclusions are never beyond the possibility of doubt.
If logical reasoning or science can’t give us certainty even about this world here and now, can we answer questions which are beyond the scope of science with any certainty at all? questions like what happens after we die? what is the purpose of life? is warfare ever morally justifiable? does my husband love me? what career should I choose? is there a God? does prayer ever change what happens? should I have a child? should I get a divorce?
Again, for some people the answer to these questions lies in religious faith. Within this perspective, answers to these and many other questions are revealed to us by God. These answers cannot be verified by proof, and are therefore beyond question. Doubt therefore, for many believers, is a form of sin, because it is seen to be questioning God’s revelation. In this sense, faith can give us absolute certainty.
When the same faith is adopted by the whole culture we live it, it is often highly convincing and supportive. But the problem with faith becomes apparent when we come in contact with others whose faith leads them to different conclusions about what God has revealed. Our globalized world today is awash with violence justified by millions of people who believe that their faith is the only valid revelation from God, and that anyone who disagrees with them is wrong. Some of these people believe they have a God-given mandate to wipe the earth clean of anyone who disagrees with them. Given such disagreements, it is obvious that somebody’s faith must be wrong however certain the individual may be that they are right.
So what about intuition? Can we intuit some realities by some other method, through some other medium than scientific reasoning or blind faith? Can I learn something from Beethoven’s Fifth? Or the expression on the face of a child? Can a poem teach me something I could never learn in church? or from a scientific study? Is that inexplicable sense of awe one achieves after hiking to the mountain top a valid insight into a reality that cannot be expressed adequately in mathematical equations or religious dogma? Can I learn something holding my newborn child in my arms that I could not learn in any other way?
I am willing to live by – and even die for – some of the insights I have learned through intuition. I would stake my life on the certainty that my husband loves me. I live every day with the conviction that existence is good, that all life is worthy of respect, that although I do not understand it, “the universe is unfolding as it should”. But like acts of faith, these intuitive certainties are not necessarily universal. I might be willing to live by them, but other people have reached intuitive conclusions, sometimes in the context of deeply profound experiences, with which I do not agree. So on some level, I know I might be wrong. My knowledge at the very least is seriously incomplete.
So is uncertainly the inescapable human condition? Can we never know anything for certain?
My own guess is that the answer is both yes and no.
Personally, I deeply distrust absolute certainty. I prefer to live in mystery. But I have come to appreciate that for some people, certainty is a source of strength. I am not as dismissive of religious faith, for instance, as I used to be. Religious belief is not always stunting, it does not always constrict the world, or limit concern to those one might consider “one of us.” Even those who interpret the metaphors of revelation literally sometimes gain great strength and wisdom from them. I remember my own mother facing her death at the age of 48 and leaving behind 10 children, the youngest of whom was 6 years old. Expecting to be standing before the gates of heaven and telling St. Peter that she had accepted and loved all the children God sent to her gave her the strength and peace she needed to accept her death with great generosity.
To this day, I am not confidant I could do what she did.