The Need for Certainty

Thinking Tips

“Certainty denotes confidence that one can act on a conclusion without doubt, without needing further deliberation or investigation.” (Harry Binswanger, How We Know)

I learned firsthand of the need for certainty to act during Superstorm Sandy some years ago. I was living in Midtown Manhattan in a section of the city that lost power for four days. My husband and I sheltered in place with our two cats in our 16th floor apartment.

The first day I couldn’t concentrate. I got nothing done. The second day, I worked steadily all day. The third day, again, I was wildly distracted. Fourth day — another solid workday. What was the difference? On days 1 and 3, I was driven to try to get news — from our battery-powered radio, our neighbors, the building staff. I was tempted to plan what I would do “when the power came on.” On days 2 and 4, I had gotten enough information that I was certain I would be without power all day, so I might as well make the best of it. 

Does my raising the question of certainty set off warning bells? If so, I ask you to put aside the skepticism rampant in our culture and hear me out while I explain an objective theory of certainty. 

When I say something is certain, I do not mean it is the “revealed truth,” or a dogma that cannot be questioned. “A conclusion is ‘certain’ when the evidence in its favor is conclusive…. The total of the available evidence points in a single direction…. There is nothing to suggest even the possibility of another intrepretation.” (Leonard Peikoff, Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand)

From the psychologial perspective, certainty is individual. It is based on your knowledge and your effort to integrate new information with old and to eliminate contradictions. Let me clarify with an extended example.

You, here in the 21st century, can be certain that the sun will come up tomorrow. This is not because it always has come up or a well-known scientist says it will. You can be certain, only if you have learned specific facts about the solar system, you understand the role of gravity in keeping us revolving around the sun, and you have related that theoretical knowledge to things you can see, such as: the movement of the stars in the night sky; the planets falling in the plane of the ecliptic; Mercury and Venus following the sun up and down; the tides increasing or decreasing based on the relative position of the moon;  an apple falling from a tree.

You can easily make all of these observations to validate the proposition that the sun will come up tomorrow, because Sir Isaac Newton came before you, integrated the data himself, and showed us where to look to reduce his gravitational theory back to facts you can observe directly through perception.

So, you can be certain that the sun will rise tomorrow. However, you may not be certain. If you have only read about the solar system in a textbook somewhere, the idea that the earth rotates around the sun may just be something that someone said. You haven’t validated it firsthand. As a result, the idea that the sun will come up tomorrow is not certain in your mind. If this applies to you, it’s an indictment of the high school you attended, which was apparently focused on memorization or socialization instead of firsthand understanding of the foundations of modern knowledge. 

I am certain the sun will come up tomorrow, because I’ve been through the process of validation. This doesn’t mean that I cannot imagine a wild science-fiction scenario involving the discovery of new forces or aliens from another galaxy that results in the destruction of the solar system and the end of night and day. But I recognize these ideas for what they are — creative imaginings based on suspending disbelief, for which there is no evidence.

Incidentally, it is because we have this wonderful capacity for imagination that you need to validate what other people say. You need to reach conclusions firsthand, if you want to act on them.

My purpose here is not to give you a hard time if you have accepted some ideas without validating them. My purpose is to call to your attention that there are some things that you understand thoroughly, which fit with other things you know, and which are tied to your own firsthand observations. In these cases, you would be surprised to discover new information that changes your conclusions. 

For example, you are likely certain about how long it takes to commute to work without traffic, driving at the speed limit. And that if you don’t budget extra time for unexpected delays, you will often be late. And that planning reasonable extra time does not guarantee you will be on time. And that there is a slim chance you could be in an accident — an understandable risk that you accept every time you get into a car. And that you can reduce that risk to an acceptable level by paying careful attention as you drive.

This is the kind of certainty that you rely on every day. This is the kind of certainty that you need to act.

Notice you do not need to be certain about everything to decide how much time to allot for your commute. You need to know what you know and what you don’t know. Then you make a choice based on values about how to act.

If I had understood the need for certainty at the time of Superstorm Sandy, I could have carved out an area of certainty. On Day 1, I was certain I had no power. I was certain that getting information about when the power would come on was difficult. I was certain that I had some hours of daylight to work. I was certain that we were safe, with sufficient food and water. On the basis of those points of certainty, I could have chosen to work for a few hours, regardless of the power situation, and checked back later. 

The truth is, you can always become certain about some of the factors relevant to action. Once you grasp the nature of certainty and the need for certainty to act, you can direct your mind effectively even in challenging circumstances. 

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1 Comment

  1. Keith Sketchley


    Leonard Peikoff gave a lecture on the subject at Power of Reason in 1988.

    A tape of it and a second Q&A session from a repeat somewhere else used to be available from ARI.

    Much later, Peikoff gave a lecture in which he covered the need to decide, using as an example a contradiction in claims between two sets of friends.


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