Episode 72: Is our need for Certainty leading us astray?

In our daily lives we strive to know things ‘for sure’, to predict what will happen so that we can plan accordingly. Certainty feels, in these instances, like we have found solid ground to stand on. Like we have found the truth of something. Like we can be sure of what might happen next.  But is our scramble for certainty actually causing problems of its own?

This week, Clay and Sarah ask why we strive for Certainty, and what it might cost us.


In this episode:

* Why we so often want to feel ‘Certain’

* Karl Popper’s distinction between Truth vs. Certainty

* Instances when Certainty becomes preferable to happiness

* Ways our brain categorises things to create Certainty and Predictability

* The difference between Relativism and ‘Grey Zones’ – aspects of Uncertainty

* How to handle Uncertainty – a buddhist perspective


Tony Robbins has claimed that “the quality of your life is in direct proportion to the amount of uncertainty you can comfortably deal with.”

Reading that quote brings us face to face with the reality that most of us are what we might call “security junkies“.  We like to know where we stand, what we definitively believe, what is Right, what is Wrong and what will happen if we take a certain course of action.

This human tendency to seek certainty, many would argue, is hardwired into our brains. Our survival as a species has relied on our intellectual abilities to imagine potential future situations, predict what consequences certain courses of action will have, and foresee possible risks in order to avoid them.  All these tendencies have, as their goal, a search for a level of certainty.

In his article “Black-and-White Thinking in our Social Worlds“, social psychologist Glenn Geher writes, “our minds seem to like simple categorical ways to divide up information… We tend to oversimplify stimuli in our social worlds, seeing things that could be conceptualised as complex and nuanced as simple and categorical.” In other words, our brains have a harder time existing in the realms of ‘Greys’ and nuance. We want to be Certain.

Uncertainty makes us feel vulnerable.

And yet, like many others, philosopher Karl Popper has argued that Certainty is not only unattainable, but undesirable.  In other words, it is not the objective.

Popper writes, “Knowledge consists in the search for truth — the search for objectively true, explanatory theories.  It is not the search for certainty.  All human knowledge if fallible and therefore uncertain… We must constantly struggle against error, but also even when we have taken the greatest care, we cannot be completely certain that we have not made a mistake.”

Interesting, Popper argues that we search for explanatory truths precisely by acknowledging our uncertainty and looking for where we might have gotten it wrong. In his words, “Since we can never know anything for sure, it is simply not worth searching for certainty; but it is well worth searching for truth; and we do this chiefly by searching for mistakes so that we can correct them.”

There are many others who have attempted to address this paradox – that our desire for certainty will be inevitably frustrated by the ever-changing and unpredictable nature of life.  

One Buddhist teacher, Pema Chodron has focused specifically on the conundrum that “As human beings we share a tendency to scramble for certainty…[but] the very nature of our existence is forever in flux… Our attempts to find…lasting security are at odds with the fact that we’re part of a dynamic system in which everything and everyone is in process.”

Thus, Chodron argues, we have an essential choice to make as human beings — whether to cling to the false security of our fixed ideas even though they bring us only momentary satisfaction, or to overcome our fear and make the leap…” into Uncertainty.