Tag Archives: Certainty

The Utopia of Certainty

John Ratzenberger’s character Cliff Claven in the sit-com “Cheers” appearing on “Jeopardy”

Ever play a trivia game or watch a game show where you absolutely knew the answer? It’s like you were born to answer that question. That  felt pretty good, didn’t it? No hesitation, no second guessing, just an instant answer. Ever find yourself in one of those scenarios and get the answer wrong? Maybe you felt bewildered, wondering how you could possibly get that question wrong. Or maybe embarrassed that you got it wrong in front of all your friends. Experiences like that might lead one to a) desire complete certainty before committing to anything, or b) believe that if certainty is impossible then so is any degree of confidence. I’d like to suggest a middle way.

First off, what is certainty? The World Book Dictionary defined it as “freedom from doubt,” or “a sure fact.”[1] Wikipedia, that fount of unchanging knowledge, currently offers this definition: “perfect knowledge that has total security from error, or the mental state of being without doubt.”[2] If you notice, the definitions relating certainty to a lack of doubt are addressing our subjective views, and not the objective truth of a statement. We can have no doubts about something, but still be wrong. The definitions of “perfect knowledge that has total security from error” and  “a sure fact” relate to the objective truth of a statement. But do we actually need complete certainty in life?

In structural engineering, certainty is like Utopia – nonexistent. While we engineers are often thought to be overdesigning stuff, our paranoia comes down to certainty, or the lack thereof. Our environmental loads, like earthquakes and storms and floods are very uncertain, but even the man-made loads can be unpredictable.  Our material properties are uncertain, the quality of fabrication and construction are uncertain, the accuracy of our analytical models are uncertain — do you see a trend here? As an engineer, I have to live in a very uncertain world, and yet I still have a job to do. I have to be comfortable with a particular level of uncertainty, and finally ask myself, “Am I justified in considering this a safe structure that satisfies the project requirements?” If so, then it’s time to stop obsessing about it and move on to the next project. That obsession with being certain that I’ve covered every conceivable issue is an easy trap for me to fall into, but I’ve found that I can go over a design multiple times and still not see a particular problem. Meanwhile, a fresh set of eyes in the form of a peer review might see a particular oversight immediately. We each have different blind spots, so together we have more complete vision and achieve far more confidence in the adequacy of the design. The desire for absolute certainty leads to what we call “paralysis by analysis”; you can make every aspect of the project into an unending analysis and never actually finish the project. It’s good to try to foresee how things could go wrong, and plan to prevent that, but at some point, you have to stop looking at all the possible ways events could unfold, and look at what’s most reasonable.

I see a similar problem in talks with skeptics about the existence of God, or the reliability of the Bible. There is often a tendency to want absolute certainty rather than reasonable confidence before being willing to accept that God exists or that the Bible really is reliable. But as Pascal would say, “There is enough light for those who only desire to see, and enough obscurity for those who have a contrary disposition.”[3] There will almost always be alternate possibilities that one can take shelter in to explain away God, because almost anything is possible. But we have to ask ourselves what’s more probable? In doing a failure investigation, I might be able to think of a  series of freak accidents, unguided by any human interaction, and happening with the worst possible timing, that explains a structural collapse — the “perfect storm”, so to speak. But if a  worker forgetting to bolt up a connection or making a bad weld also explains it, then it’s pretty clear what the more reasonable cause was.  Just like in engineering, we have to look at what’s the most reasonable explanation for something, and when it comes to this world of intelligent life residing in a finely-tuned universe, God is clearly the most reasonable explanation. Anything less is like expecting a record-setting skyscraper to appear without any engineers, architects, fabricators, erectors, or even building materials! We can also see the opposite response, of denying the possibility of any confidence in our knowledge. While there may be few things we can be absolutely certain of in this life, if you can be 99% sure of something, you’d be a fool to ignore that because of that last 1% of doubt.

Now, for the skeptic, my question is, what will you do with the evidence for God? Are you demanding a level of certainty that you would not expect of anything else in life? Both the demand for absolute certainty and the denial of any possible warrant for belief will only keep you from seeing the reasonable conclusion that’s right in front of you. Don’t hold out for Utopia when Heaven awaits.


[1] “Certainty”, World Book Dictionary, 1987 ed.
[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Certainty, accessed 2017-08-22.
[3] Blaise Pascal,  Pascal’s Pensées (Ney York: Dutton & Co, 1858), p. 120,  Kindle ed.