Certainty: Is there anything more seductive to
those of us so hungry for…what exactly?
Is it knowledge and wisdom?
Or is it more often for affirmation that what we think and believe, even insist, is the truth.
In the year 1900, Lord Kelvin took the podium at the British Association of Science to announce: “There is nothing new to be discovered in physics now. All that remains is more and more precise measurement.”
At the same time, writes Maria Poplova in her new book, Figuring, young Albert Einstein is “incubating the ideas…that would irreversibly transform our fundamental conception of reality.
Close to 120 years later, two physicists claim that we know less than six percent of the reality surrounding us in a provocative and eminently readable book called, We Have No Idea: A Guide to the Unknown Universe.
I write a lot about certainty…and its corollary, doubt.
For me, the lure of knowing, of understanding is magnetic…powerful. I suspect it may be so for you as well. But I have to fight against satisfaction in believing that the view from my lens is all there is. That daily combat is the reason I write.
Occasionally I tell myself that it’s the love of wisdom I seek. And there is truth to that. But it’s only a partial one. Undeniable is the exhilarating high of accessing information and packaging it in a way that is coherent, readable and stimulating…like a novel. One of my favorite sections of my latest book, I Claudia is in the afterword:
Long before I converted to Catholic Christianity, before I had any notion that I would do so, I discovered Elaine Pagels’ The Gnostic Gospels. Among the countless things I came to understand from my careful reading of this splendid book was Pagels’ breakdown of the word history. To paraphrase from her afterword, history— his-story— is written by the winners. That simply worded thought flattened me. Everything we write is biased— or prejudiced, if you prefer— by the experience and viewpoint of the author. That includes history, which we tend to think of as synonymous with truth. Of course! Why didn’t I know this years ago?I, Claudia
Why is this section a favorite?
Because it acts like a mirror to my ego: That entity begging to be fed by praise, accomplishments and fame. Understanding the danger of falling for these tricksters and all of their relatives helps. But there are moments when I am astonished by my ability to leap to certainty. Only to realize moments or years later, how very wrong I was.
Our minds are hard-wired to make decisions based on rational and intuitive information we are constantly processing. Being wrong, and admitting it, and changing our opinions should be a simple thing to do. Should require very little effort. But it is not simple. Nor does it require very little effort…this awareness is, I think one of the many reasons for the success of the recent film, The Green Book , a magnificent, splendidly portrayed true story of the classically trained black pianist Don Shirley and Tony, his working-class Italian driver.
But there is a flip side…
If he were still alive, we could ask Dr. Ignaz Sammelweis how it felt to be universally condemned by his certainty that it was the physicians themselves who were causing the deaths of postpartum women from puerperal fever in the mid-nineteenth century.
The doctors saw no harm in taking their unwashed hands from the morgues where they dissected corpses to the vaginas of women who had just given birth. Despite his evidence demonstrating far fewer deaths in the hospital where this practice was not done, he was ridiculed. And Sammelweis died at just forty-two nine days after his institutionalization for a nervous breakdown.
I am excited at another chance at this subject of certainty…
I have begun writing my new book, My Name is Saul, another in this new novel of the ancient world. And have a fairly good idea of why this story has shown up.
Has there been another man who was so certain of his conviction? Only to find himself an apologist for the very man he persecuted?