Authentic Uncertainty‏

Three of the most disturbing words to have to utter. "I don't know."  We have an aversion to uncertainty and especially to admitting it to others. The advice is often given that young professionals should "fake it til you make it" and "never let them see you sweat". Essentially, even if there is uncertainty, act as if it doesn't exist.

This belief permeates several fields. I'll speak about the two I'm most familiar with: Scientific research and religion. Although many believe that these two areas are diametrically opposed to one another, they share quite a bit (only those who are unfamiliar with one or both of these fields genuinely argue otherwise) including the tendency for professionals to feign certainty where doubt exists to instill confidence.

In science research, by definition, we begin with our best guesses. Yet when results are portrayed to the public, they are often presented definitively. We want people to believe that we are competent, so we downplay the amount of doubts and imperfections with our theories. Even within research communities, we defend our theories and become personally affronted if others question them. In my behavioral neuroscience lab we would examine neurodegenerative and developmental research, looking at a wide swath of articles boasting results from a variety of experiments. These were articles published in high impact journals discussing well known cognitive ailments, the "proof" of the existence of gender beyond being a social construct, research regarding memory, etc. And yet, we easily recognized problems with outliers, sloppy methodology, and sketchy statistical leaps of logic. Of course, when these results get translated into popular articles they are written in such a way that conveys absolute certainty in the results. Many of these experiments live on in professional lore without being reproduced.

For several years I've worked on a series of experiments called the reproducibility project, examining many high impact projects and attempting to replicate the results since a disturbingly large amount  are often just taken at face value and built upon without having been reproduced by anyone.  Other professionals simply cite these results because--from the time researchers are novices-- the importance of conducting original work is stressed over and above the necessary practice of carrying out replication studies; this attitude tends to remain throughout their careers. No wonder non-reproducible results get exposed at the embarrassing rate that they do.  And unsurprisingly,  we regularly hear about  scientific "breakthroughs" being touted by popular news outlets as if they are canon but that are actually based on imperfect or even flat out untrue results. But if a popular name is attached, it gets confidently repeated.

If the scientific community was forthright with the degree to which we just don't know, wouldn't that erode the trust the public has in research? It's just better to speak without any doubt because that engenders confidence, right?

There is no shame in admitting limitations. But even if science researchers aren't as open with uncertainty as often as they should be, surely those in the faith community would be willing to do so! Sadly, our churches are taught that the opposite of faith is doubt. Agnosticism about any aspect of faith is discouraged. If the religious community was forthright with the degree to which we just don't know, wouldn't that erode the trust the public has in religion? It's just better to speak without any doubt because that engenders confidence, right? But this attitude hasn't worked well for us. Instead, doubling down has alienated religion from those who don't share our beliefs more than it has endeared us to them. Remaining entrenched in our ideas about theology, we leave little room for the possibility that maybe there are things that are different from our beliefs. Although Jesus told the disciples to leave room for the Holy Spirit's future guidance (John 16:12,13), we are determined to project absolute understanding in all aspects of God's Will.

Although God has given us prophecy for specific purposes, we often abuse and twist those purposes to be more akin to telling those who don't share our beliefs "we know more than you". We've seen this play out in Adventism in warnings that social security numbers, credit cards, and even product bar codes were all the Mark of the Beast when they were introduced. John F. Kennedy and essentially every Pope since the turn of the 20th century had been identified as the Anti Christ. Although Pope Francis will be the 4th pope to visit America and go to Washington DC, several Adventists are sure this will usher in the New World Order. Upon examining the hermeneutics and methodology, we see many flaws in logical thinking of many conspiracy theorists. Yet because they have been published via high impact channels and espoused by well known Adventists, these ideas get repeated and built upon with little scrutiny.  

I'm not trying to advance the idea that we can't study and find truth. However, with disturbing frequency  we skip the application of rigorous review and just accept things as given. Those who raise doubts are often looked down upon as radical and silly. Am I talking about within science or faith? In this point they are the same. But within the realm of faith, there is extreme hubris in presupposing absolute certainty in the things of God. Have faith, yes. But being unyielding and unwilling to consider alternatives can have the opposite of the intended effect of instilling confidence. Instead, it makes us seem unreasonable at best or, if we are proven wrong on a certain point, crazy at worst.

Is there harm in saying "I don't know"? Is there shame in not having all the answers? What would happen if we were more open in voicing our uncertainties? Isn't that betraying God and being unfaithful? No. Doubt is not the enemy of faith. If we were willing to be more transparent, we would foster church members who are more authentic in their faith. They would be more willing to be honest too. They would not only be open in their questions, but also in their struggles with actions and life. It is when people feel pressure to deny all doubt that we create individuals who are either fanatically recalcitrant or who eventually reach a breaking point under the weight of pretense. This isn't healthy.

True discipleship demands doubt. Honest examinations of beliefs have to take place--corporately and individually--to have strong faith. Although it seems counterintuitive, I believe people would be more willing to trust us if we are more willing to say sometimes that we just don't know.

 

Courtney Ray is an ordained pastor in the Southern California Conference. She is also member of the Society for Neuroscience and does behavioral neuroscience research. She admires the fact that mathematicians insist on referring to popular ideas as theorems until a proof is established even if said idea has been commonly accepted for millennia.

 

If you respond to this article, please:

Make sure your comments are germane to the topic; be concise in your reply; demonstrate respect for people and ideas whether you agree or disagree with them; and limit yourself to one comment per article, unless the author of the article directly engages you in further conversation. Comments that meet these criteria are welcome on the Spectrum Website. Comments that fail to meet these criteria will be removed.


This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/7060
4 Likes

Doubt, often seen as a negative attitude, is an undervalued quality and resource! Faith is always in tension - a Kierkegaardian “leap of faith” - in contrast to Cartesian mathematical certainty.

5 Likes

If I meet a person, or come across a group/denomination who claims to have all the answers, I leave them to their delusion and move on.

7 Likes

Despite the fact that many modern scholars seem to embrace it as a virtue, uncertainty is not a virtue. Which is why I like reading works by theologians such as Alberto Treiyer. He writes with certainty, including on the issue of WO. His website is:

www.adventistdistinctivemessages.com

2 Likes

i think uncertainty is entirely apropos in science - i even seem to remember studying about heisenberg’s uncertainty principle as a kid, having to do with inverse uncertainties with respect to particle momentum and position…this is especially so in origins science, where so much is based on assumptions and unprovable premises, like uniformity…

but i believe the domain of religion is quite different…in the first place, none of the old testament prophets or new testament apostles, let alone jesus or egw, are ever uncertain about anything, nor do they offer the public any hint that uncertainty and doubt are authentic or desirable…in general, the message is consistently “do as i say, or die”, which is one reason many people have a problem with stark inspiration, even if they have learned to be comfortable with religion…

but in the second place, how do the tenets of religion - faith in the unseen and unprovable; obedience to counter-intuitive teachings; complete subjugation of the present for a promised future - lend themselves to uncertainty, or especially doubt…do we see a long line of martyrs who through the millenia have given their lives for uncertaintly and doubt, or even relativism…on the other hand, we do see an association of uncertainty and doubt with some of history’s most famous anti-religionists, like diagoras, protagoras, marlowe, paine, voltaire, shelley, darwin, nietzsche, marx, etc., etc…can it be that what associates invariably with skeptics and agnostics is what christians should strive to assimilate…i don’t find the argument compelling, at all, that anti-religionists have anything useful to offer christians, although i think a thinking christian benefits from being aware of the various alternatives to christianity, and why he doesn’t subscribe to them…

3 Likes

The only certainty that I see being promoted in the Scriptures are these.
Love God
Love Yourself because of who and whose your are – child of God.
Love Others
SERVE

Love the Lord with all of one’s being.
Love fellow humans as yourself by providing Justice, providing Mercy.
HOW to do this requires a lot of Trial AND Error. [Again, as Scriptures show that the Characters portrayed there, did a Lot of Trial and Error in their lives even up until their deaths]

I would recommend the following book to get a sense of the OT Characters.
The Book of J – translated from the Hebrew. Harold Bloom and David Rosenberg.

3 Likes

In the areas of religion, politics and science I never want to find the TRUTH, but I will never stop searching for it. Those who claim to have found the TRUTH have nothing to learn from others…

! Cor 13 is seen as the greatest chapter on love in the Bible. Read the second part of the chapter and you will understand that genuine love is inseparably connected to acknowledging that noone in this life knows the TRUTH.

5 Likes

How about Pauls uncertainity ? : I. Cor 13 : 9 ff. : out of a part we get our knowledge, and out of a part we prophesy - but then - - from face to face - - -

1 Like

I like Paul’s affirmation–“I am persuaded --”. Tom Z

3 Likes

Being well-centered in “faith” means that not every ethical or theological dilemma requires a “proof”.

Or “theorem”.

Or even “hypothesis”.

How about the option of simply, “existence acknowledgement of noted issue” before the headlong dash into “hypothesis”?

Quite the hubris of humanity, assumptive mantle of contrived omniscience through persistence of effort. Some issues, no matter how many monkeys are banging away on a keyboard, will not result in a Hamletian answer. Even if a few chapters or so, seem to have meaning…

Depending on the timing for said problem/dilemma, can at best be an exercise of “chasing the wind” and at less than best, unnecessarily divisive with unintended consequences.

So… not only apply “I do not know”. But also how about, I choose “not to know at this time”. Nor do I feel socially compelled to operate under a potential intellectual delusion, false comfort in the acquisition, of “state of know”. This right is reserved.

On a practical level, key advice given to me, “Solve no problem before it’s time”, professionally a great help. An application of above principle, though, rather unpleasantly reduced to a simple statement of utility.

This essay is a bit of fresh air, especially for Spectrum

I remember attending a Am. College of Surg Meeting and visiting a booth where a noted MD was expostulating on a certain controversial procedure he had developed. He said, “Our procedure has made all the others malpractice.” I turned away thinking, what arrogance! I knew of the various procedures that had been developed for the problem, none of which were the end all to the others.

Here on Spectrum, science is the final arbiter. If there is little scientific evidence for it, then it did not happen, etc…

But Ray has experience, and it has recently been brought to light that many “truths” learned by experiment in the social scientists were not reproducible, or at least did not have the strength that they were thought to have.

I teach my grade school and high school science students that the science is never settled. I was criticized for such “heresy”. But it is true. We don’t even know what we may be teaching that is not true.

But the Bible has not changed over time, and God has been willing to allow it to be in a way fossilized as it is, for he can let us know what is truth if we are open to him.

Thank you for the excellent essay.

There are many roads to God and long before the Bible was written, men worshiped God, although in many different ways. To place the Bible on a pedestal is to limit God only to what men have written about him, and men are fallible and will never know God completely.

Do we worship God, or the god represented in the Bible? And at what time did writers describe the god you now worship: when men described him as ordering massacre, violent flood, and killing entire families and tribes? Which god do you worship, if not the one you have determined in your own mind is worthy of your worship?

3 Likes

Nice article.

When I was 12, I was on a walk through nature and stopped to look at a tree leaf and thought of the process of oxygen exchange in plants and it occurred to me that this wasn’t a random event and I believed it was divinely ordained.

As an adult I believe the same thing today as I did then. That is a matter of faith, not reason. I do not know if the creation of the world happened in 6, 24 hour periods about 6,000 years ago, or over a time frame of a billion years - and frankly it does not effect my faith, or belief in science.

When my daughter was young, as I tucked her into bed at night and said prayers, she would ask me questions that I didn’t know the answer to. When I told her I didn’t know, she’d respond “Well that’s a question for Jesus”.

It’s okay to be uncertain.

7 Likes

Great read. I have always thought it human to have doubts and fears and those that won’t admit to them are either deluded or concerning.

To attempt to witness to others with an arrogant self assuredness that I possess all truth and that I won’t learn anything new from dialogue with the other, is a transparent turnoff to most people.

3 Likes

Uncertain is a principal we all could agree with as in,… being able to prove something in a court of law,… but not as it takes breath in the halls of Spectrum and other places.
Uncertainty is used as a cover word for “malleable” where anything long held or even God decreed is open for modification under misappropriated terms such as “new light and revealed truth.”

This is beautiful, Courtney.

(If you’d be so kind, please consider an essay I wrote for this very web site. It also points to ways our “knowledge trap” plays out, there in a specific theological instance: http://bit.ly/1o9nvQ3)

As a lifelong Adventist, I’ve typically held that our—no pun intended—fundamental unwillingness to say those three words—“I don’t know”—reveal, not strength, but profound insecurity. Further, it leads us directly to arrogance—you address this—that is utterly unwarranted and obfuscatory.

Put another way, the Bible verse that one is statistically least likely to see quoted in SDA contexts is 1 Corinthians 13:9: “For we know in part, and we prophesy in part.”

Think about it: In the chapter that best serves as the antifreeze to attitudes of assuredness, importance, and coldness, Paul points at the the twin pillars of the SDA self-image—knowledge and prophecy—and, like an unimpressed Jewish grandfather, sneers, “Feh!! ‘IN PART’…at best!

We’re so blind, we don’t see this, or the ironic setting of the text. We don’t even notice that, when we give group readings of the chapter, we dumbly move past that verse the way entering guests walk past an ornate brass doorstop: As though it wasn’t there, or was meant for someone else.

But you don’t.

HA

2 Likes

I am not certain about this article.

1 Like

Allen,

Why don’t you bring this comment to the LoungeGate. I think it’s worth to discuss some of the details involved, but can’t do it here at the OneGate due to the “one rule.”

Now I wrote my “one” so can’t comment on it again.
Hope to see you in the lounge.

1 Like

“Authentic Uncertainty”‏ 3 September 2015 | Courtney Ray, said;
“Is there harm in saying “I don’t know”? Is there shame in not having all the answers? What would happen if we were more open in voicing our uncertainties? Isn’t that betraying God and being unfaithful? No. Doubt is not the enemy of faith. If we were willing to be more transparent, we would foster church members who are more authentic in their faith. They would be more willing to be honest too. They would not only be open in their questions, but also in their struggles with actions and life. It is when people feel pressure to deny all doubt that we create individuals who are either fanatically recalcitrant or who eventually reach a breaking point under the weight of pretense. This isn’t healthy.”

I wish we could give this brilliant statement with every baptismal certificate, university diploma and church bulletin to every one in our Adventist churches to consider. This is what we OUGHT to be teaching in our Christian Education universities. How to ask good questions instead of thinking we have all the answers. Whatever happened to our persuit of answers to the great questions of our day. The mission of the Christian Education institution is rigorous discourse on the great questions. What has happened in many modern Christian Education universities is the virtues, which sustain that mission, have been subverted at the altar of “politically correct” ideology. The root problem is that the virtues of free inquiry and intellectual honesty have been separated. These are not two separate virtues but the embodiment of the life of the mind. The task of a liberal education is a value laden task: what subjects are valuable, what questions are great questions, what answers are universal, are all moral questions. Christian Education Universities are voluntary moral communities devoted to rigorous discourse on these questions. The graduates of such institutions ought to, as Pastor Courtney Ray says in her article “…be open in their questions, but also in their struggles with actions and life.”

1 Like

Courtney,

It is inevitable that we must say we do not know how it is that we will die without perishing, which is the core promise of the Gospel of Jesus.

Not only did Jesus save us from death before we new we were saved by Him, He saved everyone who had died before He walk the earth.

So it seems inescapable that we can know Jesus only because we have been saved by Jesus.

We are not saved by knowledge, we are saved by grace, because our salvation is not of ourselves, and knowledge is of ourselves. We sense our salvation by faith, which like salvation itself is not of ourselves.

It is useful to understand theology as our effort to explain our faith. Theology is certainly not the origin of our faith. Theology is contained in mere words, mere human inventions, while faith is utterly beyond, indeed too wonderful for words.

And how about this … we know without knowledge, knowledge being our attempt to put into words what we pre-know by faith.

So, all of the clashing within and among religions is over inevitably failing efforts to capture faith in a bottle of words.

How about we start a new movement, Courtney?

Set Faith Free!

Actually, “Set Faith Free!” is the foundation of the Seventh-day Adventist church. i.e. (Wink, wink) “The Bible is our Creed!”

Talk about revival and reformation! Let’s jump on that horse and ride for all she is worth. With every gallop Rev. 14 is filling her nostrils and ours.

Our ride is not about us but only and all about Jesus!

And Jesus promised the Holy Spirit, the Comforter, not the informant.

When knowledge vanishes, as it inevitably always does, when spiritual practices cease, as they inevitably do, and when prophecy fails, as all prophecy must, what remains is Faith, Trust, and Love, Love being the socialization of the uniquely personal experience of Faith and Trust. Yes, the Corinthians were the first to hear this reassurance.

As already noted, the enemy of Faith is not doubt but every attempt to capture the certainty of Faith in a bottle of words.

Faith lives exclusively in a non-verbal world.

It is time to Set Faith Free!

Remember October 23, 1844!

1 Like