Tag Archives: rationality

Certainty vs Probability

Most of our life decisions and actions are not a matter of certainty vs probability. They are largely a matter of probability alone. This concept is based on my last post Knowledge vs.Truth, which described why the distinction between truth and knowledge is important.

If we govern our everyday lives — from important matters down to the most trivial — based on the degree of probability the knowledge we acquire is accurate, then why do so many of us refuse to approach  metaphysical questions the same way?

Does-God-ExistInstead, we often avoid making conclusions about what are quite possibly the most significant questions of human existence e.g. Does God exist? What is the meaning of life? Is there life after death etc.

Rather than drawing conclusions based on reasonable probability, we demand the answers to such questions be nothing short of absolute certain truth — a concept many deny exists in the first place.  The key point is that absolute certain truth is too rare (if it exists at all) in our universe to govern our lives by it.  Instead, we rely mainly on knowledge that has a reasonable degree of probability of being true in our approach to most of life’s questions and problems.

Those who disagree with the notion we govern our lives based on the reasonable probability of our knowledge and not proven fact might want to re-examine the conduct of their own lives.

ManhattanBecause of our limitations in this world, we are forced to draw conclusions and make decisions based on the likelihood the knowledge we possess is true, and not on the absolute certainty it is true.  More specifically, we base the level of credibility of knowledge we obtain (in any given situation) using probability — not certainty. It is practical and serves us well.  The alternative way of conducting our lives would be impractical, paralyzing, and most likely impossible —   any sort of progress would be anyway.

To demonstrate just how ingrained this principle is in our minds, a trivial example seems appropriate.

Let’s say I have eaten at my favorite restaurant at least 500 times in my life, and I never once became sick after a meal there.  That alone does not allow me to conclude with certainty I will never get sick as a result of dining there.

Carnegie-deliThere does exist, however, the remote possibility that in the future I could get food poisoning and die after consuming a tainted hamburger I ate there.  But, most of us would agree that small possibility is not a sufficient reason to stop dining there.  In fact, the more logical conclusion would lead us in the other direction. We would reasonably claim it is actually a rather safe place to eat, again based on the knowledge provided by experience.

The point is that we often face unfavorable and even horrific possibilities of the most improbable, though possible, kind; yet, we still choose to risk such tragic possibilities because the reasonable probability our knowledge we have acquired is most likely closer to truth than that very improbable possibility.

Most logical, conclusions we draw are based on this concept of reasonable probability of truth described above.  It follows logically that we seldom have the luxury of drawing a conclusion based on absolute certainty — if ever.

If we accept the notion we conduct our lives based on the sound probability of the knowledge we acquire using one of the various methods of obtaining knowledge, then why do so many of us refuse to approach our metaphysical questions in the same manner? It seems irrational.  Why, after the many years of decision making and obligatory responsibilities of life, do we conduct our lives with such consistent reason only to discard it the very instant it comes time to draw rational conclusions about what are most likely the most paramount questions of life?

ugly-windowInstead, we trade in our practice of reason for a childish demand of proven absolute certainty we only enjoy in, say, mathematics — a field of knowledge unable to provide any clarity in the pursuit of the philosophical questions mentioned earlier.

Is there anyone out there who can enlighten me as to why so many of us approach the most challenging questions in life in such an irrational manner?

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