Why Being Certain Means Being Wrong

By Ted Cadsby

Of all the headwinds we face as decision-makers, the power of one overshadows all others: our need for certainty. It is typically more important for us to feel right than to be right — a difference that didn’t matter much in the lives of our ancestors but now matters a lot.

Certainty is the feeling of confidence we have when we’ve figured things out. Our physiology is geared to move us quickly to eliminate the uncomfortable tension of not knowing — the mild stress response our bodies trigger when we perceive that we have lost control because we don’t understand. It is this tension that motivates us to figure things out like the mysterious rustle in the bush, the confusing betrayal of a friend, the promotion we didn’t get — all the minor and major problems that confront us every day. Only certainty, in the form of the calm feeling of knowing, can replace the tension of not knowing. Settling on an explanation triggers a “lockdown” of our minds, in the same way, that a fertilized egg locks out competing sperm.

As the female ovum floats down the fallopian tube, a few thousand sperm (of the 300 million that initially began the journey) search it out. One sperm will be the first to pierce the egg’s outer wall, triggering a chemical reaction that makes the egg’s wall harder and impenetrable to competing sperm.

The mind is like an egg; the sperm are the myriad possible explanations for any given problem the mind tries to solve.

Just as the few thousand sperm are stronger than the millions that perished along the way, some ideas are favored over others: our “fittest” explanations are those that cohere with all of our other beliefs and values — they are easily integrated with everything we already “know.” But just as one sperm will get to the egg first, even if more genetically fit sperm are available, the urgent drive to reduce the tension of uncertainty pushes us to accept the first reasonable explanation we craft. Our mind becomes “fertilized” and the calm feeling of knowing instantly infuses us, stopping our search for alternative explanations.

The lockdown of our minds serves an important purpose: Generations of our ancestors wouldn’t have survived had they constantly second-guessed their conclusions. In a harsh environment characterized by straightforward challenges that demanded quick responses, an indecisive caveman was a dead one. The rush to certainty became our standard operating procedure for two reasons: i) because we needed speedy thinking, and ii) because speed did not force a significant tradeoff in accuracy. The risk of interpretive error is low when you are confronted by a charging tiger or bush of lush berries because the cause-effect relationships in these straightforward situations are not convoluted or ambiguous. Even today, the majority of micro-decisions we make every hour are fairly straightforward, so there is no reason to second-guess or reflect on the limitations of our senses and intuitions.

But the whole speed-accuracy tradeoff falls apart in a world that tosses up complex problems. The need to be certain gets in the way of accuracy when it comes to problems that have multiple, interwoven causal factors that are difficult to unbundle. Complex problems require exploration, multiple perspectives, and a variety of possible explanations before it is safe to draw any conclusions. Many complex problems can only be tackled with experimentation because they do not converge to definitive solutions. But a mind that is “fertilized” by the first satisfying interpretation is closed to the more subtle and complicated explanations that are often better. It is our mind’s lockdown feature that makes certainty the #1 enemy of effective decision-making in the face of complexity. Think of all the business failures that were avoidable if it wasn’t for the hubris of leaders who were unwilling to revisit their faltering strategies, or the public policy failures that could have been mitigated, or our personal relationships that would run so much more smoothly if we weren’t so certain that we were right all the time.

But there is an antidote to premature certainty: Adopting a mindset of “provisional truth.”

Provisional truth requires that we think of our explanations as hypotheses — always subject to replacement based on new information or alternative ways of structuring existing information. Provisional truth means challenging our interpretations with disconfirming evidence and alternative perspectives. Provisional truth does not preclude drawing conclusions or taking action, but it demands that we be skeptical about our first reasonable explanations in the realm of complex problems. It keeps us humble and mentally flexible, constantly asking ourselves if we’ve really got everything figured out and responding, “Probably not.”

Complex decision-making requires we defer the feeling of being right, by tolerating the tension of not knowing. It is hard to fight our physiology — the product of hundreds of thousands of years of evolution — but our innate craving for certainty undermines us in a modern, complex world. We are not hardwired to suspend judgment. We are not designed to explore multiple interpretations after arriving at one that appears to work. We are not constituted to resist concluding. We operate on the assumption that our thinking is objective, thorough, logical, and penetrating to the extent that it quickly and reliably gets us the right answers, no matter how complex the challenge is. If only it were so.

This article originally appeared in the Harvard Business Review Blog.

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14 Responses to Why Being Certain Means Being Wrong

  1. A great reminder that certainty can let our minds go dormant. It reminds me of the play “Doubt,” which is one of my high school students’ favorite books. A favorite quote from John Patrick Shanley, the author of that text:

    “Doubt requires more courage than conviction does, and more energy; because conviction is a resting place and doubt is infinite – it is a passionate exercise. You may come out of my play uncertain. You may want to be sure. Look down on that feeling. We’ve got to learn to live with a full measure of uncertainty. There is no last word. That’s the silence under the chatter of our time. ”

    I don’t know that I agree that “There is no last word,” but I like Cadsby’s idea that we must grapple with “provisional truth” for a while, and that “Complex decision-making requires we defer the feeling of being right, by tolerating the tension of not knowing.”

  2. Lalita-sakhi dasi

    Interesting article. Applying the principle of “provisional truth” on the spiritual path could help us avoid stagnating in religious fundamentalism–a place of absolute certainty, that “calm feeling of knowing”–by promoting careful and intelligent philosophical discussion. But in addition, good guidance is needed to prevent apasiddhantic conclusions. Perhaps provisional truth is proportional to developmental level of faith. One must have some kind of underlying strong faith to be comfortable with the tension of uncertainty.

  3. This article brought up a thought in me about how modern life is also so much more complex in the religious/theological realm so the same principle applies. What worked in the past in terms of metaphysics and belief systems has to be revisited in the present day lest we want to completely insulate ourselves from the world. And actually even to suddenly leave this world won’t be possible either since we are to an extent products of our times as much as we have been influenced by them in our formative years.
    The “easy answers” won’t often be satisfying to us anymore and what used to be required for survival for early religious traditions has now become a hindrance. I think the clash between fundamentalist religion and modernity is a clear example of trying to force an outdated model on a new situation.

    Not to say that we have to be religiously indecisive or become secular, but spiritual flexibility and openness are required in this day and age. When you have realized guidance in the form of a true sadhu openness won’t amount to confusion or stagnation.

    Maybe the modern age gives a better facility for a real seeker to go beyond a neophyte orientation by thorough examination of her own path in light of everything that’s known to man now?

  4. It is very difficult, if not impossible, to make any kind of progress without admitting to a mistake or being wrong. Thus we should not be reluctant to realize we were wrong. And thinking that we are ‘absolutely right’ about something – especially when that something is not directly verifiable – is flat out born of pride and ego. These are important realizations for both scientists and religionists to develop.

  5. But, what if one is certain that he is wrong? In that case is it alright to be certain if you are certain that you are certainly wrong?

  6. Srila Sridhar Maharaja liked to refer to Hegel’s Thesis, Antithesis, Synthesis, hypothesis. You can have a Thesis, but the tension comes when the antithesis is born, and it’s birth is caused by the creation of the thesis. As the two square off, the synthesis is gradually manifested, which then becomes the new thesis, which inspires a new antithesis… The truth runs in a crooked way, this way and that, and so, thank God, does the lila.. Never a dull moment.. though there are points of relative rest between new challenges. A very, open mind and the absence of resistance to the flow of life, is part of what is required, I suppose, for being at Play in the Fields of the Lord.

    • Dhanistha Devi Dasi

      Hare Bol. That is a beautiful reply. I like to think of it this way. Stuck in being right creates a distance,for all the reasons elaborated. I’d rather be close than right.

  7. We take to spiritual life, the guidance of Guru and Krishna, so that we can put an end to doubt. Simply tolerating the understanding that “I do not know.”, is only a more sophitocated form of ignorance.

    Therefore spiritual aspirants are encouraged to cultivate seeing the world through the eye of shastra (scripture).

    The proper treatment for the mind (per Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Maharaja) that is not applying this principle, whether established in a conviction of certainty or suspended uncertainty, is the same: In the morning, beat it with a broom, and in the evening with a shoe. Then proceed to engage the mind in the process of Krishna Consciouness, and very quickly have subjective experience of certainty that “Krishna Consciousness is wonderful. It only gets more wonderful. And it will be eternally wonderful.”

    This sense of certainty is good. Those who do not have it will have to test it for themselves, not objectively, but subjectively. As Srila Prabhupada used to say, we cannot conclusively speculate on the taste of honey in the bottle. We have to actually taste it for ourselves. No amount of suspended uncertainty will serve us in our pursuit of spiritual advancement.

    These ideas are simply mental masturbation, going nowhere. One can indulge in this for millions of lifetimes. Or, one can become Krishna Conscious and return to the spiritual realm in one lifetime.

    If this kind of certainty is incorrect, one will have lived a wonderfully pleasing life. But if it is correct, and one has not lived this kind of life, that will certainly be a great loss.

    Hare Krishna! Ishan das

    • Ishana Prabhu, are you talking about knowledge or realized knowledge? There is a gulf of difference… and realized knowledge has its levels of realization.. What has been left behind in the scriptures for neophytes will not satisfy more progressed devotees.. And just to repeat like a parrot without realization, some strictures meant for beginners, and claim that that is the last word in the absolute truth, is something all fundamentalist groups do.. Better to be humble and admit that my understanding has not reached it’s limit.. that I have a ways to go on my spiritual journey and I’m open to expanding my understanding of things.. That is the progressive path of spiritual realization…

  8. “Provisional Truth” is nothing more than attempt to make mental speculation respectable.

    Before coming to Krishna Consciousness, I was a university student, bent on deeply investigating the conclusions of the physical and biological sciences. Shortly before throwing in the towel with respect to contemporary education, I had the opportunity to sit alone with one of my professors, and this is what the young man said:

    “We don’t know anything. As far as all these theories go, we just make them up.”

    He was describing “Provisional Truth”. At the beginning of a new semester, we would be told not to purchase last year’s text for the course. New data had been put forward and so new theory was required to embody the new information.

    In fact Provisional Truth is a hoax. Provional Truth is not Truth. It is provisional conjecture. This conjecture involves the process of using the material software, the human mind, to understand the workings of spiritual nature.

    The Vedas inform us that the material mind, intelligence and false ego are imposed upon us so that we can cultivate the erroneous view of ourselves as separated independent controllers and enjoyers. In other words these faculties are supplied to us so that our view of the greater resplendent reality will remain hidden from us. And that what we will peceive with these faculties is only illusory, “maya”, “that which is not.”

    Therefore if we are indeed talking about “Truth”, so-called modern scientists and philosophers simply do not have conceptual software that can take one one further than negation of involvement. They can offer us no conception of a positive reality.

    In the words of His Divine Grace Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Goswami Thakura:

    “The materialistic demeanor connot possibly stretch to the Transcendental Autocrat Who is ever inviting the fallen conditioned souls to associate with Him through devotion or eternal serving mood…..People are so much apt to indulge in transitory speculation even when they are (trying) to educate themselves on a situation beyond their empiric area, or experiencing jurisdiction…..no clue of which could be discerned by moving earth and heaven through their organic senses.”

    This one has to understand. We are blind-folded in terms of our ability to perceive the ever-present nature of God. But that blind-fold can be removed. Those who suffer from glaucoma can have the cateracts removed by a qualified physician. In the same way our obstruction of spiritual vision can be removed by the divine grace of one who is spiritually situated, when he/she perceives that we are sincerely desiring to be functionally reinstated in the eternal society of the eternal realm.

    Such sublime association is available to us, here in this world. However, one of the first qualifications to be included in our application resume when approaching such a person, is our determination to put behind us all attraction to the cheating claims of so-called provisional truth put forward by those who are in fact spiritually blind.

    Hare Krishna! Ishan das

  9. “The materialistic demeanor connot possibly stretch to the Transcendental Autocrat Who is ever inviting the fallen conditioned souls to associate with Him through devotion or eternal serving mood…

    That is the qualification for progressing in realization, not an arrogant refusal to accept the truth if it does not fall within the confines of our own tradition.. Devotion is not proud. There are 24 gurus described in the Bhagavatam. But it takes some humility to take guidance from the earth, air, sky, fire, Pingala, etc….


  10. Why being certain means being wrong…… Well sometimes. And does anyone else see a contradiction in the title of this article and what follows? I’m about a year behind in this discussion so I am not certain anyone will read this. Really it’s quite uncertain. I am certain,however, that giving some thought to the subject is good for me, but I am uncertain as to how well I can address the issue. My point is that certainty and uncertainty often go hand in hand. In the material realm, it is certain that we are surrounded by uncertainty because the truth about the material energy is that it is always changing. It is here today and gone tomorrow. I am certain this is my house I am sitting in today. But if it burns down tomorrow, I am uncertain where I will live next. And yet we can be quite certain of the essential quality of all material elements. The inseparable quality of water and taste of fire and form is perpetual. So certainty and uncertainty are built into our material experience.
    On the spiritual side the same holds true. The quality of our experience of certainty and uncertainty certainly changes but they exist side by side even in the lila of the Lord. Will He be able to hold that hill without the help of the cowherds sticks? Is He holding the hill at all or is Govardhan simply floating? Will the daughter of Vrsabhanu Maharaj overcome all obstacles and be able to meet with Krsna today? Sometimes She can sometimes She can’t. It is certain that Radha and Krsna are in love and yet love is such that it creates uncertainty for both of Them. That that absolute truth cannot be approached by mental speculation is certain at least as far as the bhagavat school is concerned. In that school, from kanistha to the top it is a valid truth. I don’t believe that when a philosophical point is made forcefully it necessarily proceeds from a place of arrogance and lack of realization. There is room for some uncertainty there although it can happen. Our process is submissive aural reception. Qualification from both the speaker and the hearer will add certainty and uncertainty.
    Generally, we applaud someone when they conclude that devotional service to Krsna is a panacea. In one sense, it is considered good to be like the egg that hardens and keeps out all unnecessary competitors. That is surrender-to accept everything favorable for devotion to Krsna and reject everything unfavorable. On the other hand, it is favorable for progress to remain fluid, broad-minded, and adaptive as new light on the subject is revealed. These things are not contrary to one another. As far as Mr. Cadsby is concerned, it seems to me that one can get just as stuck in provisional truth as one can in the type of acceptance he wants to avoid. As far as, the devotional discussion that ensued, I would say that one who sees certainty in uncertainty and uncertainty in certainty is the true knower of things. Hare Krsna.

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