The Joy of Certainty

Eye Chart with randomly placed letters in varying sizes

Louis Pasteur, scientist and researcher, has a beautiful quote:

“…After all these efforts one finally achieves certainty, one feels one of the deepest joys it is given to the human soul to experience.”

Pasteur would know. He was a groundbreaking scientist, whose view that certainty exists preceded and enabled his discovery of the field of immunology, including the development of vaccines for disease. Were it not for Pasteur’s passionate conviction about certainty, many of us would not be alive today. Ditto for Thomas Edison, or any of the other movers and shakers of history whose determination and certainty helped the rest of us advance, progress and survive.

Certainty matters to everyone. Certainty is a necessary condition for self-esteem. You do not acquire it by wishing or “willing” it into existence. It comes from a set of views, attitudes and basic core premises that animate how you think, feel and act in daily life.

You have to be clear of what certainty actually is. Certainty is not a set of emotions that you decide to accept as objective truth, merely because you feel them.

Certainty is the result of actual effort. Effort, in this context, refers to thinking. Thinking refers to observing, taking in facts, writing them down, considering them, and drawing noncontradictory conclusions about them. All in the pursuit of truth — concrete, objective truth that’s relevant to your daily life.

Thinking does not mean repressing emotions. Emotions are a beautiful part of life, the way we experience the totality of values, i.e. people or things that are important to us. Emotions are sometimes very good leads as to what might be true. We have all experienced that “gut instinct” that pointed us towards what ultimately proved to be right.

But emotions, by themselves, never prove what actually is true. That’s why we need reason. Reason refers to integrating or putting together, into logically consistent conclusions, the perceptual level facts we observe in reality.

For Pasteur, like other scientists, this means rigorously performing experiments. It’s the attitude best summed up by the phrase, “The facts and the evidence will lead us to what’s true.”

Self-esteem means a sense of feeling good about yourself (obviously). What is it that you’re actually feeling good about, when you experience a sense of self-esteem? The core of such an emotion has to be an unstated (or perhaps conscious) sense that, “I am able to think. I have the power of reason. Reason is subject to error and correction, and I might not always be sure; but I can ultimately be certain, when I have enough facts to prove beyond any reasonable doubt what is true.”

When people struggle with emotional maladies, conflict, or pain, a lack of certainty almost always is part of the picture. When I work with people as a therapist, in part I’m training them how to better think. Yes, we’re talking concretely about their relationships, marriages, kids, parents, economic situations, jobs and the like.

But whatever the topic, my primary job is to help them better think. I’m helping them utilize what they already know — logic — to develop a more rational perspective on what troubles them, including the idea that we can be certain of what we know. I’m not telling people what to do, not most of the time. I’m telling (or reminding) them of how to think, and how to build confidence in trusting their own reasoned out conclusions.

Certainty gets a bad name. It threatens some people. If you’re certain of something, and confident of your knowledge of what’s true, it might mean something bad for them. It might mean you discover or determine something bad about them. If they are indeed hiding something bad, then it’s a valid emotion — but it doesn’t wipe out the validity of certainty. It simply means that person is afraid.

More often, the person threatened by certainty — his own, or another’s — is irrationally fearful that there’s something bad about, or otherwise wrong with, him as a person. If the irrational emotion could speak, it would say, “There’s can’t be certainty. If there is, I’ll be exposed as the loser/mediocrity/failure that I am.” Is there evidence for this mediocrity or failure? Not necessarily. But the person still fears that exposure, because of his or her own self-esteem problems.

Another reason certainty gets a bad name is that some people like to control others. In an extreme case, it’s a dictator. Interestingly, dictators always subscribe to an ideology that human beings are incapable of certainty. Hitler, for example, claimed that truth came from the German national collective. He relied, in part, on the German philosopher Immanuel Kant, who maintained that certainty was outside the capability of human beings, because we all construct reality subjectively. Stalin and other Marxists claimed that truth came from the plight and pain of the working class. Today’s Islamofascists claim that truth comes from Allah.

What dictators always seem to have in common is their rejection of the idea of certainty — or at least your own ability, as an individual, to be certain of things, via facts, logic, experimentation and reason. They don’t want you to think for yourself, because they wish to control you. Ditto for the little dictators who inhabit families, marriages, and political or business enterprises.

Certainty does not come automatically or easily. With complex issues, we’re often unsure. But we can still be sure of what we do know. “I know for a fact that Joe has a history of lying to me. I don’t know for sure that he’ll continue. But I know that he has done so, has an obvious character flaw, and I’m certain I can never totally trust him. I won’t doubt my knowledge of what’s true.” Or: “I know for a fact that this is a good car. But I have to consider all the things I’m looking for in a car, and consider how much I can reasonably spend.” Or: “I can figure out if I can really afford this house. Let’s sit down with the expected mortgage payment. Let’s write down my actual expenses now, leaving room for unexpected things that come up with a house. Let’s see if I’m in the red, or in the black.” When it comes to ordinary or major life decisions, we have a lot more than emotions; we have reason.

A rational, enlightened individual works at certainty, in daily life, just like Pasteur did in his laboratory. As psychiatrist Aaron Beck once wrote, man is a practical scientist, applying reason in daily life. We all have to think and use reason and logic in our daily lives, in spite of our emotions, because emotions alone do not lead us to the truth (and sometimes can lead us away, particularly in charged situations, such as romance). The reward of all this thinking, mental effort and experimentation? The joy of certainty.

Life is best when you live it with a sense of serenity and purpose. We achieve and enjoy more when we’re at peace with what our minds and lives require. Our minds and lives require certainty. Don’t let anyone ever tell you otherwise. Anyone who suggests otherwise either has self-esteem problems himself, or wants to control you (or both).

The most important thing which enables this sense of serenity and purpose is a conviction that your own mind is capable of thinking, discovering and actually being certain of things. You are always free to think, and you know how to think, and you can always get better at it.

Pasteur could not have been more right. Certainty — and the reason giving rise to it — is one of the most exhilarating, joyful experiences a human being will ever know.


Be sure to “friend” Dr. Hurd on Facebook. Search under “Michael  Hurd” (Rehoboth Beach DE). Get up-to-the-minute postings, recommended articles and links, and engage in back-and-forth discussion with Dr. Hurd on topics of interest. Also follow Dr. Hurd on Twitter at @MichaelJHurd1