I’m never certain about anything. I regard everything I know as tentative, provisional. I sometimes wonder whether I know anything at all.
I’ve always regarded this world as a mystery, and everything in it as almost infinitely mysterious. I think hills and mountains are mysterious things. I think lakes and oceans are mysterious things. And clouds and wind and rain. And stars and planets.
And living things are even greater mysteries, and humans the most mysterious of all.
So I always wonder how other people arrive at their certainties. For many of them seem to be quite certain about almost everything.
I tend to be a bit of lone thinker, a lone explorer. Idle Theory is an idea I had 40 or 50 years ago, and which I gradually expanded and extended. And for the past 18 months I’ve been thinking about ice ages, tentatively exploring a new explanation of how they might work. And from time to time as I explore I get stuck, and find my way barred, and I’m forced to turn back, retrace my steps, and try coming at it all from a different direction. If I learn anything new, it always comes as a surprise to me. Emily calls me a freethinker.
But if I’ll explore things like ice ages, thinking for myself about them, I don’t think that way about everything. For the most part, what I think about most things is pretty much the same as what everyone else thinks, because I’m part of a culture in which most people think pretty much the same way about everything.
So, for example, what I know about India is next to nothing. I’ve never been there. I’m not sure I’ve ever even met an Indian, and there are supposed to be about one billion of them on the planet. I know where India is on a world map. But there are a lot of places that I don’t even know where they are on a world map. Djibouti, for example.
What I know about India is pretty much what everybody knows about it: not much. And the same applies to more or less everything else. What do I know about Grimsby: not much. I’ve never been there either.
But the odd thing about everything I know, which everyone else also knows, is that I’m always absolutely certain about it. So I’ve lived a life in which I’ve been absolutely certain about more or less everything, until I’ve started thinking about it for myself, at which point it becomes a mystery.
So the certainties of life may well simply be those things which everybody knows, and everybody has known all their lives, and has never questioned, and furthermore has never seen any reason to question. For as soon as you start questioning anything, the certainty vanishes. As soon as you start looking very closely at anything, it turns into a mystery.
Before I started thinking about ice ages 18 months ago, I thought I knew pretty much everything about them. Or at least quite a lot. It’s only been in the past 18 months that they’ve become a labyrinthine mystery.
So the answer to my question about how other people get to be so certain about things may simply be this: they never think about them. If they did, they’d lose their certainty immediately. Certain knowledge is unthinking knowledge. Certainty is what you start with. And certainty is what everybody thinks. And it’s all the more certain precisely because everybody else thinks it. Certainty gains ready agreement. Everybody knows that Smoking Causes Lung Cancer, and they have known it all their lives.
And this seems true. In my childhood, the world around me didn’t seem to be a mystery at all. It was all quite simple and straightforward back then. It’s really only the older that I’ve got that the world has become more and more mysterious.
Perhaps that’s like living in one single house all one’s life, with a garden outside, and a road with a car parked in it, and that’s all you ever see, and it becomes familiar and unsurprising. And so it comes as a shock to find out that your house is just one of many in a small town, which has got a school and a church and a park and a town hall. And it’s a further shock to learn that there are towns like this everywhere, with winding roads in between them, that extend all the way to the sea.
The more you find out, the more strange and mysterious it all gets. And conversely, the less you know about anything, the simpler it all seems, and also the more certain.
I’ve been wondering why so many people (e.g. the Prince of Wales, or Alexandria Ocasio=Cortez) seem to be so certain about Global Warming. I may have found the answer: They’re certain about it because they’ve never really thought about it at all. For certainty about something comes from not thinking about it. As soon as you start thinking, the doubts start creeping in. Once you start asking questions, the questions only multiply.