I use the word “probably” a lot. It isn’t an extremely popular word, and I’m pretty sure that it drives my friends and family crazy. “Probably” isn’t the only word I use a lot–more often than not, I hedge my statements, allowing for some uncertainty (as you probably noticed in that statement….and this one =P). Is it a lack of confidence that leads me to do this? A lack of certainty? Or maybe just an overwhelming pessimism? No. Well, yes to some extent for all of them, since they’re all true to a greater or lesser degree. But what really leads me to speak in uncertain terms is nothing more than simple honesty (that and my background in the sciences).
Like it or not, but uncertainty is a part of life. It is quite literally built into the fabric of the universe in the form of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle. The principle states (I’m paraphrasing here) that you cannot know both the velocity and the location of an electron at the same time. The more you know about one, the less you know about the other. Einstein hated this fact, famously saying in response that “God doesn’t play dice with the universe” but unfortunately for old Einstein that seems to be the case.
The Heisenberg Principle, among other discoveries, revealed that we live in a contingent, probabilistic universe. Put in plain English, we can never be completely certain of things. Rather, we understand things within a range of probability. Let’s say that I dropped a pen on the ground. I’m certain that, if the rules of physics as we know them hold true, it is going to fall straight to the ground. It is more accurate to say that I am 99.9% certain the pen will fall straight down. That might seem a bit pedantic, but with enough tries (i.e. if I dropped the pen a trillion trillion times) it could go up or do some other wonky thing. Physics is weird like that.
A less esoteric example can be found in your daily commute. You wake up in the morning (maybe) and go out to start your car. It could start, but it might not. Let’s say it does. There’s no guarantee that you’ll make it to work. Your car could die. You could get in an accident and be hospitalized. A satellite could fall from the sky and flatten you as you sit in your driveway. Any number of things could intervene to prevent you from getting to work, and yet you set out in the morning with the assumption that you’ll reach your destination. Ninety-eight to ninety-nine percent of the time, you’ll pull it off with no problem. That doesn’t mean those things I listed above CAN’T happen, but rather that they’re highly unlikely to happen.
Not a pleasant thought, is it? Our brains don’t process probabilities well. That is why so many people prefer driving to flying when, statistically speaking, driving is more dangerous. That’s why people fork out ridiculous amounts of money gambling, under the mistaken assumption that eventually, their luck has to be in. Be that as it may, we live in a world of probabilities. Like it or not, that’s just how it is. Absolute certainty is a myth that results from human’s need for order in a wild, random world. It is no more real than Santa or the Easter Bunny. I’m almost certain of that.