Can we have absolute certainty about anything? We certainly think that we can.
Many of us believe that we know what is going to happen in the near future, whether it is in a few minutes, a few hours, a few days, or a few years.
We “know” that a short drive will take 10 minutes, that a TV program will start
at a particular time, that we have friends and family who care about us, that we have an identity, and many other things that we “know” are true. In addition we
have beliefs about politics, religion, how to bring up children, etc, that we also “know” are true.

While it is true that in the overwhelming majority of events what we expect actually happens, it is not absolutely, 100% certain that the expected outcome will turn out to be what we expect it to be. Occasionally or even rarely, something unexpected happens. Flat tires, drunk drivers, a TV or electrical outage, betrayal by a friend, a change in who we thought we were, even changes in religious or political beliefs do happen and usually come as a complete surprise. It appears more accurate to say that what we believe to be absolutely certain is actually a high degree of probability.

So why is this important? Does it really matter if we think we are certain when in fact we can only have a very high degree of probability that what we expect to happen will actually happen. The answer can be both yes or no depending on how
this question impacts particular people. People who are being calm and rational will not be affected by this disparity, and can easily accept the premise that there is no
absolute certainty. On the other hand, people who are experiencing high anxiety and who (irrationally) expect some catastrophic outcome to occur, will not be satisfied to learn that there is a high probability that what they are terrified of will in all probability not happen the way they think it will. For example if someone is afraid of flying on a commercial airliner because of the possibility that the plane could crash, he or she is not comforted by the fact that crashes occur less than once in over 2 million flights. For people who are terrified, only an absolute guarantee that the plane will not crash is sufficient to relieve their terror. Since absolute certainty doesn’t exist in the airline industry, the person’s anxiety is maintained.

There are many other instances in which this dilemma can be expressed by highly anxious people. With respect to health and illness, individuals who have Health Anxiety and are terrified of finding out that they have a fatal disease, frequently check their bodies for symptoms of disease and ask doctors for reassurance that they are free of disease. Of course doctors think and act on the basis of probabilities and after an examination of the patient can say with reasonable assurance that a patient in all likelihood does not have a fatal disease at a particular point in time. Highly anxious people need 100% certainty and a guarantee from the doctor that they are disease free., which doctors in all honesty are unable to provide. The way to manage anxiety is to confront it rather than seeking to reduce the external triggers and manifestations of the anxiety. For a more detailed discussion of this process please see the blog on anxiety or the monograph on health anxiety.

Comments are closed.