The Certainty of unCertainty


Neil Armstrong
(July 20, 1969)

 We know a lot about the moon these days, but that wasn’t always true. In 300 BC, it was common belief that the surface of the moon was smooth, with a mirror-like finish. Aristotle taught that this was a symbol of the purity and perfection of all that was heavenly. Perfection of the heavens was a devout tenant of spiritual teachings and religious beliefs.

Four-hundred years later, a Greek writer named Plutarch asserted that the features of the moon were indications that the moon actually had mountainous regions and deep caverns where sunlight could not reach.

Plutarch’s writings were discredited and he was ridiculed for his outlandish ideas. The belief that the surface of the moon was a mirror was upheld and the purity of the heavens was preserved. The moon’s visible features were explained as reflections of the corruption that existed on Earth.

This belief remained unchallenged until the invention of the telescope by the Dutch in the early 1600’s. It was then that English astronomer and mathematician, Thomas Harriot, recorded a detailed map of the lunar surface. Although well-versed in theories of light refraction, Harriot noted simply that the lunar surface exhibited a “strange spottedness” and that he was ignorant as to the cause. Dated July 26, 1609, Thomas Harriot never published his findings.

About four months later, an Italian physicist named Galileo was introduced to the telescope and began to record his impressions of the moon’s surface. Having a background in art and Renaissance paintings, Galileo quickly identified the interaction of light with shadows as being evidence that the lunar surface was anything but smooth. His detailed manuscript of astronomy, The Starry Messenger, was published in 1610 and challenged many commonly held beliefs about the universe. Years of scientific debate resulted in astronomers, physicists and religious leaders coming to a new understanding regarding the functionality of the solar system.

“Doubt is not a pleasant condition,
but certainty is absurd.”

                                                                           – Voltaire

Throughout the course of each day we make decisions and execute judgments to the best of our ability. Remaining open-minded is usually a plus, but remaining neutral is not always an option. We have to make choices and we do it with several dynamics jockeying for prominence. Each of these aspects can be seen in the evolution of our understanding of the moon.

Knowledge is Limited

We’d like to have all the facts, but that’s not always the case. Even at times when we believe that we have all the facts, sometimes we don’t. We proceed to final verdicts based on the information we have and the confidence that we have sufficient information to help us make a good call. Regardless how much we do know, the one thing we know for certain is that there are things that we don’t know.

Making judgments prior to having adequate data gave birth to the phrase, “Jumping to conclusions.” Jumpers, please note that your odds of making the right call are greatly enhanced if you come in off the ledge.

Consider the Source

Information is crucial, but the identity of the source can often play heavily into how we interpret the facts as they are put before us. Not long ago a group of people were given written statements in confidence and asked to determine whether the statements were positive or negative in nature.

Some were told that the statement had come from someone who was at odds with the group. The statement itself was written in bold, uneven type and printed in dark, foreboding colors. Others were given the same statement, but told that it came from someone who favored the group kindly. The statement was written in light script and printed in pastel, eye-pleasing colors.

Those with the darkly printed statements deemed the comment to be rude and distasteful. A few even took defensive tones. Those reading the same exact statements, printed in eye-pleasing colors, saw the statements as complimentary.

For over 2000 years our understanding and knowledge of the moon was misguided because information was filtered with regard to source. Those who aligned with religious beliefs and teaching were deemed credible. Those who presented opposing viewpoints were seen as heretics and ridiculed as being ungodly. At times we need to separate ourselves from the source just enough to entertain an unbiased consideration of the facts as facts, not points of view.

In Our Best Interest

Choices are often made based on how we are affected. Emotions pull us toward decisions that tip the scales in our favor. The law of self-preservation is hard to escape. Given the option, we are drawn to things that either promise satisfaction in the moment or favorable positioning in the future. It’s natural, but not always right.

The religious leaders were “protecting the faith” from the potential deterioration that could ensue if the teachings and interpretations of the heavens and creation were openly challenged. Even if evidence pointed to other avenues of understanding, it was considered highly disrespectful to dispute the church on any such teachings. Likewise, there are times when we make better decisions by removing our own personal interests and emotions from the equation.

The Experience Factor

When he looked at the moon, Galileo saw the same thing that everyone else saw with the naked eye. He knew that it could not possibly be a reflection, because it never changed. Galileo was not only seeing details of the lunar surface, but he also knew that he was seeing the same portion of the surface at all times.

With the help of the telescope, he was able to view it in even greater detail. His artistic background and vast knowledge of shadows and light, as it played out in paintings, enhanced his interpretation. Galileo correctly identified shadows and light as mountains and caverns. He was also able to map heights and depths in surprising detail.

Thomas Harriot saw the exact same image, but didn’t have the artistic background. Harriot noted a “strange spottedness” which proved curious, but hardly differential and certainly not worthy of publication.

Even the most difficult of decisions are rendered easily when we have past experience as a teacher. The feeling of having “been down this road before” is a comfort, especially in times when we’re on a road we’d prefer to avoid.

* * * * * *

Of two things I am certain:

I will always need to make decisions
and I will never be right all of the time.

As much as we want to be right, sometimes we are wrong. We may want to be right for all of the right reasons. But sometimes, we are still wrong.

By the same token, it is very difficult to admit when we are wrong. It seems to be an evidence of weakness, even though we know that we’re not alone. We’ve been wrong in the past. We’ll be wrong in the future. The same thing can be said about absolutely everyone we know. Yet, discovering that we were wrong still seems to carry enormous weight and that should emphasize the importance of making better decisions.

-Giant leaps-
They often start with one small step.

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