Foundations of Decision Making with Uncertainty

Written by Matthew Slama
Date 8/1/2018

Recently I have been contemplating what constitutes truth and how we arrive at a place where we can make an actionable decision. In my line of work I deal almost exclusively with developing methods to test what's true in the physical nature. I develop testing machines to give engineers and scientists tools for determining what is real. These systems are commissioned to corporations and universities so that they can understand phenomena and systems around us. We sell these measurement devices such that they can learn something and make decisions as to how they should proceed in developing new technologies thereby mitigating risk and creating a better world. I recently was working on a system to understand aerodynamic phenomena that costed over $100 million. That is quite a sum of money for testing equipment. It goes to show how valuable good information is. But what really is good information?

I had a recent conversation with a friend of mine, a nuclear engineer, where he was saying that he doesn't like philosophy because there is no such thing as certainty. His view was that philosophy makes worldviews based off of incomplete ideas because there's no such thing as certainty in the abstract. He believes that science is the only way to know something because it deals with things that are real, things that have substance. Philosophy just deals with ideas that can't be tested through experiment. He believed that any questions about the supernatural couldn't be answered. We should live now, in the moment. I tend to agree with him that there isn't complete certainty in philosophy. He failed to realize two things: one, that even though the things around us are physical, they are not certain and two, one doesn't need complete certainty to believe and hold to a worldview. Let's break these down on a practical basis.

When I look at my field of work, engineering and science, there's no such thing as absolute certainty. It continually amazes both my colleagues and myself how many engineers and scientists make absolute statements and requirement. I work with a lot of scientists that want absolute certainty when they are attempting to make a measurement. I remember one project where we have a stated specification of measurement. However, throwing caution to the wind, an engineer used data with complete confidence that it was real because it showed performance he liked. After spending millions on new dies and fixtures. They later found out that the data was faulty and their investment was wasted. There is no such thing as certainty. Within the last decade scientists have made a claim that they have "discovered" the Higgs Boson Particle. Now modern scientists use this new discovery to refine their models of the universe. However, there is a caveat. There isn't certainty that it even exists. That's right, the particle we heard so much about, the particle that gives matter its mass, we aren't even sure that it exists. However, not all is lost. The analysis actually shows that we have results at 5-Sigma confidence. That means we are 99.9999% confident that we have discovered it! With that level of confidence scientists have confidence, not certainty, to move forward on creating models of the universe.

I work with a lot of scientists and engineers to develop uncertainty budgets in their test. There's specific phenomena they want to measure and we need to come up with a measurement technique that will allow them to determine sufficiently what the phenomena actually is. However, when we actually get to the measurement we don't have complete certainty, but there's confidence intervals that we develop such that we can have a grasp of how confident we are of a unique measurement. In fact that's what the whole study of statistics was purposed. It was made for determining how well we can know something without having complete certainty.

All of this goes to show that even in science we don't need to have complete certainty to push forward in developing technology, innovation, development, and models. We think about the titans of industry that drive to create a new things in the face of uncertainty. We actually honor and applaud them for their courage. In fact often times it's that uncertainty that drives people to step out and take action. However when it comes to philosophy many people just throw up their hands and say we can't know anything. I think this shows people's ignorance to the fallacious concept of certainty and how we actually determine what's true. This agnosticism would be completely unacceptable in engineering, medical, law, business, and finance. All social, economic, and technological advancements would halt.

So why does it happen in philosophy? One main reason is the amount of risk and worldview ramifications that follow. However, we shouldn't take the agnostic's view of reclusing oneself but rather we should take on the nature of humanity. We should take the courage of mankind to press forward into the unknown and find truth.

So maybe next time when we hear about some arguments for God's existence like the Kalam Cosmological Argument, the Moral Law Argument, Intelligent Design, and many other arguments let's not throw up our hands and ignorance but rather take on the role of humanity in the world, the role of learning being decisive, and developing ideas in which to live.

Matthew Slama