Certainty and Uncertainty*
by Steve Andreas
The following is a very interesting
exchange between Richard Bandler and someone who is very sure about
B: Are you sure?
B: Are you sure you're sure?
B: Are you sure enough to be UNSURE?
B: OK, Let's talk.
Before reading further,
I strongly recommend that you think of something that you are
very certain about, and find someone else to ask you this set of questions
about your certainty, so that you have a concrete personal experience
of their impact. At the very least, close your eyes and imagine that
someone else asks you these questions, and take the time to carefully
notice your response to each one, so that you can experience their effect
And for those of you
who teach modeling, or do modeling, this is an excellent small opportunity
to do some of it. Although Bandler’s exchange is brief, and concise,
it is quite interesting to explore its structure.
Now that you have
an experience of it, I would like to characterize this pattern as I
understand it, which requires a short journey up through logical levels.
There is a situation
X. X is an event in more or less sensory-based, "reality,"
what Paul Watzlawick has called "first-order reality." This
is something that everyone can usually pretty much agree on, such as
a "job interview," or a "critical comment." This level is often
called "the environment," and it is something that often we don't have
too much control over. Certain unpleasant events happen to us
from time to time, and we don't always have the choice of avoiding them
or ignoring them.
The person then thinks
about the situation X in a particular way and characterizes/evaluates
it, for instance, "This X is scary." This is a meta-response,
and the state is a meta-state about X. This is what Paul
Watzlawick has called "second-order reality." This is where
people may differ wildly, particularly if they are from different cultures,
and it is at this level where many conflicts and problems (and many
The person could just
as well conclude that X is "boring" or "exciting,"
or "challenging," or is an opportunity to "learn more
about their Buddha nature," etc. The person’s response will
depend on the understanding that they apply to the event, and changing
this understanding through content reframing can make a huge difference
in the person’s experience.
The person has a degree
of certainty about the meta-response. "I know
this is scary." This is a meta-response about a meta-response (a
meta-meta-response, with corresponding meta-meta-state). We could call
this "third-order reality," which is even more distant from
sensory experience than second-order reality, and even more troublesome
and dangerous. Plenty of problems (and solutions) also occur at this
Many people who come
for therapy appear to suffer from uncertainty: "I don't know what to
do." "I'm not sure if this is the right thing to do." "Life has no meaning."
But you can also think of this as resulting from other certainties.
"I know that wouldn't work," "I know she hates me,"
"I know I can't succeed," etc. Since these certainties
will make it difficult for the person to consider other understandings
at level 2, it can often be very useful to reduce certainty.
Someone who is phobic
of airplanes, and someone who is not, may be making exactly the same
images of flaming death and destruction. The difference is that the
images of the non-phobic include some representation of the small probability
of the crash, as well as its possibility. This could be
either a certainty of its unlikeliness, or a very great uncertainty
about its happening. However, a phobic person is experientially certain
that it will happen, no matter what s/he says "intellectually."
What makes it difficult
to work with a paranoid is not just that s/he thinks that others are
plotting against him/her, but that s/he is certain that this is occuring,
and is unwilling to question it and consider other possibilities.
Another aspect of a
person’s certainty is that others may suffer from it as much or
more than the person who is certain. Think of all the deaths, persecutions,
misery and destruction around the globe that have resulted from the
certainty of religious prophets and institutions, revolutionaries, and
politicians--all of whom are totally convinced that they were right.
Each of us has a way
to assess experience and provide us with a measure of how certain we
are about it. This has often been called a person’s "convincer
strategy." The exploration of the variety of ways that people use
to convince themselves of something is also relevant to the topic of
certainty, but this article will only discuss the result of the
operation of the convincer strategy.
evaluation that someone makes at level 2 has some degree of certainty/uncertainty
about it at level 3, and this will be on a continuum from zero certainty
to absolute certainty. There are basically three possibilities:
A. Zero certainty
If a person has zero
certainty, they have no firm conclusion whatsoever about the meaning
of X, so they are completely open to considering new understandings
when they are offered, and they will be very easy to work with in exploring
other ways of thinking about the situation X. This is an "easy
client," because their understanding of a situation is very fluid,
and they have no, or very little, certainty about their understanding
to lock in the understanding, and make it hard to change.
B. Partial certainty
If someone is somewhere
in the mid-range of certainty, they are at least somewhat open to considering
other possible understandings (on level 2) of a situation X (on level
1). If they are very certain, it will be harder for them to consider
other understandings, but at least it will be possible. These clients
are somewhat harder to work with than those with zero or very
little certainty, and those who are more certain will be harder to work
with than those who are less certain.
C. Absolute certainty
If a person is totally
certain about their understanding, they will be closed to even considering
other understandings, because their certainty about their understanding
locks up the ability to consider alternatives. These are the really
tough clients, and this is the situation where Bandler's pattern is
particularly useful--to move someone from the absolute certainty (which
has only one representation) to the partial certainty (with more than
one representation) in which a dialogue is possible. (I think it is
very significant in this regard that at the end of the exchange, Bandler
says "OK, Let's talk.") In other words, this pattern is not
useful to solve a problem, it is useful to make it possible to
solve a problem on level 2 by decreasing certainty on level 3.
Understanding the pattern
To understand how
the pattern works, we will need to enter the realm of paradox, which
is very difficult for most of us to think about. (It was also hard for
Bertrand Russell and Gottlob Frege, two very brilliant professional
logicians to think about, so there is no shame in this, but the faint
of heart may wish to consider turning to simpler recreations.)
sure?" asks if a person is in state of certainty. This is a
question that asks for a digital yes or no answer, but permits answers
which are qualified in some way.
If the person says,
"No, not really," then they are uncertain (A) and are already
open to other understandings.
If they respond, "Well,
I'm pretty sure," they are somewhere in the intermediate range
of partial certainty (B) and will be at least somewhat open to considering
If they simply respond
"Yes," we need more information. (As usual the nonverbal messages
in voice tone, posture, hesitations, etc. will be much more useful
than the words in assessing the actual degree of certainty the person
sure you're sure?" applies certainty to itself recursively,
in essence asking if the person is absolutely sure. Answering this question
requires the person to go to a 4th level, applying certainty to itself.
Again this is a question that asks for a digital yes or no answer, but
permits a qualified answer.
If the person says.
"Well, I'm pretty sure," or qualifies it in any way, then
the person is somewhere in the mid-range (B), and can already
be talked with usefully. If the person replies with an unqualified "Yes,"
they are saying that they are absolutely certain (C). (Again, the nonverbals
will tell you more about the absoluteness of the certainty than the
This condition of absoluteness
(or near absoluteness) is required for the next step of the pattern
to work. However, if the condition of absoluteness is not met, it means
that the next step is unecessary, because in a condition of partial
certainty (B) you can proceed to usefully explore alternative understandings.
A very important aspect
of this question is that it asks the person to recursively apply their
certainty to itself. This requires the person to go to a fourth logical
level, and this is something which is also necessary for the next step
in the pattern. A "Yes" answer is a confirmation that
the person is willing and able to do this recursion or "apply to
self," as it is usually called in the "sleight of mouth"
patterns. Recursion is a precondition for the next question, which
also asks the person to apply certainty to itself, but in a different
Another way of describing
this is that the first two questions can be used both to gather information
about the client's degree of certainty, while at the same time beginning
to assemble pieces of a puzzle which will be put all together in the
"Are you sure enough
to be UNSURE?" applies certainty to its negation, and
is a form of logical paradox, equivalent to the statement "This
sentence is false (not true)," or "I am a liar (not truth-telling)."
(The word "paradox" can also used in a more general way to mean "contradictory"
or "unexpected," but the meaning here is restricted to logical
The three essential ingredients of a logical paradox are:
1. An absolute statement,
In paradox, an absolute
statement is recursively applied to its own negation, bridging two logical
levels. If the statement is true, then it is false, and if it
is false, then it is true. This perpetual oscillation between truth
and falsity challenges all our ideas about certainty and reality, and
this is at least one reason why we find it so difficult to think about
There are two more
very important elements in the word "enough." "Enough"
presupposes some point on a continuum, while the person has been using
an absolute either/or (sure/unsure) distinction with no middle ground.
No matter how the person answers, if they accept this presupposition,
they are agreeing to a frame in which certainty is on an analog continuum
rather than an absolute, digital either/or, and consequently other alternative
understandings can be considered. Unless they challenge this presupposition,
either answer to this question moves them to an experience of partial
There is yet another
important element in the word "enough." It presupposes reaching a threshold,
in this case a threshold of certainty. If the person replies "No," they
are saying that their certainty is something less than the threshold.
If they reply "Yes," they are saying that their certainty has reached
(or exceeded) the threshold, and is "enough" to be uncertain.
"Are you sure enough
to be unsure?" is the question form of the statement, "If
you are sure enough, you will be unsure," and this is presupposed when
asked as a question. This presupposition states that great certainty
includes within it the ability to be unsure, taking two experiences
that have been experienced as polar opposites, and nesting one within
I have already mentioned
that it is very difficult for most of us to process logical paradoxes.
When we hear this paradox, stated as a question, (with the "enough"
presuppositions packed inside it), most people simply give up and respond
yes or no.
If a person answers
"Yes," they are agreeing to a state of unsureness (the "unsure"),
and if they answer "No," they are also agreeing to a state
of unsureness "not sure enough." Whichever response is given,
they are agreeing to a degree of uncertainty, and consequently the willingness
to consider alternative understandings.
This pattern has the
same form as a paradoxical challenge that the devil supposedly once
offered to God in regard to God's omnipotence. The devil challenged
God to create a rock so large that even God could not move it. If God
cannot create a very large rock that he cannot move, he is not omniptent
in his ability to create rocks, and if he does create such a rock, he
is not omnipotent in his ability to move rocks. Either way the absoluteness
of God’s omnipotence is destroyed.
To summarize, this
pattern is very useful in situations in which a person is very certain
about how they understand something, this understanding causes them
difficulty, and their certainty results in their being not willing to
even consider alternative understandings. Using this pattern can open
them to considering other models of the world.
Learning how to sort
out levels of experience in this way is a very useful skill that can
help us understand the structure of problems, and decide which level
of understanding could use some improvement.
This makes it much
easier to find our way through the twisting corridors of another person's
mind, in order to help them find their way out of their predicaments--and
also keeps us from wasting our time solving problems that they don't
Confusion about levels
of thinking, the recursion which transcends levels, and particularly
recursion that includes negation, are present in many human problems.
It is a little-explored realm, and one that often creates paradoxical
traps for us. Knowing the three essential elements of paradox (absolute
statement, recursion, and negation) can help us identify these traps,
and avoid them.
We can't avoid logical
levels, or recursion, and we wouldn't want to--that would keep us from
thinking about thinking, and having feelings about feelings, thinking
about feelings, and many other valuable and unique aspects of our humanity.
But we can learn to
use positive statements whenever possible, rather than negations, and
learn to be very careful when we do use negation. The NLP
emphasis on positive outcomes is one example of the value of this, and
the benefits that can result from this kind of care in thinking.
And we can be doubly
careful when recursion is also present, which is much more often than
we usually think. To give only one example, when someone says, "I am
a bad person," they are saying that everything that they do is bad,
and one of their behaviors is the sentence that s/he just said to you,
so "badness" applies to the sentence about badness.
And finally, we can
also learn to be very cautious about making absolute statements, realizing
that all knowledge is relative, contextual, and based on our very limited
experience and understanding. Paradoxically, that is one thing
we can be very certain about!
I think it is truly
amazing that with the three pounds of jelly between our ears we can
imagine and think about an infinite universe, but it would be useful
to have a little humility all the same. Let’s start with some
humility about our knowledge and certainty.
In case the reader
at this point is still insistent that there is such a thing as absolute
certainty, I offer the following quote from Warren S. McCulloch’s
1945 article "Why the Mind is in the Head," now included in his marvelous
book Embodiments of Mind, MIT Press, 1965.
McCulloch was one of
the first and the best to apply mathematical analysis to the functioning
of the nervous system.
"Accordingly to increase
certainty, every lhypothesis should be of minimum logical, or a priori,
probability, so that if it be confirmed in experiment, then it shall
be because he world is so constructed. Unfortunately for those who quest
absolute certainty, a hypothesis of zero logical probability is a contradiction,
and hence can never be confirmed. Its neurological equivalent would
be a neuron that required infinite coincidence to trip it. This, in
a finite world, is the same as though it had no afferents. It never
*Anchor Point, Vol. 14, No. 10, October, pp. 3-8