[MCAT] Certainty vs. Uncertainty

It is no wise man that will quit a certainty for an uncertainty.

Samuel Johnson

Write a unified essay in which you perform the following tasks. Explain what you think the above statement means. Describe a specific situation in which a wise person would quit a certainty for an uncertainty. Discuss the circumstances that you think determine whether or not one should or should not give up certainty for uncertainty.

Barron’s MCAT 2008


In Johnson’s statement, “certainty” may mean that which we know or understand, and it is argued that a logical person will not abandon the safety and comfort of certainty for a risky, possibly dangerous uncertainty. The word “wise” used in the statement suggests that Johnson makes a judgment with his statement, and he believes that anyone who would sacrifice certainty for an uncertainty is unwise or foolish.

Johnson’s statement may be applicable to certain situations, but not universally. For example, if I find my apartment on fire, should I stay in my room where I know for certain that is free of fire, or should I run downstairs, which is possibly engulfed in flames? I am well adapted to my room; I know where the sink is if I need water, and I know where the phone is if I need to call for help. Outside in the mist of smoke, I might not be able to find my way around the building and I don’t know where the fire is.

However, it is not necessarily wise for me to stay in my room in a burning building for the sake of preserving certainty and avoiding uncertainty. At the onset of the fire, it would be much more prudent to escape the building when the fire is still localized, because the fire might spread and I would be trapped in my room when it is too late to escape. If the fire has already spread and the smoke was too thick outside my room, on the other hand, it would be more wise if I stay close to the window and call for help.

As demonstrated in the scenario, whether or not one should give up certainty for uncertainty would depend on how the cost, benefit, and the risk of each option. When the risk of uncertainty is low and the benefit is high, then it may very well be more wise to give up the relatively costly certainty.

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2 thoughts on “[MCAT] Certainty vs. Uncertainty

  1. πŸ˜› when I read this question, the first thing I thought of defining wasn’t “certainty” and “uncertainty” but “wise”—even though of course all of it has to be defined. and defining wise would lead to your solution (which I really like) since wise=properly assessing cost, benefit and risk and making the appropriate decision.

    wow if I was given this question, I’d probably talk about something relevant to the test like… whether a doctor should try this new untested drug on a patient if it’s certain that the patient will die in a few months without some new treatment. or I’d just go crazy about launch into some thesis about how certain anyone can ever be and that making this statement is like saying something on hindsight.

  2. Hmmmmm… yeah, perhaps I could talk about the radical new treatments for cancer vs. the traditional chemotherapy.

    I like your approach to the question… it would certainly make a more interesting essay to read. I think pressure is an enemy of elaborate creativity though πŸ˜›

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