Embracing Uncertainty

PhilSpecs1When we are young, I think we are all looking for certainty, and there are good evolutionary reasons for this. Unknown things can kill you. Anything from not knowing where your next meal is coming from to being surprised by a leopard hiding in tall grass can have seriously unpleasant consequences. We want to know what is out there, what we can expect, and we want to know with certainty.

Unfortunately, the universe is not required to provide what we want. In cases when it appears that it does, it’s time to step back and ask if our philosophical spectacles are distorting our perspective. We may be seeing what we want to see because we want to see it, not because it is there.

It was not until I was well into adulthood that I appreciated that uncertainty is a good thing to maintain, both for individuals and for cultures. It is, I think, a much better attitude to adopt toward life, the universe, and everything than the alternative. For one thing, it is arrogant to think we can know anything with one hundred percent certainty, whether it concerns philosophy, religion, physical reality, our romantic relationships, or the absolute best way to run a government or to make scrambled eggs.

The universe is a complex place, and we are just a small part of it. We’re an insatiably curious part of it, though, so we explore, we observe, we reach out physically and intellectually to discover new things. We ask questions and we get answers, and then we question those answers. Still, no matter how much we learn, there will always be more to discover, and no matter how certain we are of our conclusions about any particular subject, I think it is important to leave room for doubt. We must always humbly admit that we could be wrong.

Even when we are tempted to think there is no room for doubt, there is. Say, for example, your mother tells you the Easter Bunny left a wonderful basket filled with candy and colored eggs for you in the backyard. Eagerly, you look out the window. On the picnic table, you see a large, decorated basket overflowing with goodies, and that’s not all! Peeking from behind a tree is a large, white rabbit — and it’s wearing a vest, which looks a lot like a picture in one of your storybooks. It must be the Easter Bunny! She tells you to put on a jacket and some shoes and then go get your basket. You rush to your room to comply, and when you get outside, the basket is there, but the bunny is gone. You’re certain about how the basket got there, though. The Easter Bunny brought it. You have the word of someone you trust, the corroborating support of a favorite book, and the evidence of your own eyes. What more could anyone require?

Some kids might be convinced. The existence of the basket and the glimpse of the bunny provide clear evidence of both effect and cause. You, however, being a bit wiser, might remain skeptical. After all, Easter Bunnies don’t really fit well with most of your other observations about the world. Your parents might have provided the basket. The bunny could be an escaped pet. It could be a stuffed toy put there as a joke or as a willful act of deception (because parents everywhere seem to think it’s somehow good for kids to believe in all sorts of unlikely things). You might be dreaming. The wild mushrooms your mom put in the spaghetti sauce you ate with dinner last night may not have been as healthfully nutritious as she thought they were, and they are causing you to hallucinate. There are a large number of possibilities, and though they may all be exceedingly unlikely, they do exist.

Still, with the evidence at hand, the existence of the Easter Bunny might provide a good working hypothesis that you could accept as if it were true. This truth, however, should be accepted as provisional, and you should be willing to reexamine your conclusion in the light of new evidence or a better explanation. If you don’t, you, or at least your kids, are likely to be unpleasantly surprised when the Easter Bunny fails to make an expected delivery some day.

Although I suspect that uncertainty is a fundamental aspect of the universe, as well as a rational recognition of our own limitations, some adults may still find the idea uncomfortable. It is a truism that we know what we like, and we like what we know. Some may not want to consider new facts or new ideas that challenge what they ‘know,’ and they may feel no need to. Imagined certainty provides a comforting sense of security, which is a difficult thing to sacrifice for some philosophical generalization.

I think part of this discomfort comes from our instinctive need for as much certainty as possible, and the failure to appreciate that this is different from absolute certainty, which is realistically unattainable. Absolute certainty is also counter-productive.

I have observed that certainty seems to take two forms. There is certainty that the full answer to a question is already known, and there is certainty that the answer is unknowable. Both, I think, are derived from arrogance about our own abilities. With dark lenses like these in our philosophical spectacles, we fail to recognize the simple fact that we might be mistaken. When our minds close, our eyes shut, and we become blinded to new information and new ideas, unless it is to disparage them. We close ourselves to the possibility of finding better explanations or solutions to our problems. What’s the point in continuing to ask questions if we are already sure of the answers? Certainty is like intellectual quicksand. It bogs us down and prevents us from moving forward. If we are certain that our current view is the best one possible, we remain stuck where we are. It prevents us from looking elsewhere. If we have no doubt, we lose our sense of wonder and make no additional progress. There is no need for more learning and no chance of further discovery.

But how can we hope to accomplish anything if we are constantly unsure?

That’s a good question. I’m glad I asked it. In our daily lives, we act as if we are certain while knowing we never can be, at least not entirely. When I get in my car in the morning and turn the key in the ignition, I’m certain it’s going to start. It always has. I plan my day on this being true. This kind of thing, however, is the type of certainty we all accept as provisional and with good reason. Although my current car has always started, I have had others that did not.

But what of other certainties? At one time, everyone ‘knew’ that Earth was flat and had been appropriately placed by God in the center of the universe. Some were certain that a woman’s place was in the home and that Rock and Roll was evil. Most of the people who held these positions were not fringe lunatics, at least not by the standards of their time. These were prevalent beliefs held by people of power and position, acknowledged experts in their fields. Today, some experts are certain that cold fusion is impossible, that the speed of light is unbreakable, and that low tax rates on the unearned income of the very wealthy somehow improves a nation’s economy. They accept these ideas and proceed as if they are true. They may be right, although I personally am not convinced of the veracity of at least one of them. But, true or not, we must always accept that some new discovery or fresh idea can challenge any notion we may hold as an absolute truth and be willing to reconsider our cherished certainties in light of them. We must remember that understanding is a process. It’s a journey more than it is a destination.

This is how science, generally speaking, approaches things. It takes what is known, or at least what has been observed about some aspect of the universe, and it works with it to learn other things. It formulates hypotheses about how various things interrelate, which provide clues and predictions about other things. And although the scientific method has been very successful in making new discoveries, it offers no certainties, just probabilities. Some may approach 100% confidence but none reaches it. The next bit of evidence or a better theory can come tomorrow, which may cause a revision to a previously accepted idea, and thousands of scientists around the world are constantly observing, testing, and forming hypotheses to discover it. There seems to be no greater goal for a scientist than to modify or overturn an accepted theory. This is what can earn them a Nobel Prize.

Yeah, but what about the big questions science can’t answer?

This question itself implies that some things may not be testable. This may be the case for things such as the existence and nature of gods and ghosts, string theory, and the question of whether or not our dogs really love us or if they’re just faking it for the biscuits. If we’re convinced the questions make sense, there’s nothing wrong with accepting an answer as if it were true or, better yet, simply accepting that we don’t know. If it matters to us, we can make a choice about what to believe, but we should leave some space for doubt. Others may choose differently, but if we are honest with ourselves about why we prefer one answer to another, we will better understand why it works for us. We may also better appreciate why it may not work as well for others.

I’m not saying there are no “right” answers. Some are clearly better than others are in that they are consistent with what can be observed, but if we are honest about our own limitations, we will be better able to make good choices about what to accept as if it were true and change our minds when circumstances warrant. Our current understanding may be quite serviceable about a great many things, but we should never conclude from this that we know everything about anything or that our present understanding of something is necessarily much more than a useful fiction.

I try, therefore, to maintain a good, healthy uncertainty. I make choices like everyone and I would like to think they are sometimes good ones, but I endeavor to keep in mind that those choices were made with incomplete knowledge by an inherently imperfect decision maker. I may need to change my mind at some time, and acknowledging my own limitations from the start makes this easier to do.

Philosophical spectacle lenses that tint uncertainty as something positive can prevent us from becoming intellectually stubborn or philosophical arrogant. They can inoculate us against zealotry, and they may allow us to adapt more easily to new ideas and new information. Uncertainty is a good thing.

About Dave

A reader and writer of speculative fiction. See my website for more information on me and my writing. https://dlmorrese.wordpress.com/

Posted on January 30, 2013, in Thoughts and Observations and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. “Certainty is like intellectual quicksand.”

    This reminds me of the Chaos Theory – the Butterfly Effect. As an individual, with every decision we make or an event taking place, the future is altered. It does not alter only our future but the future of all individuals. To compensate this disorder (or what we perceive as a disorder), we have try to find an order in the chaos. Interesting read (out of print at the moment) is “Order Out of Chaos” by Ilya Prigogine and quite interesting is

    “Chaos and Order: Complex Dynamics in Literature and Science” which I’ve scanned but haven’t read, yet is looking good. It is very detailed regarding writing and is a book I would recommend science fiction and fantasy authors. I believe you will like this book.

    • I just checked our local library. Unfortunately, the don’t have ‘Chaos and Order’ listed in their catalog. They did have ‘Order from Chaos’ by Liz Davenport, but that looked like a ‘how to get organized’ self-help book. 🙂

  2. Good post D.L.! It’s true the best thing about life is sometimes the worst. I mean if we knew when someone was going to die, we would spend all our time mourning them before they were even gone and not appreciating them while they’re with us.

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