Getting comfortable with uncertainty

Aliza Nisenbaum, Kayhan reading the New York Times (Resistance Begins at Home) (2017). Courtesy the artist, Anton Kern Gallery, and Mary Mary. ©Aliza Nisenbaum.

The spread of Coronavirus has created a colossal amount of uncertainty: uncertainty about the outlook for economic growth, uncertainty about our employment, uncertainty about whether we are equipped to teach our children from home, uncertainty about what is safe and what is not, uncertainty about how long this will go on for, & uncertainty about what our lives will look like when it’s all over.

We like answers. Certainty makes us feel safe. The uncertain is scary, especially for those of us who tend to expect the worst. Perhaps you’d rather get a ‘no’ now than having to wait a week. Perhaps you’d rather have the diagnosis, even if it means facing the long road to recovery. Perhaps making a choice and sticking to it is better, even if you’re not entirely sure it’s the right one.

I study the history of philosophy, so I’m used to rubbing up against people of the past who were after the answers. Of course, whether or not they found the right ones is up for debate — and that’s the fun of the job. Part of the value of studying the thinkers of the past is that it forces you to get comfortable on the fence. You’re there to examine and unpick the theories & arguments posed by past thinkers, not to argue that any particular position is certainly true. Taking time to explore and understand the thoughts of others (past and present) is a worthwhile activity all by itself, even if it means that there’s no nugget of certainty to be found at the end of it. Philosophers and historians of philosophy, while they’re searching for the answers, often end up becoming quite comfortable inhabiting the uncertain.

Many are ready to set philosophy apart from the physical sciences in this respect. To philosophical questions like ‘what makes an action right or wrong?’ or ‘what is the nature of a human being?’, there are no answers available (at least, no answers agreed upon by all — nothing that can boast any certainty). But science flaunts definite answers to many questions about the world. The very aim of the physical sciences is to give a factual picture of the material universe. However, whether the scientists are successful in their aim is another matter. Dr Bronowski, in the ‘Knowledge or Certainty’ episode of his 1973 series ‘The Ascent of Man’, argues that modern physics has proven this aim to be unattainable. For him, there is no absolute certainty: not for scientists, philosophers, religious believers, political leaders, or anyone else. This, he says, is the human condition.

In fact, Dr Bronowski argues that certainty is not only unattainable, but that people who claim that it is and that they have achieved it are engaging in a dangerous and morally destructive activity. We should never judge from some God’s-eye conception of absolute certainty. Instead, we must learn to tolerate uncertainty and take responsibility for our judgements: that is the only way to become knowledgable. As he puts it: “Human knowledge is personal and responsible, an unending adventure at the edge of uncertainty.”

In this time of acute uncertainty, I hope that we might draw some insight from Dr Bronowski and the philosophers. We must engage in “a play of tolerance”. In other words, we must learn how to live with our uncertainties and get comfortable in the waiting area. The message is not that nothing is certain and so nothing matters. Rather, we ought to take off the false-certainty blinkers and adopt a reflective and exploratory mindset.

We have to get comfy in the uncomfy, because that’s what makes us human.