Friday, September 10, 2010


There’s an idea I was introduced to in my college humanities class; Tolerance for Ambiguity. One might say that almost every aspect of human life is ambiguous. The few areas that can be said to be least ambiguous might be mathematics and physics, but even those disciplines, with the rise of modern “M theory,” have areas sometimes referred to as “Murky” and “Magic” by their leading scientific proponents.

Politics is steeped in ambiguity. Climate change scientists will admit, that they have great chasms of uncertainty.

Those who search for certainty in religion are likewise left to dangle without firm foundation.

About the only thing that I can say with any confidence is that life seems to operate in a regular way. Apples fall down, electricity travels through wires, food is turned into energy, the sun rises and sets (or the world keeps on spinning). And while seeking knowledge is a noble activity, I am against a certain trait that exhibits itself in many who do the seeking...

It seems that unfounded certainty obscures clarity.

Socrates stated often that he knew nothing. If we look deeply enough, it appears that every field of human endeavor rests upon a mystery.  It seems that every person who claims “ultimate knowledge,” has, within a few years had the theory struck down, revised, or thrown out altogether. In fact, the current theory of how the universe works is so completely complex, that if it were clearly mapped out, and the ultimate theory of the universe were spread in front of our most brilliant mathematicians, they would still not be able to intuitively comprehend the 11 dimensions, alternate universes and other weirdness within it.  They would probably be able to work the equations, and maybe even get some useful understandings, but at the end of it all, it’s like an ant watching a square dance. The mind is probably not capable of conceiving 11 dimensions.

I think it is noble and good that our leading minds are trying to shed light on the deepest mysteries of our existence. I hope they do find a useful Theory of Everything.  All I'm saying is this:  In order to be truly honest, truly in integrity with our minds, our hearts, and our society, shouldn't we have the courage to admit what we do not know – even when it is at the very core of our being?

I’ve looked long and hard at society – and one of my only remaining beliefs is is that claiming certain knowledge leads to mistakes and sometimes to suffering.  It is not ignorance that leads to suffering – far from it.  Acknowledged ignorance can be a spur to our actions and a benefit to mankind.  Unacknowledged ignorance, or wrong certainties that lead to pain and suffering.

Yes, we can drop an apple and be relatively certain it will fall to the floor. But we had best be absolutely certain, as physics teachers, that we’re not guilty of telling our students that we understand exactly why it happens. Let them know there are unanswered questions, or you may doom them to a life of arrogance and alienation to themselves as they proselytize through life.  Our children are certain enough, already, without our adding to it. If you fear for their fragile egos, perhaps you haven’t heard what goes on in the halls between classes, they would probably welcome a bit of uncertainty and mystery in their studies as well.

And those of you who feel that certainty in education is the only way to fight the soothing balm of certainty some of those who have less integrity  may offer, I say be cautious.  If you don't want to be a hypocrite you mustn't step on the slippery slope.  If the only way that you can entice minds away from the lulling effects of certainty is by artificially creating your own, you will certainly lose your sheep to the next peddler of placebos.  Children are no more blind to contradictions than they are to the motivations of their teachers, or we are to the motivations of our leaders.

So say it with me, I don't know. We don't know.  Maybe nobody knows.  Who knows?
It should be hardly necessary to point out the inconsistencies and deep uncertainties in psychology, politics and economics but interestingly enough, that's where we find some of the most vehement proponents of certainty.  If we can agree that science and religion have mysteries at their core, how much more obvious must it be that the foundations of the more complex “softer” sciences are also incomplete?  Who has not seen the vehemence of two “colleagues” arguing over Freud versus Jung, Efficient Markets versus Random Walks, Marxism versus Capitalism? And what is obvious to less partial observers is that neither one is correct.

We just don't know. Say it with me:  We just don’t know.  Make it your mantra:  I don’t know.  Get comfortable with it:  We just don’t know!  Be happy about it:  We just don’t know!  Embrace the mystery, Who knows?!  I don’t know.  Revel in the possibility of it all.  Teach your children.  It’s freeing, it’s calming and it’s obvious. We just don’t know  :)

Please forgive my pedantry!  I guess I’ve become a little frustrated by the repeated claims of certainty and the endless search for the truth at the base of these claims.  I suppose I’ve let my emotions run a little high. That’s okay, I’m human. It’s normal to be frustrated.  And we often encounter people who want us to buy into their world view just so they have someone else to reinforce their certainty upon.  We know, they're just lonely.  Deep down, don’t we all know that’s what’s happening when we get into one of those arguments with a passionate believer?  And haven’t most of us been guilty of being that true believer too?  If you think back to the last time you were involved in one of those haranguing arguments, that smidgen of doubt you were trying to force out of the other person may have actually been inside of you all along.

So let me end with an apology. I realize that this has become a bit of a tirade. I have become guilty of the very thing I was railing about. I suppose that, if I’m honest with myself, in all of this trying to convince you that “we just don’t know,” perhaps there was a little bit of my own doubt that I was trying to convince out? Possibly I was trying to erase that nagging suspicion that maybe someone out there really does know.

Oh well, it's just one more uncertainty.  I’ll learn to live with it. It’s kind of fun once you get used to it.

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