Uncertain Times

A recent op-ed in the New York Times has sparked discussion among bloggers and pundits about uncertainty. Apparently, according to Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert – in his piece “What You Don’t Know Makes You Nervous” – people don’t feel comfortable with uncertainty. He concludes:

Our national gloom is real enough, but it isn’t a matter of insufficient funds. It’s a matter of insufficient certainty. Americans have been perfectly happy with far less wealth than most of us have now, and we could quickly become those Americans again — if only we knew we had to.

Now I would think proclaiming that people are uncomfortable with uncertainty is stating the obvious – kind of like saying teenage boys think a lot about sex. Many of us have lives filled with routines that lend an element of predictability and certainty to our world. And we often assume roles that society has defined as appropriate. This reminds me of a dialogue in the movie My Dinner With Andre:

ANDRE: You know, that was one of the reasons that Grotowski gave up the theater. He just felt that people in their lives now were performing so well that performance in the theater was sort of superfluous, and in a way obscene.


ANDRE: I mean, isn’t it amazing how often a doctor will live up to our expectation of how a doctor should look? I mean, you see a terrorist on television: he looks just like a terrorist. I mean, we live in a world in which fathers, or single people, or artists, are all trying to live up to someone’s fantasy of how a father, or a single person, or an artist, should look and behave! They all act as if they know exactly how they ought to conduct themselves at every single moment. And they all seem totally self-confident. Of course, privately people are very mixed up about themselves.

In any case, a number of pundits and bloggers have picked up the discussion about uncertainty. Beyond the blogs that simply repeat Gilbert’s entire article or make some brief comment about it, there are those who use its mention of uncertainty to spin their own perspectives. Kathleen Parker used the column as a springboard for saying why conservatism is good and a social safety net is bad:

Certainty may be the promise of government, but uncertainty is the grease of free markets. Uncertainty was also America’s midwife. Without a tolerance for uncertainty — and unhappiness — our nation’s Founders might have remained in their rockers.

Hmmm…I guess that explains why the United States was such an unproductive place in which everyone “remained in their rockers” and nothing happened during the 40’s, 50’s and 60’s, when New Deal and Great Society programs were in their heyday.

Meanwhile, various letters to the editor of the Times reached a variety of other conclusions, including some diametrically opposed to Parker’s argument:

Mr. Gilbert’s observations help explain why, in studies of happiness and life satisfaction, the countries of northern Europe repeatedly top the list, well ahead of the United States. These countries thrive on capitalism underpinned by a safety net of socialist institutions that relieve their people of many of the uncertainties and anxieties that plague us here.

Apparently, even the significance of uncertainty is uncertain today.

I would suggest there are different kinds of uncertainty that can be at play in our lives. Some types of uncertainty are nearly universal, like a teenage boy getting up the courage to ask a girl out on a date. For him at that moment, it may feel like the most stressful thing in the world. But it’s really an experience that spans cultures and generations. The same could be said for people starting a business or seeking a job.

But there’s another kind of uncertainty that’s a product of something bigger: a revolutionary shift in our perception and understanding of how our world works. Such events are rare, but their effects can be devastating to the existing societies and cultures of their time. When Copernicus argued that the earth rotated around the sun rather than the other way around, it set in motion events that led to the rise of science and the demise of many irrational superstitions. The Industrial Revolution likewise shook to their foundations the cultures and societies with which it came in contact.

We are currently going through another of these epochal shifts, thanks to the scientific revolution that started in the 20th century and that led to the creation of the technologies that have reshaped our world today. That revolution created a great sense of uncertainty among scientists at the time, like Werner Heisenberg:

The violent reaction on the recent development of modern physics can only be understood when one realizes that here the foundations of physics have started moving; and that this motion has caused the feeling that the ground would be cut from science.

There are many times today when we may feel “the ground has been cut” from our familiar world. The uncertainties we experience in dealing with today’s new world can make us even more nervous than an economic downturn. After all, we can read histories about other recessions and even depressions and learn how people survived them. But nothing in human history can compare to the tightly interconnected world we find ourselves in today.

But in a way that’s not entirely true. As his statement illustrates, scientists like Heisenberg and Einstein were as unsettled by their discoveries as we are today by the world those discoveries have created. And yet eventually scientists moved beyond this discomfort. Perhaps if we follow their lead we can learn how to find new certainties in this uncertain world. In his book Quantum Soup; A Philosophical Entertainment, Chungliang Al Huang wrote about paradox –  a primary facet of our current uncertainty. His observation seems as relevant as ever today:

Perhaps we need to look at paradox in a new way — more naively and accepting — recognizing the reasonableness of accepting yes/no, at the same time finding a new logic in the illogical, a new consistency in the inconsistent, and embracing absurdity as making quite good, if different, sense.

Albert Einstein said he did not believe that “God plays dice with the universe,” and so he remained uncomfortable with the new quantum theory when it came along, a theory that abounds with chance, randomness, and paradox. Yet now we have a whole new generation of physicists who are quite at ease with paradox. In fact, they encourage us to take their hand, let go of old patterns and open the way to new worlds for ourselves and for our children. They ask us to leave behind the world of either/or for the world of both/and. Paradox is part and parcel of the new physics.

Paradox – and uncertainty – are also part and parcel of our world today. It’s time we stopped fretting about it and began dealing with it. I suspect even Daniel Gilbert would agree that would make us happier.


About Dave Higgins

I've been interested in current events since at least the mid 1960's, and in ideas from modern science since the early 1990's. My website Quantum Age, which has been online since 1996, presents a basic framework for applying ideas from modern science to today's world. In this blog I discuss current events in the context of that framework.
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