Saturday, July 18, 2015

In praise of uncertainty

This week I came across an interesting phrase, "unarguably". Here's the context:

Person A: "Arguably, X is worse than Y".
Person B: "Unarguably".

Person B seemed to mean that there was absolutely no doubt whatsoever that X was indeed worse than Y, and there was no point discussing it or arguing about it.

I was struck by the certainty Person B expressed. While I have some clear opinions myself, I would never claim this level of certainty and decide that any opinion is true beyond any discussion or argument. This sort of arrogance seems to me to be unproductive. When people claim that they are right and are unwilling to listen to any discussion, they impose their opinions on others and avoid exposure to any facts or arguments that might contradict their certainty.

Open-minded thinkers feel comfortable with uncertainty. They know that opinions are personal choices, and that even what we consider as facts result from an ongoing process of examination and re-evaluation. The scientific method is based on accepting what seems to be the most likely explanation of the known data, provisionally, until a better explanation comes along. Once upon a time, people would have said "Unarguably, the sun goes around the earth". Now we know better.

The dogmatic approach that demands total certainty can only hold back the progress of the human race, which is based on discussion and experimentation. It is uncertainty that drives our curiosity and our ability to question and examine.

Here is my challenge for myself and others: Whenever you think you know something with any certainty, ask yourself what makes you so certain, and whether you could be mistaken. Question and doubt everything, until you can form opinions that make sense to you, based on facts. Try to avoid the confirmation bias that makes us take seriously only opinions similar to our own. Be willing to listen to other opinions and consider their merit. Be willing to not have an opinion on certain issues, especially those about which you have little knowledge. Uncertainty means openness and flexibility. Embrace your uncertainty!

1 comment:

Ivor Ludlam said...

The most ironic example of false dogmatism is the apparently sceptical T-shirt slogan also found in many academic books supposedly quoting Socrates: "All I know is that I know nothing". The closest remark to this in Plato's dialogues is the one in the Apology, "I do not think that I know that which I don't know" which is much closer to what you are advocating.