21st Century Thinking: The Value of Uncertainty

Mankind needs confidence in order to build for the future. So said Sir Kenneth Clark, and I believe that he is right. Without confidence, we huddle in our huts, fearing the worst. With confidence, we build outrageously grand edifices to the glory of our imaginations. Like this

So where does this confidence come from? Historically, it came from belief. Religion was a prime giver and considering the incredible value of the certainty that religion provided, it is  not overly surprising that religious wars were so vicious. In the 18th century, this shifted towards a belief in reason. We call the period the enlightenment.  God was fine, but a belief in reason delivered something that God did not – progress. Confidence in our human future that will be better than what we enjoy today.

This sort of confidence was the engine of the great material revolutions of the 20th century. A certainty in what we believe to be right, whether that was certainty in ideology or process or just lifestyle. We questioned how to do things better, but not the value of our beliefs.

As it turns out, we over-estimated the value of certainty. It is useful to deliver confidence. But it is also rigid. And if we are confident in process, we need not obsess over the certainty of result. This is the genius of a man like Richard Feynman.  Consider this quote

It is imperative in science to doubt; it is absolutely necessary, for progress in science, to have uncertainty as a fundamental part of your inner nature. To make progress in understanding, we must remain modest and allow that we do not know. Nothing is certain or proved beyond all doubt. You investigate for curiosity, because it is unknown, not because you know the answer. And as you develop more information in the sciences, it is not that you are finding out the truth, but that you are finding out that this or that is more or less likely.

That is, if we investigate further, we find that the statements of science are not of what is true and what is not true, but statements of what is known to different degrees of certainty… Every one of the concepts of science is on a scale graduated somewhere between, but at neither end of, absolute falsity or absolute truth.

As humans we are slowly learning that we cannot know the truth of life. We can only know things about the truth. And I think this understanding will grow and enrich our lives in the 21st century.


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