Living With Uncertainty

October 29, 2012


Balancing belief and certainty.

Earlier this year my friend Janice died of cancer after a long struggle with the disease. She had fought hard because she had been terrified of the uncertainty that lay beyond death. Her uncertainly included not knowing what would become of her young sons after her death. Though she was a deeply spiritual woman, when the crunch came she could not be sure of her beliefs. It was that lack of certainty which compelled her to chase one experimental treatment after another. With the certainty of hindsight it is very easy for us to say she could have better used that precious time and fragile energy on her sons.

But uncertainty does not have the luxury of hindsight. It is experienced in the here and now.  It is the very background of our lives. We are born into uncertainty (at birth we have no clue whom to trust and what is going to happen), we die in uncertainty (few know what it is to die and what happens after, if anything), and we live our lives with uncertainty ( anything can be taken from us at any moment). Uncertainty makes us vulnerable, naked, and weak. And so we replace uncertainty with the certainty of belief. We imagine we have solved the niggling issue of uncertainty.

But have we really? Is not belief a poor substitute for knowledge? Belief is not certainty. In everyday speech we say things like: “I believe the time is 9 o’clock.” The word ‘belief’ here implies that we are not sure of our facts (it might be 9:05 or 8:55). Or we might qualify a strong opinion by saying, “Believe me, I know what kind of man he is.”  Belief is an opinion where there is room for doubt.

But here’s the catch-22: in order to replace uncertainty with belief, we must suspend all doubt, or it will not work. It is something like when we sit down for a movie (such as James Bond or some Sci-fi) where we voluntarily suspend disbelief, we choose to ‘buy into’ this implausible scenario as though it could actually happen, otherwise we cannot enjoy the movie. When a soldier says “I believe in my country,” he cannot mean uncertain knowledge. His belief needs to simulate certainty, his conviction cannot be wishy-washy. It needs to be so firm that he can risk his life for his belief. When a man undertakes a belief to achieve the impossible he cannot make room for doubt, otherwise he will fail. I know that I made my difficult recovery because I willed myself to believe in my own ability, as well that of a higher power (higher than the medical profession). I had to shun all doubts, otherwise it would not have worked. In other words, belief requires acting as though what you believe is the exactly that way, with full certainty.

This creates a further problem. If you accept a belief as certainty, you close the door to knowledge. Certainty of belief makes you inflexible, intolerant, ignorant. When new data is presented, when old realities give way to the new, our certainty of belief will make us unreceptive to change, to new knowledge. When you shun doubt, you also stop questioning and challenging. When you cannot embrace new ideas, new realities, new evidence, it makes you more uncertain. Early Pilgrims in America firmly believed women with abilities might be witches. Their stubborn faith shut out alternative ideas. So their uncertainty made them burn the accused women.
Science, that debunker of beliefs is itself riddled with uncertainty. Einstein’s Theory of Relatively was once a belief accepted as reality by physicists. Today they say Einstein was wrong, they now believe in The String Theory.  Much of science is conjecture, but science is open to revising its beliefs in the light of new data. Science does not demand that belief replace certainty in the same way that life does.

For us puny humans struggling through life, uncertainty is at every corner. We can’t know everything, we are not omniscient. We are left with belief, with its terrible price of inflexibility, as the only solace from uncertainty. So the question becomes, is it possible to live with uncertainty without resorting to doubtless belief?

I believe it is possible but not easy to achieve the right balance. I accept uncertainty as an inescapable part of living, and, if at times I need a little shelter, I use belief in the same way that scientists do. I act on my belief as though it is the absolute truth– for now, until I come across other data which challenges it.

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2 Responses to “Living With Uncertainty”

  1. meditation said

    nice post. If one can live with uncertainty then there will be no stress. The key is to let go..! Let go of your fears and let go of your worries and let go of your attachments!

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