The Wisdom of Uncertainty

(About a 9 minute read)

Charlie’s father, Benjamin, wanted Charlie to grow up fully capable of thinking calmly and rationally while under stress.  To make sure that Charlie actually did mature into a man able to think with great clarity while under stress,  Benjamin decided to play cards with his young son at least once a week.

Benjamin reasoned that Charlie would learn logical reasoning from “counting his opponent’s hand”; that is, from employing logic to discern which cards his opponent held.  It is said that, when Benjamin told Charlie of his plans, eight year old Charlie was overjoyed that his father wanted to devote time just to him, and to him alone.

Little was Charlie prepared for the reality of those card games.

Benjamin, you see, had not told Charlie of his fiendish plans to turn their card games into hell on earth for his young son in order to teach him, not just logical reasoning, but logical reasoning while under stress.  When Charlie showed up to play, he soon discovered that his farther had purchased an all-too-generous supply of the strongest, most vile, most stinking cigars he could find on the market.

“Concentrate, Boy! Concentrate!  You must concentrate!”  Benjamin would say while every few minutes blowing smoke directly into Charlies’ face.  And it didn’t end there, either, for Benjamin made a point of keeping Charlie up way past his bedtime, until Charlie would simply collapse, and could no longer be shaken awake.*

Naturally, Charles Sanders Peirce grew up to become a traveling “No Smoking on Our Premises” sign painter perhaps America’s greatest philosopher and logician, an innovator in mathematics, statistics, philosophy, research methodology, and various sciences.

Doubt and Belief

In 1877, the magazine, Popular Science Monthly, published a short article by Peirce entitled, “The Fixation of Belief”.  Two months later, the same magazine published, “Snoring, and How to Stop it”.  That article was by Wyeth, though, and had nothing to do with Peirce or his ideas.   However, in 1878, the magazine got around to publishing, “How to Make Our Ideas Clear”, which was by Peirce.   Together, the two articles by him laid the initial foundation for what became the philosophical school of American Pragmatism.

In the first article, Peirce took a close look at the psychology of belief.  Now, the opposite of belief is doubt, and Peirce was just as aware as any of us that doubt is typically an emotionally uncomfortable state to be in.  He argued that, because doubt was uncomfortable, we humans naturally try to escape from it into belief — a much more emotionally comfortable state for us.   And we seek not only a belief, but a firm belief.

Peirce next argued that it was misleading to say our species seeks truth, when in reality we are content with any belief that we are able to firmly hold, whether it’s true or not.

That, of course, was too large of a lump for many people to swallow.  The common wisdom of the day was that humans — at least some of us — nobly pursued not merely a firm belief, but a true belief.  Yet, there stood the appalling Peirce, stubbornly insisting that we seek to escape doubt, instead of seek to find truth.

Two Reasons to Value Uncertainty

Whether or not we humans ever seek truth might be an open question for many of us, but I think it’s pretty evident that (1) doubt is usually an emotionally uncomfortable state, and that (2) we usually try to escape from it into a belief, the firmer the better.   Most of us seem to enjoy doubt or uncertainty about as much as we would enjoy a vigorous sandpaper massage.  Few of us see it as the 14th century monk, Kenko, did, who wrote, “Uncertainty is the most precious thing in life”.

Moreover, I think Peirce was also right that, when we have a firm belief about something, we tend to stop challenging it.  For instance, I was once of the firm  belief that solipsism was logically unassailable.  I arrived at that view decades ago, and for decades I looked no further into it.

To be sure, I did derive some ideas from it during those decades.  And while some people might consider those ideas to be “further explorations of solipsism”, I myself don’t because none of those alleged “further explorations” challenged the basic notion of solipsism.

Only recently did I delve into it again.  And that was mainly by stumbling my way into taking a fresh look at it.  It wasn’t something I would have done had it not been for a series of special circumstances.  Having taken a second look, however, I have come to doubt that solipsism is logically unassailable.

I have yet to fully evaluate solipsism so it is possible that I might yet return to a belief that it is logically unassailable.  However, if I do, it will be a much more fully informed belief than the one I had before.  The thing is, when we think we know something, we usually stop looking into it — really looking into it — and that sometimes means we stop short of any great insight.

Thus, it seems to me that one of the ways in which uncertainty can be “precious” is by motivating us look deeper, which is not always a bad thing.  Everyone of us, I’ll wager, harbors a whole lot of beliefs — and not always intellectual beliefs — that ought for our own sake to be given a good shaking now and then.  Even if we end up retaining the belief, we are likely to come back with a richer, more accurate understanding of it.

A second way uncertainty might be valuable to us is in “keeping us young and flexible”, so to speak.

Back in early March, I wrote a post explaining how our firmly held beliefs about who and what we are can lead us into limiting and restricting ourselves such that “we become one of those nearly ossified people who — perhaps even by an early age — has more or less ceased to develop and grow in any significant degree or way”.   This can have a devastating effect on the quality of our lives.   As the saying goes, “Some people die at 25, but are buried at 75”.

How Best to Become Uncertain

Yet, how can one overcome such ossification?

As you might by now suspect, I believe it is best to overcome it by uncertainty.  Yet, that is not often an easy thing to do.   An attempt to create doubt about our beliefs through some sort of contrived and artificial speculation that they might be false seems to me as likely to produce real results as burning a match three feet from an ice cube is likely to thaw it.   What is needed more than mere speculation is a genuine reality check.

There seem to me at least two ways of checking a belief against reality.  Basically, to either do it yourself, or to get help.  Doing it yourself is the least effective of the two ways, in large part because each of us is prone to error — and even delusion.  If one must rely on this route, it’s probably a good idea to do things like keep a daily journal in which you note any events or other things that challenge the beliefs you wish to genuinely question.

But perhaps the best reality checkers for us are our friends or trusted other people.  Among “trusted other people”, I am including books, articles, podcasts, and so forth by authors you trust, in addition to people you might actually have some form of contact with.   [Note to frequent Café Philos  commentator Teresums: The category of “friends”, however, does not include your imaginary friend, Wildfire, the Rainbow Colored Unicorn.]  Other people, though just as prone to error and delusion as ourselves, often are not prone to precisely the same errors and delusions.  Hence, they might see things we don’t (and vice versa).

Truth is Often Hesitant, Uncertain

Peirce was extraordinarily prolific, but published only a fraction of his ideas and insights during his lifetime.  For instance,  on at least one occasion, he created a whole multi-variable logic, then tossed his papers on it into a desk drawer, and apparently forgot about them — leaving his work to be re-invented decades after his death by other logicians.

To put it a little simplistically, a multi-variable logic is a logic that goes beyond just the binary values of “true” and “false” to include a potentially infinite number of other values.  Think of those others as varying states of uncertainty, as “maybes”.   For there are times when, instead of seeing things as either true or false, it is best to see them as, say: true, maybe true, maybe false, and false.  In fact, I think that’s the case with most things in life.

So often, the deeper you get into something, the more obvious it becomes to you that the truth of it is uncertain.  There are almost always far more ways in which any notion we might have about reality — including the reality of ourselves — can be wrong than there are ways in which it can be right.  Add to that other facts, such as we don’t know everything (hence, most anything is possible), we are born with innate cognitive biases that tend to skew our thinking, and sometimes we just goof up even under the best of conditions.  The list could go on and on.  In the end, one is so often wisest when one treats the truth as uncertain.

Glorious Summary and Rousing Call to Action!

Two of possibly many ways in which uncertainty can benefit us are by motivating us to probe for ever deeper insights into things, and by helping to prevent or overcome the natural human tendency to become emotionally and mentally inflexible, closed off to new ideas, ways of doing things, and life adventures.  Of course, there are also  downsides to uncertainty.

Besides the fact that uncertainty can be emotionally uncomfortable, it can also cause us to hesitate to act when we very much need to act.  That can be a huge issue at times, but rather than address it here, I am going to save any discussion of it for another post.

At the moment, however, you yourself should not be hesitant to donate vitally needed dollars to Uncle Sunstone’s Emergency Shelter for Wayward Dancing Girls.   Uncle Sunstone’s Shelter is a non-registered charitable organization focused like a laser on gorgeous women who tragically cannot afford clothing beyond a g-string or two.  Your generous donation will go towards buying those unfortunate women the clothes they need to hang out at Uncle Sunstone’s cottage.  Clothes like French maid’s outfits, sheer nightgowns, skimpy bathing suites, chicken outfits, and other dignified evening wear.  Simply call 1-888-CELEBRATE and please have your credit card handy!  Act now!


  • Most of the story of Peirce’s father, but not all of it, was told to me by my professor, William Davenport, who as a graduate student, was one of just three such students allowed to study Peirce’s collected, but unpublished papers.  Davenport said his version of the story came from Peirce’s writings, but I don’t recall now whether from his published or unpublished writings.

20 thoughts on “The Wisdom of Uncertainty

  1. excellent post! I especially love your point on varying degrees of “maybes”. I am similar, when I doubt something, I go into crazy research mode and buy a lot of books and attempt to read everything anyone has ever said on the subject. Needless to say, I never get very far. I can’t wait to read your post on uncertainty and action. I am reminded very much of nihilism on that point. I have found in the past few years that when people begin to doubt everything, this inevitably leads them to doubt the value of the world around them and the value of themselves. The logic being: “we can’t know anything! There is no truth! I am going to smoke my cigarette and f*ck it!” (I am majorly paraphrasing, but I do see that trend in the argument of why someone wants to smoke every day). when you take doubt to the nth degree, i fear that this doubt will take you into a radical distance from the world you live in. I worry that this causes people to uncheck from reality rather than encourage active analysis of truth. What do you think?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you for your kind words, Adriana! I think you’re onto something about there being a trend nowadays towards such irrational things as seriously doubting that smoking is linked to various things, such as cancer. I think we could add, just for clarity, climate change denial, evolution denial, vaccine denial, and a new, emerging denial that some major forms of Islam are incompatible with humane values. Is there some underlying link between all these forms of denial?

      I think you’re probably barking up the right tree when you suggest these things are a form of nihilism that takes doubt to the nth degree. Yet, the irony here is that, by taking doubt to the nth degree, they no longer doubt! Instead, they become quite firmly convinced that, say, smoking does not cause cancer, there is no human caused climate change, etc. What I think we’re seeing here are people who, often for ideological reasons, have lost any moorings to the sciences. Put differently, they have become scientific nihilists.

      I think another insightful point you raise, or at least suggest, is whether it’s advisable or wise to practice uncertainty in all things. I think here we need to turn to thinking in terms of probabilities. That is, we need to ask ourselves, not is something true or false, but what is the likelihood that something is true or false? There is always some slight chance that we could be wrong about something, but in so many things, that chance is indeed quite slight. Consequently, it makes no sense to treat such instances as if they are entirely more uncertain than they actually are. We should save our efforts to live uncertainly for those things that are significantly uncertain, I think.

      Am I making any sense here, or should I grab some coffee and re-think everything?

      Liked by 1 person

      • No no, I think you are definitely on to something! the scientific nihilism I think goes with the kind of thinking that says: “How do we know anything? Science can’t prove anything. We could be completely wrong. all these “truths” are just motivated by political agendas and therefore are bullshit”. I think culturally we have become quite a bit disillusioned to the nature of truth. Intellectual disillusionment in interesting, but I think that becoming disconnected with the world we live in is problematic. I go to a university and I sometimes feel that people (myself included) are so idealistic or disillusioned with the system that we forget that we buy into the system every day. We criticise but then we don’t change our lifestyle accordingly. I am not suggesting that that should be the case, but there is a level of hypocritical thinking here. To say: “there is no truth, no meaning, no anything”, we are in fact doubting everything from a point of view that is grounded in your belief that there is nothing. Reminds me of Wittgenstein and Clara Zerilli – even complete doubt requires at least a level of certainty. We cannot doubt everything. We have to start from somewheres (ie: “i am rational and capable of cutting through the bullshit, therefore, I am the only trusted source in the world” or even “all truths are impossible, they are just politically motivated”. What do you think?

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      • I think there might be a natural human tendency, Adriana, to try to retain our beliefs about the world even when the world “says” our beliefs about it are wrong. I don’t know how or why such a trait would evolve in us, but it does seem to be found everywhere, in every culture and society, so it would appear to be innate.

        If it is indeed innate, then it requires intellectual discipline and vigilance to keep it in check. But look what’s happening these days to discourage that discipline and vigilance! The internet makes it possible for people to join groups in which all the members think alike, and there is no meaningful criticism of their ideas. On elite university and college campuses, the notion that merely listening to dissenting views can constitute “injury” seems to be gaining ground. And the mass media has become like the internet — channels are bubbles in which like minded people protect themselves from any challenges to their thinking.

        When you put all that together with the intellectual nihilism you’ve mentioned, and the fact that so few people seem to even have a rudimentary grasp of how to establish that something is true (e.g. “If it feels right to me, I know it’s true”), you begin to get the wasteland we’re wandering in today, I think.

        I’m with you on this one — we cannot allow ourselves to descend into intellectual nihilism.

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  2. Not only is uncertainty uncomfortable, but it is unpopular. Groups generally use shared beliefs as a way of holding together, and this indeed may be one of the reasons for the survival of clearly irrational religions.

    If your friends are of one political group, try suggesting to them that there is something to be said for single-payer healthcare. If of another political group, ask them to evaluate the effects of US foreign policy during the Obama period in Ukraine and Libya. I doubt either group will welcome the valuable opportunity that you have offered them to accept uncertainty.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think you are quite right about shared beliefs, group cohesion, and the survival of clearly irrational religions. And I further agree that your insight can be expanded to such things as how certain irrational beliefs these days have become “tests” of whether you properly can say you belong on one side of the political aisle or another. For instance, if you’re a “genuine” conservative in America nowadays you are almost required to believe global climate change is a hoax.(Is that the case in Britain, by the way?) And it now seems the trend in at least some leftist circles is to insist that you believe there are no forms of Islam that pose a significant threat to humane values and political ideals. Otherwise, you’re just not properly “one of us”.

      What I wonder is whether we could dispense with such tests for group loyalty? Can we form large groups without these irrational beliefs? I know of some people who would say, “no”, we cannot. Their argument is that the more irrational the test, the more it shows true loyalty to the group, and thus the more desirable it is as a test of that loyalty. I hope they are wrong, and that shared values, etc are sufficient to form large cohesive groups without any need for irrational beliefs. But hope alone doesn’t buy much, does it?

      Thank you for some thought-provoking comments!

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    • Aayush! Thank you for your very kind words! I’m sending you a check in payment for them, as usual.

      By the way, when do you suppose you’ll post again? I’ve been eagerly checking you blog every two to three days and there are no new posts! Which is a shame, since your blog is one of my favorites.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I’m having trouble at the bank these days, an online transaction via PayPal will be preferred. I actually mentioned in a post that I’m doing an internship at the moment, so I’m pretty busy. You can read that post to get an idea of my current condition. I’ve had so many ideas for new posts that I’m extremely eager to pen down, but I simply don’t have sufficient time. Is Health care a right? Is the World unfair or indifferent? Why do we fear Death? All these posts just itching to be written and it pains me to keep those ideas engaged within me. I might manage to squeeze out some time this weekend, but no guarantees. It does delight me though that someone’s waiting for my post, so thank you for that.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Oh, nice topics! I especially like Is the World Unfair or Indifferent? But what do you mean by “World”? Nature or our societies, I wonder?

        I must have missed your internship post. I’ll check for it.

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  3. Paul, I read this post a couple of days ago and it has been like an earworm trying to sort itself out in my head. From a basic concept the brain has two motifs, survival and sex. From birth the brain fills itself with information based on our upbringing, culture, community, value and belief systems. Any challenges to those create uncertainty and potential threats to survival. I saw so many examples of this first hand in my time as a police officer and the outcomes were not pleasant and presented evidence of a huge disconnect between reality and the self. Does reality create the self, or does the self create reality? When you are looking eye to eye with a psychopath it does make you question some of the laboratory based research theories that drive many discussions today. Great post.

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    • I didn’t entirely follow you, although I do agree with you that lab based research theories have their limits. Could you please elaborate a bit on what you mean by a disconnect between the self and reality? Maybe an example?

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      • Paul, in a ham fisted way, I was trying to suggest that we all have different realities and as such we all see the world in our own individual ways. There are varying theories written on the view of self, all of them from the authors own experiences. When you have listened to someone talk about a murder and describe it in a way akin to someone describing a recipe for baking a cake it makes you think deeply about the human psyche. Maybe my experiences in policing have distorted my viewpoint.

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      • Thank you for the clarification! I think I see what you’re saying now. Offhand, I can recall three people I’ve known who might be able to describe murdering someone as coldly as their baking a cake. Not many, but enough to make me shudder to think of how many you’ve known. I don’t know to what extent your views have been “distorted”. I’m inclined to think those of us who are ignorant of, or habitually ignore, the side of human nature you’re so acutely aware of, are the one’s whose views are distorted.

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  4. Paul, climate change denial is lunatic fringe in the UK, but the UK government has no coherent climate policy, while the Scottish government pursues an inconsistent policy of encouraging renewables, opposing fracking, and supporting off-shore oil.

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  5. When we study what we emotionally feel, mentally conceive or physically perceive in this life, we begin to realize that much of it is based on our own assumptions rather than demonstrable facts. We rarely can, by ourselves, truly prove most of what we believe has already been proven to be true. As Oscar Wilde once said, “when you ‘assume’ you make an ass out of you and me.” What we each imagine to be correct is frequently confused with fact. It is not that people are stupid or naive, it just that we are “too busy” (too lazy?) to confirm our beliefs. Ignorance is not bliss…it breeds lethargy.

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