13.7: Cosmos And Culture
12:36 pm
Tue May 15, 2012

The Liberating Embrace Of Uncertainty

Originally published on Tue May 15, 2012 6:05 pm

The only constant is change. It's the most basic fact of human existence. Nothing lasts, nothing stays the same.

We feel it with each breath. From birth to the unknown moment of our passing, we ride a river of change. And yet, in spite of all evidence to the contrary, we exhaust ourselves in an endless search for solidity. We hunger for something that lasts, some idea or principle that rises above time and change. We hunger for certainty. That is a big problem.

It might even be THE problem.

Religions are often built around this heartache for certainty. In the face of sickness, loss and grief, a thousand dogmas with a thousand names have risen. Many profess that if only the faithful hold fast to the "rules," the "precepts" or the "doctrine" then certainty can be obtained.

Fate and future can be fixed through promises of freedom from immediate suffering, divine favor or everlasting salvation. Scriptures are transformed into unwavering blueprints for an unchanging order. These documents must live beyond question lest the certainty they provide crumble. When human spiritual endeavor devolves into these white-knuckle forms of clinging they become monuments to the fear of change and uncertainty.

It would be symmetrical if I could point to science as the pure antidote to the rigid rejection of uncertainty. Science, in the purest forms of its expression as a practice, holds to no doctrine other than that the world might be known. In the ceaseless pursuit of its own questioning path, science asks us to allow for ceaseless change in our ideas, beliefs and opinions. It's this aspect of science that I value more than any other.

But science does not exist alone as practice. It's also a constellation of ideas that exist within culture and those ideas can gain value, in and of themselves, without connection to actual practice. In this way science becomes something more and less. For some people the idea of Science offers a trumped up certainty that yields its own false defense against the rootlessness that roots of our existence.

My co-blogger Marcelo Gleiser put it beautifully two weeks ago when he wrote, "what is pompous is to think that we can know all the answers. Or that it's the job of science to find them." When science as an idea is used to push away the tremulous reality of our lived existential uncertainty then it, too, is degraded. It becomes just another imaginary fixed point in a life without fixed points.

Of course it doesn't have to be this way. The world's history of spiritual endeavor contains many beautiful descriptions of authentic encounters with uncertainty. Ironically these often serve as gateways to the most compassionate experience of what can be called sacred in human life.

Buddhism's First Noble Truth, which focuses specifically on the reality of change and suffering, serves as one example. In the Christian tradition works like the "Cloud of Unknowing," a 14th century paean to the importance of experience over doctrine or dogma, serves as another. Dig around in most of the world's great religious traditions and you find people finding their sense of grace by embracing uncertainty rather than trying to bury it in codified dogmas.

For science, embracing uncertainty means more than claiming "we don't know now, but we will know in the future". It means embracing the fuzzy boundaries of the very process of asking questions. It means embracing the frontiers of what explanations, for all their power, can do. It means understanding that a life of deepest inquiry requires all kinds of vehicles: from poetry to particle accelerators; from quiet reveries to abstract analysis.

Though I am an atheist, some of the wisest people I have met are those whose spiritual lives (some explicitly religious, some not) have forced them to continually confront uncertainty. This daily act has made them patient and forgiving, generous and inclusive. Likewise, the atheists I have met who most embody the ideals of free inquiry seem to best understand the limitations of every perspective, including their own. They encounter the ever shifting ground of their lives with humor, good will and compassion.

In the end, embracing uncertainty is to embrace a quality I have written about many times before: mystery. These lives we live, surrounded by beauty and horror, profound knowledge and pitiful ignorance, are a mystery to us all. To push that truth away with false certainty, falsely derived from either religion or reason, is to miss our most perfect truth.

We are, after all, just "such stuff as dreams are made on; and our little life is rounded with a sleep."


You can keep up with more of what Adam Frank is thinking on Facebook and Twitter. His new book is About Time: Cosmology and Culture at the Twilight of the Big Bang.

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