I was a young adolescent when I first learned that Luther had taught that doubt was an inevitable part of belief. I wondered at the time if my father’s ancestors had been Lutheran rather than Roman Catholics, because it was my lawyer-father who first taught me to doubt.
But what my father did not teach me, and what has taken me a lifetime to learn is that there aren’t any Right Answers available to us humans either. Whether I was discussing theology or cooking a chicken, I thought there was One Right Way. I was usually open to exploring the possibility that my way wasn’t that Right Way, but I was always looking for it, I always thought it was there.
A graduate course on Immanuel Kant gave me my first glimmer into the realization that Right Answers might not be absolute. And being married to someone from a different cultural and religious background (not to mention an opposite sex), was almost a daily reminder that my Right Answers were not quite as obvious as I thought.
In recent years I have found not looking for Right Answers is amazing fun. Whether I’m putting supper together or planning a garden or even a book, it’s so freeing, so exciting to feel that the possibilities are endless. There isn’t just one Right Way. There isn’t even just one Best Way.
Heisenberg’s principle of indeterminacy showed conclusively that we cannot and never will be able to predict exactly what is going to happen on the level of quantum physics. Yet many people clung to the idea that the world of our everyday lives is predictable. Most recently, economists thought that they could develop statistic patterns that would predict the stock markets. Despite their blatant failure and the crisis of 2008 whose fall-out remains with us, many people, economists and non-economists alike, still believe they know, they have the absolutely non-negotiable Right Answer, to how we should revive our economy.
Now I have just finished reading two books which are further undermining our hopes for certainty and for right answers. Any surviving hopes among deterministic, mechanistic scientists for absolute predictability are dangerous and illusory. The first book is by Nicholas Taleb, the New York trader who says that the crisis was an example of what he calls “a black swan event.” A black swan event is extremely rare, and so extraordinarily difficult – in fact, ultimately impossible – to predict using the statistic tools of probability. Taleb argues that not expecting the unexpected is the worst possible way to prepare for it.
The second book is The Signal and the Noise by Nate Silver, the New York Times guru who correctly predicted both the 2008 and 2012 Presidential election outcomes in 49 out of 50 states. Despite this success, Silver says that prediction is getting less certain, partly because we know so much. So much of the data is sheer noise, distraction from hearing the true signal.
In a way, in order to survive, we must live with the assumption that some things are going to happen. We even need to plan them , and we need to believe that to some extent we can control those outcomes. And to some extent we do.
But actually, we cannot predict even the next second with absolute certainty. We can’t know for certain what we should do about anything. We can plan for the future, we can put money into pensions, we can try to take care of our health, we can do our best to put effort into relationships that are significant, we can get an education, we can follow our dreams. But we might be poor, we might die young, our relationships may not last, our dreams may shatter.
That’s a bit scary.
But it’s also the way it is.
And having spent many years in the cage of Right Answers, I also find it liberating. What will be, will be.