The Other I

October 14, 2017

Uncertainty is scary

Filed under: Just Stuff,Questions beyond Science — theotheri @ 8:26 pm

In his comment of one of the blogs I read regularly, the author says:

“I do not believe there is a One True and Only Infallible anything – and I’m including all organized, semi-organized and disorganized religions, voodoo cults, talk show hosts, diet plans and scientific theories. (I’m hoping I’m wrong about diet plans, but evidence hasn’t been encouraging so far).”

I was amazed.  Not because I don’t agree because I do.  But because it seems to me to be a view held by so few people.   I know many people who have given up religious belief, and others who simply dismiss scientific findings like evolution or climate change because they do not mesh with their values.  But religious believers whom I know don’t usually appreciate that “faith”, by definition, means that it is beyond proof.  And scientific followers often think that facts are proven by evidence beyond dispute.  But a study of the short history of science demonstrates that absolute “facts” supported at one time by science are no longer considered valid.  Newton, for instance, thought that the entire universe ran like a huge totally determined mechanical clock, and that theoretically, at least, it is possible to know not only what has happened in the past but what is already determined to happen in the future.  As little as a century and half ago, eminent scientists thought planet earth was less than 4,000 years old.  They now think it is closer to 6 billion years old.

I used to think that people didn’t understand this reality of our inescapable human uncertainty because they were not intelligent or educated enough.  I don’t think that anymore.  Of course what ideas any of us have are in part dependent on the opportunities our culture might expose us to.  But as I look at both myself and others, I think the ability to live in what I call mystery, but which might simply be called uncertainty, is determined more by one’s psychology.

Living in mystery or ultimate uncertainty doesn’t mean one doesn’t live by principle or values.  But it does mean that I need to understand that I might be wrong.  Especially I might be wrong in the way I am applying my values.  An inability to tolerate dissent or disagreement is often a dead give away that I haven’t achieved that understanding.  Even something that at first seems as simple as Love is subject to huge diversity in our beliefs in what it means.  Should we beat the devil out of our children when they tell a lie or steal something, for instance?  Or explain why telling the truth and respecting other people’s property is important?  Is it immoral to save the life of the mother if it means losing the life of the unborn baby?  What about war?  Is there such a thing as a just war?   And of course there is the consolation offered by many religious faiths that death is not the end of life, but instead teaches that we each will continue to live “in the next world,” and that our separation from loved ones is only temporary.

Actually, this might sound like a fairly academic discussion.  But it’s not.  If I’m sure I am right, I am more willing to force others to behave by what I believe are my unassailable moral positions.   Throughout the late middle ages, the Roman Catholic Church felt justified in burning heretics to death,  for centuries all western Christian persuasions justified slavery and racism as the will of God.  Christians have engaged in centuries of warfare with other Christians with whom they disagreed, and today ISIS and other radical groups believe they have a God-given right to kill anyone who disagrees with them.

The world is convulsed with discrimination.  Perhaps it has always been, but with population growth, globalization, increasingly destructive weaponry, and climate change, these attitudes of intolerance are becoming increasingly dangerous to the very survival of our species.  In some ways, I think our biggest danger lies in our inability so often to live in the uncertainty and mystery intrinsic to the limitations of human consciousness.




  1. Amen. Uncertainty is too uncomfortable a state for most of us to tolerate, it seems. It’s just as uncomfortable if you see no alternative. I wonder if human society could exist at all if most people remained in a state of suspended belief. It would be interesting to give it a try, don’t you think?


    Comment by Thomas J. Hubschman — October 15, 2017 @ 2:40 am | Reply

    • It certainly would be interesting!

      But in truth, I sort of do live in uncertainty, don’t you? I mean I know as Kant pointed out, there is always another possibility that is potentially a valid interpretation of what I experience. But obviously I don’t walk around spending my time explaining to myself that that round red object on the table looks like an apple but it might not be. Or that I might be wrong that I’ve been living with my husband for 44 years. Or that maybe right now I’d better stop this silly talk and go get Sunday dinner on the table…


      Comment by Terry Sissons — October 15, 2017 @ 4:11 pm | Reply

  2. We prefer certainty over mystery – an interesting point of view.


    Comment by tskraghu — October 16, 2017 @ 12:08 am | Reply

  3. Well, we certainly can’t manage any reality at all without Sunday dinner.


    Comment by Thomas J. Hubschman — October 16, 2017 @ 2:05 am | Reply

  4. I feel honored, I don’t believe I’ve ever been quoted before! Thank you.

    More important to me than uncertainty is the humility that comes with uncertainty, with not being sure, with the possibility of being wrong. It has become old-fashioned, I think, to admit that one could be wrong. Politically, as the world swings alarmingly away from the center, I see people being far more certain of things, with far less justification than before. It was Carl Sagan, I think, who spoke about the Latin saying ‘ubi dubium ibi libertas’ (where there is doubt there is freedom). And that’s what worries me most.



    Comment by psriblog — October 23, 2017 @ 3:05 pm | Reply

    • Again, I can only say that I agree that uncompromising certainty is quite possibly the greatest threat to our freedom in the world today. But also once again, I know very few people who would agree so unequivocally.

      On another subject completely, I notice you signed your name as Sriram. Many years ago my husband and I were being harassed by either a burglar or an irrate academic colleague gone slightly off the rails. He triggered our burglar alarm in the middle of the night repeatedly and so we bought an Hungarian guard (not attack) dog whom we named after the Indonesian lullaby “Suliram.” And she did indeed bring us a peaceful sleep. Peter Seeger said he’d never found an adequate translation of “Suliram.” Neither have we although we certainly found an appropriate use of the name. I wonder if you could tell us anything about the name? In our household we know what it means to us, but it would be interesting to know more.


      Comment by Terry Sissons — October 23, 2017 @ 4:00 pm | Reply

      • A lullaby is a nice name for a guard dog:-)

        Actually, I don’t know what Suliram means in Indonesian (see, that wasn’t hard to admit!). But Sriram (my own first name), or just Ram, is the name of the eponymous hero in an old Indian epic, the Ramayana. He is banished, his wife is kidnapped, he collects an army, goes and defeats the evil kidnapper, rescues wife, and returns home in triumph. Standard fare, epic-wise, but this became wildly popular all over the Indian subcontinent, and was carried to lands as far away as Indonesia, Thailand and Cambodia on the back of trade. Indonesia, I know, was heavily influenced by Hindu and Buddhist culture before the advent of Islam. The very name Jakarta is a corruption of the Sanskrit word Jayakarta, or victorious. Their airline, the Garuda, is the name of a magical bird from Hindu mythology. I know that the Ramayana is still performed as puppet shows all over Indonesia. It is entirely possible that Suliram is a corruption of the Sanskrit name Sriram. Why the tune in the Peter Seeger lullaby is called Suliram, I don’t know. I’ll let you know if I find out.


        Comment by psriblog — October 23, 2017 @ 4:26 pm | Reply

        • Thank you! You know, I’ve always suspected there was more to “Ram” than we knew. What you say does sound authentic. Anyway, it sure fits our experience of the name!


          Comment by Terry Sissons — October 23, 2017 @ 7:38 pm

      • Turns out I was spectacularly wrong. Sulirama only means “yes” in Bahasa Indonesian. Seems like a waste of four syllables on a simple word, but there it is. (people who say AFFIRMATIVE can’t complain)


        Comment by psriblog — October 24, 2017 @ 10:02 am | Reply

        • Well, speaking of “spectacularly wrong,” I have just noticed that in the original post referring to your blog, I referred to “one of her comments.” I’ve corrected it to read “one of his comments.” Anyway, I’m sorry “Suliram” only means yes in Bahasa Indonesian. I liked your first theory better. And it certainly described our guard dog more accurately. A Yes-Dog she was not. I’m thinking about the hypothesis that the Bahasa Indonesian word for yes evolved from the Ramayana epic. That makes it a win-win result for all of us. Until somebody comes up with some contradictory evidence, of course. Since nothing is ever a certain certainty.

          Liked by 1 person

          Comment by theotheri — October 24, 2017 @ 10:25 am

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