“I can live with doubt and uncertainty and not knowing. I think it is much more interesting to live not knowing than to have answers that might be wrong. If we will only allow that, as we progress, we remain unsure, we will leave opportunities for alternatives. We will not become enthusiastic for the fact, the knowledge, the absolute truth of the day, but remain always uncertain … In order to make progress, one must leave the door to the unknown ajar.” ― Richard P. Feynman
A great piece ran in NPR today, titled “The Liberating Embrace of Uncertainty” – a wonderful, celebratory ode to not knowing.
“We feel it with each breath,” writes NPR blogger Adam Frank, author of “About Time: Cosmology and Culture at the Twilight of the Big Bang.” 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.”
In college, when I cast off the heavy cross of my Methodist upbringing, I felt an initially unsettling twinge of uncertainty. No more absolutes now, no guarantees, no salvation. I was on my own with all the questions that entails and no more book of answers. But almost immediately afterwards I felt completely free, totally unburdened. Doubt became freedom. If, as the evidence of many paths suggested, there was no one true way, the playing field was leveled and the possible answers I came up with were as good as anyone else’s, and at the very least, acceptably valid for me. I was no longer at the mercy of a myth I’d often found conflicting at best. Now I could honestly deal with the facts of the realities of my life.
What took a little longer was the understanding that I won’t always find an answer or a solution. We have a very human tendency to seek patterns and lend them a narrative, from which we then try to draw conclusions. But sometimes – often – the patterns we see and the narratives we derive from them are just are own imperfect efforts to create order out of the natural chaos of life and living. Most of the time, our narratives are workable, creating a functional and comforting linearity along which we can move forward in our lives.
Sometimes, however, our narratives paint us into a corner, or lead us down blind alleys. Sometimes, there simply aren’t any answers to the problems we encounter. Sometimes, especially if we’re honest with ourselves, our narrative boils down to an essential and enduring unknown.
This is the challenge of science, says Frank, accepting not only that we may not know an answer right now, but that we may never know it.
“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.”
“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.”
“Embracing the fuzzy boundaries of the very process of asking questions,” is also a profoundly healthy and instructive way to live. In my adopted Unitarian Universalist faith, which has no creed and no doctrine, nor pretends to any final answers beyond love, we have a hymn which contains the line, “Sometimes even to question, is an answer.”
“I wanted a perfect ending,” said actress Gilda Radner , before she died of ovarian cancer at the age of 42. “Now I’ve learned, the hard way, that some poems don’t rhyme, and some stories don’t have a clear beginning, middle, and end. Life is about not knowing, having to change, taking the moment and making the best of it, without knowing what’s going to happen next. Delicious Ambiguity.”
That’s not to say that all answers are equal or even valid, or that debate and discourse in exploring possible answers aren’t important, or to negate the value of that one reasonable answer that may rise above other possibilities in the process of asking questions. But sometimes, we just don’t know, and sometimes, we may never know.
“These lives we live,” writes Frank, “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.”
Embracing the uncertainty of life –heading into that delicious ambiguity with abiding curiosity, an open mind and a willing heart – makes life exciting and worthwhile and beautiful.
“Live in the question,” said Rainer Maria Rilke in Letters to a Young Poet.
I can’t think of a more exciting and promising place to be!