The Liberating Embrace of Uncertainty

By Adam Frank, originally published by NPR.

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, goodwill 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.”

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8 Responses to The Liberating Embrace of Uncertainty

  1. My proposition is that our longing for certainty, solidity, home, stability etc. is related to subconscious longing for the time spent in the womb.

    I call it ‘subconscious’ longing, based on the theory of Candace Pert that “your body is your subconscious mind”. Now, considering that our physical body was practically inert for 9 months, every cell of our body seems to be programmed for the non-movement. After birth, we force the body to learn a new program – the movement.

    All calls for “returning home” may easily be synchronized with this subconscious longing for the ‘hard wired’ and stable connection with mother.

    • I’m not so sure that womb is such a wonderful place we all subconsciously long for all our life – womb is cramped, restricting, not allowing us to experience much of anything, and sometimes we have to share it with others… IMO there is a much simpler biological explanation: certainty, solidity, home, stability etc. are all parameters conducive to and defining (or ensuring) our SURVIVAL, which undoubtedly is one of the strongest and most basic instincts we observe in all living entities. And that is why we crave these things.
      But in any case, such simple biological explanations fail to account for our incredibly complex consciousness as both children and adults.

    • Mat, why do you assume that everyone subconsciously wants to be back in mothers womb? No doubt child may feel comfortable there in the beginning of pregnancy. But last weeks must be very unconfortable and although such a child is still not conscoius as we are no doubt this leaves permanent impression in it`s mind.

      And what to speak of a child who`s pregnant mother was in great anxiety? Who would like to go back into such situation?

      • I’m not assuming that we “want” to go back because it would suggest a conscious decision.

        Also, by “longing” I don’t mean “going back”.

        Additionally, I’d say that the arguments based on lack of comforts fail if we consider the experiences of women who remain with alcoholic or otherwise abusive husbands despite their physical and emotional bruises. It means that there are more powerful motivations that override the discomforts.

        I also defined what I mean by “subconscious” by referring to a certain theory.

  2. Searching for freedom inside a prison is certainly a problem. To embrace incarceration, however, is folly when freedom lies just beyond the prison walls. Why is it unreasonable to think that it is possible that some prisoners may have been released? Is it unthinkable that there may even be persons who are free to come and go as they please? Perhaps if one is in the darkest part of the prison, he may have no experience of this. But just because his freedom and vision are so restricted does it necessarily follow that everyone else is in the same predicament? Very naughty criminals are thrown in dark dungeons and never allowed to see the light of day. But good citizens bask in sunlight on a regular basis. They are naturally certain of their good standing with the government and are not threatened by a life of insecurity and uncertainty. They are free. It is not so mysterious. Those prisoners who seek a way out of their shackles are intelligent. Those who seek to embrace their confines not so much. Of course some methods of escape are pure foolishness, but that still does not dismiss a genuine process of release. We may stubbornly insist that only these confines exist, but that is ignorance. Certainly with that attitude there is little hope. Sometimes trustees are furloughed for work outside the prison walls and they get a taste for what life is like on the outside. They will not be very impressed by the philosophy of hopelessness propounded by the dungeon crowd. “embrace the darkness. embrace the uncertainty.” They have experience, they have taste and no amount of uncertainty cast on the subject by the prisoners on death row will undo the certainty of their experience on the outside. Such trustees do not gain their release by being pompous know-it-alls, but rather their freedom is secured by developing qualities like those of the good citizenry. What is the joy of embracing the uncertainty of an abyss? Plummeting through the darkness are we to embrace the idea that one day we may hit bottom? And from there what? Perhaps another abyss deeper and darker than the last? It seems it would be more prudent to say that for those of us who live in a world of duality, life is a mystery. But to assume that this is the only kind of life available to us is too broad of a conclusion to accept from a person who is incarcerated by the limited faculties of material mind and senses. We may embrace uncertainty if that is all we have, but to have come this far to advanced human consciousness and neglect the possibility of freedom from our current constraints seems to me a bit tragic.

  3. The Upanisads say that he who says he knows Brahman does not know Brahman. He who says he does not know Brahman knows Brahman. We are all students forever. Sri Caitanya is Krsna trying to understand himself!

    Still there is certainty within the mystery of the larger uncertainty/mystery. It is certain that our biological/physical self will come to an end. It is also certain that consciousness is not physical. Consciousness is an inconvienent truth for scientific materialism/physicalism, without which there would be no science, physicalism, nor materialism.

    Consciousness is experiential existence. The limits of its experience are uncertain, in that even the experience of prema is full yet ever expanding. But the fact that it is existence itself means that is not subject to nonexistence. Because it belongs to a first person subjective ontology, it is not part of the third person ontology that makes up the objective physical world. That objective world is within time and space and thus all manifestations of it are limited by time and space. But consciousness not being contingent upon the objective world is thereby not limited by time and space. If is not physical, it is not governed by physical laws or constraints. And is certain that it is not physical. That which is subjective is not objective. You can’t get subjectivity from objectivity. But logically objectivity is derived from subjectivity. Again, there is no possibility of “materialism” without consciousness. The idea that there is only matter is just that: and idea belonging to the subjective world.

    Thus while it is certain that our physical biological bodies have a beginning and end, it is also certain that our existence that is not bound by physical laws, time and space–consciousness–has no beginning and no end. So we should be certain that the mystery of life lies in the exploration of consciousness. And Gaudiya Vaisnavism is all about such exploration, providing a map down the road to prema.

  4. It feels somewhat out of place to add a comment after Swami Tripurari has made a statement. Still, the urge to speak moves within me.

    Adam Framk is certainly saying that those of us who embrace a comprehensive metaphysical presentation are less intelligent compared to those who are content to say that they don’t know. At the same time, Adam praises the inquisitive nature of science.

    Our vaishnav stand is at once comprehensive and scientifically inquisitive. The scientific method consists of the successive stages of hypothesis, procedure, and conclusion. And that is precisely the subject matter of the Vedanta Sutra, under the headings of sambandha, abidheya, and proyogena.

    As Swami Tripurari has written above, “You can’t get subjectivity from objectivity. But logically objectivity is derived from subjectivity.” In other words, the genuine spiritual path not only frames the hypothesis or sambandha, but also provides us with a procedure or abidheya by which we can submit our consciousness to a purificatory process. And further, by direct subjective experience of personal elevation through purification of consiciousness, one can declare the objective conclusion or pryogena. Hence, objectivity is derived from subjectivity.

    To self-complacently attempt to belittle this kind of objectivity, instead of actually being the scientist that he praises, by placing himself in the abidheyic crucible, serves to contradict Frank’s lofty stance, and demonstrates a purposeful choice of ignorance over knowledge.

  5. Certainty is the unmoving or unchanging thing. Uncertainty is the changing and moving thing in consciousness. Yes

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