A World of Uncertainty

erhaps the counterpoint to my point Tuesday about the need for ëless talk and more actioní is the need to embrace complexity and, with it, uncertainty, including uncertainty about what to do. An editorial in todayís NYT by a theology professor expresses alarm about the authorís perception that there is an increasing demand for certainty and absolutism in our society, and an increasing intolerance not only for opposing orthodoxy but also for ambiguity, ambivalence, and compromise.

This inflexibility and lack of resilience is the sign of a society that is growing increasingly unhealthy and unable to adapt to changing realities. It manifests itself in nostalgia for simpler times and a lazy propensity to seek and settle for simple answers, where there are none, or at least not any that work. Itís understandable as we grow increasingly impatient at our inability to bring about urgently-needed change, but doctrinaire thinking tends to work only for those who want no change ñ you can win converts for the status quo, because thereís only one status quo, but the minute you start to preach one single change prescription for the worldís problems you face opposition and resistance not only from conservatives but from other progressives who want to go forward in a different direction. Complexity precludes achieving broad consensus on What to do. Thatís depressing, because it reduces the probability that weíll be able to bring about any meaningful change before our civilization collapses from its excesses, so itís something most progressives donít want to admit, or even think about.

To address a dilemma in a complex environment requires a lot of small-scale collective experiments, and allowing those experiments that succeed to succeed virally (with ‘success’ meaning sustainability, simplicity, and sufficiency). Itís a slow process. It may well not work. It may all be too late. But we can learn a lot from watching animals in the wild solve problems (like the squirrels conquering the baffles between them and the bird feeders). They donít preconceive of one simple certain solution to a problem. Everything in their lives is tentative, unpredictable, uncertain, in constant flow. They try a lot of things, starting with the simplest and moving to more complicated schemes. They learn from every failure. They hold themselves open to other possibilities. Unlike us, they never give up. And also unlike us, they usually find somethingthat works.

Image is from the cover of Bernd Heinrich’s Winter World. 

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5 Responses to A World of Uncertainty

  1. Ed says:

    Dave, I’ve been following your blog for a while now. You have finally answered and provided guidance for some of the questions I’ve been dying to answer for myself. First, I thank you for that. As for this post, it provides wisdom and courage which I and other like-minds need to make the transition from being a slave to the current system to becoming more like nature.

  2. Thomas Watson says:

    I agree with your argument that certainly and absolutes are coming back into business. I’d certainly suggest they have always been apart of the modernity but the religious variety is certainly fashionable once more.The desire for certainly and “being absolutely correct” is one of the most common mental barricades that people put up when I am talking about possiblities for human society or the environment or politics or other complex issues. As you reiterate, heaps of these things are complex and require complex solutions or plans of actions. “making the world a better place” is certainly *not* suited to a simple certain and absolute answer and unfortunately people I encounter in my daily rummaging are all too ready to give up on complex solutions.It can be an ego thing for some people. Narcissism and cynicism are attractive because you are amongst always ‘correct’ about things, “humanity is stupid, we are doomed, that project will fail, muslims are hostile to us” etc etc. And if cynics are involved then of course a ‘plan’ will fail, as any sort of self-fulfilling prophersy should be expected to end up. And what is the end result of this? Sure people are “correct” and “right” and have demonstrated their ‘amazing’ intelligence by predicting that everything is going go to shit but their attitudes achieve nothing more then a nice ego massage.So, I ask of all people I can, “What does your attitude achieve?” Does it mean that in the future you will be ‘right’ but also certain of failure or are you going to risk being wrong about things to say “I’m not sure how its going to turn out but lets do it.”?As a generic question I often ask or want to ask people this:How does your attitudes and actions make your world a better place?And because I am surrounded by people who like to dance away from the issue and demonstrate their ‘amazing’ wisdom and intelligence by arguing about the lack of definition of a “better place” and how there is no uniform conception of a “better place”, despite my belief that people share common ground over the most generic issues. The fact of the matter is that for most people the “better place” debate is beside the point: Even in regard to their own specific conception of a “better place” their attitudes can hope to achieve little to none.Its a question I ask of myself and of others. To those people that are hostile towards immigrants because they ‘create divisions in communities’ and those from other cultures or ethnic groups, what do your attitudes achieve? They achieve a hostile setting for their society as a whole and themselves create divisions. I could go on to numerous other examples but the shower and the days activities call.Anyway, thats what I leave for everyone to think about:What do your attitudes hope to achieve?

  3. Excellent post, Dave. I so agree. If we don’t start allowing ourselves to accept that life is composed of a lot of unanswered questions, that sometimes asking is more important than having all the answers, we’re buying into a rigidity that is perhaps just a precursor to rigor mortis.

  4. Kevin says:

    Just have to say I *loved* Bernd Heinrich’s Winter World. It would be a great book for you (with you readership) to review & recommend.It is the book I now bring with me to re-read whenever I hike in the fast approaching winter weather. There is nothing like curling up in a sleeping bag in the sub-freezing temps reading about how some animals actually freeze themselves in winter, or how bats have evolved to “know” the best caves to over-winter in, or the real story of hibernating bears, or howhoney-bees’ gamble their own survival when they decide if it is safe to leave the hive or not.Of course, my wife is not as appreciative of Heinrich’s genius when I can’t keep myself from waking her up to tell her about the fascinating life of the paper wasp that I am reading about.

  5. Dave Pollard says:

    Thanks everyone — excellent comments. I hope whatever blog tool I migrate to will incorporate comments right in the article so they never get lost; the conversation is at least as important as the article itself. I commented offsite to Kevin that I reviewed Winter World in an earlier Feb. 17/04 article.

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