Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Authority and Uncertainty

Uncertainty is unnerving.
We often fear the feedback we're going to get.
If we write something about which we are uncertain, we can pretty much count on someone asking how we know it.

Authority, therefore, is nice. If we can cite a published author, we can push the questions off. We can say that we are taking that published work as our starting point. Even if the published authority is uncertain, even if the authority is one whose work is debated, we can use authority as a point of certainty.

For this reason, it's darn nice to have resources on which to draw and authority to cite. For this reason, it can often seem like more research is a good idea. For this reason, when writing, and faced with putting down an assertion in words, many will instead retreat into a search for another authority.

But we cannot wipe away the uncertainty from our work. Using an authority is no protection from making an error or from receiving criticism. For one, different people may interpret a given authority differently, creating differences in opinion that might affect how your work is received. Secondly, it is quite possible that the same authority you rely on is debated, which may force us to defend our choice of authority. Third, you may fail to integrate the authority into your work well.

I'm writing this in a follow up to yesterday's "Your Most Valuable Possession". The thought that ties them together is the crucial role played by your own reasoning. If you are working on the discovery of your own voice and your own system of beliefs, then you must face uncertainty and tolerate it. And you must try to continue to work in the face of the uncertainty.

It is not difficult to find that philosophical systems all incorporate some degree of uncertainty. We often take the physical sciences as the realm of our greatest scientific certainty, but even these realms are bound and limited by Heisenberg uncertainty and Goedel's theorem (at least in the case of any attempt to rely on axiomatic systems). Karl Popper's vision of science contains uncertainty: we can only disprove but never prove.

When we develop our own voices, we need to be able to dive into the places of uncertainty, and seek the solid ground that can be found, but we also must recognize the limitations of our knowledge and be able to work with those limitations, rather than letting those limitations completely dominate us.

We cannot research our way out of uncertainty. In order to develop our own voice, we have to proceed despite it. We have to work with what we do know.

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