Thursday, July 24, 2008


The other day my yoga teacher was talking about the importance of the ability to embrace uncertainty. She mentioned to me a book by Pema Chodron called Comfortable with Uncertainty. I've not read the book, but if you don't write down your references when you remember them, you forget them (hard to believe, I know!).

Anyway, this is a principle that I think is useful on many levels. (As, indeed, are many ideas--which was almost the subject of this post--if I hadn't written about uncertainty.)

Logically speaking, we are faced with limits to our certainty. The work of David Hume, especially his Treatise of Human Nature, clearly framed the limits of our logical certainty in many different ways. On a very basic level Hume argued "that the supposition, that the future resembles the past, is not founded on arguments of any kind, but is deriv'd entirely from habit, by which we are determin'd to expect for the future the same train of objects, to which we have been accustom'd" (Treatise, Book I, Part III, Section XII, italics are Hume's). Essentially he is saying that there is no logical argument that proves that the future will resemble the past--logical in the sense of a priori logic--something that can be proved from basic premises. Yes, he says, we expect the future to resemble the past, because we have seen patterns repeat in the past, but this expectation is not certain--it is only probable (part III of book I is titled "Of knowledge and probability"). Later in the same section he says "even after the observation of the frequent or constant conjunction of objects, we have no reason to draw any inference concerning any object beyond those of which we have experience" (the italics, again, are Hume's).

This general logical principle, sometimes called "Hume's Problem," is also called the problem of induction. It is still debated; no response to Hume has swept away his claims. The most notable response was that of Karl Popper in The Logic of Scientific Discovery. Popper's response was to suggest that we cannot prove the truth of a claim through induction, but that we can prove the falsity of a claim, and therefore science can proceed using the hypotheses that have survived the most tests. But this too, one must note, is logically uncertain: we have certainty (perhaps) that we've rejected bad theories, but we have no certainty that the theory we have not yet rejected is actually good.

Well, the litany of sources of uncertainty in logic is long, and I don't want to go into it here. There are similar ideas outside the realm of Western Philosophy: is there not uncertainty in "The Tao that can be told of is not the absolute Tao."?

I think there are benefits in embracing uncertainty. Especially in logical debate: it's an escape hatch--if we know uncertainty exists, we can use that to justify some degree of imperfection in our argument: we simply cannot know everything; we must somewhere start with something unproven.

We embrace the uncertainty. Of course, we also need to act decisively: so we balance the uncertainty somehow. Ultimately we chose what we believe is important and act on that--if we cannot make such a choice then we're paralyzed.

Of course lots of people go through life thinking that they're certain about everything, but it's hard to get away with that as an academic--at least we're taught to question. So for the academic--or for any philosophical, thinking person--we look at the uncertainties that face us and choose among them the ones that seem best.
If we understand that we are choosing from a place of logical uncertainty, we have to embrace our beliefs for another reason. There's a certain freedom to believing in an idea and knowing that you may be wrong--there's a danger, but also a freedom.

No comments: