Here is not the country of truth. She wanders unknown amongst men. God
has covered her with a veil, which leaves her unrecognised by those who
do not hear her voice.

~Blaise Pascal, mathematician, philosopher, and physicist

Saying there’s no truth in the first place makes no sense to me, but this means that I’m left with something that can feel much worse emotionally–uncertainty.  I’m uncertain about everything from the nature of the universe to what the weather is going to be tomorrow to how the economy works (I had a college roommate who studied economics, and she told me that only people who don’t think they have any idea how the economy works).

Uncertainty is important. Uncertainty is honest. We should cherish it, even as we strive to end it by investigating the world we live in. After all, uncertainty is what drives us to investigate. If we comfortably assumed that our first impressions of things were accurate, we wouldn’t realize they weren’t until it came around to bite us in the backside.

But…uncertainty can really get in the way of leading your life. Often conflicting potential beliefs suggest conflicting courses of action, and if you feel completely unequipped to know which belief is true, it’s easy to become paralyzed. What’s needed is reasonable guesses.

I’m not so good at guessing. It makes me nervous, even when the answer really doesn’t matter.

One tool that’s come in handy for me is a modification of Pascal’s Wager. Pascal–the thinker I quoted at the beginning–argues that one should try to believe in God (the Christian God in particular) because, if God exists, the rewards of believing and the costs of disbelieving are both infinite (heaven and hell, respectively), whereas any rewards of disbelieving and costs of believing are finite. This has major problems ; for instance, can’t you say this about lots of religions with conflicting ideas about God? How do you choose between religions, then? And is it really possible to make yourself believe anything because doing so might have positive consequences? Even if doing so is possible, isn’t it immoral–cowardly and dishonest?

I mostly don’t try to make myself believe things that I don’t believe (I do think that’s cowardly and dishonest, and perhaps more than that, unwise and likely to be counterproductive)–but, when I’m looking at two potential beliefs and think they’re about equally likely (or, alternatively, don’t even know how to start trying to figure out which is likelier) I do try to act in a way that brings the most potential benefits and the least potential harm.

For instance, my actual position on whether I will die if I climb into a cage with an underfed tiger is uncertainty. Maybe death–the tiger–the rest of the world–is an illusion. Maybe instead of being snuffed out like a candle flame, I’ll wake up in a pleasant afterlife or from a dream. Maybe the tiger is friendly. I act, though, as if I believe that reality exists outside of me in something like the form I perceive it, that death is a permanent end to my existence, and that the tiger is really hungry–not because I do believe these things (though some more instinctive part of me does) but because if they’re true the consequences of climbing into the cage could be really dire.

How do you handle uncertainty, whether cosmic or everyday?




One reply on “Uncertainty”

This is a hard question, and a hard question to really tangle with. I think mostly our knowledge is extremely limited, so we should limit our actions to things we have much more proximate knowledge of. I think this is most true with harming people – usually we know the harm we do to someone is immediate, but the benefits that we hope to come from it are much more uncertain in nature.

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