Existential Uncertainty

Uncertainty ahead, written on road surface

Introduction

Uncertainty, in common parlance, is a state in which an individual is unsure whether some proposition is true or not. It ultimately, therefore, arises from a lack of information. If we knew everything, like God, if he existed, or had access to a super-AI, like that some technophiles dream about, we would never find ourselves in a position of uncertainty. Moreover, if we could make decisions from a position of absolute certainty, we would be able to eliminate the suffering and/or anxiety that sometimes accompanies our decision-making.

Dispelling Uncertainty

As I see it, we have two main options if we want to eliminate uncertainty; faith and science. We can trust that God (or the Universe, or your Higher Self, or wood elves if you like) has a plan for us and relax into events in our lives believing that we will be looked after. The ideal of faith is to believe so strongly that there just isn’t room for uncertainty. Alternatively, we can look to science, the ultimate goal of which is essentially to reduce uncertainty about the world. The ideal here is perfect knowledge leading to perfect predictions. In fact, although it obviously glosses over much, it’s not entirely incorrect to think of faith and science as methods humans have constructed specifically to deal with uncertainty.

Unfortunately, while these two positions may offer some solace in the face of uncertainty, I don’t think they are as effective as their respective defenders would like to believe. Let’s look at faith first. The glaring problem with faith yielding certainty is… well, the ‘faith’ element. If the comfort I received from trusting in God were grounded in something real, something that actually produced results, I wouldn’t need faith to eliminate uncertainty; certainty would naturally follow simply because the proposition was true. Religious faith is only necessary because there is no (reasonable) reason to believe that magical wood elves (or a bearded man in the sky) are looking out for me. This makes faith a delusion, a veneer spread over my reality. If what I have faith in isn’t real, then the certainty that I think I’m getting from that faith isn’t real either.

But the problems don’t stop there.

If faith is a delusion, something that contradicts, or at least isn’t supported by the facts, this also means that it necessarily requires constant effort to maintain. I haven’t believed in God since I was about 13, but in my late 20s I did go pretty mystical and deeply believed in something; an impersonal force or higher power operating in the universe. When I finally dropped this bundle of beliefs, I realised something interesting. Maintaining my belief in all that mumbo-jumbo had been hard work! Sure, after abandoning it, I did feel like I had lost something valuable, something which I had oriented my life around for about a decade, but I soon also felt the relief that came from no longer having to struggle to convince myself that the experiences I had read about other people having were true. I was also no longer waiting for my own mystical experience. This is the pernicious side of faith. It’s a perpetual leaning forward into the future, which means (if you’ll forgive me perhaps over-extending the metaphor) one is always off-balance in the present; never more than a stray thought away from shattering the comforting illusion.

Some people argue that humans need illusory beliefs, that we can’t function without them, that we are story-tellers and without fictional stories which we believe to be true, we would collapse under the weight of our own existence. The first thing to note is that none of the people saying this actually believe any of these fictional stories – if you know something isn’t true, you can’t force yourself to believe it – which means what they really mean is that it is the plebs, the uneducated masses who need their illusory beliefs. People like them, the intelligent, sophisticated men and women, the elite few, don’t need such fables. This isn’t an untenable position to hold but it’s also not one most people would eagerly admit to having… worth keeping in mind should you encounter such an argument.

What about science? Things are substantially better here than they are with religion. Advancements in scientific understanding have obviously eliminated a lot of uncertainty from our lives. A thousand years ago people were praying to gods and/or spirits that their crops would be plentiful and fearing comets as divine portents of disaster. In the process of reducing uncertainty, science has also added immeasurable value to our lives. The problem with science in the context of this discussion only arises with regard to its end goal; i.e. perfect knowledge, especially concerning the future. The specific problem with it is that it is a fiction, and even if we had perfect knowledge of how every decision would unfold in the real world, it still wouldn’t eliminate uncertainty.

Perfect knowledge of even the most basic, highly controlled systems is well beyond our wildest fantasies at the moment and the complexities inherent in chaotic systems (and all systems we would be interested in, as humans beings making decisions in the world, are chaotic systems) have rendered the dream of perfect knowledge a practical impossibility for all but the most stubborn of digital utopians.[1]

Even more problematic though is the fact that even if perfect knowledge were somehow attainable, we would still experience uncertainty when confronted with decisions. Imagine you are trying to decide what type of career to pursue. You consult your super-AI and ask it to factor in everything it knows about you, the economy, educational institutions, companies you could potentially end up working for, etc., and display your future life in the top ten scenarios. Now once it has done this, you obviously still need to choose between the alternatives and I think it’s pretty clear, it won’t be an easy decision. There isn’t going to be one single outcome which is clearly the best; rather, what you will find is that some things are better than others in different scenarios. In one, you might have a lot of money which will allow you to retire at 45, but you won’t have been able to spend as much time with your family. Another will give you a lot of money but be less satisfying. Yet another will be highly stressful but more satisfying. And so on. Knowing even the minutest details of your future won’t remove the uncertainty from your decision-making in the present.

Existential Uncertainty

So, neither religion nor science can eliminate uncertainty. This tells us that we are dealing with something deeper than our initial line of enquiry could satisfy. Uncertainty, seen in a scientific, objective light as simple unclarity regarding the truth or falsity of factual statements, reduces to a lack of information. Is my wife eating fish now? Will eating a chocolate bar every day lead to my getting diabetes when I am 65? These questions have definite answers and my uncertainty here is merely uncertainty regarding those answers. We can think of this as objective uncertainty. On the other hand, the uncertainty we encountered above, which neither religion nor science could resolve, is uncertainty encountered in the course of living a human life. This is what I am calling here existential uncertainty.

Existential uncertainty isn’t uncertainty about facts, it’s uncertainty about what I should do in light of the facts. It asks, ‘What do these facts mean for me?’, ‘Do they change anything?’, ‘Which among all of the facts are relevant, if any?’, ‘Knowing the facts, what do I do now?’ These concerns obviously go beyond mere information gathering, which means that closing the information gap won’t do anything to alleviate them.

If existential uncertainty doesn’t arise from a lack of information, where does it come from? First of all, we should note that asking the question like this throws us off the trail right from the outset. To talk of existential uncertainty ‘coming from’ somewhere turns it into an objective, worldly condition, something that happens to us, something we can identify and neutralise. This is a mistake. Existential uncertainty doesn’t happen to us, it is us. We are fundamentally uncertain in our very being. Uncertainty is the nature of what it is to be human.

The next question then is, ‘What does it mean to be human?’ There are two ‘directions’ that bear on this; to be human is to be thrown into the world through no volition of my own (‘backward’) while projecting myself towards future possibilities (‘forward’).

Thrownness (a term Heidegger coined; Geworfenheit in German) captures the brute fact of my existence as something I had no control over. This fundamental, irreducible fact means that even if I discover in exhaustive detail exactly how I came to be – tracing the evolution of all species back to the beginning, understanding the chemical, biological, and physical bonds that undergird life, even unlocking the mysteries of consciousness – none of this can ultimately allow me to be responsible for my own existence. All our knowledge comes too late, as it were.

More specifically for the purposes of this article, being thrown into existence the way we are means that no matter how confident, how comfortable, even how certain I become in my existence, all of this is fundamentally grounded in uncertainty. Why me? What do I do with my existence? What does my existence mean to me? Of course, one can supply one’s own answers to these questions but the fact of our essential thrownness means that these answers will always be contingent and fully subject to revision; in other words, there will always be uncertainty in our stance towards the brute fact of our own existence.

At the other end of the scale is the fact that I always find myself projecting towards future possibilities. As we have already seen, the very act of confronting and moving towards a multitude of possibilities creates an uncertainty that no amount of information can overcome. And what is important to note with this idea that we project ourselves into possibilities is that we cannot not do so. This isn’t an ontic (to throw in another Heideggerian term) characteristic of human life, it’s an existential one, meaning anything, everything, you do is necessarily a projection into one possibility and therefore a rejection of countless others. Possibility, by its very nature, is grounded in uncertainty and since human existence is predicated on possibility, human existence is necessarily uncertain.

The Necessity of Existential Uncertainty

We saw how religion and science failed to dispel uncertainty and now we know why; because human existence is fundamentally uncertain. Any form of existence that isn’t uncertain wouldn’t be human. So, we can’t get rid of uncertainty. What are we to make of this? Are we doomed to suffer from uncertainty our whole lives? Actually, yes, but I believe it’s a mistake to see this as something we are ‘doomed’ to. What I’m suggesting is that uncertainty isn’t actually a bad thing; it isn’t something we ought to wish we could get rid of. In fact, I would go so far as to say that genuine, authentic lives can only occur in the presence of uncertainty.

Imagine if our lives were truly determined, as most scientists and prominent intellectuals believe these days, and we could somehow, through some advanced AI (science) or God (religion), learn exactly why we exist here and now and what that means, and discover everything that was going to happen in the future. This would mean we would no longer be thrown nor would we be projecting ourselves into possibilities; in other words, it would eliminate existential uncertainty. What would such a life be like? The question is unanswerable because this type of existence would of course, cease to be a life at all. The description I just gave, of an entity robbed of thrownness and possibility, is that of an object; a thing. It could be my chair or the cup on my desk, but it certainly couldn’t be a human being.

Let’s take one more look at the ideals of faith and science. There are obviously many different religions, all with different doctrines, but one thing many of them have in common is belief in a greater Power of some kind, which imposes meaning on an otherwise meaningless universe. I will take Christianity as my paradigm case of such a religion. Under Christianity, God created us (we are no longer thrown) and He has a plan for each of us (no more possibilities). In light of the preceding discussion, we can now see this for what it is; an attempt to eliminate existential uncertainty. But if the religionists have their way, what are we left with? Under this bizarre schema, humans have now lost their humanity and appear as something more like tools. We are not just made, we are made for a purpose. Perhaps the most disappointing thing of all is that many Christians would consider it a point of pride to have rescinded their humanity and become the tool of God, a mere object for a greater Being.

The scientific ideal is perfect knowledge with the overarching goal of eliminating uncertainty. Knowing in ever greater detail where we come from and where we are going is all an attempt to get rid of thrownness and possibility. If science could actually pull off the scheme it has embarked on, what would we be left with? Like religion, we would be reduced to objects, but unlike religion, we wouldn’t be tools. This time we would be machines; no longer thrown, because we would just be mindless clumps of matter, and no longer projecting into possibilities because, like all matter, our actions (effects) are fully and inevitably determined by prior events (causes).

The fact that both the religious ideal (some kind of Almighty Meaning-Giver) and the scientific ideal (perfect knowledge) attempt to remove uncertainty in order to make our lives better but actually end up destroying what makes human lives lives in the first place, elevates them to the realm of the absurd.

Obviously, I am not condemning all religion and all science as absurd. Although I seldom have flattering things to say about religion, I shouldn’t be taken here as claiming that all religions and all parts of all religions are absurd. This is even truer concerning science, which I see as an extremely powerful and immensely beneficial endeavour. It only becomes absurd when rather than attempting to enrich our lives, it oversteps its boundaries and tries to define them.

Conclusion

The value and inevitability of uncertainty in human existence which I’ve argued for here is certainly counter-intuitive. After all, what could be less conducive to a happy, fulfilling life than uncertainty? Fortunately, in everyday situations, our intuitions and desires are closely aligned with reality; eliminating uncertainty is indeed an unalloyed benefit in these smaller doses. Nevertheless, as in quantum physics, what holds at the micro-level doesn’t translate to the macro. Despite the fact that we want to, and would if we could, eliminate all uncertainty, especially in this outrageously optimistic, modern age where crude materialism is the order of the day and ‘impossible’ and ‘limits’ are dirty words, a life stripped of uncertainty would no longer qualify as a life at all.


[1] ‘Digital’ because the perfect knowledge they dream of will allegedly come about through super-intelligent AI… in about 30 years or so, no less.

One thought on “Existential Uncertainty

  1. Pingback: Existentialist Lessons for Societal Collapse Existentialist Lessons for Societal Collapse

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