The value of sound decision-making is to be mainly sought from embracing uncertainty.
As the Presocratic philosopher Xenophanes proclaimed, “All we have is but a woven web of guesses.”
The physicist Richard P. Feynman often talked about how doubt informs critical thinking and learning. In a 1964 lecture on “What Is and What Should Be the Role of Scientific Culture in Modern Society,” published in The Pleasure of Finding Things Out (1999,) Feynman warned,
A scientist is never certain. We all know that. We know that all our statements are approximate statements with different degrees of certainty; that when a statement is made, the question is not whether it is true or false but rather how likely it is to be true or false. … Scientific knowledge is a body of statements of varying degrees of certainty — some most unsure, some nearly sure, none absolutely certain.
Science produces ignorance, and ignorance produces more science, reminded Feynman in a 1963 lecture on “The Uncertainty of Science” published in The Meaning of It All (1999,)
To solve any problem that has never been solved before, you have to leave the door to the unknown ajar. You have to permit the possibility that you do not have it exactly right. Otherwise, if you have made up your mind already, you might not solve it.
When the scientist tells you he does not know the answer, he is an ignorant man. When he tells you he has a hunch about how it is going to work, he is uncertain about it. When he is pretty sure of how it is going to work, and he tells you, “This is the way it’s going to work, I’ll bet,” he still is in some doubt. And it is of paramount importance, in order to make progress, that we recognize this ignorance and this doubt. Because we have the doubt, we then propose looking in new directions for new ideas. The rate of the development of science is not the rate at which you make observations alone but, much more important, the rate at which you create new things to test.
The Czechoslovakia-born Israeli American scientist Itzhak Bentov formulated the so-called “Bentov’s Law,” reiterating that science produces ignorance both deliberately and unintentionally. In Stalking the Wild Pendulum: On the Mechanics of Consciousness (1977,) Bentov wrote,
One’s level of ignorance increases exponentially with accumulated knowledge. When one acquires a bit of new information, there are many new questions that are generated by it, and each new piece of information breeds five-ten new questions. These questions pile up at a much faster rate than does accumulated knowledge. Therefore, the more one knows, the greater his level of ignorance.
Idea for Impact: If you can’t tolerate uncertainty and ambiguity, you may as well embrace a fanatical ideology.
Learning the boundaries of your knowledge—the shortcomings, caveats, hedges, and the standard deviations toward everything you think you know—hones decision-making.
In other words, to get to the right answers, you first have to ask the right questions. So the first thing is to ponder about is what questions to ask and how to ask them. What are the things you don’t know, and how can you reach out into these areas that may be new to you to uncover somethings about the world and yourself?
Once you discover the answers, you’ll realize that approximate statements and varying degrees of certainty will require you to think probabilistically. Your inquiry shouldn’t be, “Will I be right, or will I be wrong?” but rather “What is the probability of this scenario versus that, and how does this judgment impact my choices?”
Leave room for doubt, even in your highest conviction ideas. If not, you’ll risk becoming smug and self-satisfied.
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