“So, tell me Sergito, what are you going to be when you grow up?”
As a child, it always bothered me when an adult asked me that question. I didn’t know exactly why it bothered me so much…
The only absolute certainty is uncertainty itself.
According to the legend, it was this assertion that prompted the Delphic Oracle to recognize Socrates as the wisest man in Greece. Socrates replied that he possessed no wisdom whatsoever, but paradoxically the Oracle interpreted his unapologetic acceptance of ignorance as evidence of great wisdom. The pride of many prominent Athenians was wounded by the idea of being ranked below this self-proclaimed ignorant, so he was accused of corrupting the young, and was sentenced to death by poisoning.
2,000 years after Socrates’ execution, at a point in time between the birth of Descartes and the death of Kant, the West became helplessly enamored with certainty. Calculus became the fundamental discipline that helped us understand and define reality with great accuracy, even when it was ineffective at amicably resolving the battle between Leibniz and Newton regarding its discovery.
According to Lao Tzu, what is true can’t be described, but after Newton’s discoveries of gravity and the laws of motion, it was hard not to be convinced that reality could be outlined and explained through scientific exploration. Newton was followed by Bernoulli, Coulomb, Avogadro, Fourier, Faraday, Kelvin, Joule and Maxwell, and with every new discovery the certainty that the universe could be completely understood through the reductionism of equations grew stronger. The prevalent scientific posture after Maxwell’s unification of electricity and magnetism was that at the end of the 19th century “all the great physical constants would have been approximately estimated, and the only occupation left to men of science would be to carry these measurements to another place of decimals”. Of course history had different plans, and a new batch of scientists that included Curie, Rutherford, Planck, Einstein and Bohr proved that the universe was not that simple to figure out. Radioactivity, the equivalency between energy and matter, the relative flow of time, and light behaving as both wave and particle were a few of the new discoveries. During the 20th century each new finding increased the level of uncertainty, but the final blow to the dream of absolute scientific determinism came in 1926, when a young German physicist proved that it was impossible to know the position and momentum of a particle at the same time. At the age of 25, Werner Heisenberg formulated the Uncertainty Principle, laying the foundation of what became known as the Copenhagen Interpretation of quantum mechanics. The implication of this discovery was that unpredictability ruled at the fundamental level of subatomic particles. The principle imposed a very real physical limitation on human knowledge, one that could not be overcome by technology. At an elementary level, scientists were doomed to predict only probabilities, never actual outcomes. Einstein strongly disliked this conclusion and died trying to disprove it, but years of experimental consistency confirmed his worst fears: God does play dice.
In 1932 Heisenberg was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics. Since then, the description of reality has only gotten stranger and more uncertain. Some of the latest scientific breakthroughs, like the discovery of Quantum Entanglement, seem to imply that not only is time an illusion, but locality as well. Recent discoveries by Leonard Susskind, Juan Maldacena and Ed Witten support the idea that we live in a holographic universe and that, despite its apparent solidity, objective reality does not exist. According to the Holographic Principle, objective reality is just a mirage created in our brains based on sensorial input; its our way of interpreting an otherwise undifferentiated, infinitely interconnected and splendidly detailed hologram. In this universe, all aspects of reality are merely interpretations relative to the observer, making it impossible to reach any kind of universal certainty.
It took 2,500 years, but Socrates was finally vindicated:
The only absolute certainty is uncertainty itself
“So, tell me Sergito, what are you going to be when you grow up?” As a child, it always bothered me when an adult asked me that question, I didn’t know exactly why it bothered me so much. As I grew older I would get the same uncomfortable feeling when, at a job interview, I was asked “where do you see yourself in 5 years?”. I even found it utterly uncomfortable when a priest prompted a young couple to promise eternal love to each other.
At some point I started to realize that, in most cases, the people asking me these questions were just trying to satisfy their own expectations with my answers, and that very often I would provide the expected response just to keep them at ease. Many of the people striving for certainty just want the confirmation that their particular belief system is legitimized; confirmation that a son will be a doctor and not an ballet dancer, confirmation that a partner will never behave in a way that may threaten the marriage, confirmation that a couple’s public commitment will continue to validate the church’s authority.
Today I know that the uncomfortable feelings those questions arouse in me had little to do with any particular answer, and a lot to do with the questions themselves; that I do not want my future to be seen as a means to validate someone else’s expectations, that by answering I am turning myself into a potential liar, and that the only honest answer to such questions is, and should have always been I DON’T KNOW. Any other answer would represent a self-imposed compromised fate, a voluntary limitation of my own freedom, an imposition of countless personal and communal hopes and fears over the limitless possibilities of reality.
I DONT KNOW may not be the most romantic or reassuring answer, but it is often the most honest. Unfortunately more people today want to be right rather than honest. Through schools, temples and popular culture we are taught to perceive certainty as a virtue. The preacher narrates Biblical events as if he had experienced them himself, and talks about the afterlife as if he had already been there and back; the science teacher talks about subatomic particles as if he had actually seen them; and all over the world celebrities are admired for their apparent confidence and self assurance (heck, if Bono gets behind this cause it must be important). Recently we have experienced a string of international leaders that are far more concerned with appearing to be right than with actually doing the right thing.
Religion manufactures certainty from the past and imposes it over the present, while present science places its faith in future technologies to increase its own certainty. Everyone holding a position of authority refuses to display signs of ignorance for fear of appearing weak or conceding.
I am not afraid of doubt, but I am terrified by the recent resurgence of certainty and fundamentalism. Doubt can bring about humbleness, while certainty can lead to arrogance. Some of the most horrific episodes in history are those involving arrogant madmen.
Instead of allowing perception to be informed by experiential reality, a madman will try to force reality to conform to his prejudice. He will try to impose an order on reality and will attempt to destroy any element that challenges such order. But chaos is the reality of nature, while order is just the dream of men. Inevitably, one man’s dream will become another man’s nightmare, and our attempts to impose an artificial order on reality will often end up in despair and destruction.
Expectations are futile, control is a painful illusions, we are made of uncertainty. Let chaos be, and order will emerge; strive for order and you will live in chaos. How do I know this?
I DON’T KNOW.