Certainty is a useful shorthand, allowing us to quickly consider outcomes in the most ordinary circumstances. For example, I’m certain the bus will be late… so I’d better catch an earlier bus to be there on time. I’m reminded of the concept of heuristics, things we do in order to make shortcuts in our reasoning. One of the most obvious examples of this is the idea “It happened one way 5 times… so I assume it will happen the same way a 6th time”. However this is only useful insofar as we don’t become too rigid, too fixed, and consequently unable to cope when the 6th time comes and something happens differently.

We’re not good at remaining flexible as individuals. We lean on inductive “established truths” and discard our own intuitions or insights easily. The extraneous result is seen as just that – ignorable. Because so much of our thinking is conceptual, ideal, and at a remove from things as they are in themselves we often make these kinds of heuristic mistakes, problems with inductive reasoning becoming concrete assertion. We think we know something, and then get showed we don’t, and we feel lost.

Uncertainty, on the other hand, can be a terrifying idea. I touched on it in a former journal post, and suggested that one reason we fear uncertainty is our inability to trust ourselves, and our inherent ability to respond dynamically to a changing universe without first rehearsing possibilities in order to remove a little of the sting of uncertainty. I suggested we would do better to cultivate a deeper understanding of the wisdom at the core of ourselves, to better trust our ability to respond appropriately without fearing uncertainty.

But this central wisdom… is a type of certainty? If we’re using it as the foundation for our entire worldview, it can seem pretty fixed; but the best kind of wisdom isn’t prescriptive, telling us what we must or must not do. It doesn’t say, “If X happens, do Y”. Instead it shows us truths about the universe. “Everything is uncertain” is a truth about the universe which doesn’t make predictions; it doesn’t say “nothing will stay the same forever”, and some things might. Like a koan, it’s self-contractictory – it’s not the certain words themselves but the process of engaging with the puzzle which produces insight, wisdom. How about this, which I expect we all believe is wise: is it hinged on certainty?:

Emotion, yet peace.
Ignorance, yet knowledge.
Passion, yet serenity.
Chaos, yet harmony.
Death, yet the Force.

Similarly, the wisdom of retaining beginner’s mind, of being the uncarved block and seeing things without preconceptions is a type of wisdom which simply teaches us to question; and questioning breaks down certainty. Questioning introduces doubt.

So the next question – is doubt and uncertainty the same thing? Uncertainty is a natural state, where if we are responding authentically we cannot be “certain”. Instead we acknowledge that we will never have all the facts, and never have the full basis of variables to truly predict everything to the point of absolute certainty. To do so would be to hold and comprehend the whole universe and everything in it for all time. The universe is and will always remain uncertain.

I believe doubt is distinct from uncertainty in the sense it implies a precondition; in order to begin doubt, we must already have a fixed perspective we didn’t previously doubt. The universe doesn’t present itself as doubt. To doubt is to weigh our beliefs and certainties against their plausibility. By taking a certainty and doubting it, I remind myself that it is uncertain. Doubt is a tool, then, for reminding ourselves that certainty can never be absolute; even what we think we know can always be doubted, and nudged towards uncertainty. It is better, then, to embrace this fact of reality.

I’m reminded of Krishnamurti’s notion that “a confident man is a dead human being”. By being certain, we set ourselves up to fail. Certainty makes us rigid, brittle and unable to maintain our flexibility to accept whatever comes. Certainty is the only thing which makes us feel we’ve passed a point of no return, and causes people to commit terrible acts. Have you ever heard of a suicide bomber who took their actions in the name of doubt? If something can be destroyed by a question, is it worth building your life on? Uncertainty is like the Tao, it seeks the low place. It is yielding and flexible and fills the empty spaces. Uncertainty, achieved in part through doubt, is in my opinion a more useful and natural state.