In praise of uncertainty

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The amphivena, one of the most ambiguous, amphibious creatures in the medieval bestiary, about which little can be said except that little is known about it.

Better the devil you know than the devil you don’t, says the famous Irish proverb. Some good advice is to stick with it. With the devil you know, that is.

Nearly everything we do in our lives is to reduce uncertainty around us. We seek better jobs and better pay to improve our security and lower the likelihood of something unexpected going wrong. As the technician telling Dr Arroway in the movie Contact, ‘there are a thousand reasons we can think of for you to have this [suicide pill], but mostly it’s for the reasons we can’t think of’. Extreme uncertainty is unbearable. Our urge to control ourselves, others and our environment is irresistible. It’s why we have made it this far.

But not everything need be certain. The post-industrial age we live in has a deep loathing for anything equivocal. To be vague is to be inefficient. To be inefficient is to unproductive. Nobody likes slack.

And yet so much thrives on uncertainty. The best literature has always been the one where clear pronouncements can’t be made. Where the characters are ambivalent, where the outcomes are uncertain. It is against the backdrop of uncertainty that the best questions are asked, that progress is made. Scholars still debate Plato and Aristotle. Nobody really, really understands what Wittgenstein’s Tractatus really means. Nor has anyone given up.

A medieval mapping tradition was to tag the unknown, unexplored territories with the expression ‘here are lions’, hic sunt leones. This didn’t really keep explorers at bay, but instilled in their consciousness a desire to push the envelope. One of the most seductive characters in Dante’s Inferno is Ulysees, whose ultimate, tragic gesture was to venture into the unknown, to defy the uncertain. Equally unclear is what Dante thought of him, which only adds to the character’s appeal.

Art and poetry can’t survive on certainty. There are no guarantees. To plunge into the universe of creation is to deep-dive into the unknown. Let there be dragons. Lots of them.

In her book The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, Shoshana Zuboff notes that in the marketplace and elsewhere, freedom and uncertainty are being replaced by individual conformity and guaranteed outcomes. The uncertain, contingent, modal quality of the future tense, that which our ability to act in a free, sovereign manner relies on, is being subverted by the ever-expanding technology of prediction. At the edge of this new map, there are no lions or dragons, only foregone conclusions.

One of the great sources of modern terror is total transparency. Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon and all subsequent derivations of it, including modern surveillance, are so blood-curdling because the unknown has been chased away from human life. Clarity is illuminating, but too much, or misplaced clarity, invites the demons of the night.

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