I believe in un-belief or, to put it more precisely, in uncertainty. I believe in the uncertainty that flows from our inability to definitively answer the Big Questions of philosophy or resolve the most important public policy issues. Was the universe always here? What is the nature of human nature? Should the state kill people who themselves have killed? I gravitate toward the mysteries of human existence, the unknowables, the impossibilities, the absurdities.
To give a random example or two: I am not a physicist, but I am delighted by the seemingly impossible fact that light behaves, at the same time, like both a wave and a particle—a “wavicle” as some have called it. Few non-physicists have given much thought to this issue, I suspect, but of those who have, many find the contradiction impossible to grasp and regard it as a repudiation of quantum physics. I find the conundrum deeply satisfying, if for no other reason than that it forces me to question my Newtonian reliance on the stark duality of existence. Sometimes it seems, it’s simply not true that something is either x or not x.
Another example. I am overwhelmed by the odds against my own existence. I am the product of one particular sperm uniting with one particular egg produced by two particular people among the billions of people who have lived and will live on this planet, who happened to have had sex at one particular moment in their lives. When I think about it this way, it seems to me that the odds against my being here are so staggering as to be incomprehensible. With those odds, I shouldn’t be here. Yet here I am.
But what does this have to do with the theme of this essay? Well, I believe that certainty can be not just a lazy state of mind, but a type of supreme arrogance. The certainty that I find offensive takes many forms, but the common theme is a lack of reverence for the inexplicable.
Now don’t get me wrong. Certainty can be a powerful force for good in human affairs. History is replete with examples of people who, convinced of the rightness of an idea, changed human history for the better by acting on their unshakeable convictions. Of course, it is also replete with examples of unspeakable cruelty visited upon human beings by other human beings equally convinced of the rectitude of their beliefs.
My point here is not merely that certainty in human affairs can sometimes have bad consequences. My point, I think, is a deeper one. I believe in the power and beauty of uncertainty. Too many people have an attitude of annoyance or contempt or indifference regarding uncertainty. I believe we should revere uncertainty. And I deeply distrust anyone who can answer the Big Questions or resolve those most important public policy issues with an easy certainty.
Now having said this, I certainly don’t advocate inaction because we can never achieve perfect understanding. I am saying we need to be humble and to revere the mysteries of the universe and human existence even as we attempt to resolve them.
I mentioned before that I’m not a physicist. I am a trial attorney. When I was a criminal prosecutor, I never finished a case convinced I knew the absolute truth about what had happened in the case I had prosecuted. While I never had a “reasonable doubt” that the defendant had committed the crime he or she was accused of in cases I took to trial, in a couple of murder cases I frankly had no good idea why the defendant had committed murder. And neither, I suspect, did the juries that convicted those defendants. The human heart truly is a mystery.
I am reminded of a line from Bruce Springsteen’s song “Brilliant Disguise”: “God have mercy on the man who doubts what he’s sure of.” Great line. But I say, God bless the man who doubts what he’s sure of. That’s the kind of man I can respect.
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