Article - Spring 2020

The Uncertainty Principle

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In an age of profound disagreements, mathematics shows us how to pursue truth together

By Cristopher Moore and John Kaag | March 2, 2020
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Humans crave certainty. We long to know what will happen, what to believe, and how to live. This desire drives some of us to depths of soul-searching and heights of scientific inquiry. It drives others into the arms of authoritarians, who are all too willing to put our doubts, and our unquiet minds, to rest.

Philosophers have long warned that this desire for certainty can lead us astray. To think and learn about the world, we must be willing to be uncertain: to accept that we don’t yet know everything. In 19th-century Europe, when the urge for certainty was deepening national and religious divisions, Goethe wrote, “Nothing is sadder than to watch the absolute urge for the unconditional in this altogether conditional world; perhaps in the year 1830 it seems even more unsuitable than ever.” In the year 2020 it seems even more so. Many of us rely on political and tribal loyalties, dismissing any argument that could make us less certain of our views. At its worst, the desire for certainty crushes all subtlety and complexity under its heel.

Nietzsche called this desire to make the crooked straight the “will to truth.” In The Gay Science, he argued that for most of us, “nothing is more necessary than truth; and in relation to it, everything else has only secondary value.” But he suggests in another work, Beyond Good and Evil, that the will to truth is a vestige from a simpler time that has dominated the human psyche for far too long:

The Will to Truth, which is to tempt us to many a hazardous enterprise … what questions has this Will to Truth not laid before us! What strange, perplexing, questionable questions! It is already a long story; yet it seems as if it were hardly commenced. Is it any wonder if we at last grow distrustful, lose patience, and turn impatiently away? … We inquired about the value of this Will. Granted that we want the truth: why not rather untruth? And uncertainty? Even ignorance?

As Nietzsche writes, when our demand for certainty is frustrated—when the quest for truth is longer and stranger than we would like—we often give up. And just as some people turn to authority, others abandon even the idea of truth, deciding that there is no truth to be found.

Yet there is a middle way, between the extremes of absolute certainty and despair, that honors Nietzsche’s call to embrace uncertainty and ignorance, while maintaining our pursuit of meaning and truth.

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