Saturday, May 14, 2016

In Defense of Uncertainty

"Fools find no pleasure in understanding but delight in airing their own opinions."
     Proverbs 18:2

I read a lot of books this semester. That's what comprehensive exams are all about. So, what does all that reading do to you?

I honestly think I feel less knowledgeable than ever before. Really, I feel profoundly ignorant.

In our most self-serving moments, we subconsciously assume that expertise in one field is infinitely transferable. We know a little about something and suddenly we think we know everything about everything. In our more realistic moments, trying to learn a lot about something mainly just reminds us of how little we know.

This process is surprisingly unsettling. I used to have lots of opinions about lots of things, and I casually assumed those opinions were right. Well, ok, I still have lots of opinions. But now they're accompanied by all sorts of annoying questions. Questions like,
Wait a minute, why am I so sure about this?

What are the opinions of people who have spent their lives studying this?

How would my view of this change if I read 10 books about it? 100?

What complexities am I missing because I haven't experienced the thing I'm opining about? 
How would I feel differently if the issue touched my closest friends or family members? 
People often have strong opinions that are based on ignorance. That's not exactly news. But what's interesting is that ignorance hides itself. In the end, there's a sense in which we don't know what we don't know. People often have unfounded ideas about racism or American history, for example, but you won't hear them say, "I know my ideas go against the vast majority of people with experience or expertise on this subject, but I am sticking to my opinion." On the contrary, precisely because they are ignorant they don't know that their views contradict the evidence.

Before I get up on my high horse, I would do well to remember that this is basically the same thing I try to do all the time. Now those annoying questions keep getting in the way and make me question what I think I know.

I have opinions about climate change, pacifism, transgender rights, immigration law, ISIS, and even the Boxer Rebellion. They're all ignorant opinions. If this seems hard to admit, perhaps it's because we've become accustomed to thinking of ignorance as an insult to be lobbed against an opponent rather than a routine condition that affects us all.

This is not a call for radical skepticism about our ability to know things that are true. Nor is it a call for self-imposed silence until we attain some imagined threshold of competence. Rather, it is a call to dialogue, to listen to each other with the expectation--rather than the fear--that in listening we will be changed.

Indeed, the basic assumption that there is additional knowledge or experience that would change our thinking if we had access to it is a prerequisite for constructive conversation. We need to cultivate the capacity to be uncertain.

It might seem strange to think of uncertainty as a skill to be cultivated, but it is precisely that. Abiding in uncertainty is uncomfortable. It strips us of our easy assumptions and continually confronts us with the possibility that we may be wrong. It is much easier to be certain.

Social media rewards certainty. Strong and uncompromising opinions, baldly stated, are the currency of Twitter and Facebook. I've offered more than my fair share. And many of us have learned not to even try to have such conversations face to face. After all, if you and I are both so sure of ourselves, what is there to talk about? In the end, we'd rather change someone's mind than learn something new ourselves.

So yeah, I'm done with comps. I feel pretty ignorant. I feel uncertain. Maybe trying to make myself at home here wouldn't be such a bad idea. 


  1. Well said, Jesse. I'm bookmarking this for future (and frequent) re-reading.