In praise of uncertainty.

The Archbishop of York, John Hapgood, once famously declared that ‘the lust for certainty was a sin.’  This statement was surprising, shocking even, coming from the second most important churchman in the country; a man who engaged with the ‘certainty’ of God. 

We live in an uncertain world.  We can never be sure of anything, truth, fact, reality, faith; they are all illusion. Nothing is absolute; there are contexts, conditions, caveats and excuses.   Alter the perspective and the conclusion changes. We can never know the right course of action; all we can do is weigh things up and make a decision, that seems best at the time. 

From the dawn of civilization, people have needed to invent myths to explain the things they didn’t understand; day and night, the weather, the changing seasons, the migration of animals, the growth of crops, family relationships, love, anger, grief, madness. These ‘certainties’ were ascribed to the deities, who alone understood the ways of the world and  required appeasement.      

But man is restless and curious.  There have always been the neurotic ones, those who would challenge the elders and question the collective wisdom; the ones who noticed the missing stair in the double helix.

Man’s neurosis has made him successful. Curiosity has generated the knowledge that has turned men into Gods; Gods who knew how to grow their own food, create their own shelter, and migrate to every corner of the globe. The first revolution in human society, agriculture and the settled community, was followed some thousands of years later by the industrial revolution and the growth of massive cities, but now we have been taken over by the third wave; the electronic revolution, further disconnecting us from the tangible traditions of home and tribe. This new artificial world is based on belief and expectation.  Money, property, occupation, marriage, family can no longer be relied on. There is no absolute security.  What we regard as our wealth, our security, is more a matter of collective trust than any real commodity.  What sustains us as family and home is the faith that it is so. We are consoled by our illusions, up to a point.  

But there is a paradox; the more illusory and insecure our existence, the more we demand absolute certainties.  Our need for security permeates all aspects of our existence.  Daily administrative concerns domesticate an existential insecurity by providing the illusion of control. This is not so much a lust as a fundamental human need for shelter; what psychotherapists would term containment.  We need to know that our savings will be secure, that we will get effective treatment, that our children will get the best education, that we will be promoted, that our wife will love us forever.  These are our certainties. But all too often we worry about whether it will rain tomorrow, whether the rubbish will be collected, the mail delivered, the roads gritted.   We are panicked by a glitch on our computer,  enraged  by transport delays,  devastated by the loss of our mobile and tyrannized by regulation.   

To provide the reassurance to calm our fears, we demand more information.  We need to know what we can never know.  So we build glass and concrete temples dedicated to science, create multinational corporations to look after our money and service our existence and construct whole cities dedicated to treating the incurable, unexplained malaise of a society, that is sick with worry about being worried.  These are all illusions.  The reality, as we have seen all too clearly, is that our money can never be safe, the basic services, energy supplies, water, food, are finite, our shelter can be destroyed and life is an incurable illness.  But how desperately we need those illusions,         

In our uncertain, artificial world, try as we will to distinguish reality from fiction, truth from lies, right from wrong, the good from the bad, we fail. And this failure leads to regulation, because regulation provides the structural illusion of certainty. So we regulate every aspect of our existence – banks, hospitals, schools, transport and food.  So just as our ancestors never questioned their deities, so we put our trust in the God of  Science, the mysterious divination of evidence, the Rule of Law, the Oracle of Psychology, the Security of the Bank and The Power of Government.  Not to do so invites chaos or so we fear.  And our collective psyche abhors tension and chaos.    

We need to know where we stand, what will happen. So we look to our leaders to guide us.  Our politicians have to appear certain, lawyers trustworthy, businessmen reliable, doctors omniscient and efficient.  They all trade in absolute truths. We make Gods of them.  We have to believe that when our politicians tell us they will cut taxes, improve medical services, increase the state pension for old people and get us out of recession, that this will happen. But politicians are false gods. Certainty for a politician is at best what seems to be the optimal solution at the time and at worst sheer deceit and manipulation.  To be certain is to appear to have control and control is power.  And we need to know our leaders have the power to look after us. The media, the watchdog of an insecure public, demands certainty and will destroy those whose predictions fail to happen, whose promises are unfounded.      

It’s a game of pretence, a case of keeping one step ahead of disaster. Politicians are theatrical exponents of deception. Lawyers conjure truth out of doubt.  Businessman are skilled manipulators. Doctors trade in reassurance.   But they are only giving us what we want; the semblance of certainty in an uncertain world! 

Far be it from me, a lusty sinner, to take issue with the good archbishop, but I think that lust for certainty is less a sin and more a sign of insecurity.  Lust implies the need to own, to have power and control and that makes us feel secure.  It is what this desperate need leads on to, what it justifies, that are the sins; the deception, division and conflict, war, even murder. Doesn’t religion, in preaching a doctrine of certainty generate sin as much as any other conviction.  God save us from those who have conviction!         

Certainty forecloses discussion, precludes compromise, stifles creativity and promotes division. It inhabits a world that is split; right or wrong, black or white, good or bad.  The illusion of certainty  requires deception, suppression and secrecy.  It denies the real world and leads to conflict. There must be winners and losers.   

Uncertainty is freedom and life. We need to accept uncertainty if we are to understand the nature of things and change them.  Knowledge is not written in stone, but on shifting sand and the tide keeps coming in.  We should marvel at what we don’t know, engage with the fascinating complexity and the stimulus for understanding. Curiosity is one of the greatest joys of life. 

If we are to live together in harmony, we need to acknowledge there are no absolute rights or wrongs; only what we decide is so. Everything has its contexts and conditions.  Laws are there to be broken if conditions dictate that is the greater good.     

But society has to deal in absolutes, otherwise there is no society.  And the bigger society is and the more complex, the more the individual needs to be regulated.  No man is an island … Society determines that we make decisions, obey conventions, laws, that our word is our bond.  Doubt and inconsistency could lead to chaos and disintegration.   But society is too large to trust or to understand. It is an artifice that must be accepted advisedly not absolutely.  .   

But there is a third way; that is to acknowledge the necessary regulations of society while at the same time realizing and understanding the complexities and uncertainties of human existence.  (Give unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s ……….).  Decisions should not be imposed by obligation but arrived at by creative compromise.  Accept society’s necessary regulations, but retain the personal uncertainty, because it is out of uncertainty that we derive identity and meaning.   Too much regulation will breed fear and stifle life; too little threatens distintegration.  Decisiveness can lead to sin, but indecision may slide into chaos.  As ever, we need to find the golden mean


Day will follow night

and life will last forever,

but the watchman spins his coin

and the way it lands is never.