Uncertainty Certainly Isn’t New
These days, so many newscasts and commercials start the same way — “In these uncertain times…” Now, whether or not you end up asking your doctor about the latest wonder drug, I find that phrasing curious. Are these times really less certain than what went on before?
Not according to Benjamin Franklin, who famously wrote, “In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.” Nor Werner Heisenberg, whose uncertainty principle is one of the pillars of quantum mechanics, which defines the atomic laws of nature. If these thought giants found their certainty in uncertainty, somehow the Era of Certainty must have passed us by.
Or, more likely, it’s a convenient story. Like fake news, which is nothing new, claiming uncertainty for an entire era is manipulative. A verbal veil that belies the constant conflict of human history in an effort to repackage and reinforce our fears. Uncertainty is but one perspective on the most universal, reliable fact of existence — change. Calling the current course of events anything other than change spins the future into something unpalatable, cutting its promise with doubt and anxiety.
I don’t dismiss the issues we’re facing, or the effects of increasing speed and complexity brought on by digital technology. Our concerns about humanity’s unfolding story are real, and well-founded. What I object to is the repetition and commodification of catchphrases that keep us mired in certain states of thinking, feeling, being and doing. These phrases, like many insidious opinions that continue to divide and conquer, are obstacles to truth and the opportunities that come with freer definitions.
The truth is that there has never been absolute certainty. Maybe for some who have lived in peaceful pockets of the planet, times have felt more certain than now. But outcomes have never been certain for anyone, individually or collectively. They’ve only been possible, or probable at best. Even knowledge isn’t certain. Just look to science — one of our more dependable systems of understanding — where disprovable theories, as opposed to unbending facts, define knowledge. When we become too certain about being right, or that things only exist in a certain way, then there is no room for growth.
Since change is inevitable, we can ignore the nostalgic narrative and accept some discomfort as part of the natural progression toward truth. To be adaptable, we must remain open to change, transmuting uncertainty into opportunity. At the least, being able to navigate change relieves us of the burden of anxiety. From there, we can use our creative potential to build a society that carries a genuine promise of greater certainty.