Fearing uncertainty and doubt


In my time at University I was fortunate enough to be able to study Philosophy. And I mean properly study it; I finished a major, completed and enjoyed an honours year, and considered doing a PhD. Ultimately I decided against a career in academia (or whatever it is one does with a philosophy doctorate) and I am certainly no philosopher now, yet a decade later I still struggle with a problem I first encountered there.

After much time spent learning about thinking, talking about thinking, and thinking about thinking, I gained a vital yet potentially debilitating insight: the nobility of uncertainty. As surely as we are mortal, we are fallible. And it is when we become certain of the absolute, incontrovertible truth of some thing that we are at our most foolish and dangerous.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not a hard-core relativist. I think some ideas are better than others, and we can generally do a pretty good job of distinguishing between good ideas and bad ones. In fact, I think that the more practice we get at choosing between good and bad ideas, actions or urges, the better we will get at making these judgements – both individually and as a species. It is when we get stuck at one particular judgement and cease the deliberations that we end up in trouble.

To distil this into a trite statement, I guess I want to say that "truth", or "wisdom", or any similar such thing, emerges from a continual process of deliberation and (re)consideration, rather than residing at a destination one can reach.

This insight was problematical for my philosophical career, as it made me very suspicious of all the grand theories and ontologies that I had previously admired. There was certainly no longer any prospect of me constructing one myself. And although critics play an important role in any field, the thought of devoting myself to belittling the constructs of others without constructing anything tangible of my own was not appealing. I consider it poor form to criticise others if you cannot propose a better option. Before throwing stones, one should at least attempt to build a glass house of one's own.

So I returned to my first love, coding. It's a field with an unusual mixture of theory, high abstraction, and tangible results that is ideal for me. And in a way, it is also one of the few jobs devoted entirely to the collection, selection and arrangement of words. Code for me is literature as much as it is maths.

Yet I find my devotion to uncertainty continues to cause me problems. I struggle to commit wholeheartedly to any one philosophical, political or social agenda, as I am too ready to see its flaws. I hesitate to argue with people whose ideas are wrong-headed, as I do not presume to have the answers necessary to set them straight. And worst of all, I lack the conviction to devote myself to a grand cause that could give more shape and purpose to my life, as there are so many good causes that the choice of one from among them would feel almost arbitrary.

I am left with political leanings and vague inclinations, when what I really want is something concrete I can grab on to; but not enough to sacrifice my uncertainty.

The existential dilemma, writ small.

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