The only certainty is uncertainty, by Martin Sandbrook

Certainty holds sway. We are under its spell. The desire for certainty seems to pervade everything. But is certainty just a side-effect of rationalism, of our obsession with scientific knowing, where everything is seen as a set of reducible parts?

If we see the world as if it were a machine, understand everything as if it were predictable and mechanical – the brain as a computer, nature as a set of rules, organisations as well-oiled machines – then of course we will see the world as controllable in the same way that machines are. If we pull this lever, we will get that result.

If we are taught that everything can be understood by taking it apart, that everything can be measured, even if we don’t have the instruments to measure it, that if we can’t measure it then it doesn’t exist, then of course we believe the world is entirely knowable and therefore certain.

But what does experience tell us? Surely we all experience the living of life as an unfolding, emerging, ever-changing series of cause and effect events. Life is far from certain, interrupted as it so frequently is with unexpected events which shift us from going there to going somewhere else. As John Lennon so wisely said: “Life is what happens when you were planning to do something else”. Of course, things don’t happen randomly. The future is in many ways scoped by the past. The road outside my house will still be there tomorrow, so my way to work will be the same as it was yesterday. But I still can’t be absolutely certain the road will be there tomorrow, or what state it might be in. The probability that it will be the same is very high, but I can’t be absolutely certain.

Why do we assume certainty is possible? It seems to me we are mostly living under an illusion – the illusion of control, which is rooted in the idea that things are certain. We continue to make elaborate plans, even when we know plans rarely work out as expected. We become impatient because life doesn’t meet our expectations, when there was no real basis for those expectations in the first place. We hold hard to a need to be right.

Doesn’t it make more sense to admit that the world is complex, inter-related mostly not like a machine, but more like an organism, changing, unfolding, where taking things apart to understand them also takes apart their emergent characteristics, the ‘greater than the sum of its parts’ essence? Would you search for someone’s personality by taking their body to pieces?

If we admit this, doesn’t it the put us in the position of being able to welcome what emerges, see the unexpected as opportunity, be experimental with life, let go of the need to be right, aspire to an outcome rather than setting a specific goal, plan only to get to next base and then take stock, being ready to reconsider in the light of the unexpected, admitting the world is complex and probably impossible to fully understand?

And isn’t there a lot more potential for fun in this, in being holistic, systemic, emergent? The only certainty is uncertainty, so better to play with this than pretend it isn’t so.

Martin Sandbrook is a Director of the Schumacher Institute and Programme Leader for Systems Thinking for Effective Action and Pale Blue Dot