Cultural Maturity. Limits, and Uncertainty

Adapted from Cultural Maturity—A Guidebook for the Future

Limits and uncertainty link most directly in the critically importance of confronting limits to what we as humans can predict and control. Cultural Maturity alerts us to how the circumstances around an issue are rarely as readily pinned down as we might wish. Mature perspective also highlights the ways uncertainty comes part and parcel, at the most basic level, with how we understand any situation. It emphasizes, for example, that we are always participants in any act of knowing—a fact that makes ever knowing something for sure impossible.

It is not surprising that we humans have often assumed we have a much greater capacity to predict than is at all warranted. One of the most important functions of our past belief systems has been to limit our experience of uncertainty. Parentally defined truths, and ideologies more generally, have, from our beginnings, provided reliable absolutes. And the clockworks world of Modern Age thought offered ready deterministic principles. We need only look at the great failures of grand-scale efforts such as communism, urban renewal efforts that left neighborhoods more blighted than ever, and wars such as those in Vietnam and Iraq that were supposed to be both quickly and greatly beneficial, to see how limited our human ability to predict and plan can be—and how important it is for us to have a more mature relationship to uncertainty.

Cultural Maturity does not alter the fact that limits exist to what we can know and predict, but mature perspective does help us to more wisely anticipate uncertainty’s presence. And it makes it possible for us to respond to uncertainty in the most creative ways. When we accept limits to what we can know and predict, we can choose to reduce uncertainty’s effects whenever that is possible and appropriate. What do I mean by possible and appropriate?  If we are designing a bridge, it is appropriate to anticipate and eliminate as many problems as possible. But in other situations, we may choose to do the opposite—to increase the room for uncertainty. In brainstorming, in love, or just in how we live our daily lives, it is often constraints to uncertainty that most limit possibility.

Also—and critical to making wise choices—culturally mature perspective helps us more accurately evaluate uncertainty’s magnitude and significance. Overestimating uncertainty or distorting its significance can impede good decision-making as much as denying uncertainty would—and often represents just another version of mythologizing and denial. Distorted interpretations of uncertainty can be used equally well to justify not taking needed action or taking action that will result ultimately in harm.

We witness an example of the first instance in people who point out—accurately—that we can’t know with absolute certainty that global climate change is something that should concern us, then use such observation to justify not responding to the threat (a distorted use of an accurate observation). I often ask people who resort to such logic what they think the odds are that global warming—and the human factor in its causation—is real. I make them commit to a number. I then ask them how they feel about their children playing Russian roulette. Few are willing to claim that the odds of global climate change being real and significant are less than Russian roulette’s one in six. (And those who do have a hard time escaping that their conclusion has more to do with ideology than reasoned evaluation.)

Over-blowing uncertainty’s magnitude can also have the effect of justifying mythologized action. We see this tendency today with terrorism. Terrorism-related content is ever-present in the news and terrorism-related fears frequently define the social discourse. Yet an individual in the U.S. is hundreds of times more likely to be killed in a crosswalk than by a terrorist. This is not to make light of terrorism. Terrorism should become an increasing concern as globalization brings diverse peoples into ever-closer proximity. But we need to take great care when we observe such distortion of perspective. Fear makes us extremely vulnerable to poor decision-making and manipulation. It has already gotten us into one unfortunate and unnecessary war.

Accurate assessment of risk will prove ever more important in times ahead. The 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico made clear two kinds of questions that need to be rigorously addressed with any human activity, particularly endeavors where we lack experience. First, could failure produce a level of carnage beyond the acceptable (or if potential dangers can be managed, would the cost—and not just monetary—not be worth it)? If so, we should simply not move forward. Second, what can be done to minimize risk of failure and to lessen consequences should failure occur? Given the potential for both great harm and great benefit that comes with so much of modern advancement, being sure these two kinds of questions are always asked (and that the influence of money does not get in the way of thorough assessment) becomes today an inescapable human responsibility.

We are just beginning to understand all of the ways uncertainty works. For example, we are only starting to make sense of how uncertainty can intercede not just without warning, but in dramatic “tipping point” fashion. But, at the least, we are better recognizing the importance of taking uncertainty into account.

We are also beginning to recognize uncertainty’s appropriate role in understanding itself. Cutting-edge thought through the last century has increasingly incorporated the fact of uncertainty. Heisenberg’s famous uncertainty principle (which states that we cannot know a particle’s position and momentum simultaneously) provides the most explicit example. We find further well-known examples in chaos theory (which demonstrates how even simple mathematical equations can produce impossible to predict results), and constructivist ideas in philosophy and education (which emphasize how what we understand is always as much about ourselves as what we seek to understand). Each of these formulations in different ways highlights not just that what we can know is often much less than what we might have assumed, but that we appropriately consider uncertainty an inherent ingredient in knowing.

A full appreciation for uncertainty requires Cultural Maturity’s whole-box-of-crayon’s vantage. In order to make full sense of uncertainty, as with complexity more generally, our thinking must “bridge” traditional assumptions. For example, a mature understanding of uncertainty necessarily “bridges” the philosophical polarity that separates the certitudes of determinism from views that argue for ultimate uncertainty. Clearly it challenges classical determinism. Descartes reminded us “that if you are a real seeker of truth, you must at least once in your life doubt, as far as possible, all things.” Today Descartes would have to accept that such questioning includes the mechanical assumptions of a Cartesian worldview. But with equal directness, mature perspective challenges views that in various ways identify with not knowing—something we commonly see with post-modern non-commitalness; with the reflex doubt often found with liberal cynicism; and with spiritual views that identify with mystery. Identification with uncertainty is one of the best ways to protect oneself from real uncertainty.

In the end, uncertainty’s new picture “bridges” not just this more philosophical juxtaposition, but also the most basic of functional polarities: order and disorder. Nobel chemist Ilya Prigogine highlights the emerging more creative picture of uncertainty’s significance for the physical sphere with these words in his book, Order Out of Chaos: “Our physical world is no longer symbolized by the stable and periodic planetary motions that are at the heart of classical mechanics. It is a world of instability and fluctuations, which are ultimately responsible for the amazing richness of forms and structures we see in nature around us.” Uncertainty comes together with change, interconnectedness, and complexity more generally to produce a more vital—and ultimately more meaning-filled—picture of reality’s workings.