Tolerating Uncertainty

The business of thinking is like the veil of Penelope: it undoes every morning what it had finished the night before.

Hannah Arendt, Responsibility and Judgment, p. 166

I’m an anxious sort of person.

That’s a glib way of saying that I have an anxiety disorder.  I’m afraid a lot of the time.  I have practical fears, like heights and driving and cardiovascular diseases.  I have existential fears, like global warming and the recent descent of American society into fascism.  And I have social fears, like public speaking and calling people on the phone and putting myself out there when I want something or someone.

Every single person feels anxiety sometimes.  What makes it a disorder is that it interferes with your life.  My disorder is not a bad one – anxiety is ever-present in my life but I largely work around it.  I hate flying and driving, for instance.  If I could take the train everywhere I would, but I can’t, so I fly and I drive and my nervous system freaks out but I’m okay.  Sometimes I wake up in the morning and I’m just anxious for no damn reason, and it lasts all day, or all week, and there’s nothing I can do.  And that’s hard but it’s also reassuring in its own way.  It’s a reminder that anxiety often can’t be reasoned with.  At a certain point, all you can do is acknowledge what’s happening.  “My nervous system is freaking out, but I’m okay.”

What I’m trying to say here is that my relationship to anxiety is very personal. I think that’s true for most people. You can reason about fear but there’s a part of it that’s inescapably embodied. And uncertainty exacerbates fear.  I’d rather get a single painful shock I knew was coming than sit around waiting for a shock that might come.  It’s less terrifying to ask out a person you know will say no than someone who might say no.  So my relationship to uncertainty is very personal too.  To tolerate uncertainty is not just an intellectual choice or an emotional choice, but a physical choice.

The Romantic poet John Keats in 1817 coined the term negative capability:

[At once it struck me what quality went to form a Man of Achievement, especially in Literature, and which Shakespeare possessed so enormously—I mean Negative Capability, that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason—Coleridge, for instance, would let go by a fine isolated verisimilitude caught from the Penetralium of mystery, from being incapable of remaining content with half-knowledge.

Part of why negative capability is so rare and difficult to cultivate is because uncertainty provokes for so many of us a physical fear.  So we try to escape the fear by leaving the situation, or reasoning ourselves out of it, or blaming something else for the fear, or trying to grit our way through it.  Negative capability is the decision to sit with that fear, to say, “I’m afraid, but I’m okay”.  And when you approach uncertainty with that kind of acceptance, it lets you view the world – and the uncertain issue or object – in a different way.

This way of approaching the world is not something Keats invented, of course.  From Hannah Arendt:

It is in [thinking’s] nature to undo, unfreeze as it were, what language, the medium of thinking, has frozen into thought – words (concepts, sentences, definitions, doctrines), whose “weaknesses” and inflexibility Plato denounces so splendidly in the Seventh Letter.  The consequence of this peculiarity is that thinking inevitably has a destructive, undermining effect on all established criteria, values, measurements for good and evil, in short on those customs and rules of conduct we treat of in morals and ethics.  These frozen thoughts, Socrates seems to say, come so handy you can use them in your sleep; but if the wind of thinking, which I shall now arouse in you, has roused you from your sleep and made you fully awake and alive, then you will see that you have nothing in your hand but perplexities, and the most we can do with them is share them with each other.

Hannah Arendt, Responsibility and Judgment, p. 177

In other words, Socrates sought to build a community of people with negative capability, people who could hold perplexities in their hands.

(Brief aside: I can’t help bringing up one of my favorite characters, Chidi Anagonye, again.  Chidi is a moral philosopher with severe anxiety and essentially zero negative capability, who I think would benefit enormously from having Socrates as a mentor.  Maybe I will write fanfiction about this.)

Negative capability is vital in so many endeavors:

It’s vital in scientific research, since you must tolerate uncertainty about how the world works and whether the hypotheses and theories you’re relying on are true.

It’s vital in technological innovation, since you must tolerate uncertainty about whether your inventions will work and what impact they’ll have on the world.

It’s vital in political coalition-building, since you must tolerate uncertainty about how to compromise and whose perspectives to favor.

And of course it’s vital in philosophy and art, as Socrates and John Keats would agree.

Some people argue that an inability to tolerate uncertainty predisposes people to authoritarianism and fascism.  Others link it to conservatism:

[R]ather than make an unvarnished demand for freedom to oppress he is more apt to present himself as the defender of certain values. It is not in his own name that he is fighting, but rather in the name of civilization, of institutions, of monuments, and of virtues which realize objectively the situation which he intends to maintain; he declares that all these things are beautiful and good in themselves; he defends a past which has assumed the icy dignity of being against an uncertain future whose values have not yet been won; this is what is well expressed by the label “conservative.”

Simone de Beauvoir, The Ethics of Ambiguity, p. 39.

There has not been very much research on the links between uncertainty tolerance and authoritarianism or conservatism.  There has not been much research on uncertainty tolerance as a whole.

These are, fittingly, subjects for which we must tolerate a great deal of uncertainty.  So let us do as Socrates would do, and share our perplexities with each other.

Hannah Arendt on the role of reflection in political and moral behavior

Socrates, however, who is commonly said to have believed in the teachability of virtue, seems indeed to have held that talking and thinking about piety, justice, courage, and the rest were liable to make men more pious, more just, more courageous, even though they were not given either definitions or “values” to direct further conduct.  What Socrates actually believed in in such matters can best be illustrated by the similes he applied to himself. He called himself a gadfly and a midwife, and, according to Plato, was called by somebody else an “electric ray”, a fish that paralyzes and numbs by contact, a likeness whose appropriateness he recognized under the condition that it be understood that “the electric ray paralyzes others only through being paralyzed itself.  It isn’t that, knowing the answers myself I perplex other people. The truth is rather that I infect them also with the perplexity I feel myself.”

[…]

The trouble – and the reason why the same man can be understood and understand himself as gadfly as well as electric ray – is that this same wind, whenever it is aroused, has the peculiarity of doing away with its own previous manifestations.  It is in its nature to undo, unfreeze as it were, what language, the medium of thinking, has frozen into thought – words (concepts, sentences, definitions, doctrines), whose “weaknesses” and inflexibility Plato denounces so splendidly in the Seventh Letter.  The consequence of this peculiarity is that thinking inevitably has a destructive, undermining effect on all established criteria, values, measurements for good and evil, in short on those customs and rules of conduct we treat of in morals and ethics.  These frozen thoughts, Socrates seems to say, come so handy you can use them in your sleep; but if the wind of thinking, which I shall now arouse in you, has roused you from your sleep and made you fully awake and alive, then you will see that you have nothing in your hand but perplexities, and the most we can do with them is share them with each other.

Hence, the paralysis of thought is twofold: it is inherent in the stop and think, the interruption of all other activities, and it may have a paralyzing effect when you come out of it, no longer sure of what had seemed to you beyond doubt while you were unthinkingly engaged in whatever you were doing.  If your action consisted in applying general rules of conduct to particular cases as they arise in ordinary life, then you will find yourself paralyzed because no such rules can withstand the wind of thought. To use once more the example of the frozen thought inherent in the word “house”, once you have thought about its implied meaning – dwelling, having a home, being housed – you are no longer likely to accept for your own home whatever fashion of the time may prescribe; but this by no means guarantees that you will be able to come up with an acceptable solution for your own housing problems.  You may be paralyzed.

This leads to the last and, perhaps, even greatest danger of this dangerous and resultless enterprise.  In the circle around Socrates, there were men like Alcibiades and Critias – God knows, by no means the worst among his so-called pupils – and they turned out to be a very real threat to the polis, and this not by being paralyzed by the electric ray but, on the contrary, by having been aroused by the gadfly.  What they had been aroused to was license and cynicism. They had not been content with being taught how to think without being taught a doctrine, and they changed the nonresults of the Socratic thinking examination into negative results: if we cannot define what piety is, let us be impious – which is pretty much the opposite of what Socrates had hoped to achieve by talking about piety.

The quest for meaning, which relentlessly dissolves and examines anew all accepted doctrines and rules, can at every moment turn against itself, as it were, produce a reversal of the old values, and declare these as “new values”. This, to an extent, is what Nietzsche did when he reversed Platonism, forgetting that a reversed Plato is still Plato, or what Marx did when he turned Hegel upside down, producing a strictly Hegelian system of thinking in the process. Such negative results of thinking will then be used as sleepily, with the same unthinking routine, as the old values; the moment they are applied to the realm of human affairs, it is as though they had never gone through the thinking process.  What we commonly call nihilism – and are tempted to date historically, decry politically, and ascribe to thinkers who allegedly dared to think “dangerous thoughts” – is actually a danger inherent to the thinking activity itself. There are no dangerous thoughts; thinking itself is dangerous, but nihilism is not its product.  Nihilism is but the other side of conventionalism; its creed consists of negations of the current, so-called positive values to which it remains bound. All critical examinations must go through a stage of at least hypothetically negating accepted opinions and “values” by finding out their implications and tacit assumptions, and in this sense nihilism may be seen as an ever-present danger of thinking.  But this danger does not arise out of the Socratic conviction that an unexamined life is not worth living but, on the contrary, out of the desire to find results which would make further thinking unnecessary. Thinking is equally dangerous to all creeds and, by itself, does not bring forth any new creed.

However, nonthinking, which seems to recommendable a state for political and moral affairs, also has its dangers.  By shielding people against the dangers of examination, it teaches them to hold fast to whatever the prescribed rules of conduct may be at a given time in a given society.  What people then get used to is not so much the content of the rules, a close examination of which would always lead them into perplexity, as the possession of rules under which to subsume particulars.  In other words, they get used to never making up their minds. If somebody then should show who, for whatever reasons and purposes, wishes to abolish the old “values” or virtues, he will find it easy enough provided he offers a new code, and he will need no force and no persuasion – no proof that the new values are better than the old ones – to establish it.  The faster men held to the old code, the more eager will they be to assimilate themselves to the new one; the ease with which such reversals can take place under certain circumstances suggests that indeed everybody is asleep when they occur. This century has offered us some experience in such matters: How easy it was for the totalitarian rulers to reverse the basic commandments of Western morality – “Thou shalt not kill” in the case of Hitler’s Germany, “Thou shalt not bear false testimony against thy nature” in the case of Stalin’s Russia.

Hannah Arendt, Responsibility and Judgment, p. 173-178