Radical and daily uncertainty

Most days, I’m an agnostic.

Some days I am an atheist or the world’s most-lax-yet-stilled-tattooed-with-the-cross United Methodist.  I’ve found resonances in Buddhism and neopaganism. I don’t think I would make a bad Universalist Unitarian. I understand why people throw around the word spirituality in lieu of “faith” or “religion.” It seems closer to a general idea of metaphysics and it’s certainly less of a commitment.

But the older I get, the happier I am to embrace agnosticism. And it’s not just a matter of religion–I think accepting my limitations as a human being is something I want to bring to many facets of my life.

After all, my access to any knowledge is through a human lens. Everything we make and every way we think about the world is inherently human. We invent systems and methodologies to reflect the universe. But ultimately they’re still our systems; we leave a thumbprint on everything we make. And we are unusual, perceptive creatures in many respects but even our most brilliant geniuses are still human. And therefore flawed and fragile.

(This is why we need a multiplicity of approaches and perspectives. We will learn more at their intersection than through their individual viewpoints.)

It’s the basis for the way I think about things. To paraphrase Socrates (Plato), the knowledge I am most confident and most secure in is how much I do not know. In some cases, how much I cannot know. Certainty, to me, seems like a dangerous thing more often than not. And in so many ways it’s not even really necessary. Is it really so bad to simply proceed as if a thing is true until we can establish otherwise with a greater degree of understanding?

(For example, I think this, often, about people who deny climate change. That denial is infinitely more harmful than embracing the concept could ever be. For the possibility of climate change is absolutely more damaging than the possibility it doesn’t happen. How could it not be better to proceed with the assumption even if you have doubts?)

To put it another way, I don’t fully understand the degree of difficulty with which people change their minds. My mind is a constantly changing thing. It’s always receiving new information–some of it reliable, some of it not. It accommodates where it can. This is a process that takes time. I don’t espouse every new idea I encounter. But I’m not unwilling to let my paradigm shift to make room for other perspectives.

We live in a world of subjectivity, after all. Objective truth seems to me a rare, precious thing and I do not assume easily that I ever possess it. I am a subject–I act upon everything I see and consider and imagine.

It’s hard to abandon ideas to which we’ve fixed some emotional attachment. Our identities and the identities of those we love, we feel, are assailed. (This is all honor ever is or was, I think–emotion married with certainty.) It’s especially hard to abandon ideas that have been imprinted early and often on our minds.

And yet, there are so many ways to experience the world and each other. Isn’t it better to expand than contract?

It’s a tricky, swerving line to walk. Sometimes I veer too far into doubt and I can’t say that I think or believe anything and even my own experiences and perceptions just feel suspect. The edges of who I think I am start to bleed out–it is not helpful or pleasant. Other times, I lean too hard into certainty and I feel cut off from other people and perspectives to the point of nihilism (what does it matter?).

I remind myself that I believe in empathy. I believe in curiosity. I believe in the capacity of people to change. I acknowledge that sometimes that change happens very slowly–and in some cases, it might not be wrong to feel it’s too late. But as long as we’re all still here, change is possible. It is indeed inevitable.

I believe it is our obligation to care for the world in which we live and each other. This is both ethical and pragmatic. We distance ourselves from this by thinking we know more than we do about one another and about the world. I believe knowledge and new ideas are extremely powerful. I also believe that there are few ideas that are so necessary that we should not abandon them if they no longer serve us–save perhaps change and and curiosity and empathy.

My perspective is one of uncertainty, because there are so many things I do not and cannot know, including the nature of the universe or what will happen tomorrow. But uncertainty does not prevent me from exploring or trying out new thoughts. It does not prevent me from holding beliefs or having a perspective or expressing my opinions. All it really does is allow me to let them change.


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