Unthinkable: Is uncertainty such a bad thing?

We should not eradicate doubt but use it to our advantage, says philosopher Luciano Floridi

‘Bob may know a fact or two about financial markets and think he can invest smartly when actually much more should be taken into account.’ Photograph: Thinkstock

‘Bob may know a fact or two about financial markets and think he can invest smartly when actually much more should be taken into account.’ Photograph: Thinkstock

 

Children demand certainty. It’s how they’re taught: there’s a right answer and a wrong one. But as you get older, even death and taxes seem less certain. The unexpected capping of water charges is a case in point. For University of Oxford philosopher Prof Luciano Floridi, we need to develop a grown-up attitude to uncertainty. Rather than seeing it as a necessary evil, the author of The Fourth Revolution: How the Infosphere Is Reshaping Human Reality suggests there are life-enriching aspects to ambivalence or doubt. He provides today’s idea: “Intelligence is the management of uncertainty, not its elimination.”

Does uncertainty have a value?

“We tend to consider uncertainty a pain in the neck, with no value whatsoever, indeed with a negative value.

Did I pass the exam? Am I going to get that job? Is the baby going to be healthy?

“What we normally value is information, understood as the correct and relevant answer to our questions, and the corresponding peace of mind. But consider what happens if one is asking the wrong kind of question. Then we realise that sometimes uncertainty is a good thing.

“The terrorist who remains uncertain about whether the police are monitoring him; society that remains uncertain about your political vote; an insurance company that has no certainty about a customer’s health. There are cases in which uncertainty – that is, questions asked but left unanswered – support a safer, fairer, more liberal, more tolerant society.”

What are you certain about?

“I am increasingly certain about something the less traction it has in the world. So I am absolutely certain that bachelors are not married because this is true no matter what the world turns out to be, in any possible scenario. But I am only very confident, that is, fairly certain, that my parents are married, because there is a very remote chance that their marriage was invalid, or that they have been secretly divorced for years. This is not equivalent to saying that we should be concerned about such unlikely possibilities. To have certainties is like buying ‘virtually fat-free milk’: any residual doubt is negligible, and it would be silly to be worried about it. Anything that happens in our lives could have happened differently, so nothing in life is as mathematically certain as the fact that triangles have three angles, but I would not bet on being immortal.”

 

It’s often said that information is power. But could it rather be said that information is weakness, given its capacity to overwhelm or to create uncertainty? 

“Power, understood as the capacity to influence people’s behaviour, comes in many forms, and one of them is control over the life of information. If Alice decides which information is produced and disseminated, which information should remain available and accessible, who can get what information and when, then Alice has a lot of power.

“This, however, does not mean information is always power, for one may be on the wrong side of the informational game. Bob may be bombarded by information provided by Alice to disempower him. We all recall the days when mobile companies used a jungle of contracts to confuse customers. It was an informational strategy, done on purpose. Information was still power, but that power was not in our hands. We did not generate or control the information in question.”

 

It is often said that a little bit of knowledge is a dangerous thing. How do you know you have accumulated enough knowledge on a subject to make a proper or responsible judgment? 

“A little bit of knowledge can be dangerous because it can generate unjustified confidence. Bob may know a fact or two about financial markets and think he can invest smartly when actually much more should be taken into account.

People who think they are expert tend to take more risks because they believe they know better. When the expertise is based on too little knowledge, disasters happen. This is different from knowing whether one has gained enough information to make a decision.

“Alice can do several things to ensure she is taking an informed step: she can ask advice, think about potential risks, consider alternative courses of actions and their benefits or shortcomings, and check what happened to other people who did something similar. This is all good common sense. But we also need to remember that life often answers for us the question when enough is enough because decisions come with deadlines.

“At some point a mortgage needs to be obtained to buy a house and you take the plunge. Intelligence is the management of uncertainty, not its elimination.”

 

Are there some questions we should give up on, as we will never achieve certainty?

“I do not think so. There are, of course, otiose questions – pointless doubts that are merely distracting – but it is important to realise that a good society is one in which questions remain always possible, and there is no ban on which questions may or may not be asked, or should be given up.

“It is the right to receive an answer that needs to be carefully regulated. To go back to our two friends, society should protect Alice’s right to ask Bob any questions, including about his religious beliefs or his sexual preferences, but it should also ensure that Bob has the right to provide no answer. Think how deeply civilised is the ‘right to remain silent’.

“Finally, there are plenty of questions about which we must make up our minds, even if no certainty can be achieved (every time we vote we face such a situation), and many questions that, by remaining unanswerable, keep our critical sensitivity sharp, for having doubts often means seeing the value of different answers to the same question.

“Adapting what my squash coach used to say: uncertainty can be good pain; we should not eradicate it but use it to our own advantage.”

 

philosophy@irishtimes.com

Twitter @JoeHumphreys42

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