I offer the following to encourage those who may be reluctant about this pathway:
The only constant is change. It's the most basic fact of human existence.
Nothing lasts, nothing stays the same.
feel it with each breath. From birth to the unknown moment of our
passing, we ride a river of change.
And yet, in spite of all evidence to
the contrary, we exhaust ourselves in an endless search for solidity.
We hunger for something that lasts, some idea or principle that rises
above time and change. We hunger for certainty. That is a big problem.
It might even be THE problem.
are often built around this heartache for certainty. In the face of
sickness, loss and grief, a thousand dogmas with a thousand names have
risen. Many profess that if only the faithful hold fast to the "rules,"
the "precepts" or the "doctrine" then certainty can be obtained.
and future can be fixed through promises of freedom from immediate
suffering, divine favor or everlasting salvation. Scriptures are
transformed into unwavering blueprints for an unchanging order. These
documents must live beyond question lest the certainty they provide
crumble. When human spiritual endeavor devolves into these white-knuckle
forms of clinging they become monuments to the fear of change and
It would be symmetrical if
I could point to science as the pure antidote to the rigid rejection of
uncertainty. Science, in the purest forms of its expression as a
practice, holds to no doctrine other than that the world might be known.
In the ceaseless pursuit of its own questioning path, science asks us
to allow for ceaseless change in our ideas, beliefs and opinions. It's
this aspect of science that I value more than any other.
science does not exist alone as practice. It's also a constellation of
ideas that exist within culture and those ideas can gain value, in and
of themselves, without connection to actual practice. In this way
science becomes something more and less. For some people the idea of
Science offers a trumped up certainty that yields its own false defense
against the rootlessness that roots of our existence.
My co-blogger Marcelo Gleiser put it beautifully two weeks ago when he wrote, "what is pompous is to think that we can know all the answers. Or that it's the job of science to find them." When science as an idea is used to push away the tremulous reality
of our lived existential uncertainty then it, too, is degraded. It
becomes just another imaginary fixed point in a life without fixed
Of course it doesn't have to be
this way. The world's history of spiritual endeavor contains many
beautiful descriptions of authentic encounters with uncertainty.
Ironically these often serve as gateways to the most compassionate
experience of what can be called sacred in human life.
Buddhism's First Noble Truth, which focuses specifically on the reality of change
and suffering, serves as one example. In the Christian tradition works
like the "Cloud of Unknowing," a 14th century paean to the importance of
experience over doctrine or dogma, serves as another. Dig around in
most of the world's great religious traditions and you find people
finding their sense of grace by embracing uncertainty rather than trying
to bury it in codified dogmas.
science, embracing uncertainty means more than claiming "we don't know
now, but we will know in the future." It means embracing the fuzzy
boundaries of the very process of asking questions. It means embracing
the frontiers of what explanations, for all their power, can do. It
means understanding that a life of deepest inquiry requires all kinds of
vehicles: from poetry to particle accelerators; from quiet reveries to
Though I am an
atheist, some of the wisest people I have met are those whose spiritual
lives (some explicitly religious, some not) have forced them to
continually confront uncertainty. This daily act has made them patient
and forgiving, generous and inclusive. Likewise, the atheists I have met
who most embody the ideals of free inquiry seem to best understand the
limitations of every perspective, including their own. They encounter
the ever shifting ground of their lives with humor, good will and
In the end, embracing uncertainty is to embrace a quality I have written about many times before: mystery.
These lives we live, surrounded by beauty and horror, profound
knowledge and pitiful ignorance, are a mystery to us all. To push that
truth away with false certainty, falsely derived from either religion or
reason, is to miss our most perfect truth.