In my work exploring the concept of wisdom, the ability to deal with uncertainty, and living with a sense of curiosity, are often identified as core traits of the wise person. They are also traits that are pervasively lacking in our current culture, and their absence may be fueling our cultural divisiveness.
Let’s start with uncertainty
There are many varieties of uncertainty. You might be uncertain about the future, uncertain about how someone feels about you, or uncertain about what to do with your life. You might just really hate the feeling of not knowing what will happen next- waiting for test results or wondering about how a conversation might go.
Uncertainty and anxiety go hand in hand. In fact, I think you could say that not only does uncertainty cause anxiety but also that anxiety causes uncertainty, and that is a very uncomfortable feedback loop.
Here I am talking specifically about being uncertain in the sense of not knowing what is true, what to believe, what stance to take, or how you feel about something. This is more internal than external, setting it apart from worry, and I think it is a good place to start because we can never be certain about external things anyway.
One of my favorite thinkers, Brené Brown, turned me onto a little book called On Bullshit, written by Philosophy professor Harry Frankfurt. He writes about how lying and bullshitting are different. Liars say things they know to be false. Bullshitters talk about things that they don’t fully understand or ignore information that might conflict with their current understanding. BS is speech that is intended to persuade without regard for truth.
How does this tie into uncertainty?
Many of us would rather bullshit than admit that we are uncertain about a given topic. We jump to certainty, often bypassing understanding completely. Certainty, even when it is an illusion, is given priority over truth.
A good number of folks feel the pressure to have an opinion about everything, and it is just not possible to be well informed enough to have an educated opinion on all things. It is okay to be uncertain. It is okay to say “I don’t know about that, tell me more.” In fact, I think developing comfort with that, could dramatically shift our polarized culture.
In Adam Grant’s recent book, Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know, he suggests that we make a list of all the areas where we are ignorant. My own list is very long and includes all things STEM to name one very broad category. This exercise is intended to help us recognize our shortcomings and open the door to doubt. When we realize all that we don’t know, we can get curious about it.
Grant says that many people “prefer the comfort of conviction over the discomfort of doubt.” This tendency is reinforced in a culture where we are urged to pick a side and are left feeling adrift and metaphorically homeless if we don’t.
One of my favorite quotes on wisdom by E.O. Wilson is “We are drowning in knowledge while starving for wisdom.” When we have easy access to information on just about anything, it can FEEL like we have all the knowledge we need to craft a stance and stand firm on it- and you may, but so do all the people who take the opposite stance. It’s possible to find a compelling argument against many of the things you may hold firm to, and this is where that drowning feeling comes in.
Back to Frankfurt and BS
Frankfurt believes that the current spread of bullshit is not only an effort to create a feeling of certainty but is also happening because we know deep down that there are many issues that we just can’t get to the bottom of. The sea of information is miles deep, so instead of swimming around in uncertainty, we just pick a side and call it a day.
When you can’t bear to be uncertain and can’t deal with saying ‘I don’t know,” you might end up choosing a side just to avoid those feelings. Because you can’t solidly defend an opinion formed in that way, falling back on “you’re either for us or against us,” is a method you might employ to create the illusion of certainty.
You might not have a persuasive and data-backed argument, but that is okay because your group has your back and when it comes down to it, you would rather be part of a group, than seek your own truth. That is the price we often pay to feel a sense of belonging, but that price is higher than we think.
Groupthink kills curiosity
I really (really, really) love Brené Brown. In her book “Braving the Wilderness: The Quest For True Belonging and the Courage to Stand Alone” she writes about “you’re either with us or against us” thinking and the damage that it does. She says “Getting curious and asking questions only happens outside of our bunkers of certainty.” I wholeheartedly agree.
Brown writes that when the argument is set up so that there are only two sides to choose from, it is set up to silence dissent and draw lines that squash debate. I would add that this is also what squashes nuance, understanding, and truth.
In most cases, when you must pick from A or B, that is not choosing truth or falsehood, right or wrong; that is choosing one line of false certainty (bullshit) over another. That is black and white thinking at its finest (more about that here).
Curiosity is the antidote
The way around this is by wondering why others have different opinions and being open to hearing their thoughts. It is about asking questions even though you know they may lead to answers that make you call into question the version of false certainty you chose.
I am not suggesting you should never choose a stance or pick a side, sometimes that is necessary and important. What I am saying is that it is wise to consider what led you to that choice, how informed it is, and then to remain curious about the alternative viewpoints. Has your discomfort with uncertainty, or a desire for belonging or acceptance shaped your views?
Sometimes we need to choose which version of BS we most closely align with because a choice is needed (like in an election for example), and we just don’t have the bandwidth to dive into the sea of information to find the truth. This is workable if we recognize what we are doing and can stay curious about new information that could shift our thinking.
It is much easier to be curious if you are sliding along a spectrum. Then you are able to assimilate new information and shift your views in small ways that don’t require you to abandon your identity. This allows room for nuance and enables curiosity to lead you closer to the truth.
What about the Wilderness?
In Braving the Wilderness, the “wilderness” that Brown is referring to, is all that space in between the two extremes- the A or B, the “us or them.” It’s very uncertain in there, and it’s pretty lonely these days. You really have to be curious to want to be there.
This is where I think wisdom lives; it can’t survive in the extremes.
It is not an easy place to be, but the more of us that want to be there, the easier it becomes. We can be curious and uncertain together, and eventually, that wilderness will feel like home.
Thanks for reading
Aimee O’Neil LLMSW