In Praise of Uncertainty

Certainty or doubt? Go with the certainty.
— Bav Metzia 97b

Last week, in our ongoing study of Ethics of the Fathers, we talked about precision, based on a statement of the Talmudic sage, Rabban Gamliel, who pre-empted his exhortation to be exact in giving charity with four resounding words: "Stay away from doubt." That seems, right now, to be the least of our problems. No one seems to doubt themselves enough. Just look at one Twitter feed if you don't believe me. Every day, we encounter the presumption of certainty as the unqualified assert their strident opinions on politics, current events and celebrity gossip. It's got me wondering about this intense need to be certain and what deep human insecurities it masks. It also reminds me of what the philosopher Bertrand Russell wrote, "The trouble with the world is that the stupid are cocksure and the intelligent full of doubt."

The Talmudic principle above appears in several places and serves as a decision-making, law-adjudicating principle. "Certainty or doubt - go with the certainty." Elsewhere the Talmud says, "One who has bread in his basket is not like one who does not have bread in his basket" [BT Yoma 74b]. This is the Aramaic equivalent of "A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush." The medieval commentator, Rashi, observes that this means having food one day is no guarantee for tomorrow, offering a different reading than the literal sense of the expression. Both, however, involve certainty and doubt. If you have before you a doubt and a certainty, go with a reality you know and what you already have. This is a terrific way to walk in the world when you are risk-averse.

Elsewhere, the Talmud offers a similar view: "Doubt cannot negate certainty,"(BT Pesakhim 9a, BT Hullin 10a). When something you know is rock solid, it's near impossible to break through the armor. While this sounds reasonable and mimics much of human experience, we all know that doubt can creep in when it's least invited and make us question what we believe to be true. In the arena of love, parenting, and friendship, it is not hard to make someone feel insecure. One sharp question, nagging suspicion or morsel of gossip can do great injury.

In the introduction to Alan Mittleman's excellent new book Human Nature and Jewish Thought: Judaism's Case for Why Persons Matter, he makes a persuasive case for uncertainty: "...certitude is not our birthright, nor does it come easily or cheaply. The desire for certitude arises from within our experience of perplexity, from within the interplay of light and dark, knowledge and ignorance, that always attends our quest for knowledge. The desire for certitude wants to override that interplay. It signals impatience with the shifting balance between the two; it represents a panic for resolution. We need to get over the panic and live, fully and well, with a lack of resolution."

The desire to control, to dominate, to live with abiding confidence can obstruct our capacity to be truly open to change, creativity and personal development. "The lack of certainty does not stop us, Mittleman claims, "from advancing our needs and concerns. We make our way toward whatever certainties are possible for us from the middle, moving outward. The form of life that we lead is already saturated with norms, principles, beliefs and convictions. We don't need the certitude of an ultimate truth, speaking to us as if from the outside."

We know what we know. But we're greedy when we want to know everything that can be known and even what cannot be known. We want surety when it cannot be guaranteed. And perhaps the frustration that this will guarantee will never be ours morphs into the strange problem of sounding certain about everything. When we do that, we alienate people who are comfortable living with ambiguity and humility in a world of mystery. I don't know about you, but I would hate to live in a world without mystery. I'm not sure of many things, but, without a doubt, I am sure of that.

Shabbat Shalom

Is Doubt Good for You?

A person does not put himself in a position of uncertainty.
— BT Nedarim 61b

This past week in the daily Talmud study cycle, we find a statement related to vows that gets to the heart of personal dissonance. More than a statement, it's an argument. Rabbi Meir believed that, " A person puts himself in a position of uncertainty," knowing that with every commitment comes a degree of risk that we understand. We invite some degree of uncertainty into our lives. We cannot always reside in unwavering certainty; to move forward and advance in virtually all arenas in life, we need to anticipate that risk will live near us and with us. Rabbi Yosei takes a more conservative position designed to maximize self-protection: "A person does not put himself in a position of uncertainty." No one willingly likes to lose control, thinks Rabbi Yossi, and puts himself or herself into a situation of doubt and ambivalence.

According to medieval interpreters of this passage of Talmud, the context of this debate is specifically targeted to a person who takes a vow - makes a commitment - and cannot remember exactly what he vowed. Alternatively, he may not have made his intention abundantly clear when making the commitment in the first place. In this case, we take his word literally because we have nothing more to go on other than what he said rather than what he may have meant. Rabbi Yossi is of the opinion that people do put themselves in positions of uncertainty, meaning that when reflecting on a vow, the person who made it wants to avoid the most narrow understanding of his or her words.                         

In essence, the debate is about whether or not people opt for ambiguity as a desideratum or whether the fear of doubt is so great that human beings will go out of their way to avoid ambivalence. In fact, we have a rabbinic expression that cements Rabbi Yossi's understanding of human nature: "There is no happiness like the resolution of doubt." Living with uncertainty has many psychic costs. Relieving oneself of uncertainty is a source of comfort and, ultimately, of joy.

But sometimes we opt for certainty for all the wrong reasons. Jonathan Haidt, professor of ethics at NYU, in his book The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion, contends that it's almost in our DNA to gravitate to groups that smother individuality and prize conformity. Living in relatively homogeneous clusters is a way that we validate our own decisions and choices. In many instances, we think we are making decisions, but in reality we are swept up in group think or group behaviors that are highly predictable. It makes life simpler, like that classic line from The Onion, "Stereotyping makes life easy."

In Haidt's words, "...when a group of people make something sacred, the members of the cult lose the ability to think clearly about it. Morality binds and blinds. It binds us into ideological teams that fight each other as though the fate of the world depended on our side winning each battle. It blinds us to the fact that each team is composed of good people who have something important to say." Haidt challenges a fundamental assumption many of us make: human beings are mostly wired and driven by reason. "If you think that moral reasoning is something we do to figure out the truth, you'll be constantly frustrated by how foolish, biased, and illogical people become when they disagree with you." 

Haidt's solution to inviting greater subtlety and ambiguity into our lives? "...if you put individuals together in the right way, such that some individuals can use their reasoning powers to disconfirm the claims of others, and all individuals feel some common bond or shared fate that allows them to interact civilly, you can create a group that ends up producing good reasoning as an emergent property of the social system." This, he believes, explains why it is so important to have "intellectual and ideological diversity" within groups.  It is this diversity that will ultimately produce good public policy.

Personally, I think the comedian Gilda Radner summed up what we're aiming for perfectly. "I wanted a perfect ending. Now I've learned, the hard way, that some poems don't rhyme, and some stories don't have a clear beginning, middle, and end. Life is about not knowing, having to change, taking the moment and making the best of it, without knowing what's going to happen next. Delicious Ambiguity." As we get closer to our season of Jewish introspection, now is a good time to welcome and honor different understandings of the world that just might - if we're lucky - shake up our own.

Shabbat Shalom