A Philosophy of Uncertainty

John Doe
5 min readJan 30, 2023
Think fast

Probabilities fall between 0 and 1, where an event with probability 0 is impossible and an event with probability 1 is certain to happen. It is dishonest to assign any event a probability of 0 or 1 since that would imply having absolute certainty in the occurrence or impossibility of something happening, and the truth is, none of know anything for certain.

You might say, aren’t you being a bit pedantic here? Who cares if I assign something to have a probability of 1 when I mean to convey the fact that something is almost certain to happen?

You have a point, there’s no point in bringing this up in social situations. But there is a very important distinction between 0.9999999999 and 1, and that is that the former probability has some uncertainty while the latter admits to no uncertainty. This is an important distinction to make because nothing is ever certain, even if it has already happened. Human senses and memory is fallible. Understanding this has very far reaching practical implications.

Accepting that nothing is ever certain implies that you aren’t a reliable observer or recaller. This relieves you of the some of the cognitive dissonance associated with conflicting facts and narratives running through your head. Instead of needing to come up with an explanation that reconciles everything perfectly, you can come up with a good enough explanation that explains most things to the best of your ability and label the rest as uncertain. The more uncertainty you can tolerate in your explanations, the simpler your worldview becomes, and the simpler your worldview is, the faster you can adapt to and act on new information that comes in (see: OODA Loop).

A lot of overcomplication can be solved simply by saying, “I don’t know”. The purpose of knowledge is to inform decision making. There is no point in coming up with theories and mental models whose complexity far exceeds the demands of the situation. But people want to be certain, they want the final explanation that definitively explains everything they’ve seen and heard. The result is that people fail to get to the decision and action stages, which defeats the entire purpose of gathering knowledge and coming up with theories in the first place. At the end of the day, it’s not about having perfect information or a perfect explanation, it’s about acting effectively.

Once you realize this, you’ll start to see that you don’t actually need that much information to act effectively. Some people already understand this, but some people take in way too much information in proportion to what they do. Slimming down your information diet will help you cycle through the Observe-Orient-Decide-Act loop more quickly.

Uncertainty exists everywhere, in everyday situations and in your high-level decisions about your life. You can never be certain about what will happen, whether what you saw actually happened, what you want, what you like, how you will react in a certain situation, etc. There is no certainty about outside or inside circumstances. This pervasive uncertainty is the root of existential angst: What’s the meaning of life? Is there a God? What is it all about? Why am I here? Why did I survive and he didn’t? Why is there so much suffering? Etc, etc.

These questions only get asked in times when you’re not fighting for your survival. If you’re reading this, I assume you’re not in that situation. When you’re just trying to survive, your objective is clear and there’s no angst or uncertainty about what you need to do. Once you emerge from this state, though, these existential questions start popping up. Religion, Atheism, Spiritualism, Nihilism, cults, and your friends all have their own answers. The answers provided generally fall into two categories: a moral and ethical framework outlining what is right and wrong (morals) and what you should and shouldn’t do (ethics), or a denial of the validity of such frameworks (Atheism, nihilism). Either way, any answer provides a metaphysical framework (i.e. a way of looking at the world), moreso in the case of religion and spirituality and less so in the case of nihilism.

Existential angst is a natural response to having too many options once you’re not trying to survive 24/7. I call this “blank canvas anxiety”. The frameworks mentioned above can be thought of as guiding lines (i.e. guidelines) that provide some structure to start out with, like the lines in a coloring book. These lines simplify the task of painting to the point that the person can stop wallowing in existential angst and start making progress towards something, anything.

Everyone has a different tolerance for uncertainty. This can be developed to a certain degree, but is also determined in part by your personality. The more uncertainty you can tolerate, the less of a framework you will need (and will want) in order to act. The less uncertainty you can tolerate, the more of a framework you will need in order to avoid existential angst. It is your job to determine what the right amount of structure is. Too much structure will make you chafe, and too little structure will overwhelm you with anxiety. There are many stories of wild teenagers who benefitted from joining the military (needed more structure) and also teenagers who chafed under the rules of organized religion (needed less structure).

Finding this balance is a uniquely first-world problem. People in the first world have the luxury of painting on the canvas, while everyone else (for the most part) is concerned about staying alive and keeping their family safe. It should not be surprising, then, how prevalent anxiety and depression is in first-world countries. People have trouble identifying or implementing the correct amount of structure in their life that fits their uncertainty tolerance, and anxiety or depression is often the result.

I realize I haven’t actually answered any of the important existential questions like “what is the meaning of life?” and “what happens after we die?”. Here’s the answer: I don’t know, and I probably will never know. If you’re barely scraping by, scrape by, and if you aren’t, then go paint. You don’t need to know to act, and if you spend your whole life waiting for the answer, you’ll die before you find out.

Related:

--

--

John Doe

Processing information, stacking concepts. Writing this down so I don’t keep thinking about the same things over and over again