But for those of us who believe in uncertainty as a first principle and care about sense-making, it is a much less intuitive and much more fundamental idea, the many implications of which I have yet to plumb (and fully expect to never be able to plumb).
The world we live in is not a bounded system. It's not even a bounded system whose bounds we cannot access. Many of the smartest people I know ascribe to the idea intellectually but have trouble getting it into their gut. I think about uncertainty literally every day and still have difficulty instilling in myself the level of visceral understanding that would drive consistent behavior. While I’ve paid my dues to the “I don’t know” school, I still have yet to matriculate.
I wrote this probably about 5 years ago:
“In the face of this uncertainty, we look for ways to understand the world, connect the dots that we can see. Imagine a threadbare blanket being thrown over a painting. You can see a bit here and there, though nothing that gives any real indication of the whole. As more pinholes emerge over time, we start developing hypotheses about what lies underneath, create frameworks that match the data we see and the patterns we imagine.
The frameworks are all wrong to some degree, because we don’t have much to work with, but they are all we have. Because they are all we have, we begin to think that they are all there is.
A sampling of frameworks: Science as the only path to truth. Religion as a certainty. The market efficiency lens. Help the needy. The knowledgeable versus the ignorant masses. Wisdom of the crowds. Sustainability is good. Pointlessness of life. Physical pleasure-seeking. Everything is relative. Libertarianism. Probabilistic decision-making. Status-seeking. Zero-sum game. Political partisanship. Nationalism.
Each of these frameworks can make sense individually, that is, matches the available data as we perceive it – though they cannot all make sense together. They probably each have varying degrees of “rightness”, though none are likely to be completely right given how little information we are working with.
The thing to note is that the frameworks held by other people are legitimate, even if they conflict with our own. Legitimate because they went through the same process as we did, using a different set of information pinpoints, and they emerged with a different reasoned conclusion. There are a million different ways to be relatively right, though there may still be 10 billion ways to be wrong.”
In Mark Anderson’s most recent Strategic News Service letter, he mentions:
“My friend Graham [sic] Jackson, an award-winning neurophysiologist at the Brain Research Institute in Australia, told me recently that we add these "frames" of categorization as our brains get older, until about the age of 37.”
What does this mean – that we rack up “frames” – potentially slowing our analytical engine over time – until our late-30’s, after which we become stuck in our ways? That we are destined to fall into the patterns of our lives, handcuffed to the lenses which we built for utility but which will inevitably become our minds’ prisons?
As I tell one friend often in our arguments, “You’re talking about how things are, and on average. I’m talking about how things could be.”
David Galenson, in his study of contemporary American artists, found a duality in creative dynamics – the conceptual innovator who makes breakthroughs early in his career and trails off, and the experimental innovator who works progressively in fits and starts to achieve his best work late-stage. Two very different paths to creativity – creativity ultimately being the ability to break from existing patterns to bring forth something of newness.
We are not bound to the pattern of the conceptual genius who brings forth something whole from his head; we can opt to work and struggle and experiment and yes, break every day from the patterns of our lives, even if only in our heads. In the same way that black cab drivers alter their biology by using their spatial orientation muscle over and over, so are we both constrained by our biology and powerfully able to shape that same biology – if we so choose. 37 doesn’t have to be the beginning of the end.