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  • Writer's pictureH. Paul Putman III, MD

The Survival Pledge 8: Mastering the Art of Not Knowing

(The Survival Pledge is an eight-point plan to refocus each of us on taking responsibility for our own thoughts and behaviors in ways that benefit ourselves, others, and support peace and non-violence.)


I will become as comfortable as possible with uncertainty.


The only function of economic forecasting is to make astrology look respectable. - Ezra Solomon[1]


The fear of the unknown is probably the greatest human phobia. It is not always recognized and is not often discussed by individuals, even with those close to them. Yet, it is a prime motivator of behavior, most commonly through our unconscious minds. As discussed previously,[2] the attribution of meaning, accurate or inaccurate, is an attempt to reduce uncertainty and predict the future.


Predicting the future can have obvious advantages: it can help with avoiding dangers and wasting resources, as well as allowing for more comfortable leisure. It could give us important information on whom to trust and how much help it would be safe or wise to share with others. Such a power of prediction would seem to lessen the anxiety felt when best choices are not clear – or rather, uncertain.


Foreseeing future outcomes, though, does not eliminate stress or automatically cause happiness. Humans experience feelings about most issues and situations in life and advance knowledge does not eliminate these. Reducing feelings about uncertainty would simply make way for feelings about situations that are certain or even probable. Feelings do not end, but are merely replaced by others. As discussed in an earlier post,[2]this is a central tenet of Alcoholics Anonymous. Rather than attempting to “kill” our feelings with addictive behaviors or substances, we can learn that feelings flow in a constant stream and that waiting for more pleasant ones to arrive is often a viable strategy (pathological states excluded).


We have also explored the role cognitive behavioral therapy can play in changing mood by changing the thoughts linked to them.[2],[3] A valuable step to take emotionally is to replace the thought “I have to know” (and the competing “I don’t know”) with “I don’t always have to know.” In all three situations, the desired answer is still not known. We can be content or not with not knowing, but we still can never know. There is no value in the distress created by the imperative to know when it is not possible.


Therefore, delineating what can be known and what cannot be known is quite useful. Stress can be reduced by putting energy into what can be learned, not wasted on what cannot be.


We can know our shoe size, our phone number, and our age. We can know how to remove gallbladders, kill bacteria, and grow food. We know what will happen if we stop eating or take a plunge from a great height.


We cannot know what age each member of our family will live to. We cannot know who will win next year’s World Series, what the weather will be next week, whom we can trust when first meeting a new group of people or what the stock market will be even a month from now. We do not know what will happen after our death, despite any beliefs we may have about that. We may learn something of probabilities, which the human mind cannot grasp easily, but this is not certainty. Probabilities can be estimated and give us a measure of risk about “known unknowns,” but not for the “unknown unknowns” of uncertainty.[4] And, as sportscasters often observe, despite all the statistics and analysis and predictions of experts in advance of sporting events, teams still continue to meet and play their games to see who does actually win. No one is content with knowing merely who should have.


The value of embracing uncertainty is clear but perhaps the dangers of not doing so are elusive. Often, true uncertainty is replaced, through denial, by false answers that are nonetheless believed and reinforced by an individual, group or society.[5] In an attempt to feel safer, certainty is brandished too often as a sword. As denial (an unconscious defense mechanism[6]), it is threatened by a lack of confirmation by others. To maintain the self-delusion and seemingly reduce anxiety, attempts can be made to compel others to share this self-delusion of certainty and efforts may even be taken to eliminate those who disagree. History is rife with examples, from Socrates to the Spanish Inquisition to contemporary religious and political zealots. Even now that freedom of religion is constitutionally protected in many democracies, intolerance of differing beliefs and violence towards them is still acted out throughout populaces.


The value to human beings (personally and in society) of tolerating uncertainty is that it frees the individual to adapt to a variety of future circumstances. This allows her to also free others from the tyranny of her attempts to maintain her denial. In other words, it then feels safer to let others believe what they will. What someone else wants to believe will not threaten my future, so long as they grant me this same freedom.


This returns us to how a coordinated equilibrium of cooperation may be learned by a society and developed into a custom that sustains itself, as discussed in previous posts.[7],[8],[9] There must be a beginning point where someone begins to grant others the freedom of their own beliefs so that this attitude and behavior can work its way through society. Then, a web of tolerance may be created that sustains and protects all individuals and societies. It begins with accepting uncertainty.


Not knowing is not denial, it is truth. Not knowing is not to be feared but rather embraced. Once the reality of uncertainty becomes comfortable, important energy can be redirected to areas of certainty and risk where important and informed decisions will be made and the energy that once was spent fearing or fighting uncertainty will not be wasted or turn destructive.


I will become as comfortable as possible with uncertainty

[1] Ezra Solomon, Psychology Today, March 1984. (Often misattributed to John Kenneth Galbraith) [2] Putman, H., 2021. The Survival Pledge 2, Part 1: The Evolution of Meaning. [Blog] drpaulputman.com, Available at: https://www.drpaulputman.com/post/the-survival-pledge-2-part-1-the-evolution-of-meaning. [3] Aaron T. Beck, Cognitive Therapy and the Emotional Disorders (New York: International Universities Press, 1975) [4] Steven Pinker, Rationality: What It Is, Why It Seems Scarce, Why It Matters (New York: Viking, 2021), Chapter 4. [5] Kathryn Schultz, Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error (London: Portobello Books, 2010). [6] Robert B. White, and Robert M. Gilliland, Elements of Psychopathology: The Mechanisms of Defense (New York: Grune & Stratton, 1975). [7] Brian Skyrms, Evolution of the Social Contract (New York: Cambridge UP, 1996). [8] Putman, H., The Survival Pledge 3: The Golden Rule, [Blog] drpauputman.com, Available at https://www.drpaulputman.com/post/the-survival-pledge-3-the-golden-rule. [9] Putman, H., The Survival Pledge 2, Part 3: Conversion ≠ Coexistence, [Blog] drpaulputman.com, Available at https://www.drpaulputman.com/post/the-survival-pledge-2-part-3-conversion-coexistence.

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