This is the third “PILOT season” episode of Philosophy Bakes Bread from 2016, when it came out only as a podcast. This episode focuses on challenges for live and work that concern uncertainty and fear of the unknown. Philosophical ideas about the nature of knowledge can be of help, as well as some conceptual and practical tools for addressing or overcoming our worries.
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As this was one of the early, scripted episodes, we have a transcript of the whole episode, here below.
Coping with Uncertainty
Jack has always wanted to own his own business. He’s worked for 15 years in a stable job and now has the resources he needs to take the plunge. Friends and family find that he’s not been himself, however. He doesn’t show up for personal commitments. He stays late at work. When confronted about where he’s been and how he’s been doing, loved ones find him anxious, almost panicked. He looks miserable. He feels like a person on a tv show, who’s always wanted to go sky diving, is up in the plane, cameras watching, but just cannot make himself jump. He won’t do it.
Sally has finished high school and always dreamed of going to college. She works with her mother in the family business. Her mother and father encourage her to go to college, as she has always wanted to do, but now she won’t talk about it. She would be the first person in her family to go, but now she says that the family needs her. Over time, she gets irritated when asked about it. Her parents have found ways to trim needs so that they could manage even if she weren’t able to work with her mother while in school anymore. When the subject is broached, sometimes Sally seems startlingly angry. Other times she cries and wants to be alone. In sober moments, she explains that she doesn’t know what she’d want to study, so she doesn’t see the point of going.
Jack and Sally both suffer from very real fears of the unknown. The merely unfamiliar can present daunting uncertainty, but the wholly unknown can be frightening. Scary movies get the heart thumping, when lead characters venture into the dark. Uncertainty is naturally frightening, but philosophers have found ways to think about the unknown and the uncertain that can help us to cope with challenges and the need to act, despite incomplete knowledge.
Welcome to Philosophy Bakes Bread, food for thought about life and leadership. This is Eric Thomas Weber.
Philosophy can help us to cope, myself included. If you had a chance to listen to the first episode of this series, you know that my own daughter around the time of her birth and in her first year suffered serious medical difficulties. While she is stable and healthy now, her start shaped conditions that she will face for the rest of her life. So, when my wife wanted another child, I felt some of the fright that comes from uncertainty. We did not choose for our daughter to suffer the injuries she did. “If we have another child, we will be consciously taking that risk,” I thought to myself. While the chance of anything like what happened to my daughter happening to a subsequent child was and is infinitesimal, it was not zero. I was scared. As I said in the first episode, I am so grateful that my wife wasn’t. Our son’s start was so simple that I’ve often had to shake off my surprise when things just come naturally and without any effort for him.
Jack, Sally, and I have all felt the weight of fear of the unknown, of uncertainty. When things are simply unknown, they are frightening or uncomfortable. The philosopher Plato sometimes illustrated the point with a funny analogy. He said that philosophers are like dogs. Recall that the word philosophy, which breaks up into Philos and Sophy, means love, as in Philos, and wisdom, Sophy. Philosophers are lovers of wisdom. In Plato’s dog analogy, consider the dog who sees his owner coming to the fence. The dog spins around gleefully, ready to play or to go for a walk. For dogs, the familiar, what they know, they like. But imagine the dog owner is inside and the dog is still prancing around outside when someone unfamiliar comes to the gate. What does the dog do then? Dogs bark aggressively, responding to the unknown with sharp teeth and a growl. The reaction is profoundly different from the one the dog shows his owner. Dogs love what they know and they are uncomfortable with or dislike the unknown. In the Republic, Plato’s Socrates reminds us that animals like dogs show us how we too love wisdom and prefer knowledge to the unknown. We want knowledge and love wisdom, and we feel unsettled about what we do not know.
If it is natural to want knowledge, to love wisdom, and to fear the unknown or the uncertain, Plato’s dog analogy has yet to be of any help. Jack, Sally, and I can realize that our fears are normal, but that may not offer any relief about our worries. What can help, however, are some reflections on the nature of knowledge, as well as some conceptual tools we can use to make the uncertain less scary.
The nature of knowledge is one of the three major topics of philosophy, which is formally referred to as epistemology. That’s an ugly word that I won’t repeat, but it might help to know that it’s made up of episteme, which means “content knowledge,” such as that 2+2=4 or that Alabama borders Georgia. “-Ology” as in “Biology,” “Psychology,” etc, refers to the logic of, or really the study of or explanation of – in this case, knowledge.
Many philosophers think that the most important questions of philosophy are about the nature of knowledge. After all how can you be wise without knowledge? While there is some merit to that outlook, one of the most important insights of Western philosophy involves the recognition of the fact that human beings know so little. The Socrates that we read in Plato’s works explains that if there is anything he knew better than others of his day, it was his ignorance. He at least knew that he didn’t know the nature of things like justice, knowledge, or God. He wanted to know, and in that pursuit, he was often at least able to figure out what beliefs he or others had that were not right.
A nice example of Socrates eliminating one kind of belief is about justice, a central topic in the Republic. If justice is “Giving each what is his or hers,” then there is a difficult situation, Plato’s Socrates says. Imagine a friend of yours loans you a weapon, which you put in safe keeping. One day soon thereafter, your friend comes to you highly intoxicated, furious, and in tears. I’ll call him Mad Matt. He wants his gun and says he’s going to shoot “her,” or worse, that “he’s going to kill them all!” Knowing your friend, that attitude is not normal. If justice is “giving each what is his or hers,” then that might mean that you are obligated in the name of justice to return his weapon then and there.
A good friend does not do that. The more common model today has to do with keys when one is drunk. Good friends not only keep your keys from you when you get drunk. These days they even confiscate them, taking away what is yours. And, that’s a mark of a true friend. He or she cares not only for others’ safety, preventing you or Mad Matt from hurting others, but also about your and Matt, not wanting you guys to go to prison or to be forever sad about the stupid or dangerous mistake you might have made.
In these ways, Socrates shows us some challenges for understanding ideas like justice. For Plato, Socrates’s greatest student, knowledge begins first with wonder. As Epictetus once asked, “How can you learn what you think you know?” You don’t try to learn best ways of tying your shoes when you know how to tie your shoes in the way you assume to be best. Socrates’s questions make us uncomfortable, they sting us, especially when we think we have a strong grasp on right or wrong, or justice, or knowledge. The famous metaphor is that Socrates is a gadfly, the fly that stings the horse that is your mind in the rear end, getting it to start racing. The sting is uncomfortable, it is almost scary, like the fear we have of the dark, or of whatever that thing was that slithered against your leg under opaque water!
The good news is that recognition of our ignorance is the starting point for learning. A professor of mine once gave me the best advice I have ever received about careers in academia, and it relates to this Platonic insight. He asked me “How are you at handling criticism?” Unsure myself, I nevertheless felt confident enough to say that “I’m ok at it.” He followed up with the advice that “If you can take criticism well, you’ll go very far.”
I have come to see over and over how right he was. I have also learned a lot over time about what it means to “take criticism well.” Lots of people are deathly afraid of public speaking. In fact, in a 2001 Gallup poll, Americans’ second greatest fear was of public speaking. People always want to know what was number one: It was snakes. The old joke about public speaking says that the majority of people would much prefer being in the casket to delivering the eulogy.
Why are we afraid of public speaking? Speaking in front of people is a performance. People stare at you. You can’t take back the words you say, and you might say the wrong words. Worse, some people think, would be if you didn’t know what to say when other people expected you to. They might laugh. They might criticize you. Some people want to run out of the room and throw up, something that once happened in one of my courses.
These fears are real, and they illustrate some of the challenges that can be solved with thought about knowledge. First, to take criticism well, as my professor put it, is to realize that criticism is one of the most important ways in which we learn anything. When someone laughs about or criticizes the way I tie my shoes, his or her reaction may be wrong or wrongheaded, but maybe not. That reaction can get me to think about the matter, however, and might precede an explanation of how to do better.
To take criticism well, as I have come to see the matter, means wanting criticism. If you put yourself out there in any meaningful way, you are exposing yourself to criticism. You are going to present work that is inevitably imperfect. Therefore, if you want to live an active and productive life, creating the things that you want to make in your work, career, or free time, you would be wise to realize that criticism will come, unless you hide all of your work, permitting no one to benefit from it. If you put yourself forward, your work will be criticized, therefore, to want to contribute means to want what that implies, what it brings with it: criticism.
Recognizing that criticism is all but inevitable, the next step is to see it for what it is: feedback. Either criticisms are empty, or they have something true to offer. In the former case, you can appreciate genuine efforts to be constructive, dismissing empty or wrongheaded feedback, or if people were mean, you can let the empty ugliness roll off you like water. In the latter case, you have been offered something invaluable: insight about how to do better. If you assume that all of your efforts must be perfect, you’ll be neither productive nor happy with anything you produce. Recognizing the limitations of human finitude both in the quality of our work and in our knowledge, you can realize that nothing you do will ever be perfect, and if you’re productive, you’ll be criticized. When you’re ready to make the most of substantive feedback, and to ignore or forget about empty criticism, you become a better writer, artist, public speaker, or whatever it is you do.
Of course, the aim is always to do one’s best, so half-baked work won’t make you proud. But, trying one’s best, in the smartest way one can, is all one can be expected to do. That or inaction. About some of my early work that I had yet to send out, a professor once asked me, “What are you going to do, sit on it?” These two professors are among the inspirations that often come to mind for me. They keep me working, getting criticized, and learning.
So, if knowledge begins with recognizing ignorance, and if humanity is inherently limited by our finitude and imperfection, there are two common reactions. The first is to think that inaction is really the best response. What’s the point anyway? Why make all that effort if one’s work and life are going to be flawed no matter what you do? This is the attitude of despair. That attitude asks what’s the point of having police or hospitals or governments or schools. We don’t really know anything with certainty anyway, so aren’t we just teaching ignorance to the ignorant?
On the other side, there are folks who choose to believe in things that they think are indubitable. Descartes was the famous philosopher who, in trying to doubt all things, realized that he couldn’t thereby doubt that he’s doubting. Yes, that’s where he got the idea that “If I think, I must be” – “I think, therefore I am.” When we can find some things that we know with certainty, we can build on them to establish a sure foundation, on earth that doesn’t wobble.
There are people who try to construct a system of knowledge based on certainty. The problem always seems to be getting out of the ideal realm of logic and language. As soon as we need to deal with the real world of our senses and emotion, the idea of certainty seems to elude us. Such are Jack’s fear of diving into starting his own business and Sally’s worry about enrolling in college. These are matters in the real world, where decisions and predictions depend on probability and sensing, rather than deduction or certainty. My own problem was also about probabilities, though I see now that I was being irrational. They and I wanted certainty, and absent that, we favored inaction, keeping things as they were, not stepping foot into opaque waters.
There are of course also anti-intellectual versions of the certainty crowd. These are folks who tell themselves that they are sure of some moral or religious belief, defending it with fervor. They feel sure, yet so many of them then refer to faith. Faith, understood philosophically, is belief without evidence, belief despite a lack of evidence. When Moses heard God’s voice, he didn’t need faith to believe that he heard the voice. If I have evidence, especially evidence that justifiably inspires certainty, the result is knowledge, not faith. I don’t have faith that I have two elbows. I know that I have them. I can look at them, well, at least in a mirror, or with an uncomfortable arm-twist. Having faith in my elbows sounds absurd, because it’s not the sort of thing one needs to have faith in.
Faith is a good thing, even to the religiously unaffiliated, or at least it is inevitable, according to George Santayana. Not all faith is a good thing, of course. Belief that the Lord will catch me before I hit the ground is not a good thing when standing atop a building, in particular if your belief is literal and physical, rather than metaphorical.
One of Santayana’s most important works of philosophy is titled Skepticism and Animal Faith. He pushes Descartes’ desire for certainty to the limit, doubting even that we can know that we are doubting. When you get to the bottom in the search for knowledge, you end up eventually realizing that after all that digging, you’ve gotten hungry. It’s time to get a sandwich and a drink before you start digging to the bottom for a starting point of all knowledge. You cannot go on and on doubting the world without eventually being compelled through bodily sensation to take care of the human plumbing system.
Human beings are animals. This was one of the crucial insights we get from Darwin, one of the reasons his theory of evolution was revolutionary. People didn’t think about human beings as animals, because we are so different from them, it was thought. Santayana was of course one to appreciate the qualities of humanity, yet he recognized that at bottom, when you’ve searched for certainty, what is waiting for you is faith, belief that you may not be able to justify with certainty, that you are an animal, which feels, breathes, and hungers. If ever you doubt that, hold your breath and see how long you succeed. If you are bored, doubt the world and the meaninglessness of anything, holding your breath for as long as you can will wake you up. Our bodies bring with them a pretty strong compulsion to keep breathing.
So, one way of understanding the limitations of human knowledge is to see that at bottom, everything we do rests on a kind of faith. The true skeptic doubts that we’ll ever get certainty in knowledge, but Santayana recognizes that and shows us that all along we’ve been getting on without certainty in the first place. John Dewey, a contemporary of Santayana’s, recognized the limitations of knowledge, recognized and appreciated Darwin’s point about our animal nature, and developed what he called a pragmatic understanding of knowledge. He said that the best we can aim for is warrant. Warrant isn’t certainty. But, if someone with whom I have a contract assumes that the sun will come up tomorrow, I’d say he’s about as warranted as anyone can be. That’s as near a certainty as anything.
The certainty crowd likes to point to mathematics or logic for certainty. One plus one equals two. That is true. One of my professors likes to point out, however, that when you add one drop of water to another drop of water, you end up with one larger drop of water. So the certainty of addition can be misleading, depending on how we mean it. For the logicians who like to find issue with that illustration, I’ll say only this: the foundation of logical implication, that if x is true, then y is true, is itself a proposition about which there is profoundly interesting debate. Yes, folks, there’s in fact a book called If P, then Q. All of that might sound abstract and like gibberish, but it does in the end make sense. Here’s the tough case:
Here’s the question for the logician. Who won the bet? Believe it or not, logical convention says that Helen won the bet for reasons I won’t go into, but if you were Sam, you’d say “No way! The bet’s off. I’m not doing it. I’m not betting.” The book, If P, then Q, spends 304 pages thinking through debates and challenges for understanding one of the most basic concepts of logic.
In short, there’s strong reason to think Santayana and Dewey are right. We should recognize the limits of human knowledge, accept them – as good stoics, you may recall from episode 1, who accept what they can’t control. If ultimately all knowledge rests on faith, or on something uncertain, then what Dewey called The Quest for Certainty is actually a fool’s errand. Wisdom comes from returning to Plato’s recognition of our ignorance, and then being pragmatic. Dewey’s move is to think about knowledge pragmatically as something short of certainty. It is therefore something that can adapt. Anything we think we know, we must be open to learning more about, even the basic concepts of logic. Human beings are fallible, capable of error, even about things that we think we know really well.
That said, how do we keep ourselves from falling back into the do-nothing skepticisim? The answer is that even if we aren’t perfect in our knowledge, there are many ways in which we do know how to make our lives better. I live in Mississippi, which has a very warm climate in the summer time. Today we can cool our buildings and homes to much more comfortable temperatures. We can also fight diseases and cure ailments better than ever before in history. If my daughter had been born one or two hundred years ago, or earlier, she would not have survived. Modern life is not perfect, but for at least a lucky number of us, it has become vastly more livable. It is true that injustices have arisen in new ways, and that threats today come from weapons more powerful than any that have ever existed before also. But, the point is that human beings, building on our animal faith, have constructed remarkable tools and institutions that can help us to live safer, happier lives.
In short, there are better and worse ways of responding to the limitations of human knowledge. Some of them might lead us to unflinching beliefs that motivate bombings or shootings like the one we had in Charleston, South Carolina in the summer of 2015. If only such people had doubted themselves more, such tragedies might not have happened. Some doubt is crucial, yet we also need to avoid the despair that comes from wanting certainty or giving up when we fail to attain it. The middle path is to accept our limitations and to act wisely in reaction to them.
I said that understanding the nature of knowledge can help people like Jack, Sally, and me and you. It can. There are also tools we can use to cope with uncertainty, or better, to live happy lives despite it. The first such tool is insurance. There was a time when houses were far less safely designed and managed than they are today. Building codes are a kind of insurance, or at least an effort to get builders to make home fires far less likely than if homes were not intelligently built. Prior to such advances, when your house burned down, that was it. You no longer had a home, and no one was committed to help you rebuild.
Those communities that cared about each other and would help each other to rebuild a house offered a kind of social insurance, through love of one’s neighbor. The insurance industry is cause of much heartache today, to be sure. But, a world without any insurance would be terrible. Despite the headaches of having to fight ambiguities with an insurance company, there is a lot more security for the clear cut cases of accidental fires when I make my insurance payment. There is a reason why the insurance industry has and causes as many problems as it does: its work is absolutely vital to safeguarding human and economic security. That is why when insurance practices or policies are engaged in unfairly or deny coverage to people who are clearly deserving, such a tragic injustice has occurred. Insurance is one of our great mechanisms, which needs careful oversight, but which also protects people from the dangers of murky waters.
Insurance is also many things. When it isn’t one’s community commitment or a company that covers one’s home, it is found in loving family, who will travel from their community to yours to help you in difficult times. Insurance can be taken out in economic, social, emotional, and familial senses. It is one of the first great tools for protecting ourselves against the threats of uncertainty.
The second tool worth mentioning might seem obvious, but is planning. Jack may have been talking about starting a business for 15 years. He may even know a friend who had saved up $100,000 to start a similar business, and have somehow managed to save up that much also. So why, friends and family wonder, won’t he dive in and start the business he has always wanted to run? One answer is that he may not yet have planned properly. Whether or not it is accurate, there is a common saying that 95% of businesses fail within the first 5 years. The reason, says every book on the subject — and I’ve seen a lot of them — is a lack of thorough planning. Jack may have the money and may have the passion, but if he does not set aside a substantial amount of time to do the work it takes to complete a great business plan, he is right to keep out of the water. Of course, he may not realize the reason he has yet to dive in.
There are business plan courses and advisers, and business incubators, grants for new businesses, and tons more resources in every state in the U.S. Every state government wants to foster more business, if you take their Web sites to be telling the truth. So, if Jack isn’t ready yet, what he needs to do is to plan and save for the time it will take to plan. He needs to plan to plan. Yes, it sounds crazy, but it’s necessary. It takes a lot of time to develop a good plan. It often takes resources. Planning is part of the investment one needs before investing dollars in starting one’s business.
The business plan metaphor is less helpful for Sally, though I’m sure there’s a book out there that says planning for college is like planning for a business. The crucial difference in higher education is that one’s plan should include the fact that you may not know what you want out of college. College is for many a place in which to explore topics, activities, parts of the world, languages, and the simply countless possible directions one could take in life and in careers. It can seem daunting, but this is why we have years we set aside in which to do that exploration. Not knowing what one wants to study in college is part of the reason to go to a good liberal arts college or university. When you know what you want and it is highly focused, then other, technical schools can be fantastic. Community colleges also often have both some technical programming as well as liberal arts material to give a person a start without committing to a longer program. So, there are many things to say to Sally, unless for her own reasons she simply no longer wishes to attend college.
In both these examples we have philosophical lessons. Dewey referred to some of the planning I have in mind as a “dramatic rehearsal.” Consider that in making a business plan, if you don’t go through the motions you’ll need in order to make pizzas at a pizza shop, for example, you might not design the space intelligently, and then cause frustration every day, resulting in failure. Rehearsing imaginatively how things will function is vital. It is also part of a key approach to the uncertain: experimentation. When we experiment, we dip our toe into the water before jumping in. If I wanted to start a bakery, it would be wise to see if I could for a while sell some bread at a farmer’s market. While I don’t want to start a bakery, I have sold bread at a farmer’s market, and it was both fun and profitable. It could have been a part of dramatic rehearsal, a step in the experimentation of a larger plan, if I had that in mind. Experimentation also lets one risk little while testing out one’s plan. Rather than committing in ignorance to a spray for your couch right away, the bottles always tell you to test the spray first on an underside portion of fabric. The reason is that way if it doesn’t work as you’d like, you can stop before ruining your couch.
Experimentalism and dramatic rehearsal help when you can begin with small steps. They are less obvious guides for my worry about having another child. You can’t have half or a tenth of another child. What you can do is to think through the matter and to practice ways of thinking. For my part, I came to see that the likelihood of having another child with a severe health problem was astoundingly low. Thinking through that fact helped. Beyond that, in that incredibly improbable circumstance, who would be more ready, experienced, and equipped to take care of a second child with difficulties than us? Thinking through these matters and talking about how good it would be for our daughter to have a sibling convinced me. I’ll admit to have still been scared, but we were ready. As I said in an earlier episode, I couldn’t be happier about that decision.
The last point to make is about habituation. What I’ve just described was a habituation of thinking, to allay my fears and to recognize that we were prepared for challenges. Aristotle, Dewey, and others have had a lot to say about habit, and with good reason. Bad habits can be devastating, but habits themselves are among the most powerful tools human beings have to live happily. I work with people every day on issues relating to critical thinking and public speaking. Fears about putting oneself out there, of speaking in public, are concerns we work through and target for good habits. There’s a popular line from Eleanor Roosevelt that calls you to “Do one thing every day that scares you.” The idea is that when you make a habit of confronting things that used to make you nervous, you can become habituated even to confronting those things that you’d rather not do.
In sum, while you definitely need to do your homework, giving your efforts the very best go you can muster, you nevertheless also need to jump in the water. The wisest route to happiness runs through recognition of human limitation and then turns onto diligent, best efforts, with an attitude of experimentation, openness to learning, and an excitement at the thrill of pushing one’s envelope.
Thanks for listening to Philosophy Bakes Bread, food for thought about life and leadership. This is Eric Thomas Weber. Follow me on Twitter @PhilosophyBB.