Uncertainty is nothing new

Much is made these days of the uncertain times we live in. In particular, we seem to be in the midst of an information crisis. Paradoxically, a glut of available words, images, and numbers floods daily life—from news, social media, websites, etc. At the same time, there is growing distrust of traditional sources of information. The two are clearly related. The internet provides instant and easy access to facts and opinions that formerly required a lot more trouble to encounter. Specialized experts used to be trusted to establish knowledge and to locate and vet sources for reliability on our behalf. Scientists and academics, medical professionals, librarians and editors, critics and censors, peer reviewers, journalists, news casters, and professional writers of all sorts mediated information for us, advising us of what was worthy of consideration. The new glut of ­unmediated voices is a modern tower of Babel that confounds us and creates an atmosphere of suspicion. For, the sheer abundance of choice gives the deceptive impression that all claims might be of equal merit, that everything boils down to opinion. Even before the advent of social media, the religious right had popularized this notion with its platform that Creationism should be taught in public schools as a legitimate alternative to Darwinism. And then, perhaps, consumer advertising conditioned us to think of ideas less for their content than for their packaging.

The political climate has indeed dovetailed with religion, and overlapped with suspicion, at least in the United States. But there is a long history of the struggle of secular and religious ideas leading up to the present situation. There was a similar information crisis when the printing press changed European society forever, just as the digital revolution is now doing worldwide. The printed word was instrumental in the Reformation, prior to which a literate elite controlled the flow of information. The distribution of pamphlets and translation of the Bible into common language meant that literacy increased and lay people could study and evaluate the written basis of their ideology. And that meant that the prevailing order could be and was questioned. In particular, one could see for oneself that the Church did not follow the teachings of the scripture upon which it was supposedly founded. Expanding literacy and availability of the printed word led to a crisis of faith in authority and the keepers of knowledge. Opinions were multiplied, much as in the present crisis. The burden of interpreting the truth then fell upon the common citizen, as it now does once again. What to believe was dangerously up for grabs. The stakes were high in the Reformation period, because one’s eternal spiritual fate hinged on what one believed, and in many cases one’s physical safety did too. As now, this created deep divisions in society, with tensions that could (and did) erupt into violence.

It is no coincidence that the major religions came into being at a time when relatively isolated societies began to come into more frequent contact with each other. Ethical precepts emerged to govern the relation among individuals newly recognized as members of an expanded human tribe. That is, religion advised how to treat one’s “neighbor” in a broader sense, when traditional identity within a social (often racial) group was confused by the intrusion of outsiders. The forceful imposition of religion upon “pagan” or “infidel” groups in conquest could be viewed as a desperate measure to assimilate them into one’s own society. Unfortunately, the converted were typically never more than second-class citizens. Often they were literal slaves, in ironic contradiction to the ethical teachings of the religion concerned, which were applied only to those fully recognized as the group’s own kind. Such hypocrisy, when perceived, has frequently been a stimulus to reform. On the other hand, tribal identity has always shaped our behavior toward others, despite law and religious ethics.

In post-Civil War America, a large racially distinct population of slaves had suddenly to be assimilated into the citizenry. In the post-colonial Europe, people with an ambiguous status as subjects of the former empire began to infiltrate the home society in a kind of reverse osmosis. Though the U.S. was scarcely a literal colonial power, economically it certainly has been. Many from its virtual empire have returned to roost within U.S. borders—especially from Mexico, much of whose early territory had been stolen by the U.S. in the first place. Most recently, an influx of political and economic refugees from Africa to Europe constitutes a global migration that will only be accentuated by climate change. In all these cases, ethics has largely failed to guide society with a universal understanding of how to behave toward one’s fellows, according to a more inclusive definition of fellowship (the lesson of the Good Samaritan).

The struggles of the Reformation against the corruption of the Church are mirrored in the struggles of popular movements against the corruption of ostensibly democratic government, which is really oligarchy. Such movements can be left or right-leaning, with little recognition of their common ground. (The left-leaning movements tend to be secularist, while the right-leaning ones tend to be fundamentalist.) Humanists forget the origins of humanism in religious values; nominal Christians forget Christ’s teaching of love and humility. This is only to say that we have been here before. During the Reformation and again now, society was extremely divided because the basis for a common understanding collapsed. That is a dangerous situation, as history has shown, because without a common understanding there might be no common acceptance of authority; and without that, no rule of law.

However, it is not uncertainty itself that is the problem. Life has always been uncertain, for all creatures. (Imagine how the dinosaurs would have felt if they had understood astronomy and the real catastrophe looming at them from outer space!) The problem is our low tolerance for uncertainty, which translates as the need to believe. That is: the need to believe something—anything at all—even when it lacks a basis in fact. The need for certainty is the root of conspiracy theories and the dividedness that now besets America and many places in the world. For, the very notion of fact presumes a common ground of which we can all be assured, a common recognition of what qualifies as reality. The problem chases its own tail: without a common understanding, there can be no facts, and hence no agreement, and hence no certainty.

That situation is not new either. It was the situation on the eve of the scientific revolution, which displaced medieval scholasticism. Fact was the missing ingredient in scholastic argument, which drew mostly on hearsay and referred only to the writings and claims of other thinkers—never to actual observations of the natural world. The human world had enveloped itself in its own closed realms of circular reasoning. In those realms, imagination had free sway, unguided by reality, at the same time that it purported to be an account of reality. It was therefore a hotbed of contentious nitpicking. Science broke through this bubble of self-confirming opinion by insisting that nature had to be consulted. Nature lay outside the human world, as the stage upon which the human drama was played out. It is the literal common ground of all creatures, the common basis for fact. Unlike scholastic philosophers, scientists could come to agreement because nature was the ultimate authority, the arbiter of disputes.

The current rejection of the authority of experts includes suspicion of science—all the more when scientists appear to be “for hire” to support positions on issues outside science. All the more when the technology brought to us by experts seems also to be ruining the world! In throwing the baby out with the bathwater, however, we revert to the medieval ethos of contention without a grounding in the possibility of mutually recognized fact. In part, this may reflect the migration of humanity away from contact with nature to live in urban environments, which has recreated a new self-enclosed cultural bubble. The concept of the wild has lost all meaning for most of humanity. The human transformation of the planet is now so extensive that there hardly seems a nature left for science to study. Scientific concepts and theories have become so abstruse, and the experimental evidence on which they are based so tenuous and esoteric, that they seem to resemble scholastic arguments. In other words, they are perceived as little more than opinions.

Once again, everything seems up for grabs in a free-for-all of opinion. In some ways, we’ve come full circle since the days of the Renaissance. Though we seem to be sinking back into a morass of blind faith and superstition, perhaps this means that we are on the threshold of a new Reformation, and a new rebirth of thought. As nature was the common ground upon which science first arose, perhaps it will be again the basis for a more unified world, as its demands on us become more urgent, unmistakable, and indisputable. In the first Renaissance, the early scientists called upon nature to provide a common understanding for human benefit. Now nature is calling upon us to come together for nature’s benefit. One hopes for the best.