Dwelling in Uncertainty

I went to a School of Life Sunday Sermon, and heard a neuroscientist, called David Eagleman, speak. If I’d got round to any pre-event research, I would have gained a little insight into the stuff he’d be talking about; but I was, instead, hooked by a one word title.

“Uncertainty.”

Anything that might illuminate a concept I grapple with, on a daily basis, is guaranteed to grab my attention.

There is a theme emerging in the things that I am reading – and listening to – and writing at the moment. My subconscious is tuned into a strain that is currently out of my head’s reach. It is something around letting go – and acceptance – and moving beyond just me.

Uncertainty

Eagleman is a neuroscientist, a fiction writer and a highly engaging speaker. He is also a possibilian. Possibilians “are those that celebrate the vastness of our ignorance, are unwilling to commit to any particular made-up story, and take pleasure in entertaining multiple hypotheses.” Eagleman’s talk was all about “entertaining multiple hypotheses”. Not madcap off the wall ones that can be immediately disproved; just those that might exist or can’t be totally ruled out yet.

Using Hubble’s Deep Field Observation (for every small area in the sky, there are a million galaxies) and something called dark matter (the 80% of stuff that we know is out there, even though it can’t be seen), as examples, Eagleman successfully demonstrated the limitations of our current scientific knowlege – and the vast number of possibilities existing, just out of eyeshot, like the galaxies in each tiny fragment of sky.

Apparently, the human brain is equally complicated and unknown. A bzillion little neurons, intricately wired and connected to each other, shaping who we are, and how we work – and contained within the confines of our head.

Wow.

If there’s one thing that we can be certain of, it’s that uncertainty is at the core of man.

Possibility

There is an Emily Dickinson line that has been following me around for the past few weeks, which reads “I dwell in possibility”. It has become joined, for some reason, with Eagleman’s talk. I think that it is because I had not made the connection between uncertainty and possibility until now, and he brought them into the same space.

Uncertainty, for me, has been a negative, laden with apprehension and overwhelmed with a fear of the unknown. Possibility, on the other hand, is about options and opportunities; Emily Dickinsons’ “doors” and “windows” and “The spreading wide of narrow Hands / To gather Paradise—“. Which is far more uplifting.

But maybe they’re the same?

And, if they’re the same, maybe it’s okay to ‘dwell in uncertainty’. Maybe it’s okay to not understand or define or explain everything – but just let it exist, as one of multiple options and scenarios.

This starts to make sense; but, at the moment, I’m kind of comparing apples and pears. Eagleman was talking about the mysteries of the world; Dickinson about human experience; and me, about trying to work out the meaning of my life.

Personal possibility

Ben Okri, in his essay ‘While The World Sleeps’, writes: “Each failure to become, to be, is a weight. Each state you could inhabit is a burden as heavy as any physical weight, but more so, because it weighs on your soul. It is the ghost of your possibilities, hanging around your neck, an invisible albatross, potentials unknowingly murdered…”

His words have been scratching around in my head too, whispering just below my consciousness.

Eagleman and Dickinson release the pressure.

Okri is right, I think, about the weight of possibility and the intrinsic desire to make the most of what we’ve got, to be all that we can be – but the weightiness has now been lifted…

If there are millions and millions of possibilities, the supply is endless.

And, if we’re not going to find resolution any time soon, we can only do the best that we can in our little bit. Small steps, collective effort, and a journey, rather than a destination.

Not on our own

Eagleman’s talk also addressed the collaborative nature of science.  The fact that progress is not linear, but in leaps; not a solo attempt, but a joint effort.  This neatly goes back to the talk I went to on ‘Originality’, and the realisation that we all have our part to play. It returns, again, to the importance of human connections and focussing on the small, tangible things: that which we can contribute, combined with an appreciation that we do not exist on our own.

These two lessons (we’re not going to solve the mysteries of life anytime soon; and we each contribute to a joint understanding) make the uncertainty more bearable for me. They are, perhaps, the closest I’ll reach to the strategy I was seeking when I booked the tickets and turned up.

Dwelling in uncertainty is something that I am going to have to get used to – but full of possibility and potential, and not a place that I need to explore alone.

P.s. I’m not a scientist. It’s all explained far better here and here.

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