03 October 2012

In Praise of Uncertainty

I have always admired—or, more accurately, envied with a gnawing envy—people who live in the certainty of a totalizing worldview. I have always thought that the only kind of mental greatness is the kind that jump immediately to an answer to every question, that fits every possible scenario neatly into an organized mental system, and that understands the relationships of each part to the whole. I have always thought that this was a feature of “true faith”: that along with a really real Christian belief would come an intellectual understanding of everything that knew where each piece belonged.

What do these kinds of people do? Here are some examples.

They hear about a new law making its way through the legislature, and they know right away whether it's right or wrong, good or bad, practical or impractical, helpful or harmful. They have a theological (or other ideological) explanation for their response, too, right away.

They hear about some tabloid scandal, and they know right away whether the person in question was playing for headlines, or caught as a victim in a larger scheme, or using fame to promote some valuable lesson at the cost of privacy, or even putting their liberty at risk for the sake of subverting some abused authority.

They interpret international events on the micro- and macro-scopic scales as easily as turning the pages of a novel.

They create reasonably logical syllogisms in ordinary conversation.

Now, I am not one of these people. I have always doubted the reality of my own faith, partly because I do not have this kind of certainty. I have been laboring under the idea that a “real” faith would come with its own totalizing worldview, and that if I do not know how to interpret everything, I must be deficient in mental ability, Christian commitment, or both.

I don't have a clear position on every political issue. I'm an Independent, largely from lack of understanding of the implications of policies and party platforms. I don't understand the causal relationships of history and future. I don't know whether to commend or condemn most behaviors that make the front page—or that are confessed to me in my office.

So I've been waiting to grow up.

And then I saw Obama 2016, the new film by (and about) Dinesh D'Souza
. This struck me as being a strange, perhaps undesirable, kind of totalizing worldview.

And I then read “I Have No Opinion” by Rebecca Tirrell Talbot, which encourages writers to take their time developing their ideas, not to rush into conviction and certainty.

And I assigned my students a reading from They Say, I Say by Gerald Graff and Kathy Berkenstein, which talks about including your own opinions and the first-person pronoun in essays. It seemed to me that most first-year college students probably need more time to develop their ideas.

And I'm starting to think, there's something to be said for uncertainty.

I mean, think about it for a minute. Is any totalizing theory really “totalizing”? How is that possible? For one thing, we little people don't know everything. For another, not everything is knowable. For another, our racial body of knowledge changes: parts of it become obsolete and other parts enter, resplendent with the sheen of the radically new. History unfolds, or unravels. We are finite. Reality is complex.

So my new question is: Is knowing everything really such a great idea? Maybe it's better to be skeptical, cynical, doubtful, cautious, and uncertain. Maybe that's a better reflection of reality.

Oops, did I just create a new totalizing theory? Sorry about that.


Rebecca Tirrell Talbot said...

Writing that article at the beginning of the school year made me wonder what this means for class discussions, too. The people who have better responses are often the ones who sit there for the whole class period in silence and THEN say something. But you can't have a whole class run like that. So... what's a teacher to do...?

Rebecca Tirrell Talbot said...

Writing that article at the beginning of the school year made me wonder about the way classroom discussions are set up, too. It's often the quiet student who sits there listening to what everyone else has said that has the best answer. But a class discussion can't really run that way. So... what's a teacher to do...?