Uncertainty and Cultural Maturity

Adapted from a manuscript draft of Creative Systems Theory:

Effective future leadership—from the most intimate and personal to the most encompassing—hinges on our ability to better understand, tolerate, and manage uncertainty. Our world is becoming not just less certain, but often frighteningly so. Today’s uncertainties have multiple origins: rapid technological change and the expanding world of globalization; the risks that accompany the rewards of progress, from environmental degradation to the potential for ever-more-dangerous weaponry; along with deeper changes reordering human identity, relationships, and social structures.

The concept of Cultural Maturity helps us make sense of today’s new uncertainties. It also provides guidance for confronting them. And it goes further. It proposes that while much in today’s new uncertainty simply makes life more difficult, the larger portion ties directly to the possibility of living more creative lives and gaining new, more mature understandings of order and purpose.

In fact Cultural Maturity’s changes contribute in major ways to modern uncertainty. First, there is today’s loss of cultural guideposts.  A major function of past belief has been to protect us from the depths of life’s uncertainties. Parentally defined truths, and ideologies more generally, have, from our beginnings, provided reliable absolutes. There are also Cultural Maturity’s cognitive changes. The clockworks world of Modern Age thought, while it promised new clarity—and often delivered wonderfully—succeeded at this task by elevating ultimately impervious deterministic principles. Cultural Maturity’s cognitive changes offer that we might understand in more sophisticated ways, but the world they presents requires a new appreciation for how uncertainty is, in the end, inherent to how things work.

But while Cultural Maturity’s changes increase uncertainty, at once they offers that we might better get our arms around uncertainty and better navigate in its presence, this whatever uncertainty’s origins. Cultural maturity’s changes make us more accepting of the fact of uncertainty. They also make us more facile—we could say more wise—in its presence. Cultural Maturity’s cognitive reorganization makes uncertainty not just more tolerable and understandable, but intriguing in its implications.

Uncertainty has gained a dramatically more accepted role across disciplines through the last century—and not just with concerns where we are involved.  We can’t know exactly what has produced the changes we witness, but they are consistent with what the concept of Cultural Maturity predicts we would see. We find the most recognized example in Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle with its assertion that we cannot know a particle’s position and momentum simultaneously. Chaos Theory demonstrates that even simple mathematical equations can produce impossible to predict results, similarly make uncertainty inescapable. And statistical analysis is helping us better appreciate uncertainty’s role in the working of systems of all sorts, for example with how uncertainty can intercede not just without warning, but also in dramatic “tipping point” fashion.

Particularly pertinent to address the challenge before us is how we are more directly acknowledging uncertainty’s role in how we understand. The best of scientific conception today includes the recognition that we are always participants in any act of knowing—a fact that makes ever knowing something for sure impossible. Constructivist ideas in philosophy and education have given particular emphasizes to the fact that how what we understand is always as much about ourselves as what we seek to understand, and in the process made uncertainty’s contribution when it comes to understanding human systems particularly explicit.

The greater sophistication in our relationship with uncertainty predicted by the concept of Cultural Maturity will have essential practical consequences. For example, it should make us better able to respond to uncertainty, depending on the circumstances, in the most creative ways. In designing a bridge, we want to reduce uncertainty as much as is possible—anticipate potential problems and do everything that we can to eliminate them. In other situations, we may choose to do the opposite—to increase room for uncertainty. In brainstorming, in love, or just in how we live our daily lives, it is often constraints to uncertainty that most limit possibility.

This greater sophistication in the face of uncertainty should also helps us more accurately evaluate uncertainty’s magnitude and significance. Overestimating uncertainty or distorting its importance can impede good decision-making as much as denying uncertainty would—and often represents just another version of mythologizing and denial. Distorted interpretations of uncertainty can be used equally well to justify not taking needed action or taking action that will result ultimately in harm.

We witness an example of the first instance in people who point out—accurately—that we can’t know with absolute certainty that global climate change is something that should concern us, then use such observation to justify not responding to the threat (a distorted use of an accurate observation). I often ask people who resort to such logic what they think the odds are that global warming—and the human factor in its causation—is real. I make them commit to a number. I then ask them how they feel about their children playing Russian roulette. Few are willing to claim that the odds of global climate change being real and significant are less than Russian roulette’s one in six. (And those who do have a hard time escaping that their conclusion has more to do with ideology than reasoned evaluation.)

Over-blowing uncertainty’s magnitude can also have the effect of justifying mythologized action. We see this tendency today with terrorism. Terrorism-related content is ever-present in the news and terrorism-related fears frequently define the social discourse. Yet an individual in the U.S. is hundreds of times more likely to be killed by a car when crossing the street than by a terrorist. This is not to make light of terrorism. Terrorism should become an increasing concern as globalization brings diverse peoples into ever-closer proximity. But we need to take great care when we observe such distortion of perspective. Fear makes us extremely vulnerable to poor decision-making and manipulation. It has already gotten us into one unfortunate and unnecessary war.

Recent calamitous events such the 2011 nuclear accident at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant following the earthquake and tsunami in Japan and the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico alert us to questions that are essential to ask whenever we take on potentially dangerous human endeavors. First, we need to unflinchingly confront worst-case scenarios and ask whether failure could produce a level of carnage beyond the acceptable. If so, we should simply not move forward. Second, we need to ask squarely what can be done to minimize the risk of failure and to lessen consequences should failure occur. Given the potential for both great harm and great benefit that comes with so much of modern advancement, being sure these two kinds of questions are always asked (and that the influence of money does not get in the way of thorough assessment) becomes today an inescapable human responsibility. We have not before had the capacity to tolerate uncertainty that such unflinching—and now essential—honesty requires.

As with culturally mature understanding more generally, understanding uncertainty with the needed sophistication requires that our thinking “bridge” traditional assumptions. Clearly a mature understanding of uncertainty challenges the classical picture. Descartes reminded us “that if you are a real seeker of truth, you must at least once in your life doubt, as far as possible, all things.” Today Descartes would have to accept that such questioning includes the deterministic assumptions of a classical Cartesian worldview.

But with equal directness, mature perspective challenges views that in various ways identify with determinisms opposite—with not knowing. We commonly see such identification with postmodern noncommitalness, in the reflex doubt that produces liberal cynicism, and with spiritual views that identify with unknowable mystery. Max Plank once asserted that we have “no right to believe that physical laws exist.” He is correct, but his conclusion is readily interpreted in less than helpful ways. Identification with uncertainty is one of the best ways to protect oneself from real uncertainty.

Recognizing that the kind of uncertainty we have interest in bridges polar assumptions lets has make some subtle, but ultimately important distinctions. For example, it alerts us to the fact that some of the innovations I’ve used to illustrate a better acknowledgment of uncertainty, in fact stop short of the kind of “complexly complex” understanding that we are ultimately interested in. The non-deterministic mathematics of Chaos Theory remains mechanistic. And social constructivism, like post-modern philosophical notions more generally, in the end tells us more about the absence of final truths than how we might most creatively engage truth. The fact that in neither case do we see polarity’s fully bridged alerts us to the fact that while such notions may help point us toward Cultural Maturity’s threshold, they can’t by themselves get us over it.

It is essential that we be attentive to the uncertainties inherent to our choices. Doing so makes not just for safer choices, but also for more culturally mature choices. We can learn a lot by noticing beliefs we’ve used in times past to protect ourselves from uncertainty.