A message from President James W. Wagner

The virtue of uncertainty

In the previous issue of Emory Magazine I observed, as others have, that “fundamentalism” can be defined as a form of absolute certainty that resists allowing new ideas to enter one’s self-contained belief system, and it comes in many flavors—religious, scientific, political.  

Of course “certainty” and an understanding of fundamentals have much to recommend them. After testing experience it’s good to know what you know to be true, and to defend your convictions. Our business at a university is to help students toward more confident mastery of facts, greater accuracy, more precise expression, sounder logic. We value knowledge. On the other hand, nowhere is it clearer than in a university that gaining knowledge does not reduce ignorance. The more we know, the more aware we become of how much more there is to know.

Maybe another way of describing the risks of fundamentalism is to imagine a fish that not only is unaware of the water in which it lives but cannot conceive of another medium for life. The fish therefore is certain that all creatures should live in water just as it does—and thus misses the picture of life’s great and glorious complexity.

The instinct to grasp too quickly at certainties is understandable. Uncertainty can make us uncomfortable. We like things to be black or white, not gray. This aspect of human nature leads even some of the most inquiring minds into the trap of declaring victory (to the point of stopping progress) when their discoveries lead to reasonable results. Galen, the first-century physiologist credited with introducing experimental medicine, made incorrect conclusions about the function of vital organs like the liver and the heart (for instance, that the heart was the furnace of the body and the place where blood and air mixed). For nearly fifteen hundred years medical fundamentalists did not question Galen’s assumptions, until Vesalius came along and asked some questions that opened the way to better medical understanding.

Newton was a kind of scientific bully. So certain was he of his own theories about light, that scientific fundamentalists did not even consider alternative views (like the wave theory of light) until well after his death. As I said—fundamentalisms come in all stripes.

The truth is that we must be suspicious of absolute certainty in order to avoid being trapped in a reality that’s too small. To stimulate creativity and discovery, we should encourage more uncertainty, not less. In fact, quantum mechanics, arguably the most successful scientific theory ever, requires that there will always be some knowledge that cannot be obtained, always some uncertainty. Therefore, even as the university community works to uncover new facts and to develop new theories, it necessarily lives by faith as well as by knowledge— faith as the trust that ambiguity is tolerable, faith that in spite of the fact that our physical universe is not fully knowable, it is no less real and no less worthy of our attention.

Such a habit of mind keeps open a sense of possibility and an eagerness to discover; it embraces uncertainty as the reason why judgment is necessary in our careers and callings; it keeps open channels of communication, even on subjects that make us uncomfortable; and it prevents being frozen in fear of the unknown.

In the same way that we have developed tools of reason to help craft greater certainty in what is known, the university community should seek also to develop tools of wisdom to support our faith when we are in depths beyond our capacity for certainty. Here’s hoping that Emory will always be about the freedom for uncertainty, the love of wisdom, and the courage of faith.



 © 2006 Emory University