The 4 Uncertainties

The 4 Uncertainties are a set of principles that I use to help make sense of the world. To me, they are nothing more than common sense, but I have discovered that they are not so intuitive as I had at first thought. I once made a comment in a class that one of my goals in life was to introduce more uncertainty into the world. At the time, I was surprised that this comment would be taken in a negative light, but I shouldn’t have been. Now, I am setting aside this space to explain and to give examples in the hopes that what makes so much sense to me will make sense to others as well.

Before explaining what the 4 Uncertainties are, let me first say what they are not. They are not a means for me to stay on the fence about everything. I have beliefs, and some of them are quite strong. It is also not in my nature to throw my hands up in the air and declare progress impossible. The 4 Uncertainties are simply guidelines that I make use of to facilitate my piecing together this puzzle called reality.

By understanding these uncertainties, it becomes more clear what can be known with relative certainty and which parts of the puzzle should go first. It’s like looking for the corner and side pieces in a jigsaw puzzle by noting which pieces are missing something. Uncertainty may seem like a negative term, but like finding the pieces of the puzzle that lack something, any piece on the outside, I have come to experience a sensation of joy at every opportunity to apply these principles. As I have followed these guidelines, I have been led to see a different picture of reality and one that I am more happy with than others I have had at different points in my life.


The 4 Uncertainties are as follows:

* Uncertainty #1 Human Fallibility
– The Path of Humility and Courage

* Uncertainty #2 Levels of Understanding
– The Path of Understanding and Wisdom

* Uncertainty #3 Frames of Reference
– The Path of Empathy – The Role of Analogy

* Uncertainty #4 Subjective Experience
– The Path of Forgiveness and Compassion

Links with explanations and examples will come …


The following is what I wrote before on this subject. I want to expand all of these ideas on other pages, but you can read this until I get those other pages up.

Looking in the dictionary for this word is particularly unhelpful when trying to understand what I mean by uncertainty. There, you will see it put together with negative sounding words like doubt, danger, and precariousness. For me though, there is nothing at all negative about it, but nor is it particularly positive. It is simply a way of understanding things. Uncertainty means admitting the possibility, however slight it seems, of being wrong on any issue. It doesn’t mean that I don’t know anything or refuse to believe in anything. It simply means that I recognize that there are other answers to the questions that may end up being correct in the end. In general, this is what I mean by uncertainty.

An example of this could be the fact that the Earth is round. I believe this. I don’t really doubt this in any real sense. However, because of uncertainty, I choose to admit the possibility that it is not round. Earth could be a simulation in a super computer and roundness wouldn’t be a real attribute at all in that case. Perhaps there has been a vast conspiracy by extra-terrestrials to fool us into thinking that the Earth is round instead of square. Maybe all planets are square. Of course, these possibilities seem quite ridiculous, but I can’t know at 100% certainty that the Earth is not actually square. I choose to believe quite strongly that the Earth is round. I have no reason to even entertain other possibilities at this point. It would serve no practical purpose to choose such a random belief as a non-round Earth.

At times, I use uncertainty in other ways as well. Uncertainty can also represent different levels of understanding. For this definition, I personally do not attribute any sense of something being right or wrong, but people that are overly proud of their education may try to show off if they consider themselves to have a higher level of understanding.

Using the same example as above, it may not necessarily be wrong to call the Earth flat. After all, as you walk around outdoors, you rarely have any sense of the Earth curving beneath your feet. For all intents and purposes, the common individual can think of the Earth as being flat and still get along perfectly well with others. They may even understand that the Earth is round, but when conversing with others, they find no need to discuss that level of reality. If someone says that another city is 100 kilometers away, are they talking about a straight line or along the curvature of the Earth? The distance may be measured as a curve by our instruments, but I believe most people are thinking of it as being straight.

At an even higher level, an individual may understand that the Earth is not perfectly spherical but rather an oblate ellipsoid. If you keep going up to higher levels, you discover that scientists are still making discoveries and that the shape of the Earth is not yet perfectly understood. In my experience, if you study any so-called “fact” thoroughly enough, you will eventually come to a place where the experts simply don’t know what comes next. No matter what level your understanding of a principle or concept, it seems like there is always a higher level. Generally speaking, the higher your level, the greater your understanding that there are yet higher levels to which you are not yet able to attain. To me, being at any level of understanding lower than that highest pinnacle implies at least some level of uncertainty.

My third use of the word uncertainty is with regard to subjective experience and frames of reference which will have its own definition on another page. Basically, because there are an infinite number of ways of experiencing any piece of information, the “truth” of any experience is impossible to ascertain and meaningless in my view. All experiences are both equally true and equally false. I’ll give an example, though as I’m thinking of it now, I realize that this category may need to be divided into more categories later.

Are all views of Earth equally “true”? If you view Earth from a particular distance in space, is that equally valid to any other distance? Does Earth have to fill the field of vision to be considered Earth, or could it just be a speck? Or what if you bury your face in the sand and open your eyes? Are you seeing Earth? What if you are facing Asia, South America, or Europe? Are all of these views equally Earth? What if you use different senses other than sight? Which sense of the Earth is Earth? Is it the entirety of all experiences.. but who can have such an experience? Or what about time? Is Earth from 1000 years ago just as much Earth as Earth in 1000 years from now? At what point did this piece of matter become Earth? When will it stop being Earth? What if a giant comet hit the Earth and broke it into multiple pieces? Which piece would be the Earth?

This idea is slightly more difficult to explain, but I think it shouldn’t be too hard to understand. We all have different experiences with .. well, everything. Which of all of our experiences are the “true” ones? Or perhaps it just doesn’t make much sense to talk about truth here. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, right? Because someone else doesn’t see beauty where I do, could I be wrong? Could they? Or is right and wrong not part of it? Some guys are attracted to other guys. Some women have personalities which are generally thought to be male. What makes a man a man and a woman a woman? Who decided that the definition of each should only be anatomical and not take into account all of the other variables?

The point here is that because I only experience my reality from my own frame of reference and nobody else’s, I should not pretend to “know” what everybody or anybody else experiences from their individual frames of reference. I don’t know what red looks like to you. I do not know what a cat’s meow sounds like through your ears. What does salt taste like? Unfortunately for truth seekers, everything comes to us through our senses. Our senses are individually experienced and even science can say virtually nothing about the experiences themselves. According to this version of uncertainty, I understand that I can “know” nothing 100% about any other person’s experiences. Whether or not my experiences match up perfectly to yours though has no bearing on right or wrong, true or false. Ultimately, our experiences may differ, but my experience is still “true” to me at the personal level.

I suppose my definition of uncertainty is some combination of all of the ideas above (1. Willingness to be wrong, 2. Levels of understanding, 3. Frames of reference, and 4. Subjective experience), or maybe it is different definitions at different times. Keeping these in mind, it is still possible to have great confidence in the various “truths” you have chosen in your life. Is the Earth round? 1. I’m pretty sure it is. 2. At the general level, yes. At higher levels, I might need to get more specific. 3. From far enough away and when thinking scientifically, it obviously is, but in my daily life, the Earth is flat except for the hills and valleys which sometimes make it seem otherwise. 4. Sometimes it’s round and sometimes it’s flat, depending on how I’m experiencing the world at the moment. If I’m talking with someone on the other side of the world, it feels round. When I’m walking about the city, it seems rather flat.

Taken as a whole, I can say with great confidence that the Earth is both round and not round at the same time. I can also say that I might be wrong, and if you have another possibility, I am willing to listen. Some that have misunderstood my uncertainty in the past have supposed that I am somehow just sitting around refusing to believe in anything, afraid to make a mistake, or swallowed up in doubts and fears. They think I am sitting on the metaphorical fence, unable to make a decision. The truth is, by choosing uncertainty as a way of life, I have chosen to take a step back and to 1) invite greater humility into my daily life, 2) continuously strive to increase my level of understanding, realizing that there are always higher levels, 3) try and see things from other perspectives, and with regard to people, experience greater empathy, and 4) increase my ability to have compassion for and to forgive others by realizing that we each experience the world differently.

The above could easily be a few dozen blog topics. Please let me know if there is something you would like me to expound more upon with regard to uncertainty and what it means to me.

* I will come back and edit this when I have some time to better show that there are 4 categories and not just 3.

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