The School of Uncertainty

As other schools maintain that some things are certain, others uncertain, we, differing with them, say that some things are probable, others improbable. (Cicero, De Officiis 2.7)

Here is a thought experiment: let’s suppose that we completely removed the concepts of ‘certainty’ and ‘uncertainty’ from our mental toolkit. Never again could we claim to be absolutely sure or confident of anything. Instead, we would be compelled to reckon the truth or falsity of everything on the basis of probability.

For Cicero, exclaiming that I am ‘absolutely certain’ of anything represents the height of foolishness. No matter how much I observe, no matter how much data I collect, no matter how many research papers I read, my conclusion is inherently limited to the observation and knowledge of one finite and flawed individual. Therefore, certainty, says Cicero, should have no place at all in our thinking or speech. When we affirm a proposition, we ought to only give consent to the likelihood of its truth given the information we possess at present. All certainty must give way to contingency. Who knows what else we might learn later to inform us further on the matter? Who knows what else we might be missing right now? Wisdom compels us to reject certainty. There is no absolute truth, only probabilities.

In practice, this approach can come with a sizeable social cost. If we adopt Cicero’s advice and become probabilists we are likely to find ourselves in one awkward ‘no man’s land’ after another. Probabilists live in a twilight zone, usually alienated by both sides of the debate on just about every controversial issue. For example, let’s consider what ‘actually happened’ on September 11, 2001. On the basis of probability, we would be compelled to calculate that the likelihood of a government conspiracy or cover up to be greater or less than fifty percent. But we cannot be 100% certain one way or another. Nor can we ever be certain. This puts us in the unfortunate position of having no allies. Conspiracy theorists will see us as mindless sheep swallowing the official story. Adherents of the official report will see us as fringe, ignorant quacks. This is the price we pay for rejecting certainty.

If you approach truth as a measure of probability, you might find yourself in argument with just about everyone else. At least this was the case for Cicero. He accepts that, “our school argues against everything” (2.8). This is to be expected when just about every other school is founded on surety and principle beliefs that are unquestionable and non-negotiable. Absolutism and probabilism mix like oil and water.

The probabilist is often that one lone voice on the committee who seems to impede everything with their chronic hesitation. Indeed, if you put a probabilist on a task force with bunch of people devoted to the cause, the probabilist may seem like a counterproductive dissident to the mission at hand. Most probablists do not like participating in campaigns or crusades: they are constantly haunted by that nagging little 1% of uncertainty. There is always a question in their minds as to whether or not this is actually an appropriate course of action.

However, if we follow Cicero’s advice and trade certainty for probability, we must still live and make decisions in the real world. We must do things even though we are plagued by unanswerable questions. We must walk the line of commitment without falling into dogmatism.

What, then, is to hinder me from accepting what seems to me to be probable, while rejecting what seems to be improbable, and from shunning the presumption of dogmatism, while keeping clear of that recklessness of assertion which is as far as possible removed from true wisdom? (2.8)

Today, according to Cicero, living wisely means living with uncertainty and putting probability into action.

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