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The Wisdom of Uncertainty

“Humans may crave absolute certainty; they may aspire to it; they may pretend, as partisans of certain religions do, to have attained it.

But the history of science- by far the most successful claim to knowledge accessible to humans – teaches that the most we can hope for is successive improvement in our understanding, learning from our mistakes, an asymptotic approach to the universe, but with the proviso that absolute certainty will always elude us.” ~ Carl Sagan

The ability to question things can be an art form. Healthy skepticism is a boon in a world that bombards us with so much information. It teaches us self-astonishment, where instead of trying to possess Truth we are possessed by it.

“Asking the proper question is the central action of transformation,” writes Clarissa Pinkola Estes. “The key question causes germination of consciousness. Questions are the keys that cause the secret doors of the psyche to swing open.”

When we think we have all the answers, we become stuck in our “knowledge,” which is a safe and comfortable place for our egos, but a lousy place for individuation. Let us instead take the road less traveled by digging up the road most traveled and planting seeds there.

Let yourself doubt. Let yourself break. Become a prism where all the shattered places can shine light onto the shadow, transforming it into a resurrected beacon of hope. There is insecurity there, but there is also wisdom.

Like Thomas Merton wrote, “In a world of tension and breakdown, it is necessary for there to be those who seek to integrate their inner lives not by avoiding anguish and running away from problems, but by facing them in their naked reality and in their ordinariness.”

We must ask ourselves, are the walls of my comfort zone elastic and pliant or rigid and dogmatic. Are the lines I’ve drawn in the sand of my soul flexible and open-minded or inflexible and close-minded? Are the “answers” I’ve found open to questioning, or are they closed to myopic regurgitation?

Those who live “examined lives” understand that humans fail, and failing means that sometimes we need to change.

If we need someone else to guide us through that change, like a therapist, a coach, or a spiritual adviser, that’s fine. But being mindful of our insecurities and doubts helps remind us to embrace change and to discover the courage it takes to adapt and overcome.

Doubt by Misha Gordon

Like Chuang Tzu wrote: “The perfect man employs his mind as a mirror; it grasps nothing; it refuses nothing; it receives, but does not keep.”

The highest wisdom lies in this type of counter-intuitive detachment, in accepting that there is no permanence, and then being proactive about what it means to be an impermanent entity adapting to an impermanent reality.

Understand: Most things exist along a roller-coaster ride of degrees. Human definitions are not as black and white as we’d like them to be. They’re ambiguously gray and often imprecise. The borders around an idea are mostly an illusion, permeable and ever-changing; more like horizons than boundaries.

Demanding that the universe adhere to our definitions is one of our greatest human fallacies. It’s as if we’re asking the universe to stand still so that we can be certain about our ideas in order to justify our definitions.

But the universe is not designed to match our expectations.

Like David McRaney wrote, “You can’t improve the things you love if you never allow them to be imperfect.”

On a long enough timeline of questioning reality, the attachment we feel toward the groups to which we belong, the ideas to which we cling, and the institutions to which we pledge ourselves, drops to zero. But it is in this zero-point, this singularity of self, where wisdom and acumen are most abundant.

Ultimately, by embracing the vicissitudes of life, we leave ourselves open to further realizing our potential for obtaining truth. The wisdom of uncertainty is precisely the openness to further question certainty itself, thereby coming up with ever-new, ever-evolving “Truth.”

Like the great Rollo May said, “We must be fully committed, but we must also be aware at the same time that we might possibly be wrong. Our commitment to an idea is healthiest when it is not without doubt, but in spite of doubt.”

Gary Z McGee
Gary Z McGee
Gary 'Z' McGee, a former Navy Intelligence Specialist turned philosopher, is the author of Birthday Suit of God and The Looking Glass Man. His works are inspired by the great philosophers of the ages and his wide awake view of the modern world.


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Chantelle Roberts

Gary, are you married? ☺️

Anita DeMonte

Very inspiring article. Thanks Gary

Tracey Chen

ooo…good…up to where you put “Truth” in quotation marks, as if it doesn’t most certainly does….it is in each moment…..and it is up to us to discern it…it is up to us to discern right from wrong…it each moment….that is why…i tell them …give up your beLIEfs….because while they live in them, act from them, hide behind them….they are not open to truth at all…the can’t discern at all…so many have sadly clung to some programs that teach them “it’s all good”…’s not.

Michael Giounotti

To have ‘absolute certainty,’ is to absolutely know by scientific means, & to be EXACT, as required in any science experiment, of what is first only a theory…in otherwords being totally provable & accepted by all of science. There is such a science, and a scientific process in which one may become to know ‘absolute certainty.’ It is not a religion, it is a science called the Soul Science, or Science of the Soul. It’s known name is The Brotherhood of the Rosy Cross, or Fraternitas Rosicrucias. This science is called the Great Work, and takes a very long time… Read more »

Beth Gray

I love this one, Gary. Thank you.

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