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Steve Murray
Steve Murray
3 months ago

I think there are two different ideas here, and intertwining them may not be as useful as the author might hope.
The first idea is one of tolerance; of dissent, of difference, of agreeing to disagree. Tolerance, however imperfectly implemented, has been the basis of the liberal democracies which have arisen from the Enlightenment.
The second idea is perhaps more fundamental, the concept of chaos. One form of chaos was popularised in the movie Jurassic Park, the idea of the butterfly wingbeat causing a hurricane on the other side of the world. But there’s another form of chaos, one in which there’s no cause and/or effect, only randomness.
Humans tend to shy away from this latter idea, because there’s a very basic need to feel in control of at least some aspect of our lives; of our selves. The major religions and ideologies all seek to provide answers to try to quell the possibility of utter randomness. Scientific endeavour tries to do the same, but as far as can be established has thus far only demonstrated that randomness is the essential ingredient in the universe.
I find myself in agreement with the author in one key regard. It is possible to embrace chaos; that is, to try to grasp the randomness within which we’ve achieved consciousness of ourselves, and not to be afraid of it. It’s not a question of disputing the certainty with which some try to persuade others, rather the acceptance that what brought our species to the point where the Enlightenment could take root has been entirely due to randomness – and that’s why it should be embraced.
Those religions, orthodoxies and constructs which deny any possibility that they’re mistaken seem to be taking more of a grip on populations, perhaps as a result of the greater complexities of our lives involved with technological change. If our evolution has anything to teach us, it’s that entrenchment will not prevail. I think that’s what the author is getting at.

Julian Farrows
Julian Farrows
3 months ago
Reply to  Steve Murray

While I agree with you in theory, recent history shows that those with tolerant attitudes are losing out to those with wholly intolerant attitudes.

Steve Murray
Steve Murray
3 months ago
Reply to  Julian Farrows

Yes, that’s the point i’ve made in my last paragraph, but with reference to a wider perspective.

AJ Mac
AJ Mac
3 months ago
Reply to  Steve Murray

I don’t think the compounded ripple or butterfly effect of the Jurassic Park variety is the same is chaos. Uncertainty, yes. But also of deep, inextricable interrelationship. Interbeing, though of an unpredictable and even inscrutable kind.
To me, this is the primary conflation, or questionable mixture of the article: Uncertainty vs. Chaos. I landed on this opinion after reading your useful remarks. We can embrace uncertainty without going so far as “embracing” chaos, let alone encouraging or fomenting it. Humans must–or at least will–impose some sense of order and pattern, even there is none. Even the freest music, the wildest architecture, the weirdest food has provisional tendencies or “rules” that distinguish from sheer chaos.
Now, living in denial of or running from the reality of deep uncertainty–and the inevitable shadow of actual chaos–will not make them go away. Nearly all of us have tried that already. But how do we “need to be more successful as a species” as Timandra Harkness proposes, in rather uncertain terms? In a collective sense: Are we not rather too successful by quite a few measures already: too numerous, too long-lived, too dominant of the natural world?* Then again, these are the god-like powers that the creator confers on mankind in the archetypal story of Genesis: dominion over the Earth, and the power of naming things. The institution of order: just or unjust; illusory or real.
And it was Chaos and Formlessness that reigned before the first purposeful motion of the Lord, according to the earliest known depiction in Hebrew scripture, which presents a shifting, uncertain picture of YHWH, across dozens of books. But our uncertainty, which arguably mirrors the uncertainty or changeability of Heaven itself, does not amount to a world of utter or prevailing chaos.
I like Ms. Harkness’s exploration, which pretends to no undue or ill-placed certainty. She concludes that there is a hierarchy of ideas, without crude politicization or false knowingness. She avoids unhelpful specificity in a way that is fitting here. Many of us could stand to take a line or two from her approach.
By the way: Has anyone here read or started reading Uncertainty: The Wisdom and Wonder of Being Unsure by Maggie Jackson? And, if so, is it good? I’d like to reduce the sense of randomness or Amazonian wildness that swirls around my eventual yea or nay.
*Of course we can succeed better at the individual or community level. But success has an uncertain definition that should not be limited to some material optimization or productivity metric.

Steve Murray
Steve Murray
3 months ago
Reply to  AJ Mac

I can agree with much of that. It’s possibly why i began with “chaos” (as did the article) and settled on “randomness”, which i think is a little different from “uncertainty”.
It’s possible that discussion of these distinctions may seem arcane to some readers, but as you allude to in your last paragraph, there’s a real sense of confronting these concepts (for want of a better word) and it not only seems to me to be a healthy thing to do but something that’s necessary to prevent ourselves from falling into dogmatic traps, of which there are many, and which are only too apparent in the swirl of social media and ideological straightjackets.

AJ Mac
AJ Mac
3 months ago
Reply to  Steve Murray

Nicely said. Full agreement.

Warren Trees
Warren Trees
3 months ago
Reply to  AJ Mac

I like your response. However, the earth is full of examples of complete order and predictability. The tides of the sea and the stars in the sky are two calming examples. Others include the migratory patterns of birds and the seasons, where the budding of trees during spring and the shedding of leaves in the fall provide stability against the chaos introduced by other natural events such as volcanoes and hurricanes. The mating rituals of various animal species have stayed the same for eons. The very slow heating and cooling cycles of the atmosphere, which occur over tens of thousands of years, are yet another reminder of the order that exists in our world. Technology has certainly impacted the magnitude and speed of change taking place, but focusing on the natural world certainly helps me stay calm about what it happening today.

AJ Mac
AJ Mac
3 months ago
Reply to  Warren Trees

I agree that there is great, even immense order in things both animated and inert. I don’t agree that there is much support for “complete predictability” (perhaps the adjective was meant only for “order” but I read “complete order and complete predictability”). Even the migratory patterns of some birds have been changed, for example by prolonged drought or excessive, manmade nighttime brightness. Then, a new flight pattern takes place, and the birds may need to fight group self-perpetuation in an increasingly people-inhabited, man-altered environment.
As to nature’s great calming effects: amen. I need to get back to the edge of the Pacific and out in the woods again soon. Neither is far from where I live but I don’t go often enough, especially since our global anxiety and madness was ratcheted up in 2020. Not that we were united in 2019, but man are things worse overall. Nature’s beauty, and our mostly predictable heartbeats, abide.

Saul D
Saul D
3 months ago

Our sense of what is right and wrong is based on what we have learnt in the past. Social learning based on prior experiences and outcomes is what drives our sense of morality and what is right – so tolerance is better than intolerance. Justice and due process are better than arbitrary prosecution and detention. Debate is better than silence.
The current sense of impotent chaos comes from pressure to undo or reverse strong common understandings as ‘progress’ in chasing gossamer theories. Men can become women. Censorship over free speech. Racial division instead of equality. Journalism that suppresses news. Law that is used not to settle disputes, but as war to impale enemies.Technocracies that see us subjects to be corralled not citizens in command. Doctors who create illnesses, not health. We become destablised because we can no longer tell if our own personal truths are allowed. We hold our tongue for fear of sensitivities rather than expect a shared bawdy robustness and resilience of a rough-and-tumble life. The chaos is the hair-trigger minefield when sometimes we should just say what we believe is right.

Terry Raby
Terry Raby
3 months ago
Reply to  Saul D

Our sense of right and wrong is based the universals of human nature. For example, 18 month olds will clearly protest against unfairness (“Just Babies” – Paul Bloom). Sexual jealousy is built into all humans (activating in particular circumstances) and has a corresponding morality – “sexual intercourse outside the partnership is wrong.” The fundamentals are delivered by evolution, by nature, and are subject to refinement, socially and logically. But as you observe, refinement has nothing to do with abandoning nature altogether – which is of course impossible.

Simon Neale
Simon Neale
3 months ago

Since we live in an uncertain and unpredictable world, and humans have evolved to survive and thrive in it, why do we crave certainty? Wouldn’t we be more successful as a species if our default mode were to assume that everything was uncertain, and that we need to be constantly vigilant to anticipate the next thing we’ll have to deal with?

We do assume everything is uncertain, and then work astonishingly hard to create certainty out of it. We are descended from the successful ones, the ones who were constantly on the watch against predators, and who thought they could have it all in terms of the best resources and mate-selection. The ones who weren’t constantly vigilant are the ones who thought that they didn’t need to bother so much about rearing their children.

Malcolm Webb
Malcolm Webb
3 months ago

Death and taxes are two certainties. Seeking to usefully delay the first and minimise the negative impact of the second seem to me to be reasonable targets to help inform our attempts to deal with the manifest uncertainties in our lives, not all of which are necessarily bad. Furthermore, often against the odds, very many find love – and that is a tremendous, if inherently uncertain, blessing which can compensate for the bad things which almost certainly will happen.

Alan Thorpe
Alan Thorpe
3 months ago

We would not have survived as hunter gatherers without the knowing how to live with uncertainty. Once civilisation arrived there was a belief that uncertainty had been reduced by the ability to farm and build secure cities. But then we discovered that the weather influenced farming and have become convinced we can control the weather. We have also come to believe that by electing leaders that they can remove all other uncertainty, and in particular economic and health uncertainty. Only one thing is certain and that is the human race has lost touch with reality and prefers a belief in a fantasy world.

AJ Mac
AJ Mac
3 months ago
Reply to  Alan Thorpe

Good point. The enchanted worlds or animistic religions of pre-modern peoples–or a few of their distant descendants–reflect that sense of ambient uncertainty, to which some uncertain motive or purpose was still assigned. I contend that we remain in a state of greater existential mystery and uncertainty than those of the hyper-rationalist mindset are willing to admit.

Robert Paul
Robert Paul
3 months ago

In the spirit of the essay, I am open to being challenged, but isn’t one of the fundamental truths of some religions is that there is a non-material, unmeasureable reality, wherein lies Eternal Truth and non-randomness and bedrock certainty? Even if it is not falsifiable, isn’t a belief in this transcendent reality provide some comfort in the face of chaos?

Wyatt W
Wyatt W
3 months ago
Reply to  Robert Paul

Absolutely. For Christians (and Jews I suppose), the book of Ecclesiastes tackles this. It’s a fascinating read every time, and happens to be my favorite book of the Bible.

jane baker
jane baker
2 months ago
Reply to  Wyatt W

Proverbs. All total common sense and true. If you do stupid things you will.die. Should be spoken at the funeral of every drug overdoser or first time ecstasy taker. Or railway track runner across. Or food allergy sufferer on Uber eats.

jane baker
jane baker
2 months ago
Reply to  Robert Paul

It does because if you believe that this is all there is then whoever controls this,controls you. All through history rulers of all sorts have always hated people who even when willing to obey temporal laws and be good citizens nevertheless claim their actual real allegiance is to a higher power or goal or reality. Even if those people of whatever faith it be,are not seditious and disruptive,they still garner the wrath of the rulers,as we have seen time + time again and will do again.

Warren Trees
Warren Trees
3 months ago

I guess I have reached a ripe old age whereby we have come full circle in our analysis of global affairs. When I was younger, most of what the author laments was accepted as the norm. Politicians even had a decorum and allowed their opponents to finish a sentence before attacking them.
Then we went 180 degrees in the opposite direction under the banner of “progressivism”. Now we are waxing romantically about returning to the days of civility in public discourse and open mindedness. I think it will only degrade even further until we reach a state of totalitarianism.
By the way, are terms like aleatory uncertainty, epistemic uncertainty and automaticity real? 🙂

Mark epperson
Mark epperson
3 months ago

Right on! Unfortunately, for most people, certainty is now synonymous with government. Add security to that and the knowledge that the daily Latte is not in danger is all they need. The Media is owned by the left so there is no real counterpoint or any serious investigative journalism that would upset the daily Latte. However, we are starting to see chinks in the very thin armor, witness the Presidents of Harvard and Penn, and soon MIT. Once through the thin veneer, it will start to come down like dominoes. What we need is Chaos, and from the hard-working essential folks that actually believe in freedom of speech, human rights, non-discrimination, and the right to live and let live. It can be done.

jane baker
jane baker
2 months ago
Reply to  Mark epperson

I was brought up not to trust the government of then or now,and then it actually wasn’t so bad,we.still had a lot of principled politicians. What I find immensely sad are the people who haven’t yet caught up. I hear them on radio phone ins. They are saying my autistic son hasn’t been to school for two years because I’m still waiting for the local authority to schedule his assessment but every time I ring they say the officer in charge of the case is off work now,ring in a few weeks time.
Some people just can’t take a hint.

Right-Wing Hippie
Right-Wing Hippie
3 months ago

“This year, give her the gift of primordial chaos.”

Richard Craven
Richard Craven
3 months ago

Karl Popper was right. We need to stop tolerating the woke skum.

Michael Lucken
Michael Lucken
3 months ago

Reminiscent of the Jordan Peterson theme of walking the border between order and chaos being the optimal path.

jane baker
jane baker
2 months ago

I think she wrote this sat on the toilet,on toilet roll probably. What a load of rubbish. Your life is being made progressively worse by the deliberate choices of politicians you didn’t vote for and wealthy industrialists who make no secret that they want to eliminate you to Save The Planet. But don’t complain,don’t rail against it,dont try to ameliorate the situation or even amend it. Just accept it and learn to love it. Think of your unknown 30 times great grandma + grandma back in the year 1000AD. Their life was pretty shit but did THEY complain.