The only certainty is uncertainty

Certainty holds sway. We are under its spell. The desire for certainty seems to pervade everything. But is certainty just a side-effect of rationalism, of our obsession with scientific knowing, where everything is seen as a set of reducible parts.

If we see the world as if it were a machine, understand everything as if it were predictable and mechanical – the brain as a computer, nature as a set of rules, organisations as well-oiled machines – then of course we will see the world as controllable in the same way that machines are. If we pull this lever, we will get that result.

If we are taught that everything can be understood by taking it apart, that everything can be measured, even if we don’t have the instruments to measure it, that if we can’t measure it then it doesn’t exist, then of course we believe the world is entirely knowable and therefore certain.

But what does experience tell us? Surely we all experience the living of life as an unfolding, emerging, ever-changing series of cause and effect events. Life is far from certain, interrupted as it so frequently is with unexpected events which shift us from going there to going somewhere else. As John Lennon so wisely said: “Life is what happens when you were planning to do something else”. Of course, things don’t happen randomly. The future is in many ways scoped by the past. The road outside my house will still be there tomorrow, so my way to work will be the same as it was yesterday. But I still can’t be absolutely certain the road will be there tomorrow, or what state it might be in. The probability that it will be the same is very high, but I can’t be absolutely certain.

Why do we assume certainty is possible? It seems to me we are mostly living under an illusion – the illusion of control, which is rooted in the idea that things are certain. We continue to make elaborate plans, even when we know plans rarely work out as expected. We become impatient because life doesn’t meet our expectations, when there was no real basis for those expectations in the first place. We hold hard to a need to be right.

Doesn’t it make more sense to admit that the world is complex, inter-related and mostly not like a machine, more like an organism, changing, unfolding, where taking things apart to understand them also takes apart their emergent characteristics, their ‘greater than the sum of its parts’ essence? Would you search for someone’s personality by taking their body to pieces?

If we admit this, doesn’t it liberate us, freeing us to welcome what emerges, see the unexpected as opportunity, be experimental with life, let go of the need to be right, aspire to an outcome rather than setting a specific goal, plan only to get to next base and then take stock, being ready to reconsider in the light of the unexpected, admitting the world is complex and probably impossible to fully understand?

And isn’t there a lot more potential for fun in this, in being holistic, systemic, emergent? The only certainty is uncertainty, so better to play with this than pretend it isn’t so.

Beyond Complicated

Complicated systems are systems that have been designed by human beings. Assuming they work, they do what they were designed to do. They are predictable. When they go wrong, because we built the system, we can find the fault because we know how to analyse the system to find the problem. Once we find the problem, there the solution will be. We tend to call such systems ‘machines’ because that is what they are – mechanical things. There is beauty in their simplicity, even when it is very complicated like a jet-engine.

Complex systems are different. They were not deliberately designed. Parts of them may have been, but other factors have crept in – often in the form of human beings, or circumstances or chance. These systems are about relationships, not things. They may do what we expect, but they are not predictable. Unpredictable events emerge. When things go wrong, there may be many causes. To put things right, there may be many possible ways to proceed. Such systems are messy, complex and uncertain. There is beauty in their complexity, like a City, but this also makes it hard for us to know what to do when such systems are not working.

The prevailing way of thinking, based on the machine/thing view of the world, assumes that analysis will always find the ‘one true cause’ which in turn will lead to ‘the one true answer’. Measurement, analysis, tools, predictability – these are the assumptions of the prevailing mindset.

Many of us recognise that the complexity of the world cannot be so simply understood or corrected. What we are dealing with may be too complex to ever be fully understood. We know it doesn’t make sense to pretend that a complex, multi-faceted problem can be simplified and solved. We need different assumptions and beliefs, different approaches to make sense of this complexity, to make decisions, to solve problems.

We need to free our thinking – liberate ourselves from this mistake of the intellect by learning new ways of seeing and acting which respond effectively to complexity, messiness and uncertainty.

System Change journal launched

Interdisciplinary systems theory and practice for a sustainable world

We are delighted to announce that the first issue of System Change, our online, open-access journal is now available

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The theme for this first special issue is ‘Sharing the Planet in the Anthropocene’. We welcome contributions for future issues - please see the 'About' tab on the site for full details of what the journal is for and how you may get involved.