(Yosh Ginsu)

What Earthquakes Teach Us About Embracing Uncertainty

As a species, we don’t do well with randomness and uncertainty. The thought of not knowing agitates us and puts us on edge. The tension between the apparent haphazardness we see around us and our desire for control is palpable. Unable to accept random chance as an explanation for any number of terrible things that may happen, we seek out the why. We yearn for the inexplicable events in our lives to fit into a larger pattern we can understand.

Similar to the more academic-sounding apophenia—which describes our proclivity to erroneously perceive connections between unrelated things—Michael Shermer, historian of science and founder of The Skeptics Society, coined the term “patternicity” to describe the human tendency to find meaningful patterns in meaningless noise. Shermer points out, “Our brains are belief engines: evolved pattern-recognition machines that connect the dots and create meaning out of the patterns that we think we see in nature. Sometimes A really is connected to B; sometimes it is not. When it is, we have learned something valuable about the environment from which we can make predictions that aid in survival and reproduction.”

While patternicity was a valuable tool that evolved with our ancestors to increase survival, it also causes us to see patterns where none exist: Orion and Pegasus in the stars, a cloud shaped like a dolphin, the face of Jesus in a potato chip. These particular examples are quite lighthearted, but our search for patterns can be problematic. Convinced that we can’t handle disaster, we seek a guide in hopes of avoiding pain because we lack the life skills necessary to navigate uncertainty on our own.

In a recent lecture at the Carnegie Institution for Science, seismologist Lucy Jones discussed the way in which natural disasters have shaped our culture. Referring to “The Big Ones” (also the name of her newest book), the natural events that have enough destructive power to reshape society, Dr. Jones explains, “The best fit to the data is that it’s random. And we hate it. Random makes people really upset. . . . how do you make yourself safe if you have no idea when it’s coming?”

[Read “America Needs to Build Strong Towns, Not More Infrastructure“]

The Random Universe

Believing nearly anything at all about the universe on a large scale requires that we submit to uncertainty. Can we be sure that any event is random or are we—being limited in both time and understanding—simply unable to see the bigger picture?

Seeking to find a unified “Theory of Everything,” many scientists have turned to M-theory which argues that there are an infinite number of universes (collectively referred to as the ‘multiverse’) that produce an infinite number of outcomes, including a universe which is exactly, and randomly, fine-tuned to support our existence. Despite the elegance and simplicity of the math, M-theory does not, and may never, have any experimental proof to support it.

Religionists, on the other hand, may argue that every event is carefully directed by an all-knowing, all-powerful God. While this idea can be hard to swallow for someone on the receiving end of trite platitudes (“It’s all part of God’s plan.”) in times of hardship, it also provides comfort to many. But just like M-theory, it lacks experimental proof.

Deepak Chopra proposes an alternate theory which lies somewhere between these two extremes. Arguing that the universe is too finely tuned to be random and rejecting the idea of a “supernatural God in the sky,” Chopra endorses a self-organizing universe in which “each new layer of creation must regulate the prior layer.” It’s an intriguing and beautiful idea that imbues the universe with consciousness and suggests that “even when a new creation appears to be random, purpose is invoked, beginning with the overarching purpose of homeostasis, the dynamic balance of all parts into a whole.” But it too lacks proof.

Suffice it to say, whatever you believe, we just don’t know. Uncertainty is an inherent fact of life.

[Read “In Physics, Beauty Doesn’t Equal Truth“]

‘You’re Probably Going to Survive’

While we can’t foresee all the trials we may face, we can prepare ourselves to handle them. We can start by learning from disasters of the past. Although speaking about developing resilience to natural disasters, Dr. Jones outlines several key lessons that can guide us in facing any type of overwhelming challenge.

First, you are probably going to live through the disaster. We think of the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 CE as an unmitigated catastrophe. The images in our mind contain plumes of hot ash and streams of lava rushing towards the city of Pompeii, burying all of the inhabitants, killing them instantly. While the eruption was certainly a terrible event, some scholars estimate that up to ninety percent of the residents of Pompeii were able to escape the city at the first signs of trouble, though little is known about their fate after the evacuation. For the most part, even the events that we view as cataclysmic are survivable.  

A second and perhaps more important lesson is that our most constant response to disaster is blame. Our inability to accept randomness as an explanation causes us to seek out a pattern even though none exists. In ancient Greece, the blame for disaster was placed squarely on the pantheon of gods and goddesses who frequently fought each other, inadvertently putting human bystanders in the middle of their heavenly battles. In the Judeo-Christian tradition, stories like those of Noah’s flood and the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah make it clear that humans are not merely innocent spectators, but are instead sinful beings who have incurred the wrath of God—inviting disaster as a result of our immorality.

Despite the change in thinking that debuted in the New Testament—in Luke 13, Jesus points out that those who die in accidents or disasters are no worse than anyone else—this type of Old Testament mindset persists. It encourages us to attribute disasters to the “sins” of others so we can discern a way to avoid it in the future. Of course, this is simply a rejection of randomness and uncertainty, an embrace of patternicity that provides a false sense of safety.

[Read “As Atheists and Believers, We Need Deeper Reverence for Mystery“]

The Problem of Total Security

What’s wrong with assurance? Why shouldn’t we feel safe and secure in our lives? Author Tony Fahkry argues, “The fear of ‘not knowing’ what lies ahead impedes our long-term welfare. At a deeper level, fear of the future terrifies us because of the unfamiliar conditions which lie ahead. It interferes with attaining emotional freedom.” If the uncertainty that comes with living creates such anxiety, why not let patternicity quell those fears? Because, at the other end of the spectrum, creating an illusion of safety results in the same problem—it hampers our emotional freedom, or our ability to manage our feelings rather than be controlled by them, and prevents us from living fully.  

Nowhere is this harm better illustrated than in Lois Lowry’s novel The Giver. Set in what appears to be, initially, a utopian society where all pain has been taken away, the novel explores the problems that stem from removing uncertainty in life in favor of complete security. As the narrative progresses, we realize that conversion to “Sameness” has removed all emotion, color, and love from the world. When twelve-year-old Jonas is selected to become the Receiver of Memory, he sees snow, a rainbow, and war for the first time and is shocked to discover what the world was like before “Sameness”. Ultimately, Jonas and his mentor, The Giver, decide that these memories must be restored—released to the public when Jonas departs the community, leaving The Giver to guide them as they receive these new and sometimes painful memories—because it is only in the uncertainty and messiness of life that the members of their community will find true freedom and happiness.

[Read “Building a Faith Community Without Belief in God“]

Why Embrace Uncertainty?

Nichiren, a thirteenth-century Buddhist priest, described life as “an elusive reality that transcends both the words and concepts of existence and nonexistence. It is neither existence nor nonexistence, yet exhibits the qualities of both.”

Fundamentally, life itself is uncertainty. To fail to embrace it is to fail to truly live.

The idea of embracing uncertainty is not new. We see it in the middle way of Buddhism, a golden mean that lies between the excesses (and certainty) of extremes, beautifully explained by author and meditation teacher Jack Kornfield:

“In the middle way, we come to rest in the reality of the present, where all the opposites exist. When we discover the middle path, we neither remove ourselves from the world nor get lost in it.  We can be with all our experience in its complexity, with our own exact thoughts and feelings and drama as it is. We learn to embrace tension, paradox, change. Instead of seeking resolution, waiting for the chord at the end of a song, we let ourselves open and relax in the middle. In the middle we discover that the world is workable.”

We see it in the wisdom of Socrates. Journalist Mark Vernon argues,

“The genius of Plato’s Socrates was to embrace ordinary human uncertainty and doubt, and fashion it into a flourishing way of life. He recognized that to be human is typically to be ignorant, though unlike other animals, the human creature can become conscious of his or her lack. And contrary to what the doctrinaire believe, therein lies something immensely valuable. A developed sense of what lies beyond us powers human innovation and creativity. A disciplined desire to reach out for more is the refinement of love. A subtle understanding of the limits of knowledge is the beginning of wisdom.”

Despite the all too common insistence on codified dogma and truth claims prevalent today, if you were to comb through the texts of any of the world’s major religions, you would find examples of people discovering “ease and grace” by embracing uncertainty.

It would seem, therefore, that the collective wisdom of the ages echoes Pema Chödrön’s belief that “the root of suffering is resisting the certainty that no matter what the circumstances, uncertainty is all we truly have.”

[Read “We Can Never Know Whether Something Is Good or Bad, and That’s Okay“]

Avoiding Learned Helplessness

Acknowledging that there is uncertainty in life, that some things happen randomly and without pattern, doesn’t mean that we should feel helpless, incapable of changing our situation. The belief that a negative event is permanent can develop into learned helplessness, which has been linked to depression and anxiety. Even as we come to accept the unpredictability of the world, and although we cannot always prevent them, we have the ability to respond to the random events that impact our lives.

And here we return to two more essential life prescriptions from Dr. Jones:

  1. Disaster is really about recovery.
  2. People will determine what happens.

Whether we’re facing a natural disaster, a health scare, or any number of catastrophes which can shake us to our very core, how we respond is what ultimately matters. Being uncertain, acknowledging doubt, and understanding that randomness is part of life does not mean we can’t direct our lives. Knowing that change is the only constant can help us develop a resiliency that allows us to function after disaster strikes.

Much like Jonas and The Giver, we should see the inherent chaos around us as an opportunity rather than a hindrance. For as often as it brings disaster, it also brings unexpected joy.

Nicole Carloni

Nicole is a public health professional who specializes in global health and infectious disease. Her other interests are wide-ranging and include theoretical physics, history and feminism. In her spare time she enjoys traveling, hiking and discussing politics with friends.

2 thoughts on “What Earthquakes Teach Us About Embracing Uncertainty

  • An excellent piece of writing Nicole. Well thought out!


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