Welcome to my new blog, Element of Uncertainty! I’ve been thinking about starting it for several months. I’m still not sure I’m ready, but I don’t see a point in waiting.
The title has two meanings for me.
The first is the spirit in which I engage. People tend to be certain of the opinions they publicly share. I’m as susceptible to confirmation bias as anyone, but I do not assume I have finished learning and try to stay open to new truths. So I’m not certain of my opinions — I’m only fairly certain. They are the best thoughts I have today. If tomorrow I am presented with rigorous evidence of a better way to see things, I will push myself to evolve.
The second takes more explaining.
For years I dedicated the bulk of my intellectual energy to formulating a grand unified theory of human behavior. I enlisted in my quest Lao Tzu, Chuang Tzu, the Buddha, Aristotle, the first Isaiah, Ecclesiastes, Shakespeare, Tolstoy, Erich Fromm, Viktor Frankl, Kurt Vonnegut, lots of other thinkers and scribblers, and my trusted friends. An answer eluded me until I was nearly 30, when a poet I knew declared during one of our late-night conversations that we’re all liars, as everyone who recognized the difference between their private and public selves understood.
That was pretty unified.
But it wasn’t satisfying. There had to be more. Walking to work the next few mornings, I wondered what compels us to lie. I didn’t make any progress — distractions, distractions — until one morning the answer came out of nowhere, like lightning on a cloudless day.
Because we’re vulnerable.
We are vulnerable because we have needs. Biological needs: air, water, food, shelter, warmth. After that, psychological needs: context, meaning, dignity, safety, stability. We can never take these things for granted, even if we’ve had them all our lives. Always, always, our well-being is uncertain.
(Turns out I would have saved a lot of time by reading Abraham Maslow instead of all those other people.)
In the many years since that morning I’ve grown more convinced that uncertainty, with its ominous implications, is our ultimate shared reality — what we really mean when we refer to the human condition — and that much, perhaps all, of what we do, lying included, is intended to protect us against each other and the random, indifferent universe.
Our self-protective strategies take infinite form, but — borrowing from former UC Berkeley economics professor Carlo Cipolla’s brilliant, irrefutable, and only somewhat tongue-in-cheek paper The Basic Laws of Human Stupidity, which I would link to if it weren’t the subject of a copyright battle — can be lumped into four categories:
Smart strategies reduce the vulnerability of the individual and others.
Selfish strategies reduce the individual’s vulnerability but increase the vulnerability of others.
Masochistic strategies increase the individual’s vulnerability but reduce the vulnerability of others.
And stupid strategies increase the vulnerability of the individual and others.
Cipolla’s first basic law of human stupidity states that “Always and inevitably everyone underestimates the number of stupid individuals in circulation.”
Which, speaking of unified theories, pretty much explains the state of society.
From an early age I was told it’s important to be smart, so I have dedicated myself to seeking and (to the degree I can) embodying smart responses to the human condition. When I began working in risk management at UC Berkeley 22 years ago, I considered it a job. But I have since come to see it as right livelihood, an effort to minimize the casualties typically associated with top-end education, research, and public service.
Of course I fail professionally. I fail personally too. But knowing error is inevitable, I try to make my mistakes on the side of kindness, generosity, nonviolence, and humility. The closest I come to having an ideology is the conviction that we need to reduce suffering — and that everyone is suffering, even Donald Trump, whose torment compels him to tweet when normal billionaire presidents are waiting for their ED pills to kick in.
That’s not to say I feel sorry for Trump. I have difficulty sympathizing with any wealthy or powerful person whose responses to the human condition are so selfish and stupid.
But I know his viciousness is a timeless response to uncertainty. And I know the smart individuals in circulation — quite possibly more than everyone has estimated — have been resisting responses like his, with some success, for thousands of years. More on that next time.