Who’s there?

The past is prologue, isn’t it? Or at least it can help to explain how we now think about things -whether we accept the inevitability of uncertainty or flee from it like a pestilence. Of course, nothing can ever be completely certain: the sun may not rise tomorrow and yet we must act as if it will or accept that any plans or dreams we harbour are pointless. On the other hand, certainty itself is a spectrum…

I didn’t mean to bathe uncertainty in such an academic light, but it underlies an age-old schism of thought that I hadn’t appreciated until I happened upon an essay contrasting the views of no less personages than René Descartes, and Shakespeare. Written by Lorenzo Zucca, a professor of law at King’s College London, I felt at times I was attending a seminar on 17th century thought. https://psyche.co/ideas/much-ado-about-uncertainty-how-shakespeare-navigates-doubt   I suppose I was…

That Shakespeare lived in an age of uncertainty is well known; one of the biggest issues was religious conflict. Zucca sets the stage: ‘In the premodern world, religion provided absolute certainty: whatever we knew was implanted in our mind by God. We didn’t have to look any further. Once that system of beliefs started to collapse, Europe was left with a yawning gap. Religion no longer seemed capable to explain the world. René Descartes and Shakespeare, who were contemporaries, gave opposite answers to the sceptical challenge: Descartes believed that our quest for knowledge could be rebuilt and founded on indubitable certainties. Shakespeare, on the other hand, made uncertainty a leitmotiv of all his works, and harnessed its creative power.’

Take Hamlet, for example. ‘The whole play is marked by a deep doubt about how perception can mislead us… This sweeping type of uncertainty, let us call it philosophical doubt, has to do with the limits of human ability to know the world from a subjective viewpoint. How can we be certain that our beliefs are anchored in an indubitable perception? What if we are dreaming or hallucinating? Hamlet is a young philosopher who is incapable of making up his mind about anything.’

And then, of course, there’s Descartes’ Cogito ergo sum -the certainty that although he could be deceived about the truth of what he saw or thought, the fact that there was something that was thinking could not be denied. Certainty could, and did exist, even in the fog of uncertainty that cloaked much else.

But, can we even compare the visions of poetry with the logical assessment of philosophy? Is it merely pears piled on top of potatoes? Can we –should we- accept uncertainty?

Well, according to Zucca, ‘Shakespeare’s vision from uncertainty brings together the imagination of a poet, the judgment of a philosopher, and the creativity of a scientist. Being capable to stare into the abyss without being swiped away emotionally is a great attitude for whoever wishes to further our understanding of the world and the way we live in it.’ After all, ‘Moralising is another way of creating certainty out of chaos, and that would impinge on the view from uncertainty. It would require creating cardboard characters: villains with no redeeming features… Uncertainty makes freedom and creativity possible.’

Zucca asks us to imagine a life of absolute certainty –‘We would know our time and place of death, when we’d fall in love, and what our job would be. Who would be our friends and who the enemies.’ Would that be a life worth living? Maybe ‘Violence and conflicts arise from the confrontation of dogmatic, certainty-obsessed worldviews. The vision from uncertainty asks us to keep making sense of our life without imposing our values over one another.’

In a totally different Magisterium, I suppose, I am reminded of the days when I used to make up little stories to tell my daughter before she went to sleep at night. She loved the fairy-tales that I read from books, of course. She liked the idea that the words printed on the page magically contained the stories -as if pictures and ideas somehow hid inside them and my job was to unveil them for her.

Sometimes, though, she would fold her little arms over her chest and chide me for changing the words, or skipping over parts that she particularly enjoyed. But one time, when we were on a trip in my Volkswagen camper van and I’d forgotten our regular books, I decided to try something different.

“How good are you at imagining things in your head, Cath?”

She looked at me with the perceptivity of a three year old. “Did you lose the fairy book, daddy?” was her first reaction.

“Well, I forgot to bring it, I guess. But would you like to see if you can imagine a new story in your head?”

After looking around me to see if I was just hiding her bedtime book, she sighed theatrically and nodded her head -better a new story than no story was written all over her face.

So I made up a story about the adventures of a little girl, Dorothy, who lived in a bread-box and Catherine loved it so much that she asked me to tell it to her again the next night. But she questioned me before I began.

“Dorothy and I had a nice time last night, daddy. Does she do something different tonight?”

“Are sure you want her to, Cath?” Certainty had seemed her gospel with the fairy-tales. But maybe that was because it came with the assuredness of pre-printed words and pictures. There was an order to them that was hard to circumvent. Dorothy and the breadbox, though, was a different world -a world Catherine had begun to imagine and it was open. Uncertain.

She nodded her head, excitedly. “I can’t wait to watch something different in my mind tonight,” she said and settled as comfortably on my lap as the cramped little seats in the van allowed. And then she looked up at me with a wiser, older expression on her face. “It’s nice when there’s no picture on the page that tells me what to see,” she added, and waited with an expectant smile, eager for the night’s drama to unfold.