Saturday, 28 January 2012

Living with Uncertainty: Knowing versus Understanding

     My last post, in which I argue against taking religious scriptures as ultimately authoritative, has got me to thinking about why some people cling so tenaciously to the Bible, and I think it has to do with the grave discomfort some people have about uncertainty. The other thing that's got me thinking along these lines, of course, is my chemotherapy: I've just (as of this writing) begun round 11 of a 12-round regimen, and I'm struggling with trying to decide whether or not to go ahead with round 12. Struggling, because I have virtually no useful data upon which to base my decision.

     A little bit of medical background. After my surgery (they took a section of my colon out, which contained a golf-ball-sized tumor), I was told that with no further action, there was a 50% chance that in five years I'd be cancer free, but with the best chemo regimen they had, it would be 70%. Now, my gut feeling (with admittedly less gut than before) is that I'm already on a favourable region of that bell curve; I figure the odds of them having got out all the cancer were better than 50%. Still, even if there's only a 30% chance I have a couple of treasonous lymph nodes plotting my demise, I figured it was worth going ahead to improve my odds. 

      I was aware, of course, that it's ONLY a matter of improving my odds, not a guarantee. I'm quite familiar with uncertainty, and as a philosopher quite comfortable with it, for the most part. However, I really do wonder if it's worth having all 12 rounds of the therapy. If I've already had ten, what's the marginal benefit of rounds 11 and 12? I know with a high degree of confidence that the side effects will continue to get worse; they've been very consistently cumulative so far, with each round being a bit more unpleasant than the one before it, but I have no idea how important round 12 is to the overall likelihood of success for the treatment. And the doctors can't tell me, either, because there really haven't been any studies on it. (Although talking to my oncologist today, I learned that such a study is underway, and it does seem that more of the benefits of the treatment come from the first six rounds than from the last six. But we just don't know how much.)

     So really, all I have to go on is a bunch of guesswork, possibly tainted by wishful thinking. I just have no idea at all if I should go ahead with round 12 or not, and it's very difficult and very frustrating to make a decision when I have so little data to work with.

     And so I also begin to have some sympathy for those who long for the illusory certainty offered by the doctrine of scriptural inerrancy. How much more comfortable to just know something as absolutely true, and not have to worry about being wrong! Especially so when being wrong might have such catastrophic consequences as eternal damnation. 

     But this is wrong on several counts. I'm not going to get into all the evidence that suggests the Bible is a document fallibly written, transcribed, translated,  edited and redacted by ordinary mortal humans. (I don't believe it's impious with respect to God to be doubtful of the fallibility -- and the claims of infallibility -- of one's fellow mortals, even if they are called prophets.) 

     The most crucial way in which it is wrong to cling to certainty via the Bible is the inescapability of human fallibility, which I like to think of as like Original Sin, except that it can't really be washed away. We can be wrong, and it feels exactly like being right. Even if we accept that holy scriptures are divinely authoritative, there's no escaping the weak link: our interpretation thereof. We just cannot know that we've interpreted it correctly, and the fact that so many religious sects actively and passionately disagree over doctrine, each fervently believing they've got it right, shows vividly that we are prone to error even about divinely revealed truth: at least one party must be mistaken. Yet each party is steadfastly convinced it's the other.

     One of the most important virtues, perhaps the most important, is humility, the recognition of one's own fallibility, or to put it another way, the recognition that we are not Gods. The call to Christianity (or Islam, for that matter) is not a call to be comfortable, but a call to struggle valiantly against the adversities of this world, one of which is the overwhelming uncertainty the confronts every thinking being. You can be wrong about everything you believe, and that's a darned scary thought. There is no cheat sheet, no solidly reliable answer key to refer to, no way to be sure of anything. 

     So how do we survive and thrive in this sea of uncertainty? I think the problem is this desire we have for knowledge. I have found it useful to seek understanding instead of knowledge. Knowledge is concerned with an unattainable standard of certainty, while understanding is much more practical. I can understand that, given premises about the definitions of numbers and addition and equality, 2+2=4, without committing myself to the truth of those definitions, or that they necessarily apply to anything in the "real" world. I can understand the world better by adopting the theories of science, without committing myself to the belief that the world isn't just a big virtual reality designed to give the illusion of an ancient, evolved Earth. 

     And so while it is frustrating to have so little data upon which to decide whether or not to continue with my chemotherapy, I am at least free of the worry that I might make the "wrong" decision. I will try to make the best decision I can, based on my understanding of the situation at the time, and if it turns out to have unpleasant consequences, well, too bad. Sometimes even good decisions lead to bad consequence. I have accepted and embraced the inescapable uncertainty of life, and that probabilities are pretty much all we've got. There are no guarantees, and we have to live -- and die -- with that. That's why we need virtues like courage and humility and yes, a certain kind of faith. 

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