Responding to the 2011 edge.org Question, “What scientific concept would improve everybody’s cognitive toolkit?”, the theoretical physicist Carlo Rovelli makes the deep point that “Every knowledge, even the most solid, carries a margin of uncertainty.”
Indeed, he observes, “if we value reliability,”, we will find that “certainty” is “damaging.”
He writes: “Lack of certainty is precisely what makes conclusions more reliable than the conclusions of those who are certain.” This is so because when we are certain, we do not “keep the door open to doubt.” Keeping this door open is important because the seeker of knowledge must be “ready to shift to a different point of view if better elements of evidence, or novel arguments emerge.”
He also cautions that it is a mistake to see “the lack of certainty….as a sign of weakness, instead of being what it is: the first source of our knowledge.” In other words, “Are we sure that the Earth is going to keep heating up, if we do not do anything?” Odds are that it will, but we cannot be certain. But this lack of certainty does not warrant a conclusion that inaction on this front is the best recourse.
This idea of keeping the mind open to doubt, to not be certain about one’s own views, is a healthy practice, not just in the matter of Ultimate Reality (Realities?), but also in our relationships.
Explaining the first principle (“Right View” ) of the Buddha’s “Noble Eightfold Path” in “The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching”, Thich Nhat Hanh writes: “Relatively speaking, there are right views and there are wrong views. But if we look more deeply, we see that all views are wrong views. No view can ever be the truth. It is just from one point; that is why it is called a “point of view.” If we go to another point, we will see things differently and realize that our first view was not entirely right.”
Thay teaches that though we must strive to “improve” the “quality of our views”, we would do well to keep in mind that “From the viewpoint of ultimate reality, Right View is the absence of all views.”
In his commentary on the Prajnaparamitta Heart Sutta (“The Heart of Understanding”), the sage makes a profound suggestion: “Do not take sides” — “If we take something to be the truth, we may cling to it so much that even if the truth comes and knocks at our door, we won’t want to let it in.”