Sunday, 23 May 2010

Why I’m choosing choice, fear and the future.

As I sign off on the paperwork that will later become my under graduate degree, I had a terrible realisation- nothing is certain anymore. For 24 long years I always had the notion of what I wanted to achieve, school, college bum around for year, uni and then get a job. I had thought naturally I would float into a science role until I realised the rather mechanical Germans I had worked with in the lab seemed to relish the chores of early morning maths slightly more than was natural. Then came the alarming realisation that's not what I wanted to be.

I sit here in my rather grubby t-shirt with the rather empty declaration “we’re free” but science teaches us there are in fact measurable boundaries to the universe, that deterministic laws of motion that dictate everything I am capable of. Science’s brilliance lays in it’s ability to deconstruct problems analyse them and push forward the most accurate theory on the data provided. The discipline is extracted from mathematical proofing simply substitute the numbers for real world measurable equivalents and you have the essence of how science approaches problems.

So soon I will have my certification that tells the world that I am technically proficient in this discipline. Dragging the world’s understanding of the unknown into certainty once seemed a great way to contribute to this world, yet now on cusp of being licensed to do so it begins to seem so empty. Some people take a different approach; Richard Feynman a physicist on the Manhattan project and one of the great quantum thinkers seemed to embrace a search for uncertainty in science:

“It is in the admission of ignorance and the admission of uncertainty that there is a hope for the continuous motion of human beings in some direction that doesn't get confined, permanently blocked, as it has so many times before in various periods in the history of man.”

True enough words; dogmatism of any kind always makes me suspicious and the many times science has proved itself wrong does a good job of eliminating arrogance in this field. Still I feel this is a slightly confusing message for a physicist for even in the seemingly random quantum dimension there exists certain albeit chaotic probabilistic frameworks. Thinking back to my Christmas time search for crucible moments I’ve since come to two conclusions:

1) Crucible moments don’t exist and that small and gradual change over time simply affects our character to the point we decide (consciously or unconsciously) to redefine ourselves.

Or crucible moments DO exist and:

2) Crucible moments are often misrepresented. They are not over coming great adversity or completing some arduous task but simply a change in attitude, perspective and ambition when faced with complete uncertainty.

The amount of uncertainty in my life to date has practically been nil, and at any time I can remember when the future was uncertain the only thing I can remember about that time was complete anxiety then relief once certainty took hold again. I suspect that has something to do with how society is designed since getting the degree seems to be what life was about since I was about 15 and any uncertainty was greeted with the fear that life wouldn’t be as I wanted it to be. Now I’ve scrambled to the to top all I have is uncertainty but with it comes free to choose who I want to be, what I want to do and what the focus will be for the next stage of my life. No assignments, no deadlines, no 9 o’clock start or 11 am meetings all I have now is choice. It seems uncertainty brings us a wonderfully unexpected gift- the choice to choose.

My life to date hasn’t exactly been bad to despite the lack of choice within it, I suspect in six months and several thousand dole financed cigarettes later I’ll be writing, that maybe, just maybe uncertainty is over-rated. Potentially a life without direction is no more defining than stand in the queue for the post office- I just don’t know now. I can’t get away from thinking I will be taking some important decisions in the next year. What they will be of how they will affect me is all part of the uncertainty.

I don’t think science (or even Feynman) has done me much good teaching me to cope with uncertainty but university has equipped me with some education and initiative and I suspect these are the core skills for making the most of uncertainty. Uri Meller PhD, writes in his sociological thesis “Coping with uncertainty” that the only way we move forward is to accept uncertainty is our greatest opportunity for change.

“The ability to accept uncertainty and tolerate ambiguity might become an essential aspect of a personality that has to deal with an unpredictable environment. Accepting uncertainty includes the ability to be in confusion and to accept that confusion as a necessary element in the process of interacting with a nonlinear world, a world suffused with ambiguity.”

He makes some interesting points on the inconsistent nature of personalities but I guess I like him because he writes likes a scientist, although I’m not sold that we need necessarily to be confused in uncertainty. My thoughts are to get the most from a time of uncertainty we need not to be confused but lucid to recognise the opportunities it presents.

The answer I will hazard in this six month overdue assignment on my initial question "What is a crucible moment?" is this- If we choose choice in our lives then we choose uncertainty. The only time we amalgamate everything we are is not what we do when asked to do something, but who we choose to be when we can do anything.

I’m gaining some sympathy for the post modernists now; certainly my search for certainty in science hasn’t even yielded a desire for certainty at all. I’m sure I’ll grow out of this soon enough, like the enthusiastic anarchist that realises that a career, a family and a home actually gives you tangible benefits often lacking in idealism.

Despite that I think I need a written record of the time that uncertainty never scared me for the first time, a precious moment in which almost I’m probably enjoying more freedom than I have done in years in who, where and what I want to be. I suppose I better start acting like this time matters.
As I take my first teetering steps into the uncertain job seekers funded future, Voltaire offers these comforting words:

“Doubt is not a pleasant condition, but certainty is absurd.”

So given a world where certainty is absurd anything is possible. So to those graduating enjoy. You’ve never been freer.