Dealing with Uncertainty

Ethical Perspectives 8 (3):145-155 (2001)


In C.S. Lewis's science fiction parable Perelandra was a planet which had no solid ground. At all times the floating landscape was continually swirling and moving, chasms would appear where a minute before there had been safe standing. The rational beings who lived there hopped nimbly on to another little island when the one on which they stood disappeared under their feet. They were used to it and took it for granted that nothing was certain. The visitor from our planet had to learn a completely new way of existence. But where did he get his idea of certainty in a fixed environment? It is more plausible that uncertainty is normal and the whole idea of certainty an illusion. Today gives an opportunity to reflect on how people deal with skepticism, doubt and uncertainty.The questions apply to a current debate in the UK on risk. Opinion polls constantly reveal that the public lacks trust in government, and particularly it does not trust the government to reveal the information needed to assess important risks. From which the risk analysts conclude that the government should grant access to information more freely and encourage enquiry. They believe that openness would foster a better understanding on the part of the public which at present does not know what to believe. More information would create certainty, more certainty and the public would trust its spokesmen, unreasonable fears would be calmed. This is the advice of an expert enquiry.Certainty is not a mood, or a feeling, it is an institution: this is my thesis. Certainty is only possible because doubt is blocked institutionally: most individual decisions about risk are taken under pressure from institutions. If we recognize more uncertainty now, it will be because of things that have happened to the institutional underpinning of our beliefs. And that is what we ought to be studying. In my student days the hottest controversies in anthropology were about why `other people' — that is people not living in advanced capitalist society — had certainty about their absurd beliefs.When trying to explain their misfortunes, why did they neglect the physical and scientific evidence, and draw instead on their beliefs in spirits, magic, and taboos? How could they be so obstinate in error? Anthropologists spent their energies on defending the allegedly irrational beliefs of other people, and I shall continue the tradition

Download options


    Upload a copy of this work     Papers currently archived: 72,660

External links

Setup an account with your affiliations in order to access resources via your University's proxy server

Through your library


Added to PP

117 (#102,598)

6 months
6 (#117,274)

Historical graph of downloads
How can I increase my downloads?

Similar books and articles

Varieties of Uncertainty Monitoring.John H. Flavell - 2003 - Behavioral and Brain Sciences 26 (3):344-344.
Uncertain Science ... Uncertain World.Henry N. Pollack - 2003 - Cambridge University Press.
Decision Making Under Great Uncertainty.Sven Ove Hansson - 1996 - Philosophy of the Social Sciences 26 (3):369-386.
Responsibly Managing Uncertainties In Clinical Ethics.L. B. McCullough - 2012 - Journal of Medicine and Philosophy 37 (1):1-5.
Scientific Uncertainty: A User's Guide.Seamus Bradley - 2012 - Grantham Institute on Climate Change Discussion Paper.
How Not to Theorize About the Language of Subjective Uncertainty.Eric Swanson - 2009 - In Andy Egan & Brian Weatherson (eds.), Epistemic Modality. Oxford University Press.
Creativity, Probability and Uncertainty.Matthew C. Wilson - 2009 - Journal of Economic Methodology 16 (1):45-56.
Uncertainty and the Ethics of Clinical Trials.Sven Ove Hansson - 2006 - Theoretical Medicine and Bioethics 27 (2):149-167.
Cartesian Uncertainty: Descartes and Dummett.M. Glouberman - 1986 - Grazer Philosophische Studien 27 (1):101-124.
Complementarity in Vision and Cognition.Charles Q. Wu - 1997 - Philosophical Psychology 10 (4):481 – 488.

References found in this work

No references found.

Add more references

Citations of this work

Uncertainties of Nutrigenomics and Their Ethical Meaning.Michiel Korthals & Rixt Komduur - 2010 - Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics 23 (5):435-454.
New Rhetoric’s Empire: Pragmatism, Dogmatism, and Sophism.Romain Laufer - 2009 - Philosophy and Rhetoric 42 (4):pp. 326-348.
Naprawianie świata. O powikłanych związkach wiedzy i praktyki.Kazimierz W. Frieske - 2020 - Civitas. Studia Z Filozofii Polityki 22:167-200.

Add more citations