Zur deutschen Fassung in der taz-Beilage vom 21. Mai 2015. [PDF, 5,9 MB]

Helga Nowotny’s lecture at the symposium “Landscapes of Uncertainty”
10 July 2016, Haus der Berliner Festspiele:

With the beginnings of modern science, a peculiar, previously unthought-of idea emerged: the notion that the future could be different from the present and the past. And above all, that it could involve an improvement in the material foundations of human existence. It was no longer predestined. It was no longer subject to eternal laws beyond the purview of mortals. The future was open. Later, the discrepancy between people’s experience and what Reinhard Koselleck called the “horizon of expectations” became wider. But this widening has a price: An open future is inherently uncertain. Since then, great efforts have been made to limit uncertainty, or even to tame it. They range from the emergence of the insurance industry to the hubris of a modern age addicted to a euphoria of planning. Today, the tentative attempts of complexity science to model unpredictable systemic risks are at the foreground. And yet, we are confronted everywhere with the unintentional consequences of human actions. Science is required not so much to separate the true from the false, but rather to reduce uncertainty.

Uncertainty is deeply inscribed into human existence, with a biological timeline pointing unwaveringly from birth to death. It is more than a curtain weaved from ignorance, however, blocking our view of the whole picture. Without it, we would be caught in the shortsightedness of given circumstances, in a backwards-oriented stagnation. Uncertainty is the unruly force urging us forward, toward the as yet unknown. And nowhere is this force more powerfully at work that in science and art. In fundamental research, there is no knowing whether – and which – results will be found, or when. Dealing with uncertainty is everyday practise. It becomes a cunning partner when new phenomena or connections are discovered that were neither on the radar nor part of the research proposal. The only thing that counts is that their significance is recognised at the moment of their unexpected emergence. In these instances, we speak of “serendipity”, a variety of coincidence which frequently occurs in the process of research and has proved itself to be extremely productive. Similar events are continually happening in artistic creation. Individual and institutional strategies may be different, but the outstanding ability of science and art to deal with uncertainty are striking. Scientific breakthroughs and new artistic perspectives occur at the threshold between the familiar and the unfamiliar and new. At this point, uncertainty releases knowledge and lets us see the previously unseen.

The provisionality of all knowledge

In contrast to the fields of science and art, most people find it difficult to deal with uncertainty. They have a deeply-rooted longing for certainty, which can easily grow into an addiction. The boundaries between security and certainty, insecurity and uncertainty become fluid. Security encompasses the material foundations of existence; certainty denotes the cognitive dimension. It includes an ability to form an opinion on the state of the world, which then becomes the foundation for action. Science in particular is expected to fulfill our longing for certainty and to provide clear answers to all questions. But this attitude misconceives an essential element of scientific knowledge, since only very few questions can be answered with an unequivocal “yes” or “no” – mathematics being the exception. In the overwhelming majority of cases, a carefully considered answer will be “Yes, under the following circumstances…” or “No, unless…” Scientific knowledge is always complex. It has to differentiate between universally applicable statements and specific ones. Moreover, many of the most pressing questions faced by the public can only be answered in probabilities. There are no certainties for everyday life.

These often diametrically opposed expectations in the communication between science and society are additionally aggravated by politics. The political sector is well acquainted with uncertainty, but it is unwilling to admit this in public. It expects clear – meaning: unambiguous and simplified – answers, especially when it comes to risk assessment. This increases the pressure placed on science, but it does not improve the situation. No matter how great the public pressure, often there honestly is no unequivocal answer. Then we need the courage to acknowledge this in public: We don’t know – yet.

In public perception, scientific knowledge is often viewed as unchangeable and definite. But this perception fails to recognise the dynamic growth of science. In science, all knowledge is seen as preliminary – it is constantly changing, because new knowledge is continually added. The research process itself is inherently uncertain; its outcome is always open. Every now and then, there is a complete shift of paradigms, a reversal of what had been seen as secure knowledge. The fact that this dynamic development takes place in a somewhat orderly fashion is due to the peer review system, an institutionalised procedure in which all knowledge claims are reviewed by other scientists. It aims to ensure that the knowledge published in specialist journals is consistent with the most recent state of research and has been obtained by the application of rigorous methods. But even this guarantee comes with the qualification that it can never be more than provisional knowledge. It is bound to be replaced by more recent – and better – knowledge.

Uncertainty – why now?

The issue of uncertainty has recently gained an unexpectedly high topicality. A multitude of fears rule the public debate as well as our private sensibilities. Clear points of reference and orientation frameworks have largely disappeared. Geopolitical events that seemed very far away confront us with uncomfortable and painful consequences on a daily basis. A political strategy of fear, generated by populist and nationalist powers, exploits these new realities for its own purposes. What began after the attacks of 9/11 in the US is now resumed in a European variation. In my book “The Cunning of Uncertainty”, I do not speak of terrorism or of the anxieties caused by mass migration. Instead, it deals with the fact that all fears of an uncertain future drastically limit any options for action. In its extreme case, fear eliminates the future. The open horizon is swallowed by an all-consuming feeling of powerless and passive subjection. On the other hand, uncertainty loses its menace when we admit to ourselves that things often turn out differently than we had imagined, and that the scope of our predictions is limited.

And this is where the cunning of uncertainty comes in. It is a metaphor that can be found as early as Ancient Greece. It was known as metis, the cunning of reason, which often follows crooked paths to reach a goal that no-one was aware of in advance. Today, the cunning of uncertainty should encourage us to not fear uncertainty, but to make it the partner of our fragmented knowledge and actions. Placing our trust in it can help us to better understand the unintentional consequences of our actions. Uncertainty even provides unexpected responses to the politics of fear.

In creative processes, the cunning of uncertainty is ever present. This is valid both for science and for art. A failed experiment can lead to a re-examination of assumptions or to a re-assessment of apparent fringe phenomena. What we perceive as a signal and what as mere noise can suddenly change. In art, coincidence has always held a place – not least because the relationship between artists and their works is a far more physically intimate one. And we all know those moments when we have to make a far-reaching decision without actually having all the foundations at our disposal. Appealing to coincidence brings relief when our goals turn out to have been illusionary.

Barely 500 years ago, when modern science, at that time closely linked with the arts, set out on its quest for knowledge in the realms of the unknown and the uncertain, nobody could have known what a fundamental change in our living conditions this would bring about. Our knowledge of the world and our possibilities of using this knowledge surpass everything anyone could ever have imagined. Today, we are overwhelmed by an abundance of unforeseen opportunities and yet – the more we know, the more we realise how much we still don’t know. Whether our visions of a better life will suffice to make it a reality for a globalised world, however, remains an open question. Even in the 21st century, all predictions about further developments are limited. We can choose to either see this uncertainty as a threat or to accept it, but one thing is certain: the future is open – and uncertain.