Neuroscientist David Eagleman On Uncertainty

“What you learn from a life in science is the vastness of our ignorance; you learn all the stuff that we don’t know” – David Eagleman

Two weeks ago David stopped by the School of Life to discuss the value of allowing uncertainty into life. During our interview he supported his opinion by quoting Voltaire, “Doubt is an uncomfortable position but certainty is an absurd position.”

It reminds me of a quote from Tony Robbins in a course he gave about the 6 human needs where he said the second human need was uncertainty. “The quality of your life is in direct proportion to the amount of uncertainty that you can comfortably live with.”

David coined the term Possiblian, urging us to not be so quick to jump to conclusions and allow our minds to evaluate various possibilities. The danger in accepting an opinion without examining alternatives and exceptions, causes cultures and people to clash. Too often there are religions on one side and atheists on the other. Not only that but religions with minor differences trying to show they are better than a very similar religion/way of life of another, limiting options causing false dichotomies. 

I believe that when we think we have a monopoly on truth with our lens to the world, we alienate others who don’t use the same paradigm.

Yet I struggle with the feeling that having faith (not talking about religion here, rather certainty)  in our belief patterns to life and a some (even false) security is almost necessary to get on with the regular day to day. Ask yourself this: If a false belief makes someone happier and more productive with their life – is it bad? Is the absolute truth always a good thing? What if uncertainty makes you unhappy and not as good to others as a little simplification and certainty (even if false) does?

Personally, I am happier knowing I don’t know and searching for truth, inch by inch. But what will my opinion be when I lose my parents or something else that is emotionally intense? Will I need more comfort of certainty? Of this, again, I am uncertain.

David finished up the interview answering the question of what he wanted to be remembered for: “I would hope to be remembered as an advocate of uncertainty.”

About: David Eagleman is a neuroscientist at Baylor College of Medicine. He currently runs a neuroscience research laboratory where he studies time perception, synesthesia, and how neuroscience will influence the legal system. He is also an internationally bestselling fiction writer published in 21 languages. His latest book is Sum: Tales from the Afterlives.

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