Sand and sediment

In a speech in 1964 (echoed here in 1981), Richard Feynman talked about the importance of doubt as a principle element of belief and knowledge. He lamented science’s passivity in encouraging society to embrace this point-of-view and it remains a foreign concept until today.

By virtue of his worldview as a scientist, Feynman understood that all knowledge is graded on a spectrum of certainty. Even something as mundane as the rising of tomorrow’s sun, which seems like an inevitability, cannot escape this net. Complete certainty is the domain of the delusional.

Like many of our challenges, I suspect that the reason this worldview hasn’t been more widely adopted outside of science is that it demands a rational mind, a high degree of self-awareness, and the ability to identify and discard bias, which is at odds with our ego. These are demanding qualities to cultivate.

Historically, we have required certainty to aid our survival. We must be certain about what we can eat, where to hunt, and what to avoid. Certainty was cultivated primarily through intimate personal experience with our physical environment. Today, our personal experiences involve the amorphous web of theories, concepts, ideas and values. Rarely do we learn these through personal experimentation and endeavor. More often, they are discovered or formalized by figures in history and transmitted to us by trained teachers.

In school, most of the information we’re given is couched in certainty. A single point of view on world history, economics, geography, language, culture and societal values. The media talks in absolute statements that ironically change with the wind. Our parents teach us the absolutes of right and wrong.

I struggle to recall a time - outside of the science lab - where knowledge was delivered without complete certainty.

Certainty is also at the heart of all conflict. It encourages a narrow mind and demands an unflinching position. Certainty must be defended at all costs. Certainty must be complete for it to survive. It is it’s nature, and so it cannot give quarter to doubt, which needs but a foot in the door to flourish.

Millions of grains of sand form a free floating bed on the beach and in-between your toes. Modest, malleable, harmless. Only when they’re caught in the web of certainty do they bind together, and become rock hard sediment.

Seek the sand, spurn the sediment, and doubt everything. Even just a little bit.


Now read this

The Inverted Lens

A simple device. Whenever you are: Solving a problem. Asking a question. Answering a question Brainstorming Communicating Doing almost anything. Take time to invert your point of view to see the object of your attention from an opposing... Continue →