Tolerance of Ambiguity -- An Opportunity to Learn

"A high tolerance for ambiguity" is a phrase I heard often from chair of the Wesleyan Board of Trustees, Joshua Boger, during my first years as president. I understood the phrase to mean that much creative and constructive work gets done before clarity arrives, and people who seek clarity too quickly might actually wind up missing a good deal that really matters. Such tolerance, I imagined, had been essential to Joshua's success as a scientist and entrepreneur.

I was reminded of this toleration for ambiguity when I read Simon Critchley's powerful The Stone blog this week on the New York Times site. There he writes about an old television series he watched as a kid, The Ascent of Man. In that show Dr. Jacob Bronowski led viewers on a tour of major moments in cultural evolution, from primitive times to the rise and fall of empires and the achievements of modern science. It was in many respects a triumphalist show, celebrating our ever-increasing knowledge.

Critchley, though, underscores another dimension of The Ascent of Man. In explicating Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle, he writes:

Dr. Bronowski insisted that the principle of uncertainty was a misnomer because it gives the impression that in science (and outside of it) we are always uncertain. But this is wrong. Knowledge is precise, but that precision is confined within a certain toleration of uncertainty.

The point is that acknowledging uncertainty should be akin to acknowledging tolerance. Knowing our tendency to err should do more than make us epistemologically prudent; it should make us more open to others and less prone to impose our own views. This resistance to narrow-mindedness and dogmatism is an ethical dimension of the pursuit of knowledge.

Critchley underscores that Dr. Bronowski's principle of tolerance is a crucial aspect of the scientific perspective. The effort to escape uncertainty can lead to a different perspective altogether -- a tyrannical one. Here's a very moving clip on the blog from The Ascent of Man:

This week I have been teaching G. F. Hegel and J. J. Rousseau, each of whom thought he had worked out essential truths. Rousseau argued that our pursuit of knowledge was usually just a pursuit of superiority and luxury, an expression of our warped vanity more than our scientific curiosity. Hegel took a very different tack, wanting to replace the love of wisdom with absolute knowing. This knowledge was of philosophy/history -- Spirit, uniting ideal and real. The ambition was to overcome uncertainty in knowledge that would also offer redemption.

Reading Critchley, I recognized that I often present thinkers who can be considered dogmatic, especially when they are at their most critical about rival philosophers. I enjoy making a case for all of the writers I teach because their powerful arguments can shake up our own conventional ways of approaching issues. I'm not trying to convert students to a new dogma, but I am trying to expand their tolerance for the range of ambiguity in which they will navigate.

Openness to learning is a lifelong endeavor, and that openness is undermined when one believes one has vanquished uncertainty. Still, in my classes I love teaching authors who do claim some truth with assurance because this sharpens one's thinking and illuminates fundamental issues -- issues that may have no resolution. Tolerance is certainly an intellectual virtue; it's just not the only one.

Simon Critchley's reminiscence of The Ascent of Man reminds me of Joshua Boger's "tolerance of ambiguity" and how uncertainty and openness might go together. That's a good lesson to live by at a university -- whether one is a student, teacher... even a president.