There is nothing certain but uncertainty
A person with one watch always knows what time it is; a person with two watches is never sure.
~ Segal’s Law
Humans plan and god laughs
~ Yiddish expression
For the sake of getting on with our day to day lives, most of us make assumptions about the relative certainty of the future—that the bus will be pretty much on time, that the person we are supposed to meet at the movies will likely show up, that the sun will almost definitely rise tomorrow. We attend school in the hopes of getting a good education and a job, and we believe that these outcomes are more probable than not. In the words of the poet Mary Oliver, there is a “light at the center of every cell”, a “story of endless good fortune”, that generally keeps us “flowing forward happily”.
Yet as we wrestle with unpredictable turns of event and uncertain futures in our personal lives, as well as with broader questions such as climate change, social justice and artificial intelligence, not to mention our recent global pandemic, we also recognize uncertainty as a central feature of our world and experience.
We enter the world crying in shock at a reality that up until that moment we did not even consider a possibility, and from then on life only continues to remind us of its unpredictability. In this sea of uncertainty, we crave the safe harbor of things we can know for sure, things we can reasonably expect. Gradually, if we are fortunate, we gain confidence in ourselves and our environment, becoming braver and bolder in the face of uncertainty, potentially coming to view it as a source of excitement and play, as a spark for exploration and discovery. And even when its lessons are painful, we may come to recognize that uncertainty can be our teacher, helping us to live more fully and wisely.
The academic disciplines across the arts and the sciences reckon with uncertainty as well, each in their own way. Fields that involve probability, from risk assessment to political data analysis to weather forecasting, incorporate a measure of uncertainty into their estimates and continually adjust future probabilities based on new information. (The idea of probability itself can also be understood in as many as five different ways.) Disciplines as varied as literature, journalism, fine arts and scientific research handle uncertainty by organizing data into temporal, spatial and cause-and-effect relationships, thus creating narrative and/or visual representations that help us to navigate the world. Diverse disciplines go as far as to court uncertainty by conducting experiments, whether involving living subjects, aesthetic forms or high-energy particles, inviting outcomes that challenge what we think to be true. In some instances we may want to minimize uncertainty as much as possible, such as when flying a plane or operating on a patient; in others we may celebrate the ways that uncertainty can lead to happy accidents, such as in the discovery of insulin or in the stream-of-consciousness writing and sketching practiced by the Surrealists to tap into the unconscious mind.
Uncertainty is more than simply ignorance or ambiguity or risk, all of which can be resolved or at least calculated through improved knowledge, more reliable information and better formulas. Uncertainty is what remains beyond what we can grasp, the unknown unknowns that exist beyond our understanding and imagination. What currently unfathomable twists and turns lie ahead for us, as individuals, a society, a civilization and a planet? What discoveries? What innovations? What uncertainties will brave new technologies such as AI introduce into the arts and the sciences and our daily lives? To what extent can we measure, predict, control and know? And to what extent might we want to try to accept and even embrace uncertainty?
In 2023/2024, SPACE invites Dawson students across the disciplines to delve into such questions, to experiment, play and grapple with uncertainty. As always in SPACE, we also encourage participants to share their explorations with the Dawson community through the SPACE website and events as well as through our annual showcase and magazine, in this way helping each other to approach uncertainty with humility, wisdom and curiosity.
Above: detail of poster design by Léa Crépeau, Illustration student, Dawson College.
If you wish to get involved with SPACE, please contact the SPACE coordinator: