I’m writing a book about investing. The first chapter is about how humans dislike uncertainty and how we make decisions in the face of uncertainty. In my research about how humans deal with uncertainty I’ve come across a paradox: as science has progressed, what happens in the world seems more chaotic and random which leads to greater anxiety. Here are the elements of this paradox:
1. A basic human motive is the desire to avoid uncertainty and seek certainty. This dislike of uncertainty has evolutionary origins as our brain’s ability to recognize patterns helps us predict future events, which gives us a survival advantage. When our minds can’t detect a recognizable pattern, we have difficulty anticipating future events and we experience stress. When we resolve uncertainty, our brain releases dopamine, creating a sense of pleasure. These opposing sensations of feeling anxious during uncertainty and pleasure once we resolve it drives us to seek certainty and avoid ambiguity.
2. Generating explanations and ascribing causes to events is fundamental to our quest for certainty — we have an innate human drive to explain. When we experience uncertainty we want answers. Ascribing causes to events resolves uncertainty.
3. Prior to the scientific revolution, our explanation for pretty much everything related to a supernatural force or a higher power (often thought of as God or gods but included demons, spirits, witches, magic etc.). In antiquity, sun gods were responsible for the rise of the sun and its travel across the sky. The results of a roll of the dice was due to the gods. A good or bad season of crops was due to the gods or demons. Sickness was the result of spirits or demons.
4. Since the scientific revolution of the 16th and 17th centuries, science has supplied more and more explanations for how the world works. The laws of physics now explain the composition and movement of planets, stars, and galaxies. Biology explains how organisms function and evolve and the reasons for sickness and disease. Chemistry explains all the substances we experience and why they are how they are.
5. While science has greatly advanced our understanding of why things happen it has also exposed a great deal of randomness and chance. The universe is a chaotic place. Lightning doesn’t strike the wicked, but rather strikes people outside in thunderstorms who happen to be standing where there is a build up of electrical attraction between the ground and thunderclouds. Sickness isn’t the result of demons or a punishment for bad actions, but rather is a matter of infectious bacteria or viruses, other contagions, or genetics. Bad things happen to good people because the laws of probability and chance work evenly amongst all of us.
6. As a result of the advancement of science, we now know that the world is more random and chaotic than our ancestors realized. We may still believe that everything happens for a reason, that the world is a just place, or that there is an invisible hand directing everything. But, science has chipped away at these notions and we’re now aware that we are fragile organisms subject to the laws of nature, stuck to a rock by gravity that is hurtling through space. Humans and all other life forms are the result of evolution that relies on chance mutations to increase survivability.
7. Thus, the paradox of modernity is that the more we know due to science, the less we can take comfort in the notion that everything happens for a reason or that everything that happens to us is part of a grand plan. Over the course of a few hundred years we’ve moved from “God did it” to “shit happens.” Our realization of this has increased our sense of uncertainty and generated more anxiety and stress.
A recent IFOD was on the related topic of Darwin realizing that his theory of evolution was upsetting the apple cart of divine certainty and replacing it with randomness. He proposed, however, “that there is grandeur in this view of life” and embracing randomness is also a beautiful way of viewing the world. That may be — but it has pulled back the curtain to reveal vast uncertainty.
Some proof of this paradox of modernity is that those who are religious or spiritual have been shown to be happier and have less anxiety. This makes senses as mindsets and worldviews that allow us to reduce our sense of uncertainty are cognitively and emotionally satisfying. Studies have found that belief in a just world with a divine purpose can reduce feelings of uncertainty, preserve self-esteem, reduce feelings of fear and allows people to remain more optimistic about the world. On the flip side, belief in a just world also reduces our empathy and makes us more judgmental. Here’s the IFOD on the Just World Theory: Link.
This concept that greater knowledge = more anxiety is like the choice Neo faced when given the choice between the red pill and blue pill in the movie The Matrix. Taking the red pill would reveal to Neo the world as it really is and taking the blue pill would return him to the relative bliss of living in “the matrix” which was the A.I. generated simulation he had experienced his entire life. Science has allowed us to see the world as it really is: a beautiful but random and complex existence where chance rules and “shit happens.”