Life is inherently uncertain, and this alone is the only fact that doesn’t change throughout our experience of being in this world. Everything else — how we feel, what we think, the validity of our actions — is in constant flux, blowing from one range of a spectrum to another, molding itself according to the time and space occupied at any particular point.
In 1931, the 25-year-old mathematician Kurt Gödel published his incompleteness theorems. They were a breakthrough in our study of mathematical logic, and to this day, philosophers continue to argue about their implications. Some believe that, yes, while they were indeed a breakthrough, they reflect nothing more than a basic fact about arithmetic and formal systems. Others insist that due to what they intuit about the limitations of logic, they must say something very important about the bigger questions of truth and knowledge and our metaphysical reality.
In their simplest form, these theorems essentially state that no formal system can be both complete and consistent at the same time. There are some things that are true, but they can’t be proved using the same mathematical language used to conceive that truth. This, of course, applies to numbers with axiomatic foundations, but in many ways, also to language itself.
Either way, regardless of their reach, these theorems and the story they tell provide a useful analogy for the uncertainty of life as experienced by humans. Consciousness and its contents — primarily our emotions and our actions and our relationships to external objects and people—are immediate and true. Language, the formal system we use to decode the contents of consciousness, is our best tool to make sense of things over the course of time. Now, no matter how well-supported in logic this formal system of language is, it will never fully match the actual territory of what is directly experienced in consciousness. And even if it comes close, it will never know for sure that this is indeed what is most true to that reality. Time means change, and change means that static answers don’t always hold at a different time.
You may be able to sit a criminal down and ask him questions about why he committed that horrible murder even when he knew what the consequences of his actions would be, and you may even get some consistent-sounding answers to point you to a truer idea of how the murder went down, but at the end of the day, you weren’t there, and you can’t fully know what he was thinking. Worse yet, the criminal himself probably doesn’t know. He may have a nebulous feeling he associated with the act, and you may be able to decode it, but that feeling could easily have had another subconscious cause, or it could have been misinterpretation by both him and you, or it could have been something else entirely, something so far down the long list of causes and effects that it can’t ever be fully dug up.
The same idea applies to why your boss fired you out of the blue without an explanation, the reason your husband cheated, or anything else that occurred in a past that is no longer within reach of your own conscious experience. And yet, we constantly use language to make sense of these things. We ask questions, and we look for answers, implicitly knowing that we can’t be truly sure that what we stumble upon today will be true for tomorrow, too. And for the most part, this helps. Assigning some sort of a cause to an effect, even if that cause is uncertain, helps us create meaning and a narrative where there otherwise might not be one. The real problem, however, is coming to terms with the incompleteness when it persists.
As much as asking the right questions and finding the corresponding answers can be comforting, it can also be an escape. Each moment has an internal and an external component to it — the first being language; the second being the conscious experience itself. Questions and answers are always confined to the former, which means that while incompleteness can be temporarily subdued, it can’t ever be overcome with just what goes on in our mind, and when we spend too much of our time there, we negate the possibility of finding any semblance of completeness in front of us.
One of the paradoxical things about uncertainty is that when it’s seen for what it is, experienced as it comes, moment by moment, it eventually passes. When we insist on assigning causes and effects, however — even when we land on something with substance in it — the uncertainty keeps on persisting because the questions and the answers never really stop. And even when it doesn’t persist, the only reason is that we have sufficiently deluded ourselves with an incomplete answer that we now take for certainty.
Time — both as a concept and as an experience — is a strange beast, but one of the most obvious things about it also the most profound: It changes things. How you feel today — the fear, the need, the uncertainty — will likely not be how you will feel tomorrow and that in turn will likely not be how you will feel in a year from now. This, too, shall pass, as they say. And they say that because it has before and it will again no matter how urgent the need for an answer may seem in the detail of an incomplete moment.
In old age, an interviewer once asked the great science fiction writer Ray Bradbury what it means to grow up — particularly what it means to grow up while staying connected to our inner child. His answer was this:
“You remain invested in your inner child by exploding every day. You don’t worry about the future, you don’t worry about the past — you just explode. So, if you are dynamic, you don’t have to worry about what age you are. So I’ve remained a boy, because boys run everywhere — they never stop running, they never look back, they never look back, they just keep running, running, and running. That’s me — the running boy.”
And this is perhaps the best way to deal with it all: to experience, to play, to run. Here, we don’t stop to ask too many questions, hoping only to enjoy what is there when it is, leaving behind the gaps until they can no longer be seen. Questions and answers have their place. And sure, they should demand at least some of our attention if we are to ensure stability throughout the journey, but the fixation is better served when it favors dynamic engagement over the incompleteness of individual moments.
Sometimes, when I can’t quite get my head out of these individual moments and their incompleteness, I also take a lesson from my inner child — the one who prefers play over certainty, innocence over answers. And this child knows something that it took me too long to conceptualize: that sometimes the answer isn’t a solution. Rather, it’s a punchline.
There are various theories — ranging in origin from evolutionary to linguistic to spiritual — about what the purpose of humor is and especially what makes a good joke. I don’t have a special alliance to any one of them as far as their social function goes, but in terms of their utility on an individual level, I like to think of jokes as the only tool that can complete individual, static, and otherwise incomplete moments.
Good jokes always leave something more to be desired, something that can’t quite be stated in formal language because the complexity of the situation is related to intuitively instead. In a way, they close the recursive loop left open by pure, hard logic, and that’s why explaining a joke is rarely as funny as its initial delivery. It’s also why tension breaks under the pressure of laughter. You are not supposed to understand it any other way because it can’t fully be understood any other way. What you can do is appreciate it for what it is, engaging with it as comes to you, even if it doesn’t fully make sense.
So, maybe the solution isn’t to look for better questions or better answers, but instead, it’s to seek out better jokes. And then, with those jokes, it’s to fill whatever the gap of uncertainty is for long enough to let the arrow of time do what it does best: to invalidate the need for an answer.
Join the newsletter
Subscribe to get our latest content by email.
I send out at least one new essay every week. Join 40,000+ readers for exclusive access: