I tell students that if they want to take my classes they should make themselves comfortable with ambiguity. To illustrate what I mean, I ask them to consider the final scene from the movie Inception. A lot of people after seeing that movie want to ask, “do you think the top stopped spinning, tumbled, and fell, revealing the current events to be a dream inside a dream?” You’re asking the wrong question, I always tell them. The filmmakers intentionally chose to conclude the film on an ambiguous note with questions left unanswered. Why? I suspect it’s because ambiguity is so powerful that when we’re left without answers we return to it with quiet unease.
If you think you’re going to find certainties in the close study of history, for example, you’re going to find yourself disappointed. Historians are neither capable of providing you with certainties, nor do they want to. There are many theories as to why the United States became a traditionally imperialist nation at the turn of the nineteenth century—occupying Cuba and islands throughout the Pacific—but no single theory explains it all. Ambiguity allows historians to consider all of the alternatives and acknowledge how the interpretation of past events is impossibly complex. They can provide insight into why it might’ve happened. Through blending theories, they may even come close to teasing out the polycausal nature of an event. But it is only through embracing ambiguity that they come close to arriving at any understanding of the past.
The study of ethics is a similar endeavor. Philosophers explore ethical dilemmas and raise important questions with respect to how we ought to behave. Do you kill a single person to save hundreds? Is it wrong to kill people even if the consequences lead directly to less loss of life? Students in both my history and philosophy classes may never arrive at answers to the questions I ask, but they hopefully come to recognize value in the nagging sense of ambiguity I leave them with. Life is an impossible mess of complexities. The illusion of certainty often does more harm than good. It is usually people sure in their convictions—so sure they’re willing to kill for them—who end up fucking over the world.
Then again, even this interpretation of how things get so bad dismisses ambiguity in favor of an easy answer. A lot of times people follow orders without knowing why and commit atrocities opposed to their moral sensibilities. How does that happen? Historians, philosophers, psychologists, sociologists, anthropologists, and even economists have spilled so much ink trying to answer this question that their wells must nearly be dry. When people are wrapped up in an event—when they’re experiencing it directly—they rarely have the time or the energy to reflect on it with purpose or intentionality. Even the decision to do nothing is in some sense an action because, as one wise person put it, “you can’t stay neutral on a moving train.” Thus everyone acts by either reflecting on what’s happening around them or they end their lives. Suicide is the only way out of the inevitability that you must act, that you cannot choose otherwise.
So, why ambiguity? Because it’s the only authentic stance you can take in experiencing the world. You have no answers. You have no clear direction. Life is happening to you and you have no control over it. Only the ignorant believe they possess clear certainties or accurate roadmaps. The best option you have is to educate yourself to such an extent that you can say with all sincerity that you based your actions on informed guesswork. This takes more than getting comfortable with ambiguity. This takes a commitment to vulnerability. And I’m still not sure which is more difficult.