The Value of Uncertainty
from 10:00 AM to 12:00 PM
There are many things in life that we value, but uncertainty is not usually one of them. At first sight, this may seem to be unproblematic, indeed obvious. What we actually value is information, understandable as the appropriate combination of relevant questions and their correct answers, the Qs and the As. We value information because it is power: power to understand what happened, forecast what will happen, and hence choose now among the things that could happen between the past and the future. The more information you have, the better you may shape your environment and control its development, and the more advantage you may enjoy against competitors who lack such a resource. On the contrary, being uncertain means that none of this immediately holds true, because you have only the relevant questions without the correct answers, only the Qs without the As. Because we find information valuable and uncertainty uncomfortable,it is tempting to generalise and declare uncertainty a disvalue in absolute terms: having only relevant questions is always bad, adding the corresponding correct answers is always good. We value information precisely because it reduces uncertainty. If you like one you dislike the other, it seems a zero-sum game. Yet in this talk I shall argue that this is a mistake. A liberal, tolerant, and fair society is one in which a healthy degree of uncertainty is both welcomed and fostered. It is not uncertainty but rather ignorance, understood as the lack of questions as well as answers, that is an absolute disvalue. For only if you have no questions you may never get answers. Fundamentalists of all kind know this well. This is why any society that forbids or discourages free questioning is illiberal and in need of reform. Some uncertainty and the ability to entertain alternative answers to the same question have a value that we should not underestimate.
Luciano Floridi is Professor of Philosophy and Ethics of Information at the University of Oxford, Director of Research and Senior Research Fellow at the Oxford Internet Institute, and Fellow of St Cross College, Oxford. Among his recognitions, he was awarded a Cátedras de Excelencia by the University Carlos III of Madrid, was UNESCO Chair in Information and Computer Ethics, was appointed the Gauss Professor by the Academy of Sciences in Göttingen, and is recipient of the APA’s Barwise Prize, the IACAP’s Covey Award, and the INSEIT’s Weizenbaum Award. He is an AISB and BCS Fellow, Editor in Chief of Philosophy & Technology and of the Synthese Library, and was Chairman of EU Commission’s ‘Onlife’ research group. His most recent books are: The Fourth Revolution – How the infosphere is reshaping human reality (OUP, 2014), The Ethics of Information (OUP, 2013), The Philosophy of Information (OUP, 2011), Information: A Very Short Introduction (OUP, 2010).