In Search of Lost Ambiguity

by Jalees Rehman

Lorax meets Rorschach (by Mark Turnauckas via Flickr)

Probably. Possible. Perhaps. Indicative. Researchers routinely use such suggestives in scientific manuscripts, because they acknowledge the limitations of the inferences and conclusions one can make when analyzing scientific data. The results of individual experiments are often open to multiple interpretations and therefore do not lend themselves to making definitive pronouncements. Cell biologists, for example, may test the role of molecular signaling pathways and genes which regulate the cellular functions by selectively deleting individual genes. However, we are also aware of the limitations inherent in this reductionist approach. Even though gene deletion studies allow us to study the potential roles of selected genes, we know that several hundred genes act in concert to orchestrate a cellular function. The role of each gene needs to be interpreted in the broader context of their role in this cellular orchestra. It is therefore not possible to claim that one has identified the definitive cause of cell growth or cell survival. Addressing causality is a challenge in biological research because so many biological phenomena are polycausal.

This does not mean that we cannot draw any conclusions in cell biology. Quite the contrary, being aware of the limitations of our tools and approaches forces us to grapple with the uncertainty and ambiguity inherent in scientific experimentation. Repeat experiments and statistical analyses allow researchers to quantify the degree of uncertainty for any given set of studies. When the results of scientific experiments are replicated and confirmed by other research groups, we can become increasingly confident of our findings. However, we also do not lose sight of the complexity of nature and are aware of the fact that scientific tools and approaches will likely change over time and uncover new depths of knowledge that could substantially expand or challenge even our most dearly held scientific postulates. Instead of being frustrated by the historicity of scientific discovery, we are humbled by the awe-inspiring complexity of our world. On the other hand, it is difficult to disregard an increasing trend in contemporary science to obsess about the novelty of scientific findings. A recent study analyzed the abstracts of biomedical research papers published in the years 1974-2014 and found that during the 30 year time period, there was an 880% (nine-fold) increase in verbiage conveying positivity and certainty using words such as “amazing”, “assuring”, “reassuring”, “enormous”, “robust” or “unprecedented”.

Why are some scientists abandoning the more traditional language of science which emphasizes the probabilistic and historical nature of scientific discovery?

There are pressures from funding agencies, prestigious scientific journals and political entities which appear to prioritize scientific novelty and certainty, as well as the increasing “hype” revolving around scientific discoveries reported in the news media which under-emphasize uncertainty and do not provide the necessary context seen in critical science journalism. But it is also possible that this shift away from ambiguity towards certainty in reporting and communicating science may be indicative of a much broader societal imperative which transcends science. Thomas Bauer is a Professor for Arabic and Religious Studies at the Westfälische Wilhelms-Universität in Münster (Germany) and has recently published the book Die Vereindeutigung der Welt: Über den Verlust an Mehrdeutigkeit und Vielfalt (English translation of the title: “The Disambiguation of the World: On the Loss of Ambiguity and Diversity”) which analyzes the increasing loss of ambiguity in contemporary society.

Bauer challenges the notion that we live in a world of increasing diversity and multiculturalism and instead suggests that our world is characterized by a form of pseudo-diversity (“Scheinvielfalt”) in which people who may appear to be distinctive and multicultural are progressively becoming uniform in their views, desires and lived cultures. The pace of extinction seen among plant and animal species as well as in human languages and dialects are symptoms of a Vereindeutigung (disambiguation). Societies which tolerate a culture of ambiguity and uncertainty nurture diversity. On the other hand, societies which force us into simplistic and definitive dichotomies such as “good guys” and “bad guys”, “political left” and political right” or “masculine” and “feminine” undermine diversity.

The loss of ambiguity and the growing intolerance of uncertainty is not just a characteristic of contemporary society but started with the rise of a modernity which demanded definitive stances. Bauer cites the Austrian writer Stefan Zweig who wrote introduced his essay “The Monotonization of the World” in 1925 with the following lines:

The most potent intellectual impression, despite the particular satisfactions enjoyed, of every journey in recent years is a slight horror in the face of the monotonization of the world. Everything is becoming more uniform in its outward manifestations, everything leveled into a uniform cultural schema. The characteristic habits of individual peoples are being worn away, native dress giving way to uniforms, customs becoming international. Countries seem increasingly to have slipped simultaneously into each other; people’s activity and vitality follows a single schema; cities grow increasingly similar in appearance.

These prescient lines were written long before globalized corporations began dictating consumer behavior, fashions and desires. According to Bauer, this process of monotonization is interconnected with the loss of ambiguity. Individuals cannot be easily pigeon-holed into a cultural schema because their fashion sense, music tastes, culinary preferences could be incongruent with each other. We may harbor several discordant ideas such as views on the environment and feminism that are perhaps associated with progressive and leftist political movements, views on religion and spirituality that may be linked to conservative political movements and follow cultural practices that are associated with indigenous cultures which cannot be neatly ascribed to any political movement but may still impact our political stances. While ascribing to these various views, we may also doubt the veracity or validity of each perspective and create our own individualized collage of fragmented views and practices. Maintaining such a state of cognitive, cultural and political ambiguity is not easy. It is much easier for our mind to avoid the cognitive dissonance of potentially contradictory views and simply succumb to certainty and uniformity.

Bauer suggests that the effort required for an individual to maintain cognitive and cultural ambiguity limits our own ability to tolerate ambiguity and uncertainty. At the same time, an individual may also desire the freedom to live a fulfilling life of chosen ambiguity which avoids the constraints of uniformity and certainty. Our lives may therefore vacillate between ambiguity and disambiguity, uncertainty and certainty. However, extrinsic forces may curtail such a vacillatory life. Individuals with uniform views and practices are easier to rule and exploit than those who harbor ambiguity and uncertainty. Capitalist economies thrive when consumers are certain that they need more goods, militaries prefer the unambiguous designations of enemies in order to give an order to shoot and political or religious leaders need their followers to be unambiguous when following commandments.

According to Bauer, many societies have traditionally been more tolerant of ambiguity than they are today. His most illustrative examples lie in his area of expertise – religion. He suggests that religion intrinsically requires some degree of ambiguity because it relies on transcendence. Messages conveyed by a God or other non-material entities cannot be definitively verified and instead require some degree of interpretation. These interpretations vary from individual to individual and also over time, often representing a compromise between an interpreted theological concept and its pragmatic implementation in a historical context, thus creating a culture of ambiguity. Bauer provides the example of the “Live and let live” principle in Geneva during the early years of the reformation when Catholics and Protestants lived side by side in a state of tolerated ambiguity which was then replaced by Calvin’s “Tyranny of Virtue”, which demanded unquestioned obedience to his interpretation of the Christian faith. In the Muslim tradition, scholars used to take pride in providing multiple competing interpretations of Quranic verses and Islamic legal rulings emphasized the probabilistic nature of their findings based on the available data, while admitting the possibility of errors. The ambiguity in legal rulings was especially important in Islamic criminal law which resulted in minimal death penalty convictions for sex-related “crimes”, which is in stark contrast to the legal rulings of contemporary fundamentalist Islamists who have abandoned the tradition of ambiguity.

What are the characteristics of ideological and religious fundamentalists who attempt to eradicate the culture of ambiguity? Bauer identifies three key factors: Obsession with truth, rejection of history and striving for purity of thought. Those who believe that there is only one interpretation of the Truth, are unable to tolerate the existence of competing interpretations and competing truths. They also struggle with the idea of a historical context and historical process because this could imply the validity of the Truth might be transient. Lastly, fundamentalists attempt to purge ideas that might interfere with their own version of the Truth. The history of National Socialism, fascism, Stalinism and religious fundamentalisms all provide ample evidence for fulfilling these three criteria. They also have in common that they attack ambiguity by commanding allegiance to a single truth or a single interpretation of the truth. But Bauer proposes a second, more interesting threat to ambiguity: Indifference. The tolerance of ambiguity and true diversity refers to respecting multiple interpretations of cultural, political, philosophical tenets. Indifference, on the other hand, deprives them of meaning. Instead of ambiguity and diversity, indifference creates a culture of “whatever”, “who cares” and “everything goes” which results in meaninglessness. Fascisms and religious fundamentalism are fairly easy to identify but indifference may masquerade as a form of pseudo-diversity but lacks the mutual respect for multiple interpretations that is characteristic of true diversity and ambiguity.

Bauer then extends his analysis of disambiguation to art, music and other forms of cultural expression but these are not always easy to follow. His description of Schönberg’s mathematically constructed twelve-tone music as an example of disambiguation taking hold in music is not very convincing and Bauer also glosses over several music movements of the past century such as Jazz, Rock, Rap and Hip-Hop which have had a more profound impact on today’s music than the twelve-tone technique. Is there no ambiguity in the lyrics of rap songs? Bauer also cites abstract expressionism by artists such as Pollock and Rothko as examples of capitalism-conform disambiguation. Bauer specifically invokes the CIA’s support for abstract expressionism as an antidote to communism, but it is difficult to view abstract art as a form of disambiguation. Many would see abstract expressionist art as an expression of ambiguity. Bauer’s lament of the loss of ambiguity in art becomes more obvious when he cites the contemporary German philosopher Byung-Chul Han, who in his recent book “Die Errettung des Schönen” (“Rescuing Beauty”) introduces the idea of “Das Glatte” (English: Smoothness or Sleekness):

Das Glatte ist die Signatur der Gegenwart. Es verbindet Skulpturen von Jeff Koons, iPhone und Brazilian  Waxing miteinander. Warum finden wir heute das Glatte schön? Über die ästhetische Wirkung hinaus spiegelt es einen allgemeinen  gesellschaftlichen  Imperativ  wider.  Es verkörpert  nämlich  die  heutige  Positivgesellschaft. Das Glatte verletzt  nicht.  Von ihm  geht  auch  kein  Widerstand aus.

English translation:

Sleekness is the signature of the present. It connects the sculptures of Jeff Koons, iPhone and Brazilian waxing. Why do we think of sleekness as beauty? Beyond its aesthetic impact, it reflects a societal imperative. It embodies our contemporary society of positivity. Sleekness does not offend. Nor does it offer any resistance.”

Han’s description of “smooth” or “sleek” art, the loss of roughness and edginess and the imperative to promote positivity all point towards a narrow yet increasingly popular definition of beauty. A smooth, sleek iPhone cannot injury or offend and does not convey ambiguity. It has reduced beauty to a form of indifference and become an icon of unambiguous techno-hype.

Tulip ‘balloons’ by Jeff Koons, permanently installed outside Guggenheim museum Bilbao – via Wikipedia

Sleek techno-design art is indeed indicative of a loss of ambiguity and an increase in uniformity. It is increasingly difficult to tell smart phones and newly designed cars apart. However, there are also art forms that have emerged in recent decades which have allowed artists and musicians to express their individuality and resist the culture of uniformity. Bauer exhibits a similar lack of nuance when suggesting that the rise of STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) approaches contributes to a culture of certainty by demanding quantification and precision. While it is true that STEM promote precision and quantification, this does not necessarily limit the culture of ambiguity since a rigorous STEM program ought to encourage awareness of uncertainty and ambiguity.

Can we rescue or restore the culture of ambiguity? Bauer suggests an increased focus on promoting aesthetics and individual creativity in the public space as well as greater support for subjects such as music and art in public schools instead of allowing them to become marginalized. Bauer is correct about emphasizing these areas, because they indeed lend themselves to promoting ambiguity and creativity and because they are especially vulnerable in a world that prioritizes productivity. However, I would add that providing resources is not sufficient. What is really needed is to promote a culture of respect for ambiguity and true diversity. We have to remind ourselves and our students why we value ambiguity and uncertainty – they are the key to creative freedom and Entfaltung, a German word for the “unfolding” of our talents and personality. Music and art education can help, but so can mathematics and science because they promote humility and respect for complexity. The manner of education is more important than the actual subjects. We often talk of the “Golden Age” of a civilization a time of great economic and political power as well as cultural expansion. Perhaps we should redefine the “Golden Age” is the time of maximal tolerance for ambiguity and diversity.


Bauer, Thomas (2018). Die Vereindeutigung der Welt: Über den Verlust an Mehrdeutigkeit und Vielfalt.  Reclam.