The challenge of life, of being personally responsible, is that the world is complex and necessarily uncertain. We cannot be sure if our actions will have their intended consequences.

Everything that we do involves chance, and risk. There is no way around this. We have to try different things, and see what works. In the process we will make mistakes, and there will be a cost.

Indeed, the main way we learn is by making mistakes, and suffering the consequences. It is the proverbial story of the child who touches a hot stove. “Hot” lacks meaning, until it is experienced.

What this illustrates is that while life may grant us personal freedom, it is not in fact free. Life demands that we make judgments and decisions, including to resolve conflicting desires and obligations, and in the context of chance and uncertainty.

The issue of uncertainty has profound implications for democracy. Democratic systems require periodic changes in government officials, to preserve flexibility and vitality. These changes, which occur via elections, give new people a chance, and inject new ideas.

The problem in many democracies is that the desire for certainty makes current incumbents almost impossible to unseat. They may be bad, even corrupt, but voters choose them again anyway from the fear that the next could be even worse (which fear is reinforced in the incumbents’ political advertising).

This is one of the reasons why democratic systems have term limits, a set number of years for which any incumbent may hold office. It is arguable that term limits should apply to all elected officials, and even appointed positions as well.

A related issue is that voters demand certainty, and politicians promise it. Politicians say that their approaches to various social problems will work, and that the ideas of their opponents are doomed to fail. But these claims are deceptive and misleading. There are no guarantees that anything will work.

The rate of change today is the greatest in human history, and it is accelerating. Problems are growing in scale, and in some cases have spiraled completely out of control. For instance, there is real uncertainty about global warming (not if it exists, but how bad it is going to get). It is impossible to predict how much the earth is going to heat. All of the glacial ice on the planet may well melt, with unimaginable consequences.

Now more than ever we must embrace change. We require completely new approaches, and leaders willing to take a chance and try them. Instead, we are mired with elected officials who avoid innovation, and an electorate that does not hold them to account.

Uncertainty also has a second major implication for democracy and government, on its relationship with organized religion. Religions actually reject the above contention. They say, at least regarding what they consider to be the most important issues in life (what is its purpose and what happens when we die), that there is no uncertainty. However, these claims are based on faith, in revelations and miracles. There is no proof.

People are entitled to believe what they want. Because of this, there is such a thing as religious freedom, which democracy must protect. But this does not grant a religion the right to impose its beliefs. In government, when this occurs, when a country is controlled by a particular religion, this is known as theocracy.

Theocracy demands that you believe in miracles: in the specific miracles on which the dominant religion is based. For example, Islamic theocracies require that citizens believe in the miracles experienced by the Prophet Mohammed. Moreover, present Islamic leaders believe that they have “divine authority,” because they can link their ancestry to the Prophet’s family. Mohammed reportedly talked to God (or was exposed to His will through the angel Gabriel), and through this received such authority, which was then, Muslims believe, transferred to his descendents.

Divine authority is illegitimate. Muslims are free to practice their faith, but they do not have a right to force it on anyone else, starting with the people who live in their own societies. In other words, government must be democratic, and it must be “secular.” But secular does not imply that a state is godless, only that the members of the society are free to believe what they want about the spiritual questions of life.

In consideration of the principles of democracy, the people under a theocracy are equal, but only in the sense that they all must submit. Personal freedom is severely constrained. For responsibilities also, one must not choose, only follow.

We are faced with a conundrum. Life is uncertain, but we have to make choices. This leads to the question: on what basis should we choose? How should we express our free will?

The answer to this begins with the idea of value. We can survey our world and reach conclusions about what is important, and what we should value.

Over the last 3.5 billion years all manner of life forms and natural habitats have evolved on our planet. Similarly, in the period of time since Homo sapiens evolved as a separate species, an extraordinary array of distinct human cultures has been established. This diversity represents what is truly unique and beautiful about the Earth. It constitutes the real value of our world.

Every time a species dies out, every time a natural habitat is cut down, every time a traditional human culture is “assimilated” by the modern world, part of this value is irrevocably lost.

This perception of value can also be used to evaluate any actions that humans consider, as individuals and through groups. If such actions preserve environmental and cultural diversity, and establish the conditions in which they can continue to thrive, then they are acceptable. But, if the actions reduce the diversity and the potential for future development, even if only through indirect consequences, then they are not.

This is not to say that there is nothing of value in the modern world. There has been an explosion of knowledge in recent decades, which is of course valuable, both in and of itself and also through its practical consequences (in particular through saving lives). But this does not mean that all modern developments have similar value. Many such developments have resulted not from an unambiguous quest for new understanding, or to improve the world, but as an outcome of the corporate quest to make money. The last often involves profound negative consequences, including direct assaults on environmental and cultural diversity, and also to our underlying principle of equality.

© Roland O. Watson 2008