I’m trying to write something on ambiguity, as part of the the nature of life, and how ambiguity becomes part of the response to climate change…. This is a space to try and work on it.

Definition of ambiguity

To begin let me try for a definition of ambiguity – which not only begins well, but fits with what I’ve discovered in the writing. The definition is probably not completely unambiguous.

Using the full Oxford English Dictionary (OED) we can construct not only a definition of ambiguity but show that attitudes towards ambiguity are generally hostile until the 20th Century when it comes to be recognised as important – possibly an opening to limits.

Ambiguity arises when events, situations, beings, or words (I’m trying to be definitive here, rather than rely on a word like ‘something’) have “different possible meanings; [the] capacity for being interpreted in more than one way; [or] lack of specificity or exactness.” The OED goes on to elaborate (slightly rephrased), ambiguity occurs when interpretation of language or events is uncertain, doubtful, dubious or imprecise. We can also have situations in which the events are difficult to categorize (linguistically, or practically) or to identify; especially due to changeable or apparently contradictory characteristics. Reality is in flux, and our perceptions may shift, so nothing remains the same forever. We can say that ambiguity is demonstrated whenever people see an event in a different way, or choose to emphasise different parts of the event and its context or surroundings.

Ambiguity in language

Ambiguity is almost always present in language due to homophones, words with multiple meanings, normal and expressive imprecision (‘My love is like a red red rose’ – not really, even though we may know what the poet implies), metaphor, meaning being shaped by context of the text’s emission, the context of its interpretation, or the context of the words which surround each other. We have shifting contexts, framings or word meanings (so that the same sentence issued at one time, or by one person, may not have the same meaning as when it is issued at another time or by another person), and through strategy in which people use words to persuade others, or to interpret a statement in a way that satisfies them. That misunderstanding seems common also implies ambiguity is common.

In many of the early illustrative quotations ambiguity is to be removed (“That alle ambiguites and dowtes may be removede.” “To puttyne awey alle ambyguite” etc), as it is a cause of hazard or dispute (“To prevent ambiguities and quarrels, each Prince..shall declare his pretences.”), and it indicates probable lack of understanding.

Some forms of philosophy from Plato onwards, have attempted to suggest either that poetry and ambiguity makes bad philosophy, or that most philosophical problems stem from bad use of language or cultivated ambiguity, and they may be right, at least some of the time. However, they are perhaps unable to demonstrate consistent lack of ambiguity, or perhaps fixity of meaning, in their explication ].

There is also the possibility that if a person is trying to work up to say/write what has not been said before then that person will not have the language to say it, and hence will, necessarily, be ambiguous or at least obscure. At one stage of my life, I argued that language found in new knowledges was almost always ‘magical,’ dependent on metaphor, ‘similarity’ and ‘contagion’ and I still think that is true, and likely to produce ambiguity and misunderstanding.

William Empson famously insisted that awareness of ambiguity and multiple association (together with the reader’s own experience) was an essential part of receiving the richness of poetry. However, he also suggests “any prose statement could be called ambiguous,” (p1). That language, at enough length, is ambiguous is perhaps revealed by the fact that literary critics never cease to find new points and new approaches and new meanings for valued plays and novels and even for philosophers. To some extent we get by, by ignoring the ambiguity of ordinary speech, by communication being good enough, or exact enough, for purpose.

We further face ambiguity because of the social dynamics of information, the way that information is distorted and filtered by human desires for social belonging (to fit in with others’ understandings and be confirmed in that understanding), the social construction of trust though identification, and the habit of seeing our group as good, and outgroups as untrustworthy.

Ambiguity of Reality

However, not only is language ambiguous, but so are our perceptions of reality, descriptions of reality or perhaps reality itself. Simone de Beauvoir states that “to say that [reality] is ambiguous is to assert that its meaning is never fixed, that it must be constantly won” (#).

While meaning is rarely fixed I suggest that an unambiguous meaning cannot be won without loss of reality and loss of recognition of complexity.

For example most people today appear to ignore the ambiguity in capitalism. Thus the pro-corporate player notes that capitalism brings prosperity (all the world’s most prosperous countries are capitalist), it brings choice (think of the realms of books you can buy), it brings freedom etc. While the anti-capitalist might note that it brings plutocracy, destroying democracy through purchase of politicians and policies; undermines ecologies through overenthusiastic extraction, pollution and growth; substitutes greed for virtue; and promotes pleasing blame and fantasy instead of information, as the media is controlled by corporations and competing for sales and influence. The ambiguity arises in that both sets of claims are accurate to a point. Suppressing one set of claims simply suppresses reality and complexity.

In approaches to climate change we find the same kind of suppression of ambiguity. This often involves suppression of normal uncertainty, or an over insistence on uncertainty.

If there is any uncertainty about future trajectories (which there is) then people can decide to be certain that nothing bad is happening at all, or if we are told that 97%, or whatever, of climate scientists say climate change is happening and is humanly caused, then people will insist this means scientists are conspiring or suppressing counter evidence, or that we should completely trust the 3%, or even non-experts, who do not agree before we take climate science seriously.

Then people will claim that action on climate will undermine the prosperous economy, and others claim it will not – the problem here being that the economy causes ecological destruction and climate change and is thus destroying itself, and that effective acting on climate change has to alter the economy and what it can do, or the destruction will continue. Others claim the economy will adapt to climate change in time to prevent climate change. There is no evidence for this. The economy is ambiguous in that it brings both good and bad, and we cannot control it completely: the economy we have, encourages people to game rules and regulations to get the maximum profit, not produce communal survival. We need to recognise that economic change to fight climate change will require the economy to change and that may produce chaos, although perhaps not as much as climate change itself. However, economic change and climate change will interact and almost certainly produce unexpected results – which will be only ambiguously relatable to one or the other.

Then we have the supporters of renewables who condemn those people who want to defend their local environments against windfarms or masses of solar panels. It is true that renewable farms are not as destructive as coal mines, or coal-seam gas fields, but nevertheless, do we not want people to defend and relate to their local environments? If we what to save the environment in some way destroys or alters that environment, is their not a problem?

How, in climate change, do we balance the loss of liberty to pollute, or other losses of liberty, with survival or repair? It depends on what we consider more important to our group life, and that is an ambiguous decision because not everyone will see it the same way.

Again we have to recognise both the social dynamics of understanding and the politics of making some set of statements true, as often functioning as modes of reduction of ambiguity rather than modes of truth seeking. While perceived ambiguity may be lowered, it is also likely to reduce our perceptions of complexity and real uncertainty.

Ambiguity in Morals

Likewise we often have moral ambiguity. This is shown by the simple fact that most crimes can be defended, that people can undermine the reputation of those thought to be good, or that there are competing moral priorities. For example, justice through imprisonment can compromise the value of reforming someone, or sometimes it may not. What is a large fine for some person, may be trivial for another and just taken as the necessary ‘charge’ for being able to commit a crime. If a person has done lots of good things, but one really bad thing how do you weigh the good and the evil? Mother Theresa was frequently seen as a moral saint, for looking after dying people, but then we learn that she refused to lessen the pains of dying, because she thought those agonies part of God’s will, or reformatory. Is this good or bad? Moral dilemmas are normal, and arise because the world is complex and ambiguous, and again are often resolved by our assumptions about who is likely to be guilty and who is likely to be innocent, and the politics of morals in which we are more interested in defending what our group has done, than understanding the complexity of ethics in the situation.

For me, moral ambiguity is present in most conceptions of God. There is the old problem that if God allows evil, then God permits evil, and is therefore evil or impotent – and God is usually defined as omnipotent. In sacred writings we read of God commanding cruelty and genocide, because those who displease him can be treated harshly, and those who please him are compelled to attack those who displease him, or they become displeasing. Or we hear of a God who arranges for people to be tortured in hell forever with no remission, for often what seem to be trivial ‘sins’ which may even have no lasting effect especially if the sinned against are in heaven…. and if they are not in heaven it is because of the judgement of God. I would say that gods tend to be morally ambiguous when their morals are worked out.

Strategic Ambiguity

To return to a point made previously, ambiguity can be used strategically, to persuade others or elide reality. People can use an ambiguity in an attempt to remove an ambiguity which could be kept in mind.

One recent example. A government minister was accused of anally raping a young woman when he was young. The woman is dead, so apparently a case cannot be brought against him. I don’t know why as murder cases can be brought with the subject being dead, but this assertion is frequently made and accepted as true. Anyway, when facing the press he forcefully denied he had slept with the woman. The problem is that this statement is ambiguous. No one was actually accusing him of having slept with her. Indeed, if they had slept together, than perhaps the rape charges would be less believable, or indicate more of a misunderstanding. However ‘slept’ is in the context of sex usually taken to mean having sex, but it may not, and his words may have been carefully chosen to truthfully avoid the untruth of denying he raped her.

Again in climate change, we may be told the government has acted, or is acting rationally and carefully, when they have done little to reduce the potential damage of climate change – they may have acted in other ways, or the evidence that they use to imply successful action does not originate in their action or lack of action.

Ambiguity and Complexity

We both are complex systems, and live amidst complex systems, and these systems produce ambiguity for humans. They are inherently not fully understandable by humans; we cannot predict the course of events or the results of actions with absolute precision. Events in one complex system are not separate from the system, or from events in other systems, boundaries are rarely precise, events are nodes rather than things: a storm is not separated from the atmospheric conditions, or the wind, or the low pressures, or the moisture contents, or the cloud formations, or the sea, or… A person is not completely separable from their culture, their language, the cultural history they participate in, those around them, their experiences and learnings, their social position, the food they eat, the air they breathe, the bacteria they carry and so on. So even if we were to have a completely precise non-metaphoric language, then reality would still escape that language and appear ambiguous. Language itself is an interactive complex system, in that words interact with each other and with different contexts to produce understanding, meaning and behaviour. We discover ambiguity everywhere even, if I understand Godel, in mathematics, which is the best attempt humans have made to remove ambiguity from rules and their consequences, and mathematics may not be able to formulate ‘subjective’ qualitative events to begin with, and that is what we live with.


The point is that we face several types of ambiguity, and this ambiguity is normal and unavoidable. We face the ambiguity of language, brought about by the complex multiple and different social tools we use to use and understand language and communication, and we face ambiguity in the world because of the lack of precision in our social tools of understanding a constantly changing complex reality, and we face moral ambiguity when judging our actions and the actions of others again partly because of complexity and also because of social positioning and alliances around the case we are judging.