The fear of the unknown, of the uncertain, and the resulting insecurity, have always led humans to a continuous desire to question and, as a result, to dominate man's environment, as the ultimate attempt of transmuting their experience into a secure condition.
Seeking therefore, to lessen the fears resulting from the “absolutism of reality” (Hans Blumenberg) which is both opaque and unpredictable at the same time, human beings have sought, both through the mediation of activities and of discourses, to explain the unknown using fictionally constructed images.
Images, divinities, myths which, upon fragmenting this opacity, had the final aim of controlling what existed. It is within this context that the Palaeolithic art (Solutrean and Magdalenian periods) of Vale do Côa represents an important visual legacy which helps us to understand better the way our ancestors, as the same time as seeing them distancing themselves from nature, dealing with the dangers and uncertainties which mediated their experience.
In essence, fear in relation to the unknown is the attempt to free oneself from this, and shows intentions to appropriate space, “the archaic will to “dominate” the Earth”, (Bragança de Miranda, 2002), and this would thus constitute the driving force leading to the investigation of experience, given the presupposition that “from fear man presumes to be free, when there is nothing more unknown” (Theodor Adorno et al, 1947: 29).
In short, there has always been the intention to free oneself of the fears connected to the anger of the gods, with the unknown, uniting itself with the driving force for all human action.
In taking into consideration the way that, in Pre-Christian antiquity, the uncertain was perceived, it can be stated that the future, given its predetermined nature, was capable of being known through the intermediary of various divination techniques which sought to bring it to light. Consequently, there is an association between the predetermination of destiny, of fate and the “influence” capable of being exercised by human action on these, given that its anticipation/prophecy through various sorceries (rituals and magical paintings, divining the intentions of the deities, oneirocritica/ oneiromancy, immolating animals, throwing for luck, the taba game/astragalus, amongst others), makes it possible to prepare to face future events and, as a result, take decisions seeking to “control” the same. In essence, prophesising the future provides evidence of a discourse which not only seeks to catalogue what is going to happen, but also seeks to influence these same occurrences. This does not invalidate, however, the occurrence of events as being fortuitous - lessening the role of humans as the agent of what happens - since this emerges as a result of chance and/or the uncertain/blind will of the Tyche (for the Greeks) and Fortuna (for the Romans).
The few areas where it was possible for the individual to influence and/or control the future would, within the framework of Medieval Christianity, be practically eliminated from human capability. Adorned by the centrality of the “image” of God from which all connections and disconnections are woven, the negation of chance finds its reason in a “secret predetermination”. In accord with theological determinism, with everything - from and for always - determined by divine will, chance did not exist as an inherent property of events or things themselves, and at the most, could only be marginally accepted as the denomination given by humans to something they did not know why had been or indeed was like that and not in another form. This perspective becomes more understandable when we realise the importance assumed by the negation of chance within the argumentative logic of Christian discourse. That is, sustaining what underlay the framework of medieval Christianity and all the mediating logic found within it was dependent on this negation, since accepting indeterminism would have been equivalent, in the final instance, to recognition of the non-existence of final causes and, as a result, the dismantling of all Christian discourse.
The "settlement” of modernity enabled new attitudes, sentiments and agencies to appear with regard to this. The dissipation of the divinely preordained social order and the “destruction of the confidence in the world [produced by it, and in defending it going beyond the limits of the period] made [man], for the first time an active creative being, freeing him from a passive, disastrous stance which had been his” (Hans Blumenberg, 1976: 139). In other words, in the modern condition, with the gradual dissipation of the foundations/secularisation of life and, as such, the emphasis of human autonomy and the awakening of the human as a social agent, there has emerged a historical construction within the world. The world has become a product of action and subject to this, and what was previously secretly predetermined, in converting itself into action, has been translated into individual responsibility. In the final analysis, from a vision where the world was seen as something acquired, it is now seen as another where the transformation of the same appears to be a possibility, perhaps from the moment in which chance was transmuted into destiny, humans excluded transcendence as an operating element of their future, or, that is, “[…] for the first time we are responsible for the constitution of the world and not just for its management” (Bragança de Miranda, 1997: 46-7).
Until now we have spoken only of dangers, given than pre-modern experience cannot be considered hazardous; at the most, possibly dangerous, with the passage from danger to risk only possible through the intermediary of a metamorphosis of the representation system which was the same process in which it perceived (i) human self-determination, and witnessed (ii) the transformation of something uncertain, which was not measurable as something calculable and predictable. To sum up, the notion of risk would be inadequate before a future predetermined or independent of present human activities, since what has to happen will do so, and the negative consequences of destiny cannot be avoided. In this manner, the existing narrow association between modernity and the idea of risk becomes clear as the way found by humans to relate to the future. In other words, the conditions for this transition have only been in place since the moment the individual started to conceive of him/herself as a being capable of actively – and thus breaking with the past – influencing their own destiny, dominating, controlling space and time and seeking, in the final analysis to appropriate it or, if we prefer, to “colonise the future” (Anthony Giddens, 1991; François Ewald, 1986; Paris Spink, 2001). That is, “the idea of risk management only occurs when individuals believe themselves to be, up to a certain point, free agents” (Peter L. Bernstein, 1996: 34), and start to consider the future, within their social imagery, as something capable of being controlled. Faced with a new conception of time, the chances involving experience which until then were associated to the forces which humans had not dominated, are now step by step viewed as risks which the human being runs, and would thus argue for the emergence of a myriad of tentatives – fatuous! – seeking their control and/or the erasure of the mediating uncertainty of these.
Fatuous intentions, perhaps, though trust in human production (with everything inherent in this) does not avoid chance, since “the more we try to colonise the future, the greater the probability is that it will provide us with surprises” (Anthony Giddens, 1995: 76), or, in another discourse “[...] nothing happens more often than that which is totally unexpected” (Hannah Arendt, 1958: 368). As such, the modern attempts at classification, taking into account the putting together of an orderly world which, as a result, is secure, a world, in short, mediated by the obsessive desire to eliminate the anguish associated with the unpredictable, as the archetype of all typically modern tasks, and at the same time, to enable us to see not only the aspects which are conditional and mediate that project, but also the adverse consequences associated with this (Zygmunt Bauman, 1991). That is, although the continuous exorcism of everything that is ambiguous arises with its distinctive mark, modernity cannot, however, escape from the fear of ambivalence which was the very thing which gave rise to it, given that every definition and any attempt to demarcate and order evokes new possibilities of ambivalence and new disorders. As the modern task of classification went ahead, there was inevitably the involuntary production of ambiguity. As such, questioning modernity requires us to be aware of the impossibility of the modern condition being able to eliminate fear and the archetype which gave rise to it, since rationalities which mediate modern action, contrary to their primary objective, instead of eliminating uncertainties, the consternations faced by chance, end up by producing them.
What has just been referred to becomes clearer when we realise the existence of a paradox running through current experience i.e. a first comparative reading between the experience of our ancestors and that of our own, seems to indicate that they, in principle, had to face equal or greater dangers and worries than those we experience in the present day. It could therefore be stated that one of the positive aspects of modernity (compared to premodern systems) is the increase in security regarding some spheres of human action (Anthony Giddens, 1990). But is this in fact a true image of reality? The response seems to be negative, since, notwithstanding all the advances in terms of security, it is paradoxically the case that, from the end of the 20th Century we have witnessed a significant increase in discourses where the issue of risks has emerged as one of the most salient features of modern societies.
And it is within this context that the “society of risk” (Ulrich Beck, 1986) shows its importance, since, in considering the metamorphoses of risks, of the transformation of the nature of these in late modernity, it shows the strong traces within our contemporariness not only the profuse increase in risks caused by technoscience or, if we prefer, generated in a socially and politically complex manner, but also, as a consequence of secondary effects, that this process is uncontrolled and unpredictable, creating a proliferation of the ubiquitous uncertainty which concomitantly: (i) places in question the notion of risk as something which can be objectively calculated and (ii) creates a perpetual state of anxiety and vigilance. In this manner, and as a counterpart to the optimism suggested by Anthony Giddens, it can be stated that individuals from "the Stone Age” did not possess the capacity for nuclear and ecological annihilation, and the dangers mirrored by the occult demons did not possess the same political dynamics typical of the dangers of ecological self-destruction manufactured by humans” (Ulrich Beck, 1999: 35).
Notwithstanding its importance, the theory of risikogesellschaft is not however, per se, sufficient to explain contemporary uncertainties. Stated in another manner, uncertainty has always unwillingly been a part of human experience in late modernity (appropriating the space formerly occupied by the myth of progress and faith in science and technology) and it will emerge in new moulds as the result of (and not despite) the increase in knowledge held by humans, both in relation to itself and the relative to the world which surrounds it. Before a scenario of this nature, namely the long western tradition sustained by belief in the possibility of objectively measuring risks, it is plausible to question this, and, as a result, witness significant complexification of the question of security. That being so, in present day experience, at the most, risk may be metaphorically used as wishing to mean uncertainty or, more correctly, deep Unsicherheit: “the German term which unites experiences for which other languages may require more words – uncertainty, insecurity and lack of guarantees”; (i) uncertainties regarding the future continuity and stability of the individual; (ii) insecurities connected to the body, the I and extensions of the same (possession, neighbourhood, community); (iii) lack of guarantees concerning position, titles and survival (Zygmunt Bauman, 1999: 13; 2000: 184).
However, it is the case that insecurity is a permanent and irreducible condition of life, as a strong sign of the current stage of modernity, its lessening and, as a result, its inclusion in the broad category of risk is problematic. That is, given that we live in a world which is every more parameterised by a lack of control, nowadays the “language of ‘uncertainty’ [… is] indispensable, and more suitable than that of “risk”, to speak of the technological/technogenic and anthropogenic impacts which are increasingly complex, diffuse and permeating at a planetary level” (Hermínio Martins, 1998: 46). As a conclusion, therefore, it is important to reinforce what current experience has revealed, i.e. a framework where the logic of risk has lost ground, or, perhaps, its nexus, given the reduction in security, the erosion of probabilistic efficacy, growing distrust in technology and the profusion of new fears, occurring pari passu with an increase in radical uncertainty (everything appears ever more dangerously uncertain) which nobody can escape. As a consequence of this “our work in eliminating the accidental and chance is little more than a game of luck” (Zygmunt Bauman, 2000: 156), since, as many modern discourses have shown, the most certain thing we possess is insecurity.