Scott, the author of Skeptic Meditations, which is an interesting blog about the intersection of religion and science, posed an interesting question in the comments of my post on Eastern and Western philosophical traditions. He asked, “Why do people seek certainty?”
The search for certainty has been a theme of writers around the world for millennia. Some texts see certainty as an inevitable feature of the world, e.g. God’s Plan in the Bible, Plato’s Theory of the Forms, and Aristotle’s Substances; while other texts deny certainty as a feature of the world, such as Nietzsche, and Heraclitus. There are also texts that are more ambiguous: the Tao Te Ching presents the world as changing, yet the Tao doesn’t change; Buddhism presents a similar paradox as Taoism, there is a chain of causes (pratityasamutpada), but when the chain is broken, “emptiness” (shunyata) is experienced; The Yoga Sutra of Patanjali presents a similar pardox as well, where the control/stopping of the mind’s turning leads to a poorly described experience of clarity/emptiness according to the text.
The differences between these three general categories of answer to the question are interesting. The positive descriptions of certainty in the world — such as Ideal Forms, God, and immutable underlying Substances — are relatively easy concepts for the mind to comprehend, compared to those who deny certainty in some way or those who take an ambiguous stance on certainty. Those who deny certainty often provide an alternative description of the world that explains why there is no certainty in the world. The question for the ambiguous authors is, “What is the mysterious certainty hiding behind the ephemeral changes that we see in the world?”
One obvious response to the question, is that living in an uncertain world is stressful. Living in a world where aspects of it are certain, or at least generally predictable, reduces the number of details one has to reconsider every day. Beyond the immediate survival benefits of being certain that trees won’t eat us and that alligators might, people often find it comforting to have some certainty about future events. It’s nice to know where one will sleep tonight and the following night, as well as whether there will be food to eat. In his book, Antifragile, Nassim N. Taleb describes one use of ancient religious texts as survival manuals: the Old Testament and other similar books being filled with proscriptions and exhortations to various actions, which one might argue, have stood the test of time by keeping the folks who follow those exhortations alive and reproducing.* Having a set of principles that can reduce a number of different, unpredictable situations to a finite set of actions one ought to take is extremely useful in reducing the uncertainty one would experience in life.
This idea of heuristics, or general guiding principles, embedded in cultural touchstones is interesting, as it helps explain a number of otherwise confusing practices that people do in the face of ostensibly rational information that contradicts the confusing practices. This idea is discussed with respect to the use of the word ‘God’ by various religious people in a podcast that Scott linked to me in the comments of my East vs. West article: the link is here, http://atheisticallyspeaking.com/as/. The author who is interviewed in that podcast states that different groups of believers use the word ‘god’ to indicate different needs, hopes, or desires depending on the respective situation. It is one of the more interesting discussions about the word ‘god’ I’ve ever heard. It jives with Taleb’s idea that belief in a religion is secondary to the practices, or uses, it offers to its followers.
There is a similarity between all of the different writers and texts that I cited in my introduction to this post: all of them describe something that is certain in the world, even if that something is “nothingness”, “change”, or “flux”. It is interesting that change can be a constant, as one finds with the physical principle of entropy. Beginning with change as an ontological constant, still allows one to develop a set of heuristics that help one get through the world: this is the move that many thinkers who embrace uncertainty make to help keep their philosophies from reducing to a constant game of Jenga, where all they’re trying to do is keep the tower of their lives from toppling every second of the day.
The longer I think about the question, as I sit and tap away at my keyboard, I think the foundation of humanity’s search for certainty, or at least certain pieces, in the world is rooted in survival. It seems fundamental to peoples’ ability to function in the world at a very basic level. Without relative certainty that our feet will stay on the ground, that we’ll be here tomorrow when the sunrises, and that we’ll have food to eat, we can’t climb very far up Maslow’s Pyramid. Moreover, the search for certainty helps describe the various cultures, societies, and belief systems people have developed throughout history, in an effort to bind neighbors together and make life more certain for everyone.
A strange side-effect of this process is the sectarianism that arises when two different and neighboring groups of people believe that their peculiar, competing brands of certainty-creating heuristics meet. Rarely, does it seem sufficient for a philosophy or religion to stop at “food, water, and shelter”. Further questions about life and the things in it drives thinkers to develop complex explanations for art, social organization, sex, creation of all the variety of natural and artificial objects, architecture, city planning, etc. Ironically, it’s often not the basic commonalities that all people share — eating, sleeping, living in a shelter, reproducing, etc. — which cause disagreements. While it is true that disagreements occur over who physically or psychological harmed whom, many cross-cultural disagreements and deaths occur over ideas or interpretations of history. At first glance, this appears irrational to me, but I think it goes to show how powerful these cultural heuristics are in mooring the activities of an individual’s, as well as a groups, time in the world: to put it another way, if one can no longer live life according to the principles provided by their experience, culture, or religion, the question for them becomes, “What do they do?” There is very little one can do without a model of how to navigate the world because life appears so uncertain at that point. I think this is why crises of faith or moving to a new culture can be so disturbing to people when they have to do it alone. Is there a way to reduce the volatility and violence that can arise between groups of people who rely on competing or different heuristics, especially a way that doesn’t rely on homogenizing everyone to a the same heuristics? I’d like to think there is, but that’s a topic for another post.
* A digest and discussion of this idea is here: https://www.quora.com/What-did-Taleb-mean-by-his-criticism-of-Richard-Dawkins-in-Talebs-Reddit-Ask-Me-Anything-Q-A