Monthly Archives: December 2015

Why do people seek certainty?

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, 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:


East vs. West

I just finished reading an article that details “Why so Many Love the Philosophy of the East – and so Few That of the West”. Using the celebrity Miranda Kerr as the protagonist, the article claims that Western philosophy focuses on arcane, technical problems, while Eastern philosophy quickly and clearly explains how mere mortals can make their way in the world. The article compares the work being done in the Philosophy departments of major universities, like the one at Sydney University, to the work being done in commercial yoga classes and Buddhist meditation groups. This comparison is specious because it mistakenly assumes that religious groups like Japanese Buddhist organization, Soka Gakkai International, are in the same line of work as Sydney University. These two groups are not in the same line of work.

The correct comparison is between a religious seminary, such as the work being done at a Buddhist monastery or a Christian theological seminary, and Sydney University. These organizations are involved in critical analysis of texts and ideas that are central to each organization’s area of specialization. These organizations are different than popular religious groups that host meditation and yoga practices.

One might compare Soka Gakkai International to the popular activities of any other popular religious group, Catholicism, Protestantism, Judaism, Sufism, mainstream Islam, etc. Popular religious groups offer practices meant to provide solace, inspiration, and comfort to people.

Additionally, religious traditions often have a popular and scholastic aspect: a group of people working with the public and a group of scholars working on technical problems internal to the religion or philosophical system. The two branches of a religion are related, while often functioning independently of each other. For example, most Catholics haven’t read Aquinas’s Summa Theologica, nor will they ever. The Summa is a technical work on Catholicism, much like the work by Derek Parfit cited in the article, or any one of the technical philosophical works on Buddhism or Yoga philosophy.

I challenge anyone who believes the premise of the article linked above to read a technical Buddhist text, such as Vasubandhu’s Abhidharmakosha, and claim it is more approachable and applicable to living a fulfilling life than Martin Heidegger’s Being and Time. Both works are equally applicable, as well as equally technical and dense in their content.

For a comparable recitation to “Nam Myoho Renge Kyo” in the Western tradition one ought to look to a church hymnal, or a book of folk songs. In other words, the article is comparing Miranda Kerr’s Buddhist devotional practice to technical philosophy, which is similar to comparing a child’s Lego toy with the engineering required to build a nuclear submarine.

I’d like to offer my own answer to “Why so many love the philosophy of the East — and so few that of the West”. Having a degree in (Western) Philosophy and one in the Philosophy of Religion (Buddhism and Hinduism), I feel qualified to take a stab at it. Most folks who “love the philosophy of the East” can’t read the difficult, technical texts that found the popular practices of yoga and meditation: in other words, most folks love the devotional or exercise practices of the East, which have been wrapped up in mystical language of the philosophical traditions that support those practices. Because we have access to the technical works of Western philosophy (and religion), it’s easier to find those traditions tedious and boring — i.e. driving a Porsche or a Lamborghini is thrilling, but having to repair the engine is tedious and boring. Whether you’re practicing Eastern or Western religion and philosophy, the practice (e.g. meditation, philosophical debate, yoga practice, etc.) is thrilling, but the technical, analytical work is tedious and boring, whether that work is in Sanskrit, Chinese, Japanese, German, French, or English.