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, 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


7 thoughts on “Why do people seek certainty?

  1. SkepticMeditations

    Thanks for mentioning me in your post. You’ve given us readers some nice background and ideas to consider on this challenging topic of why do people seek certainty.

    I wonder if our underlying assumptions my be incorrect: that is, that living in an uncertain world “has” to be stressful (has to cause us humans anxiety).

    When I’m out in nature or not worrying about something that may happen in the future (which rarely ever does happen) all seems fine, little anxiety, much enjoyment naturally. Or, is flight or fight natural state of humans and certainty is the mechanism to counteract. I guess some humans are in flight and fight more and have need for more “certainty”, stability. Maybe? I don’t know.

    I wonder if we “modern” humans are indoctrinated–culturally, religiously, ideologically–to expect, to even demand, answers (certainty). To say or admit “I don’t know” (uncertainty) is typically perceived as intellectual, even moral weakness or stupidity. I wrote a blog post: “I Don’t Know”: The 3 Hardest Words In The English Language, http://skepticmeditations.com/2014/05/20/i-dont-know-the-3-hardest-words-in-the-english-language-2/ that you might find interesting.

    For many of us, myself included, who have relatively stable “modern” lives (who live mostly within the upper tiers on the pyramid of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs) we probably mostly crave meaning.

    “What many people crave these days is a sense of connection or union with something they consider sufficiently profound to give their lives meaning. The very act of surrender [to ‘meaningful’ answers/certainty] initially brings this about” says Kramer in The Guru Papers: Masks of Authoritarian Power.

    Thanks for your post

    1. My Other Feet Post author

      @S.M. — You’re welcome.

      I agree with you: living in an uncertain world doesn’t have to be stressful. N. N. Taleb discusses the idea of how to live in a world we don’t understand (i.e. in a world that is uncertain) in his book Anti-fragile.

      I also agree that being able to say, “I don’t know” is essential to navigating the world, since humans are notoriously bad at successfully forecasting or predicting most anything: just look at the broad track records of psychics, weather people, and stock market analysts.

      While I agree with you, I think that comparing survival (and thriving) in an uncertain world with a recreational activity, such as hiking, camping, or even a higher-risk activity like rock climbing, is inaccurate. I assume that most of our activities in the world are not recreational (what contemporary humans would call ‘work’, but other, older societies might call ‘life’), and in varying degrees, those activities that aren’t recreational are required for survival and thriving (some activities being more necessary than others, of course). I assume that there is a minimum amount of certainty that most people want in knowing that their activities that ought to ensure their survival will succeed (e.g. post-industrial job security, hunter-gathering groups knowing that their migration patterns will generally yield sufficient food, agrarian communities being confident that they have the seed, tools, and skills to generally grow enough food to feed themselves, etc.); otherwise, it’s in one’s interest to change their activities to a more successful method. (Note, this change in behavior doesn’t have to be driven by a rational thought process, it can come from an “irrational” drive not to die, such as deer and elk changing migration patterns in the face of habitat changes or encroachment.) When one’s certainty that such activities won’t provide enough material for survival (food/fiat currency/barter goods/shelter/etc.), then life gets increasingly more stressful the longer that this situation persists. However, this doesn’t necessarily imply that everyone living in a society that is not “modernized” and “post-industrial” is wringing their hands, fretting about death all day because most societies have addressed these risks through cultural practices (e.g. religion, science, etc.) that help ensure they do the right things at the right time to stay alive. It does imply that humans crave a certain amount, and type, of uncertainty, but contemporary, post-industrial society often doesn’t provide that type of uncertainty. I think that Taleb’s book describes the problem well, and you can also find a description of it here: https://edge.org/conversation/nassim_nicholas_taleb-the-fourth-quadrant-a-map-of-the-limits-of-statistics.

      1. SkepticMeditations

        Thanks for your reply, My Other Feet. I looked at the article about Taleb that you linked to. Always a good to be reminded that it is futile to seek certainty in an uncertain world. Yet, as you noted in your comments, that we humans seem wired to seek certainty.

        I wonder how much is nature vs. nature for our need for certainty. Haha. Even in my asking this question its as if I seek a “certain” answer(s). I suspect psychologists or social scientists (imprecise but valuable fields of study) would cite degrees or ranges of probability for our need of certainty.

        The search for meaning seems tied to desire for certainty. The increase of ISIS and religious fundamentalism seems to point to more people seeking certainty in an uncertain world through meaning making ideologies.

        Years back, I read Taleb’s book Fooled by Randomness. I have Anti-Fragile on my to read list.


      2. My Other Feet Post author

        While certainty is a difficult (if not impossible) goal to set for human knowledge, I think there is an inductive boundary where human knowledge is good enough — i.e. not certain, but so close as to make any further refinement useless. For example, civil engineers use Newtonian physics in solving most civil engineering problems, even though Relativity is a more accurate mathematical description of the physical world. This is what Taleb calls “Mediocristan” in his article and in Anti-Fragile: uncertainty exists, but its effects are not ruinous.

        I think all cultures have a set of heuristics that reduce most uncertainty in life into a set of well-defined practices that avoids the problem of having to deal with every new situation as if it were completely novel and unpredictable: calendars for planting and harvesting, myths or songs that define the best time of year to go hunting or fishing, Microsoft Outlook to remind someone to attend their annual review and argue for a raise. This doesn’t imply that life is certain, but it is loosely predictable. And I think that is what people want, not certainty, but predictability (e.g. we want to know that the sun will rise tomorrow, but we don’t care about the exact minute of the day it will rise).

        You bring up an interesting correlation in your example of religious extremism. I wonder if the amount of extremist activity hasn’t changed that much from some historical average. I wonder whether America’s focus on, and awareness of, extreme political groups and their activity is simply a function of America being a focus of those groups’ activity. Prior to the 9/11 attacks, the extremist political activity was happening to other groups of people in the world, but once the U.S. government got further involved in Mid-East politics, extremist political groups began focusing their efforts on the U.S. government.

        I also think the link between religion and politics may be circumstantial rather than causal. It’s entirely possible that I misunderstand the situation in the Middle East, but I think that most extremist groups are fundamentally political in their activities, rather than religious. They are fighting for territory, sovereignty, and to legitimize their power. The fact that they use a centuries, or millennia, old religious tradition as a support for their ideology doesn’t necessarily change their political foundations. Rather, I think most Middle East extremist groups would exist whether they functioned under a Christian or Muslim banner: the fact that the region is Muslim is largely an historical accident that has little effect on the fact that it has been a cross-roads for information and trade for millennia. The fact that it is a cross-roads has caused it to be volatile, as conflicting groups have had to struggle for control over the area due to its strategic, political importance. This focus on politics rather than religion as a foundation for extremism also helps show why these groups (and any political group that cites religious affiliations) tend to pick and choose the aspects of religious doctrine or law that best suits their political goals, rather than following the religious doctrine in its orthodoxy, and it explains why mainstream Muslims focus on the doctrinal differences between extremist groups and the mainstream. We see a similar situation in U.S. politics, I think. The extremist groups are often not religious at their root; they’re adducing religion as a popular support to legitimize their unpopular political activities, which is why we rarely see a successful extremist political group that espouses a religion that is not prominent, or dominant, in their home country or region.

        I admit I’m a fan of Taleb. I think his best book is Anti-Fragile. His previous books were limited in scope, and therefore, I think they were less impressive than Anti-Fragile. Anti-Fragile pushes risk management into a fascinating new scope: treating it as a philosophy, in the ancient Roman or Greek sense of the word — a method by which to live the good life. Moreover, he finds threads of this idea in various philosopher’s writing: Nietzsche, Seneca, Thales, etc.

      3. SkepticMeditations

        Yes, I agree that thinking in terms of predictability and probability ranges may be more useful. Certainty has the ring of absoluteness.

        You seem like a deep thinking, philosopher type– that comes through as I read your posts. I’d like to see you write more and get more readers.

        Are you interested in growing your readership and writing more blog content? There’s a few things I could point you to if that’s something you are interested in. I think your blog “about” page description is not well defined or seems too broad. What would you say the tagline to The Oliver Pressor is?

      4. My Other Feet Post author

        @ S.M. — Thanks for the kind words. I am interested in developing this blog, or a different blog, further — making one that is more focused. The problem I find with this particular blog is that it’s currently an ancillary activity to other parts of my life; it is a way to play with ideas, to see how they articulate: this blog is a public sketchpad or notebook that I hope may spark some comment from other people to further develop the ideas I write about.

        I agree with you that this is a broad, vague approach to a blog. This notebook approach doesn’t necessarily lead to a clear thread or theme to this blog, which is why it covers everything from exercise and personal finance to commentary on various philosophical ideas.

        Any suggestions or resources you have for sharpening the focus or impact of The Olive Presser, or improving its public appear, are welcome. I can certainly use help in that arena!

        The closest thing to a tagline for this blog is probably, “a philosopher’s sketchbook.” Developing a new blog, which is an idea I mentioned in a comment on one of your blog’s posts, may be the best way to develop a better-focused, less casual, writing style.

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