Escaping Uncertainty

Certainty          -        Uncertainty
Solid                -         Liquid
Known             -        Unknown 
Actuality          -        Potentiality
Closed              -        Open
Rest                  -        Motion
Planned            -        Random
Control             -        Chaos
Simple              -        Complex

Mysteries are fertile, like soil. They are dark places, from which things grow and emerge, things that nourish us.

We have a tendency to want to solve mysteries, to shine light in the darkness and make the unknown, known. Taken to its extremes, this tendency believes that all mysteries can be solved, and that there is nothing that cannot be known. This is rationalism untrammelled, unhinged. To the rationalist mindset a mystery is akin to an open wound, a sore spot that niggles and itches, and begs to be healed.

Mysteries bring perspective, suggesting that there are things that cannot - or should not - be known. An acceptance of mystery is an acceptance of limitation, a drawing of borders around the expansive ego. Mysteries remind us that we cannot know it all, or have it all - that we are forever incomplete, never whole.

The Child craves certainty, and the Parent likes being certain. The Adult knows that few things in life are certain, and attempts to tolerate ambivalence.

The child in us is in constant search of a parent, someone - or something - that can relieve us from the anxiety of doubt, and the responsibility of having to think for ourselves. In this sense, a person who professes certainty can be magnetic, drawing us into their sphere of influence. In a public forum, the surest voice tends to be the most compelling.

Uncertainty is often mistaken for cowardice, or indecision; an unwillingness, or an inability, to take a certain position. The uncertain voice is subjective, and provisional, full of formulas that 'soften the boldness of our propositions' ('maybe', 'perhaps', 'seems to be'...).

We are always missing something. None of our systems - our theories, or beliefs - are ever sufficient enough to capture reality as it is. Certainty, then, can only be achieved by ignoring or disregarding (or 'defeating') conflicting data points; in other words, by closing the self off to certain aspects of reality, and narrowing the field.

The simpler our view of the world becomes - the more complexity we are able to purge from our constructs and concepts - the more certain we can be of things. On the other hand, the more variables we have to consider, the less sure we can be in our judgments or decisions.

Whenever we make something - be it a concept, a physical structure, or even a human life - we act against the tide of entropy, that ever present, on-going process that gradually reduces all wholes into their constituent parts, constantly complicating things. All creation is, in this sense, simplification.

In spite of the complexity of things, we must be certain enough to live; to act and create, to make decisions and affect changes in the world. At some point, in spite of the errant data points, we become certain enough to put our weight on our structures, trusting that they will hold us - trusting that those things that we left out are not crucial to our endeavours.

'Certain enough' may, then, be the best that we - with our necessarily limited view of things - can do. Only an unlimited view can provide true certainty, and this is where the notion of 'God' becomes useful. As humans, it may be that the closest we are able to come to 'certainty' is a high degree of probability, but with God behind us - the ultimate parent, the highest, broadest concept - we are afforded a firm guarantee; the backing we need to affirm or deny, with certainty.

"I'd almost forgotten the excitement of not knowing, the delights of uncertainty..."

['Dr Manhattan']
Watchmen, Chapter XII, p. 7

Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge [...]

[Charles Darwin]

Mystery, or unknowing, is energy. As soon as a mystery is explained, it ceases to be a source of energy.

If we question deep enough there comes a point where answers, if answers could be given, would kill.

We may want to dam the river; but we dam the spring at our peril. In fact, since 'God' is unknowable, we cannot dam the spring of basic existential mystery. 'God' is the energy of all questions and questing; and so the ultimate source of all action and volition.

[John Fowles]
The Aristos, p. 27

Religious worldview - there is a mystery at the heart of everything. There is a ceiling to our ambition. Everything cannot be known. Man is finite, God is infinite.

Scientific worldview - all mysteries can be solved. There is no ceiling on our ambition, no limit to how high we can fly. Everything can be known. Man is infinite, God does not exist.

Everything has a secret. 

Everything has an essence that cannot be known. On the outside everything seems to make sense, but on the inside there is a Godly spark that cannot be explained.

For all of us, there is a dimension which we can never grasp, the dimension that lies beyond our being.

[Tzvi Freeman]
'Secret Samech'

If the arts don’t hurt, why have them?

It’s only modern vanity which supposes that everything can be known or that only what is knowable has a claim upon our interest. The artist and the priest know that there are mysteries beyond anything that can be done with words, sounds or forms.

If we want to live without this sense of mystery, we can of course, but we should be very suspicious of the feeling that everything coheres and that the arts, like everything else, fit comfortably into our lives.

[Denis Donoghue]
The Arts Without Mystery, p. 21

What men really want is not knowledge, but certainty.

One of the painful things about our time is that those who feel certainty are stupid, and those with any imagination and understanding are filled with doubt and indecision.

[Bertrand Russell]
Interview in 'The Listener', 1964, and The Triumph of Stupidity

Disillusioned men do not make effective leaders.

[Thurman Arnold]

Certainty is the greatest of all illusions: whatever kind of fundamentalism it may underwrite, that of religion or of science, it is what the ancients meant by hubris.

[Iain McGilchrist]
The Master and his Emissary, p. 460

The majority of human beings are only too ready to follow a leader who professes complete conviction, since such a course relieves them from the anxiety inseparable from uncertainty, and from the effort of thinking for themselves.

It is not difficult to point to recent political examples of leaders exhibiting single-minded confidence of a comparable kind, however narrowly based.

As Norman Cohn demonstrated in The Pursuit of the Millennium, utter conviction lends charisma [...] to figures [...]

[Anthony Storr]
Freud, p.125

Lacan suggested that though we believe ourselves to be democrats, most of us are remarkably interested in finding (and then worshipping) authority figures who will promise us the earth.
We desire to have someone else in charge who can make everything OK, someone who is, in a sense, an ideal parent – and we bring this peculiar-sounding bit of our psychological fantasies into the way we navigate politics.

'Jacques Lacan'

To me utopia is an epistemocracy, a society in which anyone of rank is an epistemocrat, and where epistemocrats manage to be elected. It would be a society governed from the basis of the awareness of ignorance, not knowledge.

Alas, one cannot assert authority by accepting one’s own fallibility. Simply, people need to be blinded by knowledge - we are made to follow leaders who can gather people together because the advantages of being in groups trump the disadvantages of being alone. It has been more profitable for us to bind together in the wrong direction than to be alone in the right one.

Those who have followed the assertive idiot rather than the introspective wise person have passed us some of their genres. This is apparent from a social pathology: psychopaths rally followers.

[Nassim Nicholas Taleb]
The Black Swan, p. 192

While preachers preach of evil fates
Teachers teach that knowledge waits
Can lead to hundred-dollar plates
Goodness hides behind its gates
But even the president of the United States
Sometimes must have
To stand naked.

[Bob Dylan]
"It's Alright Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)"

The separation from wife and children, the breaking up of a settled establishment, and the going from the certain to the uncertain - all this was for a moment painful, but I had inured myself to an uncertain life.

I think it is wrong to expect certainties in this world, where all else but God that is Truth is an uncertainty. All that appears and happens about and around us is uncertain, transient. 

But there is a Supreme Being hidden therein as a Certainty, and one would be blessed if one would catch a glimpse of that certainty and hitch one's waggon to it.

The quest for that Truth is the summum bonum of life.

The Story of My Experiments with Truth, p.235

Of all the qualities in a manager conductive to innovation and initiative, a degree of uncertainty may be the most powerful.

If a manager is confident but uncertain - confident that the job will get done but without being certain of exactly the best way of doing it - employees are likely to have more room to be creative, alert, and self-starting. When working for confident but uncertain leaders, we are less likely to feign knowledge or hide mistakes, practices that can be costly to a company.

Admission of uncertainty leads to a search for more information, and with more information there may be more options.

[Ellen Langer]
Mindfulness, p.143

Without the random, there can be no new thing [...] creative thought must always contain a random component.

[Gregory Bateson]
Mind and Nature, p. 160, 200

[…] the Gaussian bell curve sucks randomness out of life - which is why it is popular. We like it because it allows certainties! How? Through averaging […]

[Nassim Nicholas Taleb]
The Black Swan, p. 237

To me, it’s the avenue to insanity, to presume if you keep studying you’ll find the answers.

As I got older, I was more able to accept the idea that you don’t have certainty of this earth; rather than make you more perplexed and worried, it actually lightens the load when you realize there are no certainties.

[David Bowie]

To be able to feel ambivalent about someone is, for Kleinians, an enormous psychological achievement and the first marker on the path to genuine maturity. 

The child will gradually perceive that there is in truth no entirely good and no entirely bad breast, both belong to a mother who is a perplexing mixture of the positive and the negative: a source of pleasure and frustration, joy and suffering.

These complicated psychological realisations belong to what Klein called ‘the depressive position,’ a moment of soberness and melancholy when the growing child takes on board (unconsciously) the idea that reality is more complicated and less morally neat than it had ever previously imagined: the mother (or other people generally) cannot be neatly blamed for every setback; almost nothing is totally pure or totally evil, things are a perplexing, thought-provoking mixture of the good and bad… 

Unfortunately, in Klein’s analysis, not everyone makes it to the depressive position, for some get stuck in a mode of primitive splitting she termed (somewhat dauntingly) the ‘paranoid-schizoid position’. 

For many years, even into adulthood, these cursed people will find themselves unable to tolerate the slightest ambivalence: keen to preserve their sense of their own innocence, they must either hate or love. They must seek scapegoats or idealise.

'Melanie Klein'  

Anomalies are unsettling because they represent everything that lies outside the domain of the understood world. Complexity lacks the simplifying and constraining boundaries defining the objects that characterize known territory.

In consequence, we have profound, a priori motivation to avoid anomaly, to ignore complexity, and to maintain the structural integrity of our belief systems. 

Anything unexpected (new phenomena, new ideas, new people) re-introduces the overwhelming complexity that our beliefs simplify. This introduced complexity, in turn, threatens the stability and security that our beliefs tentatively confer on existence.

Freud described religious beliefs as illusions, motivated by wish-fulfillment. Such beliefs can be more accurately understood as culturally-shared and accepted strategies for pragmatically managing complexity.

[Jordan B. Peterson]
‘Complexity Management Theory: Motivation for Ideological Rigidity and Social Conflict’, in Cortex, December 2002, p. 455

One of the strongest motives in modern life is to explain everything and preferably to explain it away. 

The philosopher Gabriel Marcel has distinguished a mystery from a problem in this way. ‘A problem,’ he says, ‘is something which bars my passage. It is before me in its entirety. A mystery is something in which I find myself caught up, and whose essence is therefore not to be before me in its entirety. It is a proper character of problems to be reduced to detail: mystery, on the other hand, i s something which cannot be reduced to detail.’

A character in Yeats’s play The Resurrection says: ‘What if there is always something that lies outside knowledge, outside order? What if the irrational return?' 

The gist of the matter is: a problem is something to be solved; a mystery is something to be witnessed and attested.

[Denis Donoghue]
The Arts Without Mystery, p. 12

Application of the second law of thermodynamics to psychology produces the first major tenet of EMU, that uncertainty poses a critical adaptive challenge, resulting in the motive to reduce uncertainty. 

In his groundbreaking book, What Is Life?, the physicist Erwin Schrödinger (1944) argued that living systems survive by reducing their internal entropy, while simultaneously (and necessarily) increasing the entropy that exists in their external environment.

Dynamical systems theorists therefore propose that stable information systems survive only insofar as they are able to effectively manage their internal entropy. Those that cannot effectively dissipate this entropy are destroyed, in a Darwinian fashion (Kauffman, 1993). One consequence of this process is that complex systems tend to return to a relatively small number of stable, low-entropy states (known as attractors; Grassberger & Procaccia, 1983). This is because the vast majority of states that these systems could theoretically inhabit do not provide effective entropy management and are therefore characterized by instability.

[…] entropy reflects the amount of uncertainty about a system: The greater the number of plausible microstates, the more uncertainty about which microstate currently defines the system [...] High psychological entropy occurs during situations in which there are multiple competing frames and behavioral options, none of which is clearly more strongly activated than the others.

[…] As a system’s disorder and uncertainty increase, its ability to perform useful work is hampered by reduced accuracy in specifying the current state, the desired state, and the appropriate response for transforming the former into the latter. 

[Jacob B. Hirsh, Raymond A. Mar, and Jordan B. Peterson
'Psychological Entropy: A Framework for Understanding Uncertainty-Related Anxiety'

Simply stated, uncertainty and related disorder can be diminished by the direct artifice of creating a higher and broader more general concept to represent reality.

[John R. Boyd]
'Destruction and Creation', p. 6

A scientific theory is not one which explains everything that can possibly happen: on the contrary, it rules out most of what could possibly happen, and is therefore itself ruled out if what it rules out happens. So a genuinely scientific theory places itself permanently at risk.

[...] Other theories which claimed to be scientific [...] such as those of Freud and Adler, did not, and could not be made to, put their lives at stake in this way. No conceivable observations could contradict them. They would explain whatever occurred (though differently).

And Popper saw that their ability to explain everything, which so convinced and excited their adherents, was precisely what was most wrong with them.

Popper often pointed out that the secret of the enormous psychological appeal of these various theories lay in their ability to explain everything. To know in advance that whatever happens you will be able to understand it gives you not only a sense of intellectual mastery but, even more important, an emotional sense of secure orientation in the world.

Near the centre of Popper's explanation of the appeal of totalitarianism is a socio-psychological concept which he calls 'the strain of civilization' [...] We often hear it asserted that most people do not really want freedom, because freedom involves responsibility, and most people are frightened of responsibility.

Whether or not this applies to 'most people' there is, I am sure, a vital element of truth in it. Accepting responsibility for our lives involved continually facing difficult choices and decisions, and bearing the consequences of them when they are wrong, and this is burdensome, not to say alarming. And there is something in all of us, something infantile perhaps, which would like to escape it by having the load taken from our shoulders.

However, our strongest instinct being the instinct for survival, our strongest need is probably the need for security; so we are prepared to shift responsibility only to someone or something in whom we have greater confidence than in ourselves.

[...] Above all we want release from fear. And in the end most fears [...] are forms of fear of the unknown. So we are all the time pressing for assurances that the unknown is known really, and that what it contains is something we are going to want anyway. 

We embrace religions which assure us that we shall not die, and political philosophies which assure us that society will become perfect in the future, perhaps quite soon.

These needs were met by the unchanging certainties of pre-critical societies, with their authority, hierarchy, ritual, tabu and so on. But with the emergence of man from tribalism and the beginnings of the critical tradition, new and frightening demands began to be made: that the individual should question authority, question what he has always taken for granted, and assume responsibility for himself and for others. By contrast with the old certainties, this threatened society with disruption and the individual with disorientation.

As a result there was from the beginning a reaction against it, both in society at large and [...] within each individual. We purchase freedom at the cost of security, equality at the cost of our self-esteem, and critical self-awareness at the cost of our peace of mind. The price is steep: none of us pays it happily, and many do not want to pay it at all.

So from the beginning of critical thought [...] the developing tradition of civilization has had running parallel to it (or [...] within it) a tradition of reaction against the strain of civilization, which produced accompanying philosophies of return to the womblike security of a precritical or tribal society, or of advance to a Utopia. Because such reactionary and Utopian ideals meet similar needs they have deep and essential affinities [...]

If you think society is going from bad to worse you will want to arrest the processes of change; if you regard yourself as establishing the perfect society of the future you will want to perpetuate that society when you get it, and this likewise will mean arresting the processes of change; so both the reactionary and the Utopian are aiming for an arrested society.

And since change could only conceivably be prevented by the most rigid social control - by stopping people from doing anything on their own initiative which might have serious social consequences - both are led into totalitarianism.

[Bryan Magee]
Popper, p. 43-5, 87-90

Certainty is also related to narrowness, as though the more certain we become of something the less we see. 

To put this in context of the neurophysiology of vision: the fovea of the human eye, a tiny region in the retina at the centre of the gaze, is the most pronounced of all the primates. Here resolution is about 100 times that at the periphery.

But it is only about 1 degree across. The part of the visual field that is actually brought into resolution is no more than about 3 degrees across. This is where the narrow focussed beam of left-hemisphere attention is concentrated: what is clearly seen.

[Iain McGilchrist]
The Master and his Emissary, p. 83

The key notion […] was graded memberships. A set could have members who belonged to it partly, in degrees.

The classic example in the fuzzy canon is tall men. Suppose Tom is 5’11”. Does he belong to tall men? Conventional sets ask, “Is Tom tall?” And erect a fence at, say, 5’10”. Tall lies above this height, not tall below. Thus, at 5’11”, Tom is tall. In contrast, fuzzy sets ask, “How tall is Tom?” The answer is a partial membership in the fuzzy set, such as 0.6. So Tom is 0.6 tall.

Fuzzy sets discriminate much better and supply more information. They are, ironically, more precise.

[Daniel McNeill & Paul Freiberger]
Fuzzy Logic, p.34-5


More precision = less certainty
The more you know, the less certain you can be.

Precision diminishes the likelihood of truth, but often increases the pragmatic value of a belief if it is true - for example, in the case of [two glasses of water, one of which is wholesome while the other contains typhoid - to the naked eye both look the same, but under the microscope their crucial difference can be discerned].

Science is perpetually trying to substitute more precise beliefs for vague ones: this makes it harder for a scientific proposition to be true than for the vague beliefs of uneducated persons to be true,
but makes scientific truth better worth having if it can be obtained.

[Bertrand Russell]
'Vagueness', The Australasian Journal of Psychology and Philosophy, 1:2, p. 91

The world of concrete personal experiences to which the street belongs is multitudinous beyond imagination, tangled, muddy, painful and perplexed. 

The world to which your philosophy-professor introduces you is simple, clean and noble. The contradictions of real life are absent from it. Its architecture is classic. Principles of reason trace its outlines, logical necessities cement its parts. Purity and dignity are what it most expresses. It is a kind of marble temple shining on a hill.

In point of fact it is far less an account of this actual world than a clear addition built upon it, a classic sanctuary in which the rationalist fancy may take refuge from the intolerably confused and gothic character which mere facts present. It is no explanation of our concrete universe, it is another thing altogether, a substitute for it, a remedy, a way of escape.

[William James]
'The Present Dilemma in Philosophy', Pragmatism and Other Writings, p. 15

A word or two about why [alchemical] language is so obscure. One thing is that they spoke a secret language, and a secret language is necessary for keeping secrets; and secrecy is a necessary activity for people engaged in rituals. 

Whether the ritual is lovers with each other, children with each other, artists about their work, or religions - there is a secret language that occurs.

Gabriel Marcel, a French existentialist, said that secrecy is an ontological state, an existential state - that there’s a special condition happens when you’re using secret language or when you’re keeping secrets. A special kind of being happens.

So lovers have secret language and secret trysts, and a realm which creates sacred space through their secrecy. Children have secret games and secret hiding places, and secret little rituals that they do. And artists find it troublesome to talk about their work, or to open up about what they’re in the middle of doing - they may talk about what they were doing, but they don’t want to talk about what they are doing, because they have to keep that secret and closed.

You get all sorts of private double-talk and arcane language and shorthand between people who are very close to each other or who are in some kind of ritual together.

This is partly what the alchemists meant about not opening the vessel, not talking about what’s going on. And the ability to stand the secrecy has something to do with the strength of the vessel. Robert Bly says it in Iron John, not ‘giving away your gold’. The naive male gives away his gold.

To know for sure what was going on would be to verify it, and to verify it would mean opening the secret to the public, thereby destroying it - and they would no longer be engaged in a mystery. The Greek mysteries of Eleusis went on for a thousand years and to this day we do not know what went on.

The idea was that if it was told you would die - whether you take that literally or not isn’t the question, the point is that it would die if it were opened up. 

So this question of an arcane language and secrecy and so on is evidently an important part of the work and that’s why the texts, it seems to me, are so very peculiar and very difficult.

[James Hillman]
'Alchemical Imagination'

[...] the loose thinker can achieve certainty and can reach judgments that have an air of finality, whereas a more scrupulous reflection would have much less to show for itself and might result only in tentativeness and doubt.

[Herbert Butterfield]
The Whig Interpretation of History, p. 97

The zeal and subtlety, I might even say slyness, with which the problem ‘of the real and apparent world’ is set upon all over Europe today makes one think hard and prick up one’s ears; and anyone who hears in the background only a ‘will to truth’ and nothing more, certainly does not enjoy the best of hearing. 

In rare and isolated cases such a will to truth, some extravagant and adventurous courage, a metaphysician's ambition to maintain a forlorn position, may actually play a part and finally prefer a handful of certainty to a whole cartful of beautiful possibilities; there may even exist puritanical fanatics of conscience who would rather lie down and die on a sure nothing than on an uncertain something. 

But this is nihilism and the sign of a despairing, mortally weary soul, however brave the bearing of such a virtue may appear. 

[Friedrich Nietzsche]
Beyond Good and Evil, 10

The alleged fact that philosophy 'had been cultivated for many centuries by the best minds that have ever lived and that nevertheless no single thing is to be found in it which is not a subject of dispute and in consequence is not dubious' led Descartes to what amounted to the ‘withdrawal from wisdom and the exclusive concentration on knowledge as firm and indubitable as mathematics and geometry.

While traditional wisdom had considered the human mind as weak but open-ended, that is capable of reaching beyond itself towards higher and higher levels, the new thinking took it as axiomatic that the mind's reach had fixed and narrow limits, which could be clearly determined, while within these limits it possessed virtually unlimited powers.

[…] while traditional wisdom had always presented the world as a three-dimensional structure (as symbolised by the cross), where it was not only meaningful but of essential importance to distinguish always and everywhere between ‘higher' and 'lower’ things and Levels of Being, the new thinking strove with determination, not to say fanaticism, to get rid of the vertical dimension.

How could one obtain clear and precise ideas about such qualitative notions as 'higher' or 'lower'? Was it not the most urgent task of reason to put into their place quantitative measurements?

Neither mathematics nor physics can entertain the qualitative notion of 'higher' or 'lower'. So the vertical dimension disappeared from the philosophical maps, which henceforth concentrated on somewhat far-fetched problems like 'Do other people exist?' or 'How can I know anything at all?' or ‘Do other people have experiences analogous to mine?' and thus ceased to be of any help to people in the awesome task of picking their way through life. 

[E. F. Schumacher]
A Guide for the Perplexed, p.18-20

Pornographic pleasure is narcissistic. It derives from the immediate consumption of an object that is offered naked. Today, even souls, like genitals [das Geschlecht], are offered unveiled. The loss of any capacity for illusion, semblance, theatre, play, drama – that signals the triumph of pornography.

Porn is a phenomenon of transparency. The age of pornography is the age of unambiguousness. Today, we no longer have a sense for phenomena such as secrets or riddles.

Ambiguities or ambivalences cause us discomfort. Because of their ambiguity, jokes are also frowned upon. Seduction requires the negativity of the secret. The positivity of the unambiguous only allows for sequential processes.

We rarely read poems any more. Unlike a popular crime novels, they do not contain a final truth. Poems play with fuzzy edges. They do not admit of pornographic reading; they do not possess pornographic sharpness. They resist the production of meaning.

Political correctness also condemns ambiguity: 'So-called "politically correct" practices … request a form of transparency and lack of ambiguity - so as to … neutralize the traditional rhetorical and emotional halo of seduction." Ambiguities are essential to the language of eroticism.

The rigorous linguistic hygiene of political correctness makes erotic seduction impossible. Today, eroticism is stifled by political correctness as well as by porn.

[Byung-Chul Han]
The Disappearance of Rituals, p.86

Porn pervades the neoliberal dispositif as its general principle. Under the compulsion of production, everything is being presented, made visible, exposed and exhibited. Everything is subjected to the relentless light of transparency.

Communication becomes pornographic when it becomes transparent, when it is smoothed out into an accelerated exchange of information. Language becomes pornographic once it no longer plays, once it only conveys information.

The body becomes pornographic when it loses all its scenic aspects, when it is simply required to function. The pornographic body lacks any symbolism. The ritualized body, by contrast, is a splendid stage, with secrets and deities written into it.

Sounds, too, become pornographic if they lose their subtlety and allusiveness, and are only there to produce affects and emotions.

[Byung-Chul Han]
The Disappearance of Rituals, p.88

In Latin, meat is caro. In the post-sexual age, pornography is so intensified as to become carography.

What destroys sexuality is not the negativity of prohibition or deprivation but the positivity of overproduction. The pathology of today's society is the excess of positivity. It is a 'too much', not a 'too little', that is making us sick.

[Byung-Chul Han]
The Disappearance of Rituals, p.89

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