Escaping Uncertainty


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

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Uncertainty is synonymous with creativity. Once you know everything then the game is over.

A mystery bears fruit; it gives and gives, providing us with a plentiful source of nourishment. In explaining the mystery we kill it, and it will no longer give us fruit.

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.

We are always missing something. None of our systems - our theories, or beliefs - are ever sufficient enough to truly capture reality as it is. Certainty can, then, 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. At some point, in spite of the errant data points, we become certain enough, putting our weight on the bough and trusting that it will hold us.

'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.


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

[Charles Darwin]


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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


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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.


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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'


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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


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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


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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



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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'


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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)"


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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.

[Gandhi]
The Story of My Experiments with Truth, p.235

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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

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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


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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]


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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'  

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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


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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


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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'




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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


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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


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