"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Certainty–Why We All Seem To Need It But We Really Don’t

The older I get, the less I am certain about anything; and the less I seem to mind.  I am not convinced that there is a God, but don’t worry about it. I definitely am not persuaded that privatizing the country from east to west will work miracles for the poor and restore America’s economic might; nor am I sure that interventionist government programs will do anything to right the listing ship.  I am not at all certain that life begins at conception, but am willing to consider it. In fact I am not sure that we exist at all; and we may be only the bad dreams of an alien intelligence. Most theories about parallel universes, dark wormholes sucking one universe into another are simply speculations.  No one can ever be sure about the origins of the universe, but given the infinity of everything, the most cockamamie theory sounds every bit as plausible as those coming out of The Center for Theoretical Science at Princeton. 

Recently I have become especially interested in history – Southern history in particular – and have been surprised to learn that the Choctaws and the Chickasaws fought alongside Andrew Jackson, had a thriving middle class, and dined on European pottery; but despite their loyalty and European ways were unceremoniously shipped to Western lands across the Mississippi like any other redskin.

Slavery was far more complex than I ever realized.  It was a going economic system, the product of Southern enterprise, land, and class; and one which could not have existed without Portuguese traders, Arab wholesalers, and African tribal chiefs.

Reconstruction was either a principled program of devoutly abolitionist Northerners, or a punitive attempt to bring the South to heel and finish the job Sherman had started.  The only certainty is that these events happened.  The rest – determination of historical antecedents, assignment of cause and/or guilt, and the role of social, economic, and cultural factors – is up for debate.

While slavery is now universally condemned as an immoral deprivation of human rights, it wasn’t always so. Without slavery the pyramids of Egypt, the temples of Greece and Rome, and the palaces of Persepolis never would have been built. The brutal treatment of slaves resulted from the belief – common at least through the end of the 19th century – that some races were inferior.  Not even the most callous and indifferent Portuguese slaver would have thrown hundreds of Africans in the stinking hold of the ship, bound them in irons, and tossed them overboard when they were sick and dying, if he had felt a common humanity with them. 

Whenever one starts down a historical trail, it never ends.  Certainties – if there indeed ever were any – fade and disappear the farther back one looks. How, for example, could one say absolutely, with rock-solid conviction, that our European ancestors were morally depraved, and lacking in any sense of Christian compassion and human decency because they engaged in slavery? 

Was it right to label the ancient Greeks and Romans, the founders of Western enlightened civilization and the discoverers of philosophy, science, military strategy, poetry, and government administration, moral reprobates because of slavery?

Does the pitiless treatment of American Indians by the US Government in the 1800s deserve perpetual calumny?  It was, after all, done within the same social and moral context of 19th century that condoned slavery.  The Indians were an inferior, savage race, and removing them for Christian farmers and ranchers was logical and unquestioned. 

Looking at this particular period of history it is hard to understand why Jefferson and his successors were so driven by Westward Expansion and Manifest Destiny.  Why weren’t they satisfied with the rich fertile lands of the Tidewater and the Ohio plains; or the safe and deep harbors of the North?  Expansionism seems to be the rule of history not the exception.  Every civilization, great or small, has always been insistent on extending its perimeters.  Rome in its heyday controlled all of the known world and never stopped until it had reached the sea.  Roman generals had always had trouble with the uncivilized barbaric and pesky German tribes, but other than that, complete domination.

Genghis Khan never gave halting his Mongol hordes a second thought. They thundered out of the steppes east and west until their empire was even bigger than that of Rome.

Therefore, if desire for new territory, and the urge to continuously expand protective perimeters is a very human trait, then we cannot really be too harsh in our judgment of Andrew Jackson or Jefferson.

Few historians are absolutely certain about the causes of war.  The jury is still out as to whether the American Civil War was necessary at all.  There is significant if not compelling evidence that slavery would have eventually ended because of the rapid industrialization of and economic pressures from the North.  An agrarian, class-based economic system based on a questionable economic premise and with a perpetually restive work force could not have lasted for long against the disciplined, free-labor, laissez-faire capitalism of the North. 

The causes of the War of 1812 are far more murky.  It was all about the impressment of American sailors by the British, the story goes, but most historians agree that it was really a Second Revolutionary War – one final battle to rid the British once and for all from American territory. Or was it about trade?  Was it necessary at all, and is that question even valid given the newly muscular America of the turn of the century?

In short, other than death and taxes, it is hard to be certain about anything.  To complicate matters further new research has shown that most human memory is nothing more than a series of ‘fill-ins’.  What we remember is no more than cobbled fragments of what we once may have seen, stories that Auntie Angie told us, and what we have twisted to suit our psychological needs. It never happened the way we remember it at all.

Studies have been done to show that witnesses of a crime rarely report the event as it happened, but as they thought it happened.  They made the alleged perpetrator black instead of white because of prejudice.  They saw a gun barrel poked out the window because that’s what gangstas did. 

We cannot be certain about the past because memories and historical reconstructions are all subjective in the end.  Everyone uses ‘facts’ to bolster their own argument, and it is almost impossible to sort out any ‘truth’.  As importantly, it is impossible to be certain about the moral rightness of any past action, given the influence of social, demographic, cultural, and economic factors and the context of history.

Which brings us to the ultimate question – why are we all so in need of certainty?  When the question of the origins of life are so mixed up in religion, faith, science, and politics, how can anyone be certain of when it begins? Pro-life advocates will bomb abortion clinics, intimidate all clients who attempt to enter them; and will threaten and even murder doctors who perform the procedure on the grounds that hundreds of ‘lives’ will be saved.  Murder is morally defensible. Progressives are no less adamant in their defense of women and their right to choose. A woman’s right to control her own body is sacrosanct, inviolable, and permanent.  Yet, who says? Are these progressives certain that they are not taking a human life?

The need for certainty is common and predictable; but unfortunately results in unnecessary conflict and dissension. Most people need certainty like they do a warm coat.  Life is cold, harsh, and often brutal; and at the very least a horribly complicated tangle of competing ideas and notions.  It is better to sit by the fire, content and confident in the certainty of God and country, than to do a St. Vitus’ dance of on-the-one-hand-on-the-other debate. 

The other equally compelling reason for certainty is that one can fly it like a banner, hold it up as a standard, and wear it like an emblem.  True, absolute, unwavering, unquestioned, resolute belief is the basis for crusades for justice, abolition of social inequality, civil rights, the environment, and the life of the unborn child.

Not long ago few people doubted the existence of God or his influence over human events.  Society’s rules were set, respected, and followed.  Life had few complexities –. up at dawn, in the fields until sunset, feed the chickens, eat, and go to bed. Science was basic. The planets revolved around the sun which came up every morning.  Certainty was an unquestioned fact of life, not a questionable trait.

Those who live happily with uncertainty have no need to prove or display conviction; but they are often branded as morally indecisive and spineless. Given the troubles in the world, it is reprehensible to sit idly by. There are no sidelines in today’s world.

This insistence on certainty is very Christian and supremely American. There is one aspect of Hinduism and Buddhism that best characterizes these religions - the belief in the vanity of desire.  The Western quest to know everything, to conclude right and wrong, and  to impose convictions on others is not only arrogant, but regressive.  The only purpose of life – spiritual enlightenment – is deflected by this excess of rationality and reason. Only the Judeo-Christian (and Muslim) God demands certainty, obedience, and subscription to his rules.

The next century will finally be one in which certainty loses its hold.  Virtual reality alone, erasing the distinctions between reality and fantasy, will erode certainty’s foundations. When one can never be certain about what is or what isn’t, the quest for past certainties, moral certitude, and ‘correct’ judgments will cease. Not only will people say “I don’t know” but “I don’t care” about ‘reality’, facts, and established principle. This is a revolution as profound as any in science.  Life will never be the same.

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