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

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Certainty…Or Was It Uncertainty?

I have always been fascinated by Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle which states that one can never know with any certainty both where a particle is, and how fast it is travelling. The most fundamental elements of the physical world are based on uncertainty:

In quantum mechanics the Heisenberg principle states a fundamental limit on the accuracy with which certain pairs of physical properties of a particle, such as position and momentum, can be simultaneously known. In layman's terms, the more precisely one property is measured, the less precisely the other can be controlled, determined, or known (Wikipedia).

In fact, not only is uncertainty the rule in this subatomic world of fermions, bosons, leptons, quarks, and hadrons; but in our very gross, inelegant, and mundane one.  We have no idea when we are going to die nor how – taken off by a bus or a fulminating Ebola-type virus; or whether it will rain next week or not.  Whether another earthquake will strike Japan, Turkey, or California.

Nor can we know with any certainty whether or not there is a God, a sulfurous, tormenting Hell or a Heaven – the one envisaged by the Moguls of well-watered valleys, ripe musk melons, and vestal virgins, or the more Christian one of seeing the divine and beatific face of God. 

Daniel Defoe is credited with the saying “Nothing is certain but death and taxes”; but on closer examination, neither one is absolutely true. The Hindus have hedged their bets and said that one doesn’t actually die but instantaneously reincarnated into another life, either better or worse than the one just left.  And who is to say that in a few hundred years when scientists have perfected the last artificial part of the human body, death will not disappear?  As long as you get regular tune ups, you should be fine for a thousand years.  After all, it is that ineffable spirit, your soul,your being that really defines who you are, and who cares what Infernal Machine it is housed in?

Bishop Berkeley famously asked in the early 18th Century if a tree falls in the forest and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound?

There was a young man who said, "God,
Must think it exceedingly odd,
When he finds that this tree,
Continues to be,
When there's no one about in the Quad."

But of course, Berkeley doesn't leave us there, because obviously there are things unobserved by humans that do exist. So this is the reply:

"Dear Sir: your astonishment's odd,
I am always about in the Quad,
And that's why this tree,
Continues to be,
Since observed by, yours faithfully, God."

This metaphysical inquiry has spawned untold philosophical fantasies.  Perhaps, says one, we only exist in the mind of a super-being or alien intelligence.  We don’t really exist at all except as a figment in this cosmic giant’s imagination. So maybe the question of the certainty of death is irrelevant.

If there is one thing certain in life, it is that it is uncertain.  Yet, despite this clearly observable fact, it is certainty which characterizes our beliefs and utterances.  If one were to ask a committed Christian if there is a God, he would assuredly answer, “Yes”; and if he were asked to estimate the probability of his statement being true, he would answer, “One hundred percent”.  How can this be?  No one has died and returned with tales of the Beyond, neither confirmed nor denied the Elysium of the Moguls or the Hell of the Calvinists; and no atheist has reported on nothingness or strange wormholes into alternative universes, past futures and future pasts, etc.

Those who say with absolute certainty that God exists (or does not exist) are really saying it with interpretive certainty – they are basing their conclusion on the Bible, the Koran, Socialist tracts, or New Age theory.  They only think they know for certain.  The same goes for the origin of life – a matter of speculation and conjecture, not fact; or whether animals have souls; or whether chickens feel pain.

No one, after all is said and done, really knows if big government or small government will produce the best results for the many; whether legalizing marijuana will produce a nation of stone doper potheads on welfare or a country less likely to go to war.

Yet at every turn, you will find steaming zealots, spewing bile about the rightness and absolute certainty of their opinions. So why, in the incontrovertible unknowability of the universe, do people not only adhere to certainty, but defend it with passion, conviction, and assumed authority?

Philosophers like Wittgenstein opined on the epistemological nature of certainty – how do we know what we know. Robert Burton in a recent book entitled On Being Certain takes a neuro-biological position:

The central premise is: Despite how certainty feels, it is neither a conscious choice nor even a thought process. Certainty and similar states of “knowing what we know” are sensations that feel like thoughts, but arise out of involuntary brain mechanisms that function independently of reason.

In other words, we can’t help feeling certainty – it is an emotion like love, hate, or sex. I am not so sure; and take a more sociological and psychological view – just as I have in an earlier blog on conspiracists. Certainty for many provides a mooring, an anchor in an uncertain world.  No one, no matter how deep his or her convictions on a particular topic, can ignore the uncertainties of the world; so having some absolute certainties helps to give stability, perspective.  If you have come to some absolute, certain, conclusions about the existence of God, for example, then you can look at the rest of uncertainty from a fixed perspective.  “Only God knows for sure” can be your answer.

Other people are certain because it gives them character, distinction, solidity, purpose – all valued in our society.  “Who do you trust more?”, ask our Republican candidates for President this year.  Someone like me who is absolutely sure about his convictions on Life, God, and Nation? Or some 'On-the-one-hand-on-the-other" Democrat who has no spine, no….belief?

This sense of right, certainty, and the irrational conviction based on it is not reserved for the high-and-mighty, but for their followers and acolytes as well. Eric Hoffer wrote a seminal book on the subject entitled: The True Believer – Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements in 1951. 

The book analyzes and attempts to explain the motives of the various types of personalities that give rise to mass movements; why and how mass movements start, progress and end; and the similarities between them, whether religious, political, radical or reactionary. As examples, the book often refers to Communism, Fascism, National Socialism, Christianity, Protestantism, and Islam. Hoffer believes that mass movements are interchangeable, that adherents will often flip from one movement to another, and that the motivations for mass movements are interchangeable; that religious, nationalist and social movements, whether radical or reactionary, tend to attract the same type of followers, behave in the same way and use the same tactics, even when their stated goals or values differed. (Wikipedia)

Hoffer believes that true believer mass movements have their origins in psychological and sociological needs – the much later phenomenon of groupies.  We all need, said Hoffer, the legitimizing mantel of not just any movement, but a powerful, emotion-based movement. 

I personally have no use for certainty; and I am very happy to live unanchored and unmoored and unrestricted by true belief.  I of course have a moral compass and an ethical weathervane – I do not act randomly or purposelessly; but I am not concerned about the consequences of my actions – i.e. I am never certain whether a particular action will result in a positive or negative result – so I do not stress over the decision. There is nothing, as Buddhists say, but change; and all change contributes equally to a constantly changing world.  Embracing uncertainty allows a measure of intellectual freedom and license.  Both sides of an argument are tenable.  Perhaps most importantly I never – unlike the Certaintists who at 3am have to wonder “Am I really certain?” regardless of what they say– worry whether I am right or not.

I like living in Washington, DC where I can’t trust the weather report rather than in Southern California where it is always sunny.  I like surfing in turbulent waters, paddling up a steep crest and not knowing what I will see at the top.

Yes, I worry whether my flight will leave on time, whether my baggage will arrive, and whether my hotel room in Lagos will be there when I arrive; and I wish that I could be ‘certain’ that my trip will go exactly, precisely according to schedule; but this erratic diversion from principle doesn’t worry me either.  Who knows how long this period of airport tremors will continue?

America seems to be a more certain country that others.  Perhaps it is because we are one of the two most religious countries in the world (India being the other); and religion tends to promote certainty.  But it may be that we Americans are simply positive people – a ‘Can Do’, optimistic nation that believes that any problem can be solved.  We are certain that we are an exceptional people, that we have the right answers, and that we have a duty to share them.  That gets us into very deep do-do, and I think we would be better off dealing with uncertainty that always being certain, but I doubt that will ever happen.

There is a compromise position in all this – probability.  We don’t have to be certain or uncertain, just sort of; but as a positive, Can Do nation, we are uncomfortable with probability.  “Goddamn it! Is it or isn’t?” says the old galoot, hand on his six-shooter.  Yet probability is the most rational way of sorting out uncertainty.  If we just figure out what the probability is of an event happening or a thing being true, we don’t have to build fortresses of certainty or wishy-washy papier mache.  Probability, however, drives us to distraction.  “You have Stage I breast cancer; but the chances of recurrence are X; and if you adopt Treatment Y your risks will decrease by Z”. 

Oh, my God, we say, how on earth will we be able to figure that out?.  Give me a yes or no, an up or down vote. So in the meantime we send money to the Christian Anti-Abortion Committee or Save the Children because retreat into certainty is so calming…It feels so good, so secure.

As a committed Uncertaintist, I understand and can live with those who value certainty above all else.  While the most malignant believers can poison political dialogue and lower the level of intelligent discourse, the more benign are simply part of the community; and our American democracy is a great, vast, welcoming tent, and there is room for everybody. 

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