The Absence of Certainty


I’ve long been, if not obsessed, intrigued with the conception of certainty. At this very moment, billions of people across the globe are absolutely certain of trillions of ideas, utterly convinced that they are right, that this or these or those are things that they know, they can be assured of, they can depend upon for all eternity. The certainty that the sun will rise in the morning (or, conversely, the certainty that it will not). The certainty that there will be food, and the certainty that there will not. The certainty that God exists. The certainty that she/he/it doesn’t. The certainty that language means what I mean it to say.

When you think about it (and I use the inclusive “you,” but know that I am not certain that you agree, so really I’m referring only to myself), certainty is astonishing. Somewhere along the line, it became not only advantageous but necessary for humans to be able to be sure of something, to know that this” is true/right/real, and “that” is not. How did we develop this ability, especially in the face of so much that has been proven to be clearly not true/right/real? How do we maintain it? How do we continue to go on, day after day, knowing that what we know and believe  right now will be what we know and believe tomorrow, and the day after, and the day after that?

It strikes me that faith, for example, is certainty in possibly its purest form. Faith, true faith, requires that one know, even in the absence of all evidence and logic and circumstance, that something is real. That something is very often God, or the appellation of “God” to an entity that one can never actually see or produce or present, and yet it exerts a real and terrible force on one’s life. At heart, that is an incredible move, and it frees one up to do all kinds of things.

With certainty comes the knowledge that whatever you do in service of that certainty is also true/right/real. Many Republicans, and a growing number of Democrats, at least in my mind, will often operate with an enormous amount of faith and thereby an enormous amount of certainty. They are able to say and do what they will because behind those actions is the absolute certainty that they are in the right, that they are doing what is best for the country. And there is a great deal of rather admirable honesty in that, or at least in the presentation of that.

Abortion, health care, domestic defense, evangelism, the separation of church and state, state’s rights: none of these are actual debates for the certain individual, because an honest debate requires uncertainty, the knowledge that you may believe what you say, but the opposition has just as valid a point. A point cannot be valid unless it can be potentially right, and persuasively right. Debating realistically requires an acknowledgement that you may be wrong, that what  you hold to be dear and true might be just the opposite.

That is why extremism and fundamentalism will always be more unified and more dangerous than liberalism. True liberalism is the acknowledgement of uncertainty, of the validity of the opposition, and to be uncertain is to be, in a sense, paralyzed, for how can you act with any real assurance or strength if you are not completely certain that what you are doing is right? The truly certain individual need not consider the rightness or the ramifications of his/her actions: she/he knows they are right.

So we (and again, by “we” I mean “I”) have a dilemma. Certainty allows for honest, meaningful action, but it also leads to a degree of blindness and self-righteousness. Uncertainty provides perspective and adaptability, but is ultimately paralytic and boring. One needs certainty to go out every day and live, but one needs uncertainty to live that life with wisdom. Those of us outside of Japan right now are able to go out every day and daydream at our desks, fritter away time in video games, watch youtube videos, fuck each other senseless, and fall asleep because, at some subconscious level, we are certain (or able to convince ourselves that we are certain), that what happened in Sendai will not happen to us tomorrow. I think the certainty of many in Japan has been obviated. And yet, in two weeks or two months or two years, their certainty will return and they will live again.

Finding balance between certainty and uncertainty has been my modus operandi and my greatest fault for many, many years. This blog will be equivocal and tentative, for I am almost never certain. This blog will be passionate and blindly self-convinced, for I am often certain. This blog had better damn well be updated every day, because I need to get myself writing (hopefully writing regularly, but realistically just writing) again. Ideally, this blog will rarely be this philosophical and navel-gazeatory (yes, I tried to turn “navel-gazing” into an adjective and failed miserably), and more often be grounded in whatever I am interested in that day. I’m joining the hordes who believe their thoughts are worthy of mass-consumption, but with an absence of certainty.

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5 Responses to The Absence of Certainty

  1. Alex says:

    And yesterday, you were certain that aliens didn’t exist. Imagine what you’ll be certain of tomorrow.

  2. Alex says:

    Let me correct that last comment: “500 years ago, everybody knew the Earth was flat, and fifteen minutes ago, you knew that humans were alone on this planet. Imagine what you’ll know tomorrow.”

  3. Yet another reason why Men in Black is one of my more favorite guilty pleasures.

  4. Dorothy says:

    I’ve been often amused when I watch the PBS Newshour because sometimes each of the opposing guests believes with certainty that s/he has the facts and is right while the other believes just the opposite with equal certainty. My favorite conversations are when each side acknowledges that part of what the other is saying is or could be correct but then goes on to give a different interpretation or opinion, which is usually not a statement of certainty. Flexibility of thinking usually yields more productive discussion and results. Terrific blog post!

    • The “Yes, but…” response seems to be common one in a majority of conversations these days, in which the “Yes” or “I agree” or “True” doesn’t even necessarily refer to the initial point at all. It’s a quick, shallow, even subconscious acknowledgement that something else was said without ever really considering the content/context of that something. “I respect your right to say something, but I didn’t actually listen, so here’s my point…”

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