Wednesday, November 4, 2009

On the Nature of the World, and the Human Condition

When push comes to shove, as the saying goes, we are faced with a bare, ugly, barbed-wire truth: in a universe based on chance, there can be no absolute certainty.
Random fluctuations may give way on the large scale to reasonable predictability; the motion of each individual electron isn't known, but the table still stands, holds our plate, our fork, our beer. Statistics begins to dictate at the level we perceive daily, creating the generalized physics with which we are familiar: forces, accelerations, momentum and energy and the other well-known namesakes of kinematics. But it is still built upon one basic, fundamental fact, something that quantum mechanics taught us well: the world is unpredictable.
Faced with a world ripe with such possibility, the human mind - so far as we know, the only thing capable of having even a hope of coming to grips with this unpredictability - does quite the opposite: it copes. We search desperately for some word of certainty, and find it wherever seems fit: God, friendship, even a guarantee from a retail store. We force predictability and certainty into a world without such guarantees, either dishonestly, or through hope, and this, in a sense, is faith.
Our lives are spent doing a rationalization of predictability versus unpredictability, chance and likelihood. If we give up one side entirely in favor of the other, we're not being fair to the human condition. Blind faith, the "bad" kind of faith, results in the dishonest forcing of a certainty which is, in reality, unlikely. Conversely, a phobia would be understood as the one case where a person's rational balancing act of predictability and uncertainty are skewed toward uncertainty: it is the unlikely outcome which is expected.
So do we seek certainty because it is out there somewhere for us to find, or do we seek it merely because we need it to exist, regardless of whether or not it does? Is this search for certainty in an uncertain universe at least a part of what makes us human?


  1. Nice post - thanks for the thoughts.

    An indeterminate universe can be a lonely place indeed. We all rationalize it in some way, I suppose.

    My intuition tells me that it's even more indeterminate than we think - that even our tested theories may only be capturing the details of what's going on -associated, corresponding phenomena which we then decide is an explanation that is good enough. Then we postulate deeper explanations and infer more than may be really true.

    (I am writing from the gut here, so it shouldn't be taken too seriously)

    It seems to me that the only thing that pans out is that everyone is connected.

    And I think a quality "faith" or "certainty" is one that is certain in at least some way, if not all the way. Perhaps there are things that we believe to be true, for instance that certain things have value and will last in some way, which may not be objectively true in any way - but even when we are proved wrong, we will be glad that we spent our time and energy believing it - and therefore it is "certain".

  2. Funny - I've been thinking something somewhat opposing recently, and had begun to draft a post on the subject. From my recent experiential musings, it seems certainty does not bring peace, rather despair.

    We currently inhabit a world in which certainty has an unnaturally strong hold. We know of our next meal long before we eat it. We know what we're doing next week, where our next vacation will be, and how much our fixed-rate mortgage payment will be in 5 years time. There is a deep societal craving for uncertainty, for the unknown - for mystery. Look at popular literature and movies - detective stories, fantasy and science-fiction overwhelm us - they all revolve around mystery. And this mystery speaks to something fundamental in us. For, by robbing the world of mystery, one has robbed life of adventure.

    My recent experience enlightened me to this. In the depths of despair, the thing that overwhelmed me, like drowning in a viscous sea, was certainty - certainty of my own fate, that the current status was permanent, that it could not improve. I was entombed. The light that finally unburdened me was the brilliance of uncertainty, illuminating the recesses of my soul and dispelling the demons that lay there - imagined, yet vividly real and certain, until I could see that they were never actually there at all. The joy was to realise that possibility awaits in infinite variety, that there is hope, that there is adventure to be found. There is no greater damnation possible than to know one's own fate.

    Without uncertainty, there is no possibility, and without possibility, there is no hope. However, uncertainty is not all - for there are some things we must know to be True. Some quite intangible things must be utterly certain, where all else is random, uncertain, and perhaps bleak. We must know that there is Good: not that there are good things, or good actions (though these may be valuable in their own right, and pointers toward something underlying) - but we must know that the very notion of Goodness rings of some fundamental (though intangible) Truth. We may strive to find adventure - but only a fool would set out one one without a Cause. We must see that there is some fundamental value to all things, and it is this knowledge that drives us to tread paths unknown. We may, in vain, search a lifetime for the beautiful, and yet we know the endeavour to be worth it, precisely because we know that there is such a concept as Beauty. Some things in life may be worth a shot - but only because there are Things for which it is worth taking a bullet.

    Ultimately, I think, it matters not to know where we are going - only that we are going somewhere, and are guided by Purpose.

  3. Dr. Pain, you're also right. I think, as I mentioned, that there must be some appropriate balance between certainty and uncertainty, and it seems to be weighted by perceived benefit to the person judging. Consider, for example: I don't want the certainty of being stuck in one place forever, and thus desire the mystery (uncertainty) of travel to new places. However, at the same time, I desire the certainty of reasonable safety in those travels (ie, my plane won't crash), not the uncertainty of danger. On the surface, these "compromises" seem selfish, though justifiably so. Chesterton may have said that "where there is mystery, there is health," but where there is too much mystery - where too little is known - there is anxiety, phobia, and harm.

  4. Is it a random chance that I read this and post this comment up here?


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