Practical Belief

The Impossibility of Certainty, the Impracticality of Uncertainty, and What to Do About It

MARY
I believe the rewards of observation and reflection are much greater.

ELIZABETH
And so they are when there are none others to be had. We shall have to be philosophers, Mary.

Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen
Series adaption by Andrew Davies (1995)

Though too impatient to study or to write, I’ve always been a philosopher. If I could be otherwise, I would find myself stupidly occupied with one thing or another, but as it is, any activity in which I employ myself is constantly waylaid by existential turmoil.

I occasionally explain my mind to friends and, my mind being a great mess, I make a great mess of my explanations. Mercifully, my friends are of such high caliber that not only do they show understanding of the topics I grasp at, but they offer great comfort. I’ve been fortunate in friendship.

So why do I write this, if not to show off my ability or to be better understood by those who love me? My hope is that in fixing my thoughts to discrete letterforms that I might stop the spin cycle of my dizzy mind, and feel peace. Similar attempts have been doomed to failure. I’ve been trying to establish certainty in my resolutions, but their thesis has turned out to be uncertainty itself. This piece will attempt to reach beyond uncertainty, but be forewarned, it will not succeed in proving its suppositions. It will fail in that sense. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth writing or reading. In fact, for me, the effort gives way to some peace, and maybe that means it is a success. A successful failure. A paradox. There are more of these to come.

The thesis of the first section might have been “Nothing is certain,” but there’s a preliminary caveat to be made: the arguments in this piece can be used to refute themselves. And the refutation can be refuted with another instance of the same arguments, and so on in a recurvice chain of logical contradiction which is enough to recommend oneself to the cold comfort of insobriety. But these arguments also refute many other things, and that’s the point of making them. Every belief is humbled by the same thesis. If I didn’t mention this cautionary detail upfront, I would want to place an asterix at the end of each clause, as indeed I think there should be following any remark, which reads: “I realize this is not certain.” My caveat is so conspicuous that it needs a place in the thesis itself:

Nothing is certain, including this statement.

I intend to argue first the inescapability of this notion, then the complete inoperability of it. From there, I’ll attempt to guide us out of the mess.

The Death of Certainty

I’ve been thinking a great deal about certainty because every belief system I know—as well as I suppose to know it—appears fatally flawed. It’s crazy-making. Or perhaps the result of crazy.

Maybe it would be easier to come at it not from madness, but from soundness of mind. There is such peace in believing in some creed, axiom, or set of principles; one can go about his life with confidence that the things he does are good and sensible, even meaningful. One finds these confident folk in all walks of life. Scientists are confident. Theists are confident. Atheists. Liberals and conservatives alike. Oblivious people are the most confident, as Dunning and Kruger have shown us. These people behave normally. We notice of an individual of sound mind that he mows the same patch of grass each week, each year, until enfeeblement or death stops him—and who will attend to the important work of his yard then? We notice of others that they are too invested in theory to see any point in mundane activites like yard work. We say they struggle with mental illness; they are anxious and depressed. “Healthy people are about the business of practicality,” we think. Or we would, if we were in fact thinking, but we’re not; we take as irreducible truth that our neighbor’s lawn needs mowing. In a practical sense, it’s undeniable. It feels quite solid. But as soon as we try to describe its solidity, it sublimates into vapor.

I repeat, I emphatically repeat: ingenuous people and active figures are all active simply because they are dull and narrow minded. How to explain it? Here’s how: as a consequence of their narrow-mindedness, they take the most immediate and secondary causes for the primary ones, and thus become convinced more quickly and easily than others that they have found an indisputable basis for their doings, and so they feel at ease; and that, after all, is the main thing.

Notes from Underground
Fyodor Dostoyevsky

People, generally, are at peace with their approach to life because they are so blinded by their constant doing so as not to examine the basis for their beliefs. “So then,” you might be thinking, “his point is to think, to live ‘the examined life.’” Or, another way, “If the doer is made absurd in his doing, then we should all become thinkers.”

No, my dear reader. Thought leads to less certainty, not more.

As rational as any supposition or system of belief appears to be, there’s an equally sensible, yet conflicting philosophy to frustrate it. Each has a comparable claim on the truth. And competitors aside, no approach is without flaw in and of itself. To illustrate my point, allow me briefly to discredit philosophy, religiosity, science, and mathematics, on their own terms.

Philosophy

Every book of philosophy can be answered thus: “You can’t prove that.” You don’t even have to look inside them. You may if you wish, you may study them, but they cannot prove their assertions. First principles must be assumed to build the foundation for further claims. By their nature these building blocks are irreducible and so they cannot be validated. These assumptions are hard to deny, but impossible to prove, so one can only build a tower of reason with the cornerstone of irrationality. It doesn’t work any other way, and every philosopher must know this. Every epistemology is nonsense, a new Babel.

Religiosity

Religiosity is similarly dubious in its assertions. We can approach the issue in terms of the problem of authority. Who or what is the religious authority, and how do we know it? A prophet? A tradition? A particular hermeneutic of a peculiar canonization of scripture? (Why believe in that method? Why trust those cannonizers?) These authorities are all equal in folly, so take your pick; you can’t prove the validity of any of them.

Faith, then, is offered as the answer. Being unable to defend doctrine, the true virtue is said to be not the doctrine itself, but belief in it. What sense does this make? If it can ever be said to be moral to believe that which one has no proof of, it cannot always be said, as two different sources demand faith in mutually-exclusive suppositions. At least one faith must be wrong, and no method of discerning between them is indisputable. You can have faith if you want, but you cannot prove your faith virtuous.

Regarding the morality of belief, Francisco Mejia Uribe's piece on philosopher William Kingdon Clifford makes a strong case for incredulity in the age of social media and Big Data.

Science

Must we turn to the sciences then to find certainty? Several lines of reasoning cast doubt on the possibility it can do this.

Being that science is concerned with fact, not truth, let's deal with fact.

Indiana Jones teaches his class that archeology is the search for fact, not truth.

The models science produces, by nature of what models are, are reductive of reality. There is always daylight between reality, and how observations of reality can be described. Those descriptions are conventions that scientists agree on, to discuss those phenomena, intersubjective agreement, which is not paramount to fact. Imagine that in Plato's allegory of the cave, two of those witnessing the shadow puppetry come to an agreement on how to describe it. These observers have intersubjective agreement. They may call their descriptions “facts,” but they describe a subjectivity so miniscule that claims of objectivity are abhorrent.

The scientific method relies on the belief that our faculties are apt to faithfully observe, synthesize, and codify that which is external to ourselves. We know that they are not.

Furthermore, we don’t learn from science how to live “The Good Life.” It describes a great deal of “what” or “how,” and nothing of “why.” It can attempt to describe a healthy life in terms of biology, or psychology, but not eudaimonia. It doesn’t acknowledge the importance or even the existence of the question. It is outside the bounds of what is thought knowable by the application of the scientific method which describes only a cosmos patterned soullessly with causes and effects.

Briefly, causation is a conundrum in itself—causality can’t have had a beginning because each effect implies a prior cause. Science is built on this paradox, so its practice is an act of willful myopia. Once we get to questions of the Prime Mover, Science is content to say “Since I don’t understand the question, it doesn’t matter,” which of course, is senseless. Try that on your next exam.

The pretense for doing science is believing rationality to be a trifling matter.

Mathematics

Mathematics is equally hopeless. Take Euclidean geometry. It’s useful enough as a model of physical space—we believe in straight objects and linear thought—but as it turns out, our universe is non-Euclidean, and as I’m arguing here, linear, rational thought is actually cyclical and absurd. Math is useful, sure, but useful does not equal definitive.

Logicians have also tried to use math as a system for finding answers based on pure reason, but Kurt Gödel’s incompleteness theorems demonstrate that a complete and consistent set of axioms for all mathematics is impossible. Math functions by way of paradox. It is inherently irrational.

Cornell Mathematician Steven Strogatz called Gödel’s revelation one of the greatest ideas of all time, in an entertaining and educative RadioLab segment.

But you didn’t need me to tell you that math is inept in addressing the human condition. In The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, when Deep Thought calculated the answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything, and the answer was 42, you got the joke.

Every conceivable science and philosophy is susceptible to this line of attack. Nothing holds up to scrutiny. So lead an examined life if you wish, but don’t imagine that your queries will lead to certainty. Questions breed questions. The most insidious of which for me has been what to do in the absence of answers?

The Turmoil of Uncertainty

In college I enjoyed a weekly night of Super Smash Bros. Melee with my friends. We battled each other in multiplayer bouts for fun and bragging rights. This game, more than any other, taught me the value of studying one's opponent. If I could find and exploit a single weakness in the playstyle of my foe, I could defeat him. It is to this strategy that I owe my success, if ever I had it. But it worked equally well against me, and so it was one night that such weakness of mine was lain bare.

My friends observed that if they got me talking on some subject, the proficiency of my play decreased precipitously. During a crucial match a friend questioned me, as Pilate did Jesus in John 18:38, saying “What is truth?” And behold, I was waylaid by philosophy once again. The precipitousness was palpable, and the whole crew had a good laugh at my expense. The tactic worked so well, it became a theme, an Achilles heel to strike if ever I became too dominant.

Jesus gives no answer, by the way. Typical, right?

It’s not an easy thing to answer definitively, in fact, I think it’s impossible. We may espouse one philosophy or another in reply, but we cannot be absolute. For if we claim to have the truth we practice bad faith; we trade integrity for peace. We do not acknowledge the predicament, and so we don’t need to struggle to resolve it.

And if I claim to be a wise man,
it surely means that I don't know

Carry On Wayward Son, Kansas

My endeavor has been to arrive at peace via an honest attempt to establish certainty. And in that effort I have failed. I have found no avenue through certainty, and so have not arrived at my destination. To continue this way is to live in turmoil; if we can't know Truth, how can we form any context in which to live our lives? How can we believe that anything we do is right or meaningful? How can we make any decisions? Without the capacity for big decisions, one doesn’t know what to do with his life, and without the small, one doesn’t know what to do with any particular moment which is the same thing.

In the confusion of this uncertainty, I have spent evenings staring at my walls, nothing right enough to do, and seemingly wrong things even less tolerable, neither being an improvement on inaction, but inaction being unbearable. Whereas the bad faith of certainty is dishonest, the confusion of uncertainty is dysfunctional. I found myself caught between these unpleasant conclusions:

There has to be another way.

Practical Belief

This impasse is the result of a particular, yet unnamed, belief: that if nothing is certain nothing should be believed. But is that so?

Uncertainty doesn’t mean nothing is true, just that it is not possible to determine what is true. Given our apparent need for direction, it seems we must operate under some set of beliefs, whether or not we can “believe” them. We can view philosophies as tools, each tool being apt for its task, and we can understand that a tool bag full of contradictions is required to complete an entire job. If all our tools—philosophy, religiosity, science, math, etc—are founded on contradiction, why shouldn’t we be? What choice have we, in an absurd world, but to be absurd? I want to note that I’m being completely serious.

If this practical, though irrational, compartmentalization is the lesson of our befuddling journey, what sort of person its practitioner? Someone holding this dual befuddlement: I don’t know that what I think and do is reasonable, and I don’t know that it’s not. This affords us the freedom to go ahead as we would have before, but with integrity and peace. From the outside, this virtuous someone may look indistinguishable from the regular people I ridiculed at the outset. And there is my triumph and my defeat. The way we already live is fine. Go mow your lawn.

I've arrived at the notion of a peaceful pragmatism. Being pragmatic means being contradictory, but with each contradiction holding a purpose. Practice a spiritual life because it is stabilizing. Ponder theology and philosophy because curiosity, especially in the the ultimate questions, is part of our drive as humans. Do math and science for the practical goods they yield. Entertain yourself because the day feels long. Be present because life is short.

Avoiding underuse and overuse, seek the balance between every constituent. Hold a tension between them, drawn, but not quartered. And give yourself grace, because philosophies contradict, and because you will just plain fail to juggle them. This is practical belief.

Some readers will, no doubt, persist in confident absolutism. Others will have already made peace with uncertainty, paradox, and mystery, and will not have needed to put up with all my (earnest) circuity. As I said, I wrote this for me, the one who was unsatisfied with certainty, and worse with uncertainty; the one desperate for some resolution. Did I find it? I don’t know that I did, and I don’t know that I didn’t. And that, as I have belaboured, is good enough for anyone.

NS signature
SLARTIBARTFAST
I don't know, perhaps I'm old and tired,
but I always think that the chances of
finding out what's really going on are so
absurdly remote that the only thing to do
is say hang the sense of it and keep
yourself busy. I'd much rather be happy
than right any day.

ARTHUR
And are you?

SLARTIBARTFAST
No. That's where it all falls down of
Course.

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, (film adaption, 2005)
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