Approaching Certainty

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Approaching CertaintyIf I had to point to the single most problematic weakness in human beings, it would be the dogmatism and arrogant certitude that leads us to entrench. Individually and collectively, we become so confident in our beliefs that we will sacrifice everything in order to defend “being right.” Families disintegrate. Wars take millions of lives. Still we persist: we arrogantly proclaim that dissent is poisonous and must be punished. And yet, even the most perspicacious human being would have to consider himself fortunate even to be approaching certainty.

It seems superfluous to point out we are flawed, and yet, the average person clings tenaciously to any number of so-called “sacred” beliefs; some grasp so tightly to their dogmatic certitude that they are willing to give up their own lives in demonstration. Most likely, this desperate need to hold a position of flawless  accuracy derives from an evolutionary desire to succeed — after all, being on the winning side is attractive… even if one has to manufacture truth in order to win.

Nonetheless, we do make mistakes, and our perception is flawed. I have a great deal of difficulty presenting this counter-intuitive position to people, and yet, as a theory, it seems impossible to falsify: if it’s true that human judgement is universally prone to error, that means — de facto — all our perceptions, beliefs, ideas, and conjectures are equally prone to error. The only counter-argument would consist of procuring a human being that does not make mistakes. Would anyone fatuously take such a position? If so, I cannot waste time on the debate.

No human being possesses a monopoly on truth. We spend our lives making wrong turns, stuttering, stumbling, oversleeping, and misallocating our money. The number of mistakes we make in any given day are comical — if you choose to see it that way. So why do we so vociferously demand that our fellows accept our perceptions of the universe as absolute… or even divine? Once you consider the multitude of errors each of us makes — almost perpetually — what possible connection to the universe could you claim to possess that would make your perspective more valuable than that of anyone else?

Don’t misunderstand me; I am not denying the existence of a single, unified, objective reality. I do believe reality exists, and I believe it would continue to exist absent our perception of it. Simply put, if every sentient creature on earth suddenly ceased to exist, I believe the moon would continue to orbit the earth — as part of reality.

But, to reiterate: our perception of that reality is flawed. Even religions universally proclaim the fallibility of human judgement. According to even the most lenient of theologians, the human objective is not to attain perfection, but rather to follow it — or more accurately, in most cases, to submit to it. As such, I grant theologians their premise that perfection “exists.” I just don’t agree with the perception — because any interpretation of perfection requires human fallibility. That is to say, even if “perfection” is handed to us by a flawless “God,”  the quality (“perfection”) must still be interpreted by flawed actors (humans). And the very entity defining the degree of imperfection in humanity is this so-called “perfect God” who is delivering the premise of perfection in the first place. It is a fallacious, perpetual loop, and in no way justifies certitude.

I hold a more pragmatic and practical view of the universe — one in which the idea of “perfection” is abstract and moot. In other words, there is no point in trying to define, attain, understand, or believe in something that relies on our imperfect judgement. Please don’t make the mistake of thinking I find no value in the idea of perfection, and allow me emphasize the word abstract here: I do believe perfection is an interesting concept, and certainly a valuable quality we can use in thought experiments — much like we might with the notions of altruism, beautyinfinity… and certainty. These precepts are impossible to falsify, quantify, or even understand beyond the subjective realm of human imagination. But they are extremely valuable.

So I have chosen a different approach to my quest for understanding in (and of) this universe — an approach that liberates me dramatically, freeing me from the weight of always needing to “be right.” Namely, I believe our only chance at achieving sustained, global happiness — through the minimization of suffering — is by accepting that we only approach such ideals. We can never get there…

In so many fields this can be demonstrated scientifically: economists know we cannot actually achieve equilibrium among the forces of supply and demand — because changing the inputs creates a moving target that can never be hit. Likewise, in subatomic physics, the precise location and velocity of a particle can never be known with certainty, because anything used to measure it, changes one or the other of these qualities.

Music is another example I have often used. When a note is played, it blossoms through the air in waves — imprecise and dynamic. A note can never be one thing, because it changes perpetually in space and time, as a wave. For this reason, a cellist — for example — does not seek to play a single note, but rather rocks her fingers back and forth on the neck creating a tremolo effect that passes through the note any number of times — but never stays there… simply because it cannot stay there.

Human beings, as a collective, most often fail to appreciate the evolutionary nature of our species — both genetically and memetically. For the most part, we are cursed with the delusion that our status in the universe is permanent and unyielding. And this, I believe, is the bane of our existence; it is the primary cause of dogmatism in religion, philosophy, and even science.

But I understand clearly our evolutionary path, and I am grateful that every day more of us join the ranks of tentative critical thinking. I believe, if we don’t allow our myopia and stubbornness to destroy our species, we will continue to recognize just how important it is that we embrace our lack of certainty. And I am convinced this practice — above any other — will likely be our salvation.

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