The Lure of Certainty is Fear of Uncertainty

Submitted by: Mike Spindell, guest blogger

Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803–1882) :  “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines.”

Since the beginning of its existence on this planet untold millennia past, life has been a dangerous proposition for all creatures. The big fish eating the little fish has been the model for most interactions between living entities. All living entities have been either predator and/or prey. Evolution needed to develop in each entity methods of recognizing danger and thus trying to ensure that it will be able to replicate itself through procreation. Each species of course has different means of recognizing danger in its environment and various diverse senses for doing so. The importance of these senses varies by species and sometimes varies infra-species. Its own hierarchy of life preserving senses and activities can change in a species as it evolves to meet each new environmental challenge.

As humanity evolved there is no doubt that there were variations in the relative importance of our five senses at different times in our evolutionary history. What many humans believe is our most important attribute is of course the collective of our senses known as intelligence and the ability to reason. We are the singular species of this planet that has developed incredibly complex means of communication leaving us as the seeming masters of our world. Nevertheless, most of what we know of reality is our personal constructs of information that our senses have perceived and then compressed into a usable conception of our world, which despite the breadth of any one individual’s intelligence, is merely an approximation of the whole. However, to continue existence each human must make certain choices based on their personal perception of their environment. Sometimes these choices are successful ad sometimes they are disastrous. Since the arc of human existence has presented an ever-widening range of information, we have learned to edit and approximate much in own personal constructs. An example of this is that behavioral science has determined that we develop pictures in our mind of particular individuals and in our subsequent encounters rely mainly on those original pictures. Anyone who has raised a child knows that it is hard to see them as they grow, as anything more than the infant they were. While it’s true our picture of the child changes with growth, the lasting overlay of impression is usually quite dated. This is at least my conception of human perception.

With this concept in mind let me bring this post to the America of today, illustrated as a microcosm of the difficulty humans have in living with each other.  Our politics have become perhaps more polarized and deadlocked than at any point in our history. Many people respond to each new issue that crosses public consciousness based on their personal sense of correctness, informed by a long developed political belief system that structures the nature of their response. The deeper ingrained this belief that there is only one path to political truth, the more mechanical the response becomes, and the less capable becomes the individual’s ability to react to the information from its environment to save itself. Those species unable to evolve to meet each new challenge to their existence became extinct. As humans our evolution has become more than just meeting actual physical challenges, we have evolved to the point that we represent the greatest danger to ourselves. Human existence is now dependent upon collectively being able to comprehend the dangers we face. How can we understand these dangers if our only method of understanding them is filtered through an ideological certainty that categorizes them based rote methodology? This is my attempt to try to make sense of why our political scene today seems so irrationally skewed by the inability to collectively recognize and adapt to dangers.

Can we agree that the information revolution has presented all of us with a dilemma?  We are not quite ready or able to absorb all the information about the world that is available and that most of us are bombarded with on a daily basis? All of us, even geniuses, have learned to develop constructs of our environment and of the opinions that inform us. To a greater or lesser degree this allows us to cope with our lives. These human constructs include, but are not limited to, philosophy, religion, politics and economics. Such is the daily assault of information that we perforce need to “pigeonhole” each bit of new data as passes into our consciousness, just so we can seemingly make sense of it. I readily admit to using this shortcut, do you? I’ve come to see though, that this process of fitting prior perceptions into current situations can lead to misunderstanding. Because of that I’ve tried in my life to be self critical of my actions and opinions. As I’ve aged wisdom has taught me how much even a person like me, egotistically awash in intellectual self-esteem, can be completely wrong in any given instance simply because I filter new situations through past perceptions. I believe this is a human trait. Because of that trait, to a greater or lesser degree, our conflicting perceptions handicap our ability to make this world livable for all of us humans. In my own case some here may remember that on numerous occasions I boldly stated I was convinced that Jeb Bush would be this years Republican Presidential Nominee. My wrong conclusion was based on a wealth of information on the Bush family that I’d absorbed, but which kept me from seeing current political reality.

In prehistoric times, in a world of incessant danger the emerging human species had to rely on reacting with quickness and certitude to escaping impending danger. This was true either in the role of being predator and/or prey. Those that equivocated were those whose genetic heritage was not passed on. We are bred to look for patterns of certainty, yet how much of anything in life is really certain? The basis of almost all religion/philosophy is the need to establish a sense of certainty about our lives. Without that certainty, for many of us given our genetic heritage, comes disorientation and fear. This is a fact I believe for all of us, but its primacy of need differs from human to human.

A common complaint of Fundamentalist Religion is that the world is changing too quickly to not only keep up with, but also that change is a downward arc towards human degeneracy. Yet this change and this danger can be mediated if only one would follow the path described by Yahweh, Jesus, Allah or perhaps The Buddha. With that belief firmly rooted those so inclined view all new experience filtered through their pre-conceptions of what life is all about. If you think about it in a political sense you see the same pattern professed by politicians and political partisan from all parts of the political spectrum.

Many Republicans, Conservatives and Right Wingers express their nostalgia for the ”Roaring 20’s”, “Golden 50’s” and/or “The Age of Reagan” as if somehow it was a better world back then. Democrats, Liberals, Progressives, and Left Wingers too view the world through their own lens of nostalgia as if the “Roosevelt Era” and the “60’s” were times of clarity. The fact is there are no times of “clarity”, no “Golden Era” and no “better” past to emulate nostalgically. We are here now and it is in this “now” that we need to operate. All of us are genetically hard-wired” to abhor uncertainty in our lives, though some can tolerate the anxiety of it better than others. Therefore we seek broad-ranged “certainty” to dull our anxiety and calm our fears. We all know that the main fear of being human is the certain knowledge of our own mortality, but perhaps peculiar to our species is also the fear of not being remembered, of having not contributed anything to life and of having no purpose.

So all of us strive to quell the fear of uncertainty in ourselves, to ameliorate the anxiety it causes us, to fit our preconceptions into each new situation. We develop philosophies; adhere to religions and view the world through the lens of our personal politics. Fritz Perls, the Founder of Gestalt Psychotherapy, in which I am trained and in the philosophy that I use to live my life, once stated: “I see my role as destroying people’s character”. What he meant was that in our interactions with the world each of us develops a rigid “character”. “Character” is our personal construct of how we wish other humans to see us. He believed and I also believe that the danger of “character” was that it limits human choices in dealing with our environment. “Character” is a construct that developed in tandem with and possibly as an assist to, the civilizing of humanity. It possibly is the reason why tragedy has plagued human history. In an uncertain world the “survivor” hopefully is able to react to each new situation of conflict, danger, excitement, and pleasure in terms of their current feelings/information and not based on past pre-conceptions/premises. An example of the possible dysfunction of character might be a man threatened by someone bigger and stronger, who has the ability to run away, yet whose “character” dictates that he must “man up” and face certain pain. Are there times when one must rely on the certainty of their moral/ethical compass? Absolutely, and to one’s death if need be. However, these “life or death” decisions would serve us better if they are a true response to a present situation, rather than a decision filtered through pre-conception. To make that life changing decision, we’d be better served if we viewed each potential threat and/or pleasure in the present, without pre-judgment?

We see today in the political arena the effect of this search for certainty. The deep divisions that exist between people all arise from the fact they so strongly cling to the “certainties” they adopt to stave off the anxiety of uncertainty. Humanity as a whole must learn to live with the uncertainty that life presents, encounter it in the present moment and in essence “be here now”. Until then the “certainties” that we adopt to keep “uncertainty” away, will keep us from evolving into a species at one with our existence and possibly sow the seeds of our species extinction.

Submitted by: Mike Spindell, guest blogger

95 thoughts on “The Lure of Certainty is Fear of Uncertainty”

  1. My partner and I absolutely love your blog and find most of your post’s to be just what I’m looking for.
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  2. “The only certainty in life is death.”

    Bron,

    Thank you for the kid words.

    As for certainty though, what about paying taxes? 🙂

  3. Mike Spindell:

    excellent article. Very thought provoking.

    The only certainty in life is death. The only thing people have to do is die.

  4. Malisha, I think it’s the brain telling us that it is the HQ for everything. See Gene’s article on propaganda. : )

  5. Malisha 1, May 20, 2012 at 1:30 pm

    At the Library of Science Conference on the “Decade of the Brain,” it seemed that all the presentations concentrated on the idea that the brain was the HQ for everything, and I think we like that feeling, and I don’t know why we like it. It almost seems to have a religious tint.
    ============================
    Malish, I hope you did not forget to comment to them that some of us here on this blog believe that a lot of cognition comes from the anal cavity.

  6. Mike Spindell 1, May 20, 2012 at 12:53 pm

    “I don’t like fuzzy math, fuzzy logic, or fuzzy science, but I do like fuzzy cats and dogs.”

    “Neither does bullshit.
    Neither does clinging to Luddite scientists like bdaman did.
    You quoted a whole bunch of Darwinistic bullshit in this post, which I called out.
    You have not yet commented on that Darwinism.”

    Dredd,

    First of all I’m a fuzzy kind of guy. Show me anywhere in my writings here where I rely on someone’s opinion to make a point, I don’t make points with other’s opinions. I consider myself a well-read “synthesist”, in that my opinions and writing reflect a synthesis of the experiences/knowledge I’ve gained without respect to particular sources. My ideas are generally my own, though I don’t make any great claims of originality.
    ====================================
    Yeah, well that is the essence of The Failure of Applied American Epistemology.

    We all have to depend on someone else to tell us what truth is:

    I find myself believing all sorts of things for which I do not possess evidence: that smoking cigarettes causes lung cancer, that my car keeps stalling because the carburetor needs to be rebuild, that mass media threaten democracy, that slums cause emotional disorders, that my irregular heart beat is premature ventricular contraction, that students’ grades are not correlated with success in the nonacademic world, that nuclear power plants are not safe (enough) …

    The list of things I believe, though I have no evidence for the truth of them, is, if not infinite, virtually endless. And I am finite. Though I can readily imagine what I would have to do to obtain the evidence that would support any one of my beliefs, I cannot imagine being able to do this for all of my beliefs. I believe too much; there is too much relevant evidence (much of it available only after extensive, specialized training); intellect is too small and life too short.

    What are we as epistemologists to say about all these beliefs?

    (The Pillars of Knowledge: Faith and Trust?). There are some here among us on this blog who practice macho science, who have a copy of the holy grail, a.k.a. grandpa’s dictionary, handed down from Dick Tracy, the head dick of the old daze.

    Whatever, I have no whores in that race.

  7. At the Library of Science Conference on the “Decade of the Brain,” it seemed that all the presentations concentrated on the idea that the brain was the HQ for everything, and I think we like that feeling, and I don’t know why we like it. It almost seems to have a religious tint.

    Irv Dardik, who was formerly a cardiologist who consulted to the US Olympic Team, came up with quite a different approach to things (only involving physiological health, not mental health, of course) with his work on exercise and wave technology. Apparently he believes (something like) that the heart, and its rhythms and rhythmical variations, can be more the bodymind regulator (more the “body/mind governmental regulation system”) than the brain. This would mean, perhaps, that heart (SUPPLY) has as much to do with how we move through life as brain (DIRECTION).

    Maternal (feed) as much as paternal (guide)?

    I know I’m moving through psycholinguistic and cerebral space at will and without hard data here, but it’s fun.

    My son did Irv Dardik’s “cycles exercise program” for probably two, three years after a bad diagnosis in 2005. He got much better! No drugs, no surgery! He said that, as a long-term matter, he was able to “heal” from everything better after that; he said “I can even let go of anger more easily” after that. I don’t know any way to THINK myself into an easier letting go of anger, so I really think there may be something there. It’s a little oddball, but so are lots of things that have a chance of working.

    What got me onto this OT? OH, yeah, the amygdala. (They’re apparently shaped like almonds.)

  8. “By the way I’ve always felt about Chomsky that he is a pompous, overrated ass, living on his memories of the Movement in the 60′s, without recognizing his own culpability in things turning out so badly. Much of what Chomsky breathlessly reveals as his creative insights are rather obvious to those who study history.”

    Yep.

  9. Dredd,

    By the way I’ve always felt about Chomsky that he is a pompous, overrated ass, living on his memories of the Movement in the 60’s, without recognizing his own culpability in things turning out so badly. Much of what Chomsky breathlessly reveals as his creative insights are rather obvious to those who study history.

    “who was a nephew and follower of Freud, worked for the government to sell WW I through amygdala manipulating techniques.”

    You again confuse effect and cause. Propaganda is actually millenias old and its usage well understood since the dawn of civilization. That it is the result of manipulation of the amygdala is still unproven theory in my estimation, despite the fact you are convinced it is. Now I don’t know what your training or profession is, so perhaps you have scientific credentials. I don’t have, nor have ever aspired to those credentials although I find science fascinating. This is why I never partake in any but the most simple scientific arguments because I don’t claim expertise.

    Now as far as what I think about the general integrity of science, I do believe that generally there is little more integrity among scientists, than that exhibited by people in other fields. I had a close friend in the 70’s who returned to school for a Doctorate in Chemistry and later became quite successful in the field of cancer research. One night when all of us were high I asked him why he chose cancer research and the particular specialty he was interested in? My question was one of trying to understand why he had personally dedicated himself to this field. He told me with utter seriousness that he did it because that was where he could have the easiest life and earn very good money. He then said he chose his area of specialization because there would be little competition for grant money. It told me a lot about his dedication to the growth of knowledge and also pointed out that scientists are merely humans too.

  10. “The only guy that you said understands your post argues that human consciousness is the creator of science and religion, i.e. that both science and religion originated in the human consciousness, an entity that developed in ‘the last two seconds’ in terms of evolutionary time.”

    Straw man.

    I argue that science and religion are social constructs because that is what they are by definition. Science is the accumulated and codified knowledge of how the world works gathered by the observation based and experimentally verifiable framework of the scientific method. Religion is a personal set or institutionalized system of religious attitudes, beliefs, and practices gathered by tradition in furtherance of a cause, principle, or system of beliefs held to with ardor and faith as a moral/ethical model for living one’s life in society. They are systems created by human minds; higher order intelligence expressed in complex life. As far as we know and barring the discovery of intelligent alien life, we are the only species to have either of these practices. Other primates use tools. Humans use tools. It does not follow that chimps practice science. They don’t have sufficient cognitive capacity to understand the scientific method let alone the language skills required from preserving and transmitting complex ideas over time let alone in contemporaneous communication. Their tool use is primitive as are their social organization and language – all of which are required with a degree of complexity to both understand and practice science. A dog can have altruistic behavior. A human can have altruistic behavior. Assuming that all religions are based in altruism (which some are not, see Objectivism for a prime example), it does not follow that dogs practice religion. Dogs social order is too simple to necessitate it and they are not intelligent enough to raise the basic questions required to develop a religion based upon altruism or any other behavior.

    Consider for example dolphins – the non-primate species most likely to posses some kind of higher intelligence assuming we can ever breach the language barrier. They are the closest thing to an intelligent alien species we have on Earth. We know they have a fairly complex social order and their communication among themselves is fairly complex. They may be an intelligence comparable to human but of an entirely different order. However, it is highly improbable that they have science. They are curious and intelligent, but they are not sophisticated tool users. Their ability to experiment (i.e. interrogate the nature of reality) is practically nil. They display altruism in the context of a complex social order. They might have some form of religion although it would be in a form considered primitive in our species – an oral tradition.

    Science and religion both originated in the human consciousness . . . as far as we know.

    I never said that they were the sole dominion of humanity and in fact I’ve stipulated the possibility of alien intelligences having their own forms of science and religion. None of which changes that bacteria have neither. Bacteria are simple life. They don’t have language and they don’t have culture (pardon the pun) because they don’t have simple society/civilization let alone complex and lack sophisticated tool use. These other systems are required to both practice science and religion by definition. Your assertion that microbes practice science and/or religion – not to put too fine a point on it – is completely and utterly ridiculous and the product of wishful thinking that has more to do with science fiction than science.

    Also, you argue the fallacy of special pleading. That science and religion resulted in a fairly recent development in life on Earth and that you raise that as an exception to my argument contradicts your assertion that time isn’t a condition of scientific truth. That science and religion are recent developments in life on Earth is simply the fact of the matter no matter how much you wish to contort and distort the definitions of the words to justify your worship of microbial life. And worship is the right word. You seek to find order that explains the world better where there is no order. You seek certainty in place where there is none – a replacement for robe of religion garbed poorly in the lab coat of science.

    You say you understand what you read, but the evidence points to a partial or flawed understanding at best based upon the erroneous conclusions of your pet theory. You are almost a good thinker, but not quite. Run along now before you misrepresent someone else’s words again. I’m sure George is missing you out at the Skywalker Ranch.

  11. “I don’t like fuzzy math, fuzzy logic, or fuzzy science, but I do like fuzzy cats and dogs.”

    “Neither does bullshit.
    Neither does clinging to Luddite scientists like bdaman did.
    You quoted a whole bunch of Darwinistic bullshit in this post, which I called out.
    You have not yet commented on that Darwinism.”

    Dredd,

    First of all I’m a fuzzy kind of guy. Show me anywhere in my writings here where I rely on someone’s opinion to make a point, I don’t make points with other’s opinions. I consider myself a well-read “synthesist”, in that my opinions and writing reflect a synthesis of the experiences/knowledge I’ve gained without respect to particular sources. My ideas are generally my own, though I don’t make any great claims of originality.

    Comparing me to Bdaman was a low blow because it’s is obvious that he is merely propagandizing for his team ad not really a Luddite. As far as to whether or not I’m spreading “bullshit” I would leave that to the eyes of the beholder.

    Now while I did mention evolution in my post it was broadly done, without specificity about evolutionary theory. I support the general concept of evolution, but I’m well aware that there are some inconsistencies in the theory and gaps that are yet to be bridged. As for “Darwinism” it seems to me that while Darwin was given credit for “evolutionary theory” that occurred about 150 years ago and much refinement has gone on since. Evolution has shall we say evolved since Darwin. Now I don’t claim any scientific background, though I did get “B’s” on my High School NYS Regents Exams in both Chemistry and Biology. Since due to my general bad behavior in school and failure to do homework I was failing both coming into the tests, I considered those tests victories for my scientific “bono fides” and my teachers considered it annoyingly astonishing.

    Dredd you really should understand by now that I essentially write essays that express my own beliefs. Yes there are some blogs that I extensively research, but in general, most are unabashedly my own viewpoint, which the reader is free to accept, reject and/or build upon as is their wont. 🙂

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