Reflecting Uncertainly on Certainty

I want to think out loud a little about certainty – how and why it arises in thinking, what function it serves, what it produces and so forth. Ultimately, I think certainty is basically a mirage, albeit a harmless one (so long as one is clear it’s a mirage).

Say that I want to be certain that the world exists or that it doesn’t exist: I have no preference for either outcome, as my existence as such does not actually change much given the one or the other. But I would like to know.

In this “want to be certain” there is an unquestioned assumption, namely, a certainty that being certain is valuable in its own right. Why would I want to be certain about the ontological status of the world if I was not certain that such certainty was valuable?

So the question becomes, what underlies that second-level certainty? What is its source? What assumptions, if any, function as its ground? For it is non-specific and generalized and underlies the whole operation of wanting to be certain about everything, from the world’s existence to the best way to bake apples to what to read before bed.

[Note that wanting to be certain in this sense is not different from wanting to be right, especially given that one is not invested in a particular outcome. It can be X or Y or . . ., but it must at least by X or Y or . . .]

Arguably, this “certainty about certainty” arises from uncontested – because uninvestigated – convictions about what is real or true. For example, take my question to you: “I am not sure there is a world, what do you think?”

Underlying that question is a conviction that I am not alone but in the presence of someone – or something, anyway (a “you”) – with which or with whom dialogue is viable. There is a corresponding conviction that this dialogue can be comprised of words that do not themselves require explanation or justification. Particularly, there is an assumption that when I say “world,” you know to what I refer. There is a reason I pose the question to you and not, say, to a child or a cow or the bathroom mirror.

These assumptions are a kind of sustaining structure for the inquiry. They make the inquiry possible; without it, the inquiry doesn’t happen. Indeed, the assumptions are themselves a nontrivial aspect of the world that sustains the question “is there a world?”

And yet, by and large, these assumptions tend not to be the subject of our inquiry. It is as if in asking the question we elide the possibility of fully answering it.

And yet.

Here we are giving attention – are raising to awareness – the sustaining structure of those a priori assumptions. Right here in this essay we are doing it. Thus, it must be that we can interrogate them. We are doing that right now, aren’t we? It’s just a question of focus, of directing our attention accordingly.

And therein lies the conundrum. I give attention to the underlying certainty that certainty about X is valuable. But this underlying certainty – by virtue of its being an object of my attention – becomes certainty about X’ where X’ = certainty about X. If I give attention to X’ as the new level or layer to be investigated it becomes X” where X” = [[certainty about X’] certainty about X]. If I give attention to X” it becomes X”’ . . .

On and on it goes. I cannot ever reach the ground floor. The foundation – the fundament – is lost to me. Certainty in this formulation really is turtles all the way down.

On the one hand, that is clear and its clarity is frustrating (because of its bottomlessness). But on the other hand, not being able to reach the floor (or foundation or fundament or bottommost turtle) is not an impediment to being itself, nor to the sharing that is so integral to being. Clearly it’s not – here we are, being and sharing!

It is important, I think, to see this. Our ability to talk to each other, bake bread for each other, make love with each other, go on walks together, help our neighbors with chores when they travel and so forth is not contingent on establishing a metaphysical foundation.

A metaphysical foundation may or may not exist. Looking for it is fun and interesting, in its way, but certainty with respect to it is hardly a precondition for living or loving.

In other words, certainty, as such, is not a requirement for the operation of love.

Indeed, the fact that we are already experiencing being and are already drawn to loving as an effective expression of being can sometimes feel like all the knowing we actually need to be happy and fully realized. It is not those who are starving and perennially food-insecure who worry about where the bread that feeds them was made (was the flour organic, were the workers organized and well-paid, et cetera). That analysis enters only when we are sated and unworried about future satiation.

The suggestion then is to realize that our inquiry into certainty – into the longing to be certain or right about this or that aspect of living (e.g., is there a world, or is there a self, or what is the other) – can only arise because the fundamentals (of world, self and other, say) are already in place.

Or, to put it another way, we only become spiritual seekers because we are spiritually found. We know what we’re looking for; that’s why we’re looking for it.

In order to feel a loss or absence or emptiness, we have to have known fullness or wholeness. The one specifies the other. We cannot miss what we do not know exists. If we are on a spiritual path like A Course in Miracles, we are only on it because we know where it’s going and how it goes.

We could compare it to visiting an amusement park. We know what’s going to happen on the roller coaster but that doesn’t mean we don’t still want to ride it. It doesn’t mean we aren’t going to be thrilled and chilled and all of that while riding it.

Or this. Say that we go looking for our eyes. We will never find them. We may see a reflection of them in a mirror. Someone may take a picture of them and so we may see an image of them. But we will never “see” our eyes. And yet the whole premise of this apparently fruitless impossible-to-satisfy search *is our eyes. Looking – not our eyes – is the answer.

In that example, when we stop looking for an object and instead accept a process, then we’re home. The problem lay in how we framed the search. When we reframe it, the whole inquiry dissolves on the spot.

Wanting to be certain arises because we are already certain. Lack and non-lack arise together. But these conditions do not cancel one another out; one is not categorically superior to the other. Rather, they mutually specify one another. They do not contradict but rather affirm one another. Choosing between them – making one “right” and the other “wrong,” say – is an illusion because they not separable, any more than a half mile is separable from a mile.

But this does reflect a shift in our thinking (about our thinking). We have a preference for – we give primacy to – a mode of thinking that insists on X or Y, or X vs. Y and so forth. The suggestion here is that this frame is both unavoidable (and so nothing to worry about) and contingent on other frames (namely, that discerning or distinguishing has value in its own right). The supposed quandary is “solved” by realizing that it doesn’t need to be solved at all. It’s not a zero sum game like Monopoly. It’s more like a bunch of Legos with which we can build anything we like, tear down and build again or build differently. It’s play for play’s sake, not play for the sake of winning by defeating our brother or sister. And we know this because the love that underlies our living – which is the sine qua non of our living – goes on without regard for our particular grasp of the metaphysics. Moms were hugging babies long before Plato showed up and they’re still doing it post-Wittgenstein, post-Darwin and post-Derrida. When A Course in Miracles is forgotten – and it will be, in time – people will still be happy and joyous and free when they devote themselves to one another in love. We already know what to do; pretending we don’t is part of the (non-zero sum) game.

When the quest for certainty – or sources or fundaments or answers or truth or reality – relaxes, then a natural pragmatism and coherence appears, which is that we are already being in love, and that this love is sufficient unto itself. We are all winning; of this I am certain.

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