Manufacturing Certainty

Cosmos

Certainty, in order to exist, has to be manufactured. Contrary to what we tend to think, certainty isn’t naturally occurring at all but rather it has to be deliberately produced. This is most easily seen in the case of what we might call ‘psychological certainty’. Psychological certainty is simply another way of talking about opinions, beliefs, theories, ideas and thoughts – it basically means any sort of ‘mental structure’ whatsoever. Out of a vast pool of conflicting data we selectively pull out the evidence that suits our presuppositions, without ever realizing that this is what we are doing. Out of this body of agreeing data comes our certainty, which in terms of Ernst and Christine von Weizsacker’s (1972) Model of Pragmatic Information, corresponds to ‘confirmation’. Conflicting evidence obviously does not produce certainty – it simply produces conflicting answers and if instead of ‘an answer’ there are many alternatives, many conflicting answers, and this state of affairs equals ‘radical uncertainty’ (or ‘indeterminacy’).

 

Total uncertainty corresponds to what the authors call ‘novelty’ in the Model of Pragmatic Information. If I can’t know what the ‘right’ answer is, or rather if I can’t know if I asked a meaningful question in the first place, then I am clearly not any better off in terms of ‘certainty’. Novelty is therefore completely incompatible with the operation of the rational mind. We’re all at sea with novelty and there is no chance of ever spotting land! After all, as we have just said, if I can’t ever know whether the questions that I am asking are meaningful or not, then what’s the point in asking them in the first place?

 

Prigogine and Stengers (1984) speak of ‘an irreducible plurality of perspectives’ and the way in which the rational mind works (the only way it can work, in fact) is to choose one perspective out of this plurality and thoroughly ignore all the rest. Without seeing that this is what we are doing, we are making sure that the only type of information we are going to receive is information that confirms the basis we have started off with. We can’t ever know if our questions (i.e. our categories) are meaningful or not (i.e. relevant or not) but what we can do is ignore the fact that there are any other perspectives that we might have taken, and then this sleight-of-hand immediately means that our questions have got to be meaningful. The psychological consequence of this operation is in other words a virtually unshakable sense of the rightness of our way of looking at things.

 

To say that this type of unconscious self-validation is ‘an easy trap to fall into’ is to completely understate the matter – we can’t take a single step (thinking-wise) without falling into this particular hole. We fall headlong into a tautological hole with every thought we have! Furthermore, the ‘trap’ inherent in all rational thinking is very convenient indeed as far as our unacknowledged need for manufactured certainty goes – because of this neat little trick manufactured certainty is available in unlimited quantities to anyone who wants it, with zero expenditure of effort. We can very thoroughly fool ourselves any time we want, in other words, with the very greatest of ease!

 

This is a bizarre kind of a thing – the trick of making all information that doesn’t agree (or fit in) with our initial choice in how to see the universe invisible to us is why everything we ‘know’ (i.e. everything we believe we know) seems self-evidently true. When I only receive information that I have secretly intended to be true in the first place, then the information that I am receiving isn’t actually information at all because it isn’t ‘new’. It’s manufactured information – it’s information that I have previously arranged to be there!

 

Instead of being quintessentially unpredictable – which is what information ought to be for it to be truly called information – it is tautological since it was already decided right from the start, and for this reason what we are talking about is not information, but the reciprocal (or ‘reverse’) of information, which is entropy. Thus, certainty (the certainty which we rely on so completely for the functioning of our everyday minds) is a product of entropy. In a nutshell – the edifice of positive knowledge which means so very much to us (and of which we are so inordinately proud) is nothing more than ‘disguised redundancy’.

 

The need for manufactured certainty is, as we have said, necessarily an unacknowledged one. Both the need for certainty (in whatever form we can get it) and the manufacturing process which we use to produce it have to be kept secret for fairly obvious reasons. If I can see that I am manufacturing my own certainty then this throws grave doubt on the authenticity (and therefore the reliability) of this so-called certainty. If I know that I need to create the certainties that my life is based on myself then I can’t help knowing that there weren’t any in the first place; after all, if it was there to begin with (all by itself) then where would be the need for my deliberate intervention?

 

The existence of a visibly manufactured certainty, therefore, immediately draws our attention to the existence of the bottomless depth uncertainty underlying it, which is precisely what we do not want to do! When we see ourselves distracting ourselves from something that we don’t want to see, the visibility of the distraction mechanism straightway makes us aware of what we are trying to distract ourselves from, and so the exercise falls flat on its face. Thus, the existence of manufactured uncertainty points to the existence of radical uncertainty because when I become aware of the deliberate (or intentional) nature of certainty I simultaneously become aware of the groundless (or bottomless) uncertainty that necessarily underlies it. The reason we have to manufacture certainty is because there isn’t going to be any of this commodity otherwise, and if there isn’t any certainty anywhere to be had then there must be ‘radical uncertainty’ instead. We can’t escape seeing this.

 
But if radical uncertainty exists – and is the primary (or rather only) reality – then where does this leave us?

 

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