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Uncertainty, despair, and the freedom of not-knowing

xye“Maybe each human being lives in a unique world, a private world different from those inhabited and experienced by all other humans. . . If reality differs from person to person, can we speak of reality singular, or shouldn’t we really be talking about plural realities? And if there are plural realities, are some more true (more real) than others? What about the world of a schizophrenic? Maybe it’s as real as our world. Maybe we cannot say that we are in touch with reality and he is not, but should instead say, His reality is so different from ours that he can’t explain his to us, and we can’t explain ours to him.” -Philip K. Dick

We do not experience reality as it is in and of itself.

We process the data of experience in accordance with various physiological and psychological filters.

In other words, experience is a manufactured phenomenon.

Through a combination of consciously and unconsciously directed programs, “reality” (if there even is such a thing) is edited, revised, and re-presented by the very act of our making contact with it.

In other words, there is simply no way for us to verify the existence of, or evaluate the nature of, reality without filtering it beforehand.

In A Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge, George Berkeley wrote:

“It is indeed an opinion strangely prevailing amongst men, that houses, mountains, rivers, and in a word all sensible objects have an existence natural or real, distinct from their being perceived by the understanding. But with how great an assurance and acquiescence soever this principle may be entertained in the world; yet whoever shall find in his heart to call it in question, may, if I mistake not, perceive it to involve a manifest contradiction. For what are the forementioned objects but the things we perceive by sense, and what do we perceive besides our own ideas or sensations; and is it not plainly repugnant that any one of these or any combination of them should exist unperceived?’ 

Imagine trying to figure out what a particular item of food tastes like, but before you could bite into it you had to first season it with pepper, garlic, lemon, and butter. You’d still have a valid experience of food-tasting, but the experience would be skewed by the seasoning you applied to it before eating.

Ditto for perception. All of our observations are uniquely skewed by the peculiar seasoning of each person’s individuality.

However hard we may try, it remains impossible for us to step outside of our vantage point in order to see things “as they really are.”

Even when we study others, as an effort to transcend our specific perspective, we must filter their observations and judgments through our own lenses.

If I take a survey of what a thousand different people think, I’ll definitely  have a broader perspective. But, even then, my act of listening to the opinions of others, is skewed by the same elements that skew my observations of nature.

We can’t even learn from other people in an objective manner because our ever-present perceptual filters are “watering down” everything they show us. After all our lessons from mentors, teachers, friends, and fellow students, we are still left with nothing more than a highly processed, uniquely personalized, non-objective version of reality.

Now, here is the most amazing observation (to me, at least) of all:

When these facts of perception are pointed out, many people tend to respond as if despair is the only option.

People immediately get afraid that the ideas their sense of security was based on are now in jeopardy. This is not an unreasonable fear. After all, if we can’t have objective knowledge of reality, then we having nothing stable to ground our hopes in.

May I present another possibility?

If we can’t have objective knowledge of reality, then it is also the case that we have nothing stable to ground our fears in as well.

All of the imagined negative consequences of living in a world of  uncertainty are subject to the same doubts as any other view of reality.

In a world of uncertainty, a man does not need faith; he needs an accurate understanding of what it actually means to be uncertain.

Our need for salvation can only arise out of the perception that we are damned. Our need for an escape can only arise out of the belief that we are somehow imprisoned. Our need to transcend the world can only arise from the assumption that the space we currently occupy is not already transcendent. Our need for more power can only arise out of faith in the notion that there are really obstacles “out there” to be overcome.

What happens to our need for certainty when we begin to question the myths we’ve inherited about all the dragons and demons who will supposedly destroy us if we don’t have the answers?

The more I unlearn, the more I begin to suspect the following:

We do not need certainty. We need liberation from the unsubstantiated assumption that uncertainty is some kind of threat against which we need to arm ourselves.

If one is truly doubtful and uncertain, he must also be doubtful of his doom and uncertain of despair.

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