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.

8 thoughts on “Uncertainty, despair, and the freedom of not-knowing

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

    “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.”

    It sounds like your saying that upon perceiving reality we
    automatically start to distort it because we process it?
    You’re not saying that it doesn’t exist. You’re saying that
    we each perceive it in a different way. But equating that
    with subjectivity and uncertainty.

    I don’t view this as “manufacturing.” Yes we are processing
    since our minds need to be active to do so. Everything is
    processed. Perhaps I may view reality from a color blind
    state or hear a bird chirp in a higher chord, but then color
    or sound aren’t the defining characteristics of reality.

    I see the reality of an oncoming train or imminent cliff and
    move out of the way. If a tree falls in the forest it does make
    a sound when we’re not there, because of the nature of gravity
    and oscillating sound waves. Today we could leave a sound
    camera there.

    Berkeley notwithstanding, we’d best realize there’s a reality
    out there, outside of our senses, which I don’t find repugnant.
    This doesn’t offend the senses. It underscores them.

    I may taste my food differently than someone else. But we
    know the difference between fish, meat, etc. So taste isn’t
    a defining characteristic.

    As for mental illness such as schizophrenia or bi-polar disorder,
    we have to have the knowledge of reality as it is to contrast with
    a disorder that can distort it.

    I might make a case for too much entrenched uncertainty and
    doubt leading to despair. Oh. Oh.

    Well, T.K. I’ve stepped into it, haven’t I. And definitely more to
    be said on the subject. You do get the neurons firing.

    Have some questions to ask you about this blog in the future.

    By the way, thanks for the Opinionated Man link. Very, very
    interesting man.

      1. Ha! That made me smile. I should probably qualify that by saying it’s more of a psychological certainty than an epistemic one. But, yes, I do feel quite confident in seems to be a keen awareness of ignorance on my part.

    1. Glad you like that, Audrey. I really do swear by this one. I may sound like a broken record, but I will go to my grave remind this world that we can instantly double our freedom simply by subjecting our fears to the same kind of scrutiny that we use when analyzing our hopes. Cheers 🙂

  2. “In a world of uncertainty, a man does not need faith; he needs an accurate understanding of what it actually means to be uncertain.” Well said. But I also agree with Alana’s comments about the necessity of realizing reality exists. What we really need is some mediation between the old-school idealism of Berkeley and the naive realism that is, it seems, your main target. Of the many middle ways available these days I like Donald Davidson’s theory of triangulation http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Donald_Davidson_(philosopher) .

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

      Thank you, Rachel 🙂

      But I also agree with Alana’s comments about the necessity of realizing reality exists. What we really need is some mediation between the old-school idealism of Berkeley and the naive realism that is, it seems, your main target.

      This is a fascinating philosophical problem to me. We definitely know that something exists. At the very least, awareness or perception exists. But I have not yet been convinced of the mind-independent existence of an external world. I do agree with you that Berkeley’s idealism is “old-school”, but I would make a distinction between berkeleyan idealism, which was the solution he proposed to account for our belief in objectivity, and the sceptical concerns that makes such a solution necessary. Like Hume’s problem of induction, Berkeley raised problems too great for his own philosophy to solve. I find his skepticism pretty difficult to resolve and I disagree with his efforts to do so through idealism. You are right to target naive-realism as my real object of criticism here. While I do go back and forth with my belief in an external world, my main point here was to establish all knowledge of the external world as being representational in nature.

      Of the many middle ways available these days I like Donald Davidson’s theory of triangulation http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Donald_Davidson_(philosopher) .

      I never heard of him. Clearly, my mind has been asleep in Plato’s cave. I love this man’s mind. It will take me some time to digest his material, so I will need some time before I can offer any meaningful thoughts about triangulation. Feel free to summarize (or dialogue with me about) any of his arguments here if you’d like. I have been checking out some of his books on amazon. Any you would suggests?

  3. Oh, Davidson is brilliant. At least I think so: he’s one of the core thinkers of my own working theory. I’m a rhetorician, so I’m very interested in communication and perception of the external world (I just started a blog about rhetoric and perception at http://www.theunpackagedeye.com). The reason idealism is difficult for me is that we clearly do communicate about things in the external world–we do have shared perceptions. Though of course, a naive realism doesn’t account for why we often don’t have the same perceptions and miss each other when we communicate, which is why so many of the British realists had such a preoccupation with clear communication. Hobbes spends pages and pages of his Leviathan defining words. Locke spends a lot of time defining words too and wishing other people would do the same (and Swift satirizes him for it), and he’s frustrated with rhetoric because he thinks it obscures clear one-to-one meanings. Locke famously called rhetoric a “perfect cheat” (famous in my field anyway!). But I digress.
    Davidson solves the problem by saying that we need a concept of truth for communication, and at the same time, communication generates truth. They arise mutually. Briefly, triangulation is the idea that we need three things to both communicate and know the world (and there is only one world): an object and two interlocutors to talk about it. As the interlocutors talk, they refine their idea of the object and the truth about it.
    I’d recommend _Truth, Language, and History_: http://www.amazon.com/Language-History-Philosophical-Essays-ebook/dp/B001DWJRNU/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1378052200&sr=8-1&keywords=truth+language+and+history
    It’s a collection of essays edited by his widow, Marcia Cavell. The introduction, by Cavell, is a great place to start–it gives an overview of the essays and lets you know basically what is in each of them, so you can decide what’s interesting. I’d recommend “Truth Rehabilitated” and “Locating Literary Language”–this last is where he talks about triangulation.

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