One of the fundamental questions in philosophy is “What do I know?”. Or, more specifically, since one must be specific in philosophic debate, “What do I know or can I know, with certainty?”
To me there’s something missing from this question: an “if anything”.
What is it with being certain? Why are we so obsessed with pinning things down and ‘being sure’ about things: all things, any things?
Isn’t that being unrealistic?
I don’t know about you, but my experience is that the more sure I am about something and the more my rational mind finds strong justifications for a given stance, the more likely it is that I’m kidding myself! For example, many years ago when my partner at the time and I were looking to emigrate from the south of England to Spain we’d seen a property in the Cadiz region. It had really good green credential (approaching off-grid capability) and, logically, seemed ideal for our planned retreat business. But our UK property wasn’t selling. Something wasn’t right. We eventually ended up moving to Portugal into a quinta that was right. But clinging to the Spanish place that ticked the right boxes logically cost us a lost deposit: i.e. a lot of money!
And what would logic itself say about such ideas (since any philosophical argument must be logically sound)?
Logic is concerned with true or false. It’s whole essence is dualistic, grounded in the notion of certainty . . . one way or another. If our lives are telling us that this paradigm doesn’t reflect the world around us, then isn’t it time to change that paradigm?
Don’t get me wrong, logic has it’s place: in accountancy (whilst leaving room for creative accounting), in digital electronics (whilst recognising a use for fuzzy logic), in planning the refurbishment of a bathroom, for example.
Even science, or at least quantum science, is now telling us that nothing is certain, that what happens at the sub-atomic levels is full of ifs and buts. If the fundamental building blocks of our physical world have probabilities at their heart, isn’t it logical that such a grounding in uncertainty applies at the human scale too?
And isn’t that our first-hand experience? We set out for a walk on a clear, sunny day . . . and come back drenched from an unexpected storm; we’re just beginning to trust a new friend/neighbour/colleague and they go and do something that floors us. One day we’re told to eat 5 portion of fruit and veg a day, the next it’s 7.
Surely the only thing we can be certain of in life is uncertainty? We can’t even say that death is for certain since we can argue, and many profess to have evidence to the effect, that our soul lives on after death.
I would suggest that this obsession with being certain (and I don’t think I’m being too harsh in calling it an obsession) stems from the very root of Western philosophy: the notion that everything can be described and understood by the human intellect.
The underlying Eastern philosophy of Taoism takes a very different perspective:
Banish learning, discard knowledge:
People will gain a hundredfold
Tao Te Ching # 19 (Stephen Addiss & Stanley Watson translation)
With the help of a Taoist approach I’ve realised that, if there is anything we can know with some certainty, it only concerns the present moment. If I can see, hear and feel rained upon at any given time and in any given place then, at that precise time and place I can, reasonably know that it’s raining. But beyond that? I cannot say.
Likewise with inner knowing, with hunches. I might feel a strong affinity for a given place at the time I first see it on a Trip Advisor review or in an agent’s brochure, or on arrival. But from that I cannot know whether or not I would enjoy staying there for a day or a week.
The problem with the rational mind and its logical reasoning is that, without any encouragement, it will extrapolate beyond the here and now knowing. Not content with a sense of rightness in the present, our minds have become so conditioned to being sure about everything: including that most fickle of things, the future. Not a wise thing to do!
I’m reminded of saying I came across some years ago:
Welcome uncertainty into your life: and allow the angels to perform miracles!