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The Spike or Victoria College Review 1947

(1) The Need for Certainty

page 9

(1) The Need for Certainty.

The past few hundred years have witnessed the growing necessity on the part of Western Man to have very definite beliefs and certainty about the nature of the world, the meaning of life, and so on. It maybe that this necessity has always existed and has merely become more articulate with the spread of education. On the other hand it seems likely that this contemporary urgency has some definite relation to the anxiety provoked by the unstable nature of our economic structure and its outstanding feature, war. Fromm sees the need as a by-product of the growing individual awareness that followed the dissolution of mediaeval group life and the decrease of clerical omnipotence. In any case, whatever the source, the question arises as to the manner in which the 'basic anxiety'—to use Horney's phrase—or its intellectual representation, the need for certainty in cosmic matters, can be met. Is it absolutely necessary that mankind should find an outlet in beliefs the alleged completeness of which goes beyond the boundaries of science? Are closed intellectual systems of thought the only methods of meeting this desire to know for certain one's place in the Universe?

On the whole the answers made by our century to these questions have been in the affirmative. Consider for example the following: Theologies, of course, by their very nature, have always gone beyond fact, seeking to cover with spurious intellectual consistency, areas of human experience which of their own nature defy such complete intellectual systematization in terms of primitive deific symbols. Even more culpable are those scientists who, although expected to abide by the limited nature of their own discoveries, have overlapped into mysticism and anthropomorphism. Within this category fall Jeans and Eddington and even the distinguished Whitehead who, despite the magnificence of much of his scientific and philosophic work, is often, one fears, doing little more than disguising a highly sophisticated animism beneath a mass of abtruse verbiage and pseudo mathematical consistency. Wittgenstein and brother positivists who divide life into inconsistent two and adhere to some species theology or mysticism in one branch of should also be included in this rogues' gallery. In fairness it must be recognized that there are many scientists who correlate a scientific attitude of tolerance and suspended judgment with the recognized limitations of their own knowledge. Deserving a place with the others above, however, are their many narrower minded colleagues, who contributing small atoms, cog-like in some great machine of research have been led by the definiteness of their small amount of information to dogmatize in other spheres of knowledge where they are but amateurs. This is true of many 'specialists', the non-scientific as well as the scientific.

Among the people the story of those 'absolutes' Fascism, Communism, Democracy and Socialism, is only too well known. In all cases there is a need for some absolutely certain intellectual frame of reference which will supply the key to the Universe. At least this is the general trend.

Several centuries ago with science at an immature level of development there would have been ample excuse for continuing to believe in a God, as did Bacon for example. In the 18th and 19th centuries with the acceleration of technological and scientific progress and the accompanied linear conceptions of human history—consider Comte, Hegel, Marx, Spencer—a dogmatic belief that in time science would reveal all, must also be regarded as having been justified. But this is the 20th century. And although science has indeed shown us the only valid means of gaining genuine intellectual (cognitive) knowledge of our Universe and thus automatically excluded all other supposed intellectual sources—for example, mysticism, revelation—it has not given any more grounds for scientific dogmatism than it has for theological dogmatism. Yet despite this men continue to be dogmatists. They continue to couple the need for emotional security and its manifestation, the desire for certainty, with beliefs that are insupportable on a scientific basis.

Two questions arise. The first, whether or not it is possible to meet this need for certainty and yet reconcile the individual to the fact of scientific uncertainty about many of life's most important aspects? The second, the manner in which men have come to be page 10 lieve that certainty can only be achieved in intellectual terms. The second question will be dealt with immediately: the first in a latter section of this article.

The danger here is, of course, over-simplification but a few suggestions are possible.

The answer to our problem must be found ultimately in the view of experience that men have had down the ages. Rightly or wrongly it is assumed that philosophers have given form and expression to notions which are relevant to the needs of their age. Notions which, expressed by them, have gradually become, in a general way, the common coinage of every man.

Our first discovery is the fact that almost from the time of its intitiation philosophy has held a 'mentalistic view' of experience. That is the belief that 'real' knowledge enters primarily through man's cognitive perceptions, not in the first place via his aesthetic, moral, erotic, religious and other experiences as a basis for these perceptions. This outlook has much to do with the original cultural conditions of the Greek City State and the separation of philosophers from the ordinary life of the artisan. It was natural at such a time that these philosophers should regard knowledge of the Universe as something to be gained primarily by the speculative intellect. If we jump 2,000 years to Descartes, the founder of Modern Philosophy, we find the same outlook. Man was still to know his Universe by the intellect alone. Here, however, in the post-Reformation and Renaissance world the new element of individual awareness and correlative insecurity entered in. This new element led philosophy to consider different problems than previously. Thus Descartes' first question is nor 'What is real?' but 'What can I be certain of?' and he decided the only thing he could be certain of was his own speculative existence—his intellect. The question was different but his faith remained the same as that of Plato. The new need for certainty was thus linked with the old method of knowing one's place in the universe.

From that day to this men have continued to believe that the solution of their need for certainty lay in the knowledge provided by their speculative intellect. Philosophical Empiricists and German Rationalists did little more than entrench this belief in the intellect as the primary source of knowledge, and, by axiom, the only way for men to know and feel at home in their Universe. The order of that Universe was to be provided by the speculations of man whether they were the mighty structures of a Kant or one of the smaller theologies of the thousand upon thousand of Christian sects that have sprung to life in the last few hundred years.

Meanwhile although man has been trying to meet his need for security in these intellectual terms, the scientific bases for such solutions have been receding before him. In inverse proportion the insecurity of the modern world has been on the increase. The last phase is a world continually at war in some place or other from 1896 till the present. A world giving evidence of ever increasing irrational fixations to supposedly rational political, religious, national and other systems.

The question rises whether we must be led by this certainty mania, this security drive of our culture-pattern into dogmatism of these various kinds.