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The Spike or Victoria College Review 1947

The Cult of Uncertainty?

The Cult of Uncertainty?

This Article is written in the belief that despite the danger of adding to the confusion and rubbish that has already been written about the so-called 'Quest for Certainty', there is a need for an approach to the problem of this quest which is not fundamentally religious, overawed by scientific knowledge, or in fact based on strong attachments to dogmas of any kind.

The article is divided into two parts. In the first, the peculiar nature of this need for certainty, its accentuations and their consequences. in our culture are outlined. In the second, some positive proposals are put forth, in which it is suggested that a more conscious attention to certain psychological needs of individual and social development would have the effect of depriving this 'Quest' of its (emotional) urgency. In consequence there could arise a veritable 'Cult of Uncertainty'. An outlook both consistent with the limited nature of scientific knowledge and providing for this emotional need to feel at home in the Universe.

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(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.

(2) Cult of Uncertainty.

A little while back we asked whether or not it was possible to meet this need for certainty and yet reconcile the individual to the fact of uncertainty about the ultimate nature of life, human destiny and so on. The answer to be given here is in the affirmative. It depends on the belief that philosophers over the last 2,000 years have formulated a wrong conception of the nature of our knowledge. They have believed that man's knowledge came primarily through his inquiring intellect, whereas since Darwin the biological, anthropological and psychological sciences have made clear that man's knowledge of his world is basically emotional, social, aesthetic, erotic, religious, practical, etc. The way then to overcome man's uncertainty is not to proceed as Descartes, but rather to adjust man more satisfactorily in the emotional and other mentioned ways of knowing. In other words, it is necessary to meet man's non-intellectual needs in non-intellectual terms. Man may well achieve sentient security in the Universe which he will never achieve in rational terms page 11 alone. Philosophy does a disservice to man as it continues in the failure to realize this. Given this basic emotional security and sensitive adjustment, the limited place of intellectual knowledge (science and generalizations consistent with it) may be calmly accepted.

This may be seen more clearly if we realize that no other sphere of experience would alone be expected to tell all about life. For example. Could we achieve security and certainty purely on the basis of aesthetic feelings? Surely not? Then why should we expect it from the intellect alone? In actual fact the limitations of intellectual knowledge are in accord with the limitations of every other modality of experience taken by itself. Certainty and knowledge increase in strength as man develops harmoniously and fully in all aspects of his many-sided nature. Distortions arise as we have seen due to the improper adjustment between types of experience—a key problem which can only be barely indicated here. For example, we have valid religious experiences and valid intellectual (in this case psychological) knowledge. In this instance our intellectual interpretation of the religious experience is required to be in line with the degree of scientific knowledge we have on the matter. On the other hand the reality and vividness (naturalistic) of these religious experiences which add feelings of depth and worthwhileness to life, must not be neglected, by any intellectual interpretation we give these experiences.

It should be emphasized that a view such as this does not belittle the function of intelligence. The main emphasis of this article is on the necessity of development in all areas of experience to answer this quest for certainty—and the intellectual is after all one such area of experience. Any restrictions put upon it are believed to be in accord with its own nature.

It is the religious, as well as aesthetic and erotic areas of experience which offer the less apparent challenge to development. Apart from the traditional over estimation of the place of intellectual development the more obvious challenge is clearly that of providing an economic and social order which ensures individual security and social well being, and thereby greater opportunity for these other types of development. Given this—and that is the immediate task—the aesthetic and other areas may reveal untold possibilities of meaningfulness. The bases of such meaning however begin in the present attempt to adapt oneself for further development—socially by increasing sensitivity to the needs of others, aesthetically by acquiring the necessary skills and appreciations for such development, etc.

But these are only suggestions, for a few modes of experience. They provide a clue to the individual who feels that radical sincerity prevents him going beyond scientific fact. The clue is to a metaphysic of development which is not however something mystical and other-worldly as metaphysics tend to be. Its basis is the ordinary common garden knowledge of psychology. The enrichment and meaning that may result in ordinary life via the adequate development of all potentialities.


The imperious need of our times for certainty has been demonstrated in historical perspective. It has been suggested that a way to overcome this need is a way generally unrecognized by philosophy. A way that concentrates rather on the development of the cultural, of aesthetic and religious sensitiveness, of social and human feeling. Here is the answer to the need for certainty—but it is given in a different mode from that in which it was sought. There would appear room for endless possibilities, hence optimism. Alternatively in sober mood there is at least a more truthful adjustment to life and the compensation of all round and mature development.

Many people have already recognized these things in a semi-conscious way. The raising of the idea to consciousness, and the immediate pursuit of the worth-while experiences must themselves prove this doctrine false or true.