“Certainty” and Ideology

I give unimaginable joys on earth: certainty, not faith, while in life, upon death; peace unutterable, rest, ecstasy; nor do I demand aught in sacrifice.
Liber Al Vel Legis 1:58

Our society presents us with many competing gestalts concerning Reality. No matter which partisan you have the (mis)fortune to encounter, you can be sure that every single one will tell you that they have Figured Things Out and what they are telling you is How Things Really Are. Some even use Obnoxious And Non Sequitur Capitalization to elucidate those Principles which you Really Aught To Accept so that you can be In Touch With Reality just like them.

For example, I went to see Michael Moore’s new film, Capitalism, A Love Story this weekend. It’s fairly typical of Moore’s work. A little more focused on substantive claims over the stunts that have marked past efforts, but not much. It’s still very effective, and I imagine that the majority of people leave either feeling like marching on Wall Street or writing their Congress-entity to “do something about this nut.” Full disclosure: I tend toward the former.

On the other hand, it helps to remind oneself, when viewing incendiary material, that all truth is partial. ”Dead Peasant” policies, for instance, should simply be illegal, and the United States should really join the rest of the world industrial democracies and provide health care for its citizens. There are a number of such salient points made in the film, but they are arranged in such a fashion that one is guided toward a very Manichean view in which radical direct action appears to be the only way to get things done.

The problem with such a view is that it strips complexity and chaos out of the consideration of events and puts them either the Good Box or the Evil Box. Now that we’ve done this, the Manichean-type viewpoint declares that we are Certain of the Truth and the we are On the Right Side (in the Good Box, or at least one of its couriers).

Which brings me to the lovely quote from the Book of the Law. The problem with a perspective that treats such a statement as referring to mundane occurrences and concerns is that neither “certainty” and “faith” are not in any sense mutually exclusive in terms of human psychology. Every public religion, cult, political ideology, or philosophy makes truth claims that depend on other, foundational propositions which are taken to be axiomatic. An “axiom” however, is just another word for “the point where we got lazy and stopped dissecting what we were looking at.” It has to be taken on faith, or the rest of the world view dissolves as well.

Ultimately, our limited egos can not be said to be certain of anything. This is the source of almost every philosophical paradox one cares to consider. At some point, the amount of data we have to work with and our ability to process reaches its capacity and we have to simply say “that’s good enough for right now.” Accepting this ambiguity is not nihilism as some would claim, but is actually considered an important aspect of emotional maturity.

If we attribute divine origin to Liber Al (and I do) we must also assume that said divinity wished us well. Otherwise, why communicate at all? If a being came down and said “You all suck, I hate you and you should die,” we’d probably ask for a second opinion. We can also assume indifference, in which case we’re thrown back on our own resources to determine what we think their message means.

“Certainty,” in the mundane sense, looks a lot like intellectual sloth. It tends to mean that a person is, in a sense, dead save for the execution of a program that keeps looping over and over again. Going on the assumption that any divinity worth dealing with wants what is best for us, we must conclude that such brain death, being suboptimal, is not what they have in mind when they tell us that we are to have “certainty” in this life.

The book must be talking about something else. Something, say, divine maybe. Transcendent even. The sorts of things you’d expect a Holy Book to talk about, rather than political perspectives or mundane philosophies of “individualism.” (Funny thing about individualists: they always seem to have a fairly standard view of what an “individual” should act like.)

Compound entities, such as political movements and philosophies, are rooted in the quicksand of events dependent on other events. We cannot be “certain” of anything about them. We can, however, develop something resembling a sense of being at home with ourselves, and being engaged in a productive and creative way with the world around us. This seems much more valuable to me than assimilating a canned view of the world and treating something like Liber AL as though it were the instruction manual for a toaster oven.

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