The Quest for Certainty

Introduction

Even in this skeptical age, I think it would be a safe bet to claim that many people still value a search for the truth. Obviously throughout the centuries debates have raged over the question: What is truth? How do we know when we have found the truth of something? How can be sure that we, in fact, possess the truth? People like to play the self-stultifying word game, everything is relative, yet they despise lies, betrayal, and deceit. As well, we most likely have all struggled with the question surrounding truth and its possession. Well, believe it or not, I’m NOT going to continue with the philosophical exploration of the question, what is truth?. I’m not going to try to resolve the dialectic of absolutism versus relativity. As someone who believes in the notion of truth, I do, however, want to explore what some call the quest for certainty. And particularly how such a quest relates to the notion of change is something that has always interested me. Change is something that is scary for many people. The quest for certainty most definitely has an upside, yet when it seeks to look in the face of existence that is constant change so as to negate it, that is when it carries a dangerous downside.

The Desire to Know

The upside in the quest for certainty is most readily witnessed when it translates into the desire for knowledge, understanding, and wisdom. The desire to know, to be sure about certain things has spawned creativity in human activity and interaction across various fields of endeavor, including philosophy, the sciences, and the arts. Whether it’s the practicality in solving certain problems or simply the deep satisfaction of exploring the unknown, these various fields of endeavor are peoples’ stance on how they have come to understand the human condition, as well as the universe in which human beings find themselves. I believe one should hope that whatever conditions exist, such quests never cease to exist. Such desire for knowledge, understanding, and wisdom is the basis for how civilizations come about. Hopefully, there will always be those who possess that sense of awe and wonder regarding ourselves and the universe in which we exist that lead them to never rest, to never cease, in the pursuit of knowledge. Is this a Faustian¬†heart? Then so be it. We can have it without making a deal with Mephistopheles.

Life as Change

If there’s one thing that seems to be certain about us, it’s that we change across time. Change is an experience that can be painful and scary. Think of the phrase, growing pangs. We grow. We develop physically, mentally, and spiritually. Although genetics has much to say about some of our development, we also make choices as to how we grow in all these areas. Certainty and change can appear at first glance to be diametrically opposed. Can we find certainty in the face of change? I guess one way to think about this paradox is to reflect on the fact that I am the same person who was born in 1947, yet I have changed over the many years that have followed that birth. In one sense, I’m that person, yet I’m not the same person at all. I am reminded of Thomas Wolfe’s You Can’t Go Home Again.

While the upside of the quest for certainty is its translation into the desire to know and to understand, the downside of the quest is when it is used in the hope for a false sense of security, particularly securing one against the fear of change. There are simply a lot of things about living where we have to admit that we lack certainty. I watched my dad go through much uncertainty when the plant that manufactured oil well equipment for which he worked shut down in the 1970’s. He was out of work for about a year. Those supposedly secure jobs don’t last forever like we hope. Marriages don’t last for a lifetime like we hope. We watch loved ones grow old and eventually attend their funerals. We are reminded that we too grow old and the cemetery is our destination as well. When the quest for certainty is a quest for some foundation that wards off the unknowns in living, then we are asking too much for our finite knowledge. People refuse to take risks because they want guarantees. Change is the great unknown. Sometimes an entire country of people wake up one morning, and their currency is worthless; their economy and means for carving out a living for themselves are gone. Change is an unknown frontier, and it is ominous and frightening at times. A quest for certainty in our day-to-day living that alters that reality is not a quest we will complete. It is a quest fraught with depression and anxiety, fear of the unknown, the hope for absolute guarantees.

Yet we can embrace change as an exciting possibility. We can engage that continuum we are on between who we are now and the potential of who we can become. Think about it this way. Life is change. If you stop changing, you’re not alive. Change does not have to mean that we can’t discover truths. It for sure doesn’t mean that we cannot gain in knowledge, understanding, and wisdom. Indeed, I would venture, expanding on the notion of the one thing that is certain is change, that, in our finite existence, what we don’t know in infinitely greater than what we do know. But we can continue to seek knowledge. But in seeking knowledge, understanding, and wisdom, perhaps what we should not seek is a guarantee that we can be certain of all that life will throw at us, that we can stay the uncertainties of living.

Conclusion

What am I not saying? For sure, I’m not saying that we cannot discover truths, and ways of living that can enhance or existence. In response to the above examples I gave, we can garner wisdom in how to plan for possibly unplanned unemployment. For sure, we can pursue economic knowledge that protects our way of living. We can embrace what it means to mature, grow older, and what that means for our later years of existence. But if one’s quest for certainty is to totally conquer the unknown and the anxiety it engenders, then all I can say is good luck. A life of knowledge, understanding, and wisdom can indeed help us embrace and live with the reality of what we do know, as well as what we don’t know.

John V. Jones, Jr., PhD, LPC-S/January 14, 2016

GENERAL ESSAY