The need for certainty

I had a conversation with my one truly religious Aunt a few months back as we went for a walk in the East-end of Toronto for a mid-morning coffee. In our caffeine fueled ramblings I was trying to persuade her that humans love religion for its ability to provide certainty.

A man (a notable atheist I believe) once said something along the lines of, “religions will continue to exist so long as man is afraid of death”. I believe the uncertainty of what comes after death is what makes a promise of an after-life so alluring to so many people, and has allowed religions to flourish for thousands of years. The comfort that can be conferred to someone who is grieving a lost family member, or on their death bed, that they will see all of their loved ones again together in a wonderful place. In other words, “the church” was able to provide certainty surrounding humans’ preeminent fear. (and I believe it can be said most fear comes from uncertainty).

She did not agree with my hypothesis. I believe because it was providing a rather negative overall outlook on an institution which can admittedly provide much more than simply a perspective on death. Of course neither of us was entirely right or wrong.

Emerging “Scientism”

The context of this conversation was around the general public’s new undying and unquestioning allegiance to government edicts. It was the deferral to the supposed “experts”, and the need for absolute obedience that so alarmed me as well as my aunt.

“Follow the science” would be snarled at you, condescendingly, as you began to ask a simple question. The Science was set, and questioning it belied your ignorance or maybe immorality.

Regardless if the appropriate policies were followed, the inability to ask simple questions was frightening to the basic tenets of science, as well as citizenship in a free society.

Others before me have speculated on an emerging Scientism. As religiosity continues to decline in the Western world, so this institution of faith is replaced by (big S) Science as the new altar. I speculate on this as the need for certainty for humans to come from somewhere.

This has been the framework for totalitarian regimes of the past, in which religions are rooted out, and the leaders rule with absolute authority. Although I do not argue for a return to monotheism as the guiding force of society, I am weary of the direction our new pursuit of certainty will lead us.

Lack of science in Scientism

Science is a mechanism for gaining knowledge about the universe. True science comes from a place of absolute humility. “The more you know the more you know you don’t know”, wrote Aristotle. To be certain in science is not to be a true scientist, or to be a fool.

In todays hyper-specialized societies, with ever-increasing credentialism, critical thinking seems to be intentionally becoming extinct. Critical thinking defined as the ability to use rationality and thinking multi-dimensionally about problems.

With this hyper-specialization many of our elite or most educated seem to simultaneously take on intellectual hubris while shutting off their critical thinking. They at once see themselves as highly smart (because they are highly “educated”) but unable to analyze or engage topics from other disciplines. As those disciplines are the purview of their respective hyper specialists.

In turn many of the hyper specialized academics or “scientists” in those disciplines take on this hubris and feel no one equally as specialized as them can have anything important to say on their given field of purview. Thus, we have entirely atomized disciplines, with no ability or desire to converge and provide broad-swathe solutions or critical thinking.

You can be certain, experts assure!

We see this in the rise of the deferral to “the experts” to govern all public debate and guide public policy. In the last couple of years we have seen this deferral most powerfully granted to those in the health sciences domain. Where we were asked to unquestioningly accept that the public health “experts” had the most pertinent specialization to guide all of our public policy. Even if this public policy affected several or all other areas of domain, including politics, economics, sociology, human rights etc.

The idea that an ordinary citizen, without the years of credentials in health sciences or medicine, could begin to understand or ask questions about the policy was dismissed off-hand. How could you understand the science?

As if the science contained some sort of guiding eternal light, only to be understood by those specialized in it of course, that should dictate how our entire societies and lives should be organized. Allow the prophets to interpret the signs of the great Science, in essence. “Your feeble brain is specialized in another discipline, but rest assured you can be certain our science is correct”.

This mode of thinking was accepted readily by the highly credentialed elites who govern most policy in the West. Amidst an abundance of fear, it was comforting to be certain that we were following the right course of action, no matter the costs. (Of course this was easier to swallow for this elite as they mostly constitute the “Laptop class” and their bottom-lines were hardly effected. We also saw one of the largest transfers of wealth towards this class during this period. So what if I have to work from the cottage for a bit?)

In our new world of Scientism, the certainty of the church is replaced by the certainty of the experts and government planners. Pray everyday and don’t sin and you can be certain of an after-life. Wear your mask, shower in hand-sanitizer, and don’t socialize, and you can be certain you will be safe and be morally superior.

“We are all children before God”, I’m sure the priests might have said. It seems to me “we are all children, before science” is the new mantra taught by our central planners. Of course children, in both instances, not in the sense of unrelenting curiosity, but blind obedience to authority.

You are incapable of understanding the science, don’t even bother. You must defer to your scientific authorities, and your experts (those that agree with the most profitable solution, of course) your certainty.

Such an approach seems to be leading us very rapidly in the direction of totalitarianism. It is a very dangerous approach as well when one understands how big S Science is conducted in modern societies, and how this science is funded, and by whom.

The desire to be certain in our assumptions, and the power this gives us in arguing with others, seems to me to be the most alluring aspect of the new Scientism today. This allows many to turn off any of those pesky questions brought about by critical thinking. As a result it also allows walloping amounts of cognitive dissonance.

One should always be weary of those who claim to have the answers to everything—whether if be from the church or the walls of government institutions.

True enlightenment is the embracing of uncertainty.

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