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Tuesday, December 29, 2015

The quest for absolute certainty

People crave moral certainty, which Western culture can no longer provide.

M any years ago there was a popular computer game called Descent that had one scene where you flew your spaceship ... or whatever it was ... into a gigantic chasm. It was pitch black (see picture below, which I stole off the Internet). To cross the chasm you had to fly off the cliff into the blackness, not knowing what was there, only that for sure somebody was going to shoot missiles at you.

Black rectangle
The famous darkness scene from Descent. Computer games were so much more exciting in those days!

Unfortunately, that's as close to military experience as I ever got, for a variety of uninteresting reasons, but it's not a bad metaphor for what's facing us today. Life is full of uncertainty. You don't know what's going on, the road ahead looks black, and people are always trying to kill you.

In my profession—science—uncertainty is our currency. Success depends on our ability to tolerate it. Psychologists call this resistance to closure. To do science properly, you need this trait in abundance. Even after the facts are all in, you need to consider alternative explanations and run more experiments to try to shoot down your own theory. It is nerve-racking and not everyone is cut out for it.

But the payoff, if it works, is (reasonably) absolute confidence in the truth. Even in today's world, that's something that people crave. Kids today are no different from their ancestors in their quest for a belief system that tells them, in no uncertain terms, what is right and wrong and what is true and false, and how to distinguish them.

We lost some of that in the 1960s and 70s as America underwent massive social changes in our transition from a largely rural to an urbanized society. The baby boom, culture shock, and politics converged in the 60s with assassinations, riots, and bombings by left-wing terrorist groups like the Weather Underground and the SDS. Europe got terrorists too, like the Red Army Faction, which murdered 34 people, including business executives and police. Wikipedia gets much of the history of that period wrong; read David Horowitz for an account that captures much of the misery of that awful time.

Our culture has never recovered. The institutions that tried to adapt, like our educational institutions, were taken over by activist professors and an administrator class, betraying the ideals on which they were founded. Those that did not adapt, like Christianity, lost followers.

Those institutions did not emerge from the vacuum like Athena springing out fully grown and armed to the teeth from Zeus's forehead (thus curing what was said to have been an awful headache). They evolved over centuries to serve critical social functions: on the one hand to teach people to think rationally and tolerate uncertainty, and on the other to provide moral clarity. People need both, and our intellectual diet is deficient in both today.

We laugh at the jihadists whose idea of military training is to kick each other in the balls. But their predatory culture is threat to us just the same, not because they are strong, but because we have become weak and uncertain. Part of Western strength is our willingness to challenge everything. Our military, scientific, industrial, and technological infrastructure is still strong, but we have come to question our right to defend our own values, because as an increasingly fragmented group we no longer have many shared values.

For many people in the Middle East, Islam provides the moral clarity and feelings of superiority they crave to stabilize themselves against chaos and powerlessness. The essential ingredient in Islam is purity, achieved by fire and, much as some people deny it, by killing. That orangey fire motif that pervades the Quran gives it a sense of being a pure light that burns away all doubt. A correlate of the desire for purity is the elimination of all competing value systems by whatever means necessary.

By contrast, our religions have been reduced to their common denominator of holding hands and being really nice. Even our fundamentalists focus on social issues like abortion and sexuality. As important as these may be, they do not fill the theological chasm that the soul feels in its yearning for the absolute and for meaning.

Absolutism also satisfies the social need to lose one's identity in something larger than oneself. But in our culture, iconized by the 'selfie', there are few ways to do it. Science is out of reach for the majority and Christianity has not evolved to meet the innate need for absolute moral values.

In the absence of such values, the young are creating their own by fashioning a stifling, puritanical world where notarized affidavits are needed to authorize kissing, free speech is banned, and the rule of law is subordinate to political fads. As others have noted, their fad of tearing down statues, flags, and other symbols they find “offensive” is the same destructive quest for purity and hegemony exhibited by the Taliban when they blow up the Bamiyan Buddha statues and ISIS when they blow up the Arch of Triumph in Palmyra in Syria.

Leftists, of course, are behind some of it, but even they are slowly beginning to realize that the victim culture, while providing a vehicle to enhanced government control, creates injustice and generates resentment—the very things they originally opposed.

Victimology has nothing to do with being an actual victim. It is a strategy specifically designed to fit into the West's cultural weakness like a key in a lock. This is why the Islamists, our university students, and BLM activists all use exactly the same tactic.

Young people need something that clarifies right and wrong for them. But our religious and educational institutions have failed to provide them with a sense of the absolute and the means to understand it. If our culture does not provide these minimum daily intellectual requirements, people will seek them in somebody else's culture.

dec. 29, 2015; updated dec 30, 2015

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