Uncertainty — that is appropriate for matters of this world. Only regarding the next are we vouchsafed certainty. I believe certainty regarding that which we can see and touch, it is seldom justified, if ever. Down the ages, from our remote past, what certainties survive? And yet we hurry to fashion new ones. Wanting their comfort. Certainty…[chuckles] is the easy path. Just as you said.
— Billy Knapp, “The Gal Who Got Rattled,” The Ballad of Buster Scruggs
The second-century Buddhist philosopher Nagarjuna formulated a famous tetralemma, which the modern Zen Buddhist Steve Hagen summarized as: either (1) objects are themselves, or (2) they are not themselves, or (3) they are both themselves and not themselves, or (4) they are neither themselves nor are they not themselves. Hagen used a cup as an example, demonstrating that even such a simple, everyday object cannot be proved to exist by these logical standards. And yet, the cup still remains.
If that seems too pointy-headed and abstract for you, try keeping a written record of every time you have to change your mind on a subject you had felt certain about, or every time you learn that a seemingly-solid memory turns out to be mistaken. It won’t take long before you start to feel a bit skittish, wondering how much you really know anything at all. And yet, we manage to competently function for the most part.
Patrick Kurp suggests that a mingling of humility and defiance is the proper attitude to take toward our omnipresent ignorance. Rather than lament our inability to possess absolute certainty, we should use our ignorance productively, keep ourselves hungry to learn more. We can never cease to be in intellectual motion. Desiring certainty is to wish to become a statue, impervious and immobile. Knowledge is always provisional. And yet, we can remain flexible and ready.