The promise of certainty

Certainty: the mythical holy grail

What we want most from meaning is guarantees.

Life is nebulous: chaotic, risky, and confusing. Efforts that should work fail. The good suffer and wrong-doers prosper. The world does not make sense. Each of us is torn by uncertainties, conflicting desires, and impossible decisions.

We want assurance that this is all just an illusion. We want to hear that the real world is—somehow—orderly and consistently meaningful. We want answers—sometimes desperately.

Eternalism promises to deliver those answers, and to guarantee them. It cannot; and so it lies.

Eternalism pretends to offer certainty. It pretends that behind apparent chaos, there is a perfect pattern that explains everything. It pretends to end all doubt, and the suffering, confusion, and anxiety that comes with it.

Eternalism can be exhilarating! It cannot deliver accurate answers, but it can deliver a feeling of certainty—temporarily. You adopt the eternalist stance by blinding yourself to nebulosity; by pretending not to see contradictions.

It’s a huge relief, an occasion of joy, to set aside all doubts. Adopting eternalism frees all the energy that was tied up by internal divisions; power struggles within the self.1 Certainty about life-purpose and ethics ends confusion about what to do and how to live; full of confidence, you can make rapid progress in life.

Eternalism is now typically packaged in systems. Sometimes raw eternalism can provide certainty without specifics—as in my casino experience. Usually, though, we need a web of justifications, of canned answers, to not-see nebulosity. That’s what ideologies—religions, political theories, secular cults—provide. These justifications frequently fail, when nebulosity contradicts them.

When the fantasy of absolute answers is threatened by evidence, eternalism responds with various psychological ploys. These include, for instance, suppressing dissenting thoughts, physically removing yourself from contradictory situations, kitschy sentimentality, blind faith, mystification, and arming yourself against perception.

Eternalism is at its most glorious in a conversion experience, during the honeymoon after you have first committed to a system. That can last for a few weeks to a few years; for as long as you can silence your internal voices of doubt. Eventually it becomes impossible to not-see the evidence against the system. You may remain committed, but it can only be a wavering commitment. The honeymoon turns into a warm memory, cherished on Sunday mornings but increasingly distant from everyday experience.

Alternatively, seeking renewed certainty, you may search for a new system. Some people become serial conversion junkies. But as with opiate addiction, it becomes harder and harder to recreate the first high. And the periods of doubt between commitments, like heroin withdrawal, turn increasingly into nihilistic anxiety and despair. This pattern was particularly common in the California Bay Area in the late 20th century. It afflicted many of my friends, and that was my initial motivation to write this book. Since I started writing, more than a decade ago, new patterns have emerged—but they are no less dysfunctional.

In the 21st century West, there are hundreds of competing eternalist systems. Although they all have the same fundamental stance toward meaning, and the same emotional dynamics, they disagree sharply about specifics. This adds to the chaos and confusion that eternalism tries to dispel. Further, there is widespread understanding that none of the systems can provide certainty. The search for the One True System no longer seems credible.

In fact, the kinds of answers we want cannot be had, anywhere. Accepting this fact may lead to nihilism, the denial of all meaning. That is a bad outcome—but not a necessary one.

The complete stance recognizes that certainty is impossible, but that meaning is real. If we set aside the futile hope for absolute answers, we can find patterns of meaning that are usually good enough to navigate our lives. No ultimate, perfectly reliable foundation for morality or purpose is possible—but we do regularly solve problems of ethics and direction; and therefore we can!

  1. 1.Kramer and Alstad’s The Guru Papers provides a penetrating analysis of the joy of eternalist self-blinding, particularly in the case of American pop religion, but also in eternalist political systems such as Communism.