The Soul Podcast - Tools For a Joyful Life

The Arrogance of Certainty

August 10, 2023 Stacey Wheeler Season 2 Episode 16
The Soul Podcast - Tools For a Joyful Life
The Arrogance of Certainty
The Soul Podcast - Tools For A Joyful Life
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Show Notes Transcript

In this episode I look at our need to make sense of our place in the world: our pre-set reflex to find meaning.  And I explore the benefits we gain when we avoid becoming rigid in our beliefs. 



Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (Buy HERE)

Some ideas borrowed from the The Arrogance of Certainty (Or, How to Wake Up the Soul) by Julie Tallard Johnson  


"Challenging the meaning of life is the truest expression of the state of being human." 
 -Viktor Frankl

“Life is never made unbearable by circumstances, but only by lack of meaning and purpose.” -Victor Frankl

“I tell you, we are here on Earth to fart around, and don't let anybody tell you different.” -Kurt Vonnegut

“There is not one big cosmic meaning for all; there is only the meaning we each give to our life, an individual meaning, an individual plot, like an individual novel, a book for each person.” ― Anaïs Nin

“The secret to life is meaningless unless you discover it yourself.” ― W. Somerset Maugham

"I've looked at life from both sides now. From win and lose and still somehow. 
It's life's illusions I recall. I really don't know life at all."  —Joni Mitchell, Both Sides Now

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Hermann Hesse said, 

“The true profession of a man is to find his way to himself.”

Welcome to The Soul Podcast, I’m Stacey Wheeler.

Recently I talked with a friend who is writing a book on human consciousness. It’s probably not what you’re thinking. The book is written from a scientific perspective, explaining a material perspective of this thing I call “the soul.” I’ve read some of a draft of the (more than five hundred) pages. I’m far from done but what I’ve seen is thought provoking. He offers well-researched arguments. I often find myself nodding in agreement with the ideas he puts forward. It’s interesting and well-researched. 

I asked him what his motivation was to write the book. And he told me he wanted to help people understand. My friend has a strong belief that we are non-spiritual beings. He rejects any notion of an afterlife. Though he still enjoys life, he doesn’t see anything particularly sacred about this human journey. My friend is an intelligent man. He’s honest and good friend. And we’re quite different in our thinking on this topic.  

And here, you might wonder what a spiritual guy like me is doing with a friend who sees the world from such a different perspective…

I’ve known my friend for decades. Once, we weren’t so different in our thinking. I spent a good part of my adult life strongly believing there was nothing after we die. Since then, we’ve both changed; evolving slowly as we look for answers to the questions of life and consciousness. Though his evolution has moved towards a different edge of the spectrum of thinking, from mine. 

Through chance, I ended up here… making a podcast that explores the idea that we’re more than just this body. And honestly - if you told me 10 years ago, I’d be doing this show -or even feeling the way I do about our human journey… I would have laughed. I might have even laid money against your argument. And (as you see) I would have lost that bet. You see, I would have never believed I’d become this man. I’ve immersed myself in a world I used to regard as silly and superstitious. 

My friend would not have lost money on a bet that he’d become more solidified in his beliefs (if not more nuanced in his arguments). If I’m on the left side of the ruler, he’s on the right side… and moving further right… towards certainty. Yet we are still friends.

Consider all the people in your life who think differently from you. Politics, spiritual life, how to raise children, what’s in a healthy diet… we all have opinions and perspectives that shift as we move froward. No matter where you are on the spectrum of thinking. And have you noticed… wherever we are on the spectrum of thought, we’re all looking for answers. It’s a human pre-set. It’s that thing that separates us from the animal kingdom (as far as we can tell). When it comes to the meaning of life, we’re all philosophers.

The holocaust survivor, Psychologist and Author, Viktor Frankl said,

"Challenging the meaning of life is the truest expression of the state of being human."

He also said,

“Life is never made unbearable by circumstances, but only by lack of meaning and purpose.”

Meaning matters!

I’ll pause here to make an admission. I love quotes about the meaning of life. You can read them for hours and find answers ranging from profound to flippant…. 

The writer Kurt Vonnegut  said, “…we are here on Earth to fart around, and don't let anybody tell you different.”

Anaïs Nin  had a different though. She said, “There is not one big cosmic meaning for all; there is only the meaning we each give to our life, an individual meaning, an individual plot, like an individual novel, a book for each person.”

She felt the meaning to life was to search for or create our meaning.

In Douglas Adams’ book The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, an enormous supercomputer named Deep Thought pondered the "Answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything.” It calculated by over a period of 7.5 million years. And the answer was “42.” Unfortunately, no one knew what the question actually is. You see, the sentence "the Answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything” was just too vague (for those who asked the question) to understand the answer. But it was clear the computer understood the question. So, in order to understand the Ultimate Question, a special computer the size of a small planet was built from organic components. This computer would eventually give the explanation to the meaning of the question. And it would take a very long time. They named the giant, organic supercomputer "Earth.” 

There’s something in us that makes us ponder the meaning of it all. We think deeply about this journey and try to find some concrete way of thinking, to use to live our lives by. When we find a space that feels solid, we usually settle there. And we don’t usually move from that comfortable space unless we find something that feels more solid and true. There’s comfort in stability.

There’s discomfort in instability. Think of the least stable people you can think of; the least comfortable with life… and you will find a person lacking something solid to believe in. No matter what meaning you settle on -having meaning in your life matters. 

Having a belief system give us a sense of stability. 

Back to my scientific minded friend. He too is seeking answers. And though I find his arguments sometimes convincing; I don’t allow myself to be swayed. And I have to ask myself why. Why would I not allow a convincing argument to make me change my mind? I’ve changed my position before, as new information came in… and it’s made me happier in my life. 

Well, there are a few reasons why I hold firm in my spiritual thinking. The primary one is that I’ve experienced moments in my life I cannot explain beyond saying they left me with a knowing that I am more than this body. A knowing so strong that logic and reason can’t penetrate the power of those moments. 

And the other reason is that I like that life is a mystery. If I accepted a materialist argument for reality, I’d risk losing my sense of wonder. And wonder is what makes my life so delicious. 

Accepting that I am just a body and nothing more, would be to throw away the belief that any of this existence matters. As an atheist I never felt the sense of wonder I feel today. As an atheist I didn’t have these levels of hope, or the same connection to joy. So, if I risk being wrong, it’s because I’m choosing the things that gives me a greater sense of meaning. 

And meaning matters! 

Let me admit something… I don’t know anything for certain. I only know what I feel.

But I’m not certain I’m right. There is a sort of arrogance in certainty. I don’t ever want to be certain. It would mean I’m not longer evolving.

Being certain makes us blind by our own arrogance. We miss out on the diversity of experience that’s available to us. It takes bravery to step away from what we cling. And something amazing happens when a person drops their certainty. When they do, they wake to new opportunities of thought, new opportunities of growth. Letting go is uncomfortable but it invites to a much wider scope of possibility and experience in this life. It allows us to get un-stuck. 

So, I make a point to not become certain in my beliefs. I stay open to conversations with materials thinkers and read books I might disagree with at first glance. In doing so, I might achieve some personal expansion. 

On the other end of the ruler are those who have faith in science. It’s a deep belief that science is truth. And you know, science is great for measuring much of the material world. But science may not be absolute. No one has proven that. In fact, the more we travel in our scientific explorations, the more things we find that surprise us; things that aren’t easily explained. (This is especially true in quantum physics).  Things just don’t behave as they were expected to as we get to that level of exploration. 

So, we create complex theories to explain these surprises, but we have no proof of why they are the way they are. 

To treat science as absolute is to have blind faith that a butterfly flying east will land on a specific branch of a specific tree, on a planet we haven’t yet discovered. When scientific thinkers become rigid in their beliefs, they close off to the nuances of life. In searching for answers, they often lose meaning, which (they forget) is what they were looking for all along. Every one of us has a unique journey in this life. We all experience our life in our own way. So, it’s no wonder many of us find different definitions for meaning. 

The poet Mark Doty wrote this about our human journey,

“Consciousness can't be taken for granted when there are, plainly, varieties of awareness. The result is an intoxicating uncertainty. And that is a relief, is it not, to acknowledge that we do not after all know what a self is?.” 

Doty calls uncertainty, “A corrective to human arrogance, to the numbing certainty that puts a soul to sleep.”  I agree. There’s an arrogance to certainty, which stifles true exploration of meaning in our life. 


He said there is “an intoxicating uncertainty” to this journey. And that makes this journey more delicious, doesn’t it? We are all on a great exploration in this life; aiming to make sense of it. The journey is the gift. Wonder is what fuels the exploration. 

Somerset Maugham  said, “The secret to life is meaningless unless you discover it yourself.”

…and I agree. A vital part of our journey in these bodies is to find meaning. If the thousands of quotes about the meaning of life show us anything, it’s that there are many theories on meaning in this life. And no one who has offered a theory can say for certain they are right. 

Currently, no one with a theory on consciousness can do the same either. There are no proven scientific answers, or ethereal answers. That’s okay. I prefer the mystery. If everything were known, what would be the point of life? Simply existing? 

Scientists, you’re doing good work. Don’t ever become so rigid that you lose the sense of wonder. Remember, you too are seeking the meaning to life. 

Let’s all be open to explore different (and potentially uncomfortable) ideas. Try them on for size… and be open to where new ideas take you. Knowledge, wisdom (and ultimately) belief… come our full scope of experience. So, be open to the greatest scope of possible experience.  

In the song Both Sides Now, Joni Mitchell wrote,

"I've looked at life from both sides now - From win and lose and still somehow

It's life's illusions I recall - I really don't know life at all."

None of us do. Maybe that’s why it’s so wonderful.