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More Musings of a Madman

The Soothing Sanity of Certainty

Trivial ignorance is like a puzzle; deep ignorance is a fathomless mystery. Puzzles can be difficult and frustrating, but they have answers. We know that. That is our certain knowledge. The puzzles and their corresponding certainties in our lives are like jig-saw puzzles and the tops of the boxes they come in. The picture on the box is our certainty; we can count on it no matter how frustrating and difficult the puzzle. It could be difficult indeed. Perhaps some of the pieces have been lost or destroyed. Maybe we will never finish the puzzle. Clearly trivial ignorance is trivial only by comparison to the deep sort. But we know that the puzzle has an answer. Certain knowledge. Without that picture we would not know what those pieces of cardboard were all about; we would not know how they might fit together or even if they did fit together. We would not know if they had any meaning or purpose at all. A fathomless mystery. That would be intolerable. We sweep up the meaningless and offensive bits and throw them in the trash.

But what if those incomprehensible pieces of stuff were the bits of experience that make up our lives? On that question the evidence is conclusive and incontrovertible: we somehow find a boxtop with a satisfactory picture on it and declare it to be the box the puzzle came in. And if everyone in a given community agrees on a particular boxtop there is harmony, peace and deep satisfaction in that society: the sublime comfort of certain knowledge.

Our society is not so blessed. It is not that we lack certain knowledge about the fundamental nature of the world we live in; it is that we are split into advocates for different boxtops: different certain knowledges. Certain knowledge is by its nature intolerant of competitors. So we have a problem. At the extremes we have those who swear by the inerrancy of the Bible in one camp and those who proclaim the inerrancy of the laws of physics in the other.

Sort of.

This radical opposition is actually a vast oversimplification. Unfortunately it is an oversimplification that rather accurately reflects the tone of the public debate on the subject. There are plenty of would-be peacemakers who never seem to get anywhere (as in the Middle East and other trouble spots). The peacemakers fail because they, like the combatants they strive to reconcile, are blinded by certain knowledge — by their sanity. The way out is to abandon certainty and accept ignorance, which is to say that what is needed is the counsel of a madman. Therefore I humbly step forward to offer my services, fully aware that folks have to be pretty desperate to listen to a lunatic.

What the lunatic can do for you is not to sweep away all of your certain knowledge — and make you join him in madness — but to point out one small but important area of certainty that could profitably be replaced by ignorance. It will not be easy — accepting your ignorance never is — but if you have the courage to make the leap you might find that a step into the abyss may, in this case at least, lead to a deeper and fuller understanding.

Darwinism is the field of battle where the conflict between the contending puzzle boxtops is hottest and fiercest. Both sides sense that this issue — which concerns the origin and nature of life — is crucial to maintaining their respective views of the universe. Both sides are intensely passionate and thus inclined to extremes and irrationality. Neither side feels the need to consider the possibility of any form of truth in the position of the other and neither sees any reason to doubt its own possession of the absolute truth.

They need a madman to point out to them that they are both wrong. They claim certainty when ignorance would serve them better. So to help them out, I offer the explication of a lunatic. At first it will probably not seem entirely mad to you; much of it may even strike you as even extremely sensible and reasonable. You may be tempted to quit reading, feeling defrauded of the lunacy you were promised.

Please be patient. If you do not before you are finished encounter something that strikes you as crazy then you may be a mad as I am (I promise not to tell). But when you do encounter apparent lunacy, please try to remember that that is the test; that is where you are being asked to make the fearful leap, the leap of faith — faith that you will be rewarded with greater understanding. Have faith in doubt. Accept your ignorance. The point, you see, is not simply to accept what I tell you, but to allow what I say to challenge your knowledge. . . . Your certain knowledge.

[Next page: A Madman Mediates the Darwinian Controversy]