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The Taboo of Uncertainty (Week 38 of Wisdom)

Thomas Hobbes, author of the notorious Leviathan, had a strange definition for “free will” He presumed that anything, whether animate or inanimate, is considered free if nothing stands in its way. If there are no obstacles, then there is freedom. If a rock is rolling down a hill without anything it in its path, then the rock is considered free.

A bear, in a forest, hunting for food, is considered free if it does not encounter a rival predator or unfavorable weather conditions. There is nothing about the consciousness of the subject that is relevant to the discussion of freedom. A human being, then, according to Hobbes, is nothing more than a complex machine, subject to the same laws of nature as are the rock and the bear, and there is nothing unique about consciousness that requires us to treat it with any special attention. Human freedom, like rock freedom and bear freedom, depends on whether the human subject is being hindered on their path towards their goal. This mechanistic vision of reality, consciously or not, has been adopted by modern, scientific man.

In the prolific Critique of Pure Reason, Kant creates an island that allows people to be isolated from the repercussions of modern science, by arguing that free will, despite the discoveries of modern physics, still has a place, and it is dependent, not on obstacles, but on conscious volition. Hegel would adopt and expand on this idea. In short, one thing that makes man free is his ability to act against his natural instincts, to choose to die for a flag or a piece of cloth or a symbol, in spite of the instinct for self-preservation.

It is not so much what is important about the nature of free will, in an objective sense, which is usually what philosophers have debates about, because whatever free will is, we will never truly know. What is important, is not whether we truly are free or to what extent we are free, but what we believe about our own free will, because that has consequences. A society where no one thinks they are free cannot have the same legal precepts as one that lacks such a belief, for example.

More than three hundred years later, Carl Jung writes Modern Man in Search of a Soul. This was a time when much time has passed since contemporary science had rejected concepts such as the immaterial soul, that has substance, is of divine nature and is immortal, that there is a power in it that builds the body and supports its life, heals its ills, and enables the soul to exist beyond the body, that it has spiritual knowledge which cannot be observed in the physical world.

Jung shows that while it may have been presumptuous for our ancestors to posit the existence of immaterial souls, our modern interpretation of reality is no less presumptuous. And in fact, the concepts that scientists have created – and all men assume they understand are no less strange or bewildering than ancient ideas about spirituality.

“But people who are not above the general level of consciousness have not yet discovered that it is just as presumptuous and fantastic for us to assume that matter produces spirit; that apes give rise to human beings; that from the harmonious interplay of the drives of hunger, love, and power Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason should have arisen; that the brain-cells manufacture thoughts, and that all this could not possibly be other than it is. What or who, indeed, is this all-powerful matter? It is once more man’s picture of a creative god, stripped this time of his anthropomorphic traits and taking the form of a universal concept whose meaning everyone presumes to understand.”

Modern Man In Search of a Soul, Carl Jung

Jung understood that our need to reduce reality to material causes and effects, was at the same time our urge to remove uncertainty and mystery, but we have not succeeded in doing so.

The scientific explanations we have discovered are no less mysterious to the human mind. And it is the same urge, to simplify reality that plagues modern man, because he now wants to make everything smooth, not just his understanding of the world, but even the way he lives his life, and what he chooses to think about, and what he chooses to ignore.

“We wish to make our lives simple, certain and smooth-and for that reason problems are tabu. We choose to have certainties and no doubts-results and no experiments-without even seeing that certainties can arise only through doubt, and results through experiment.”

Modern Man In Search of a Soul, Carl Jung

For Jung, the unknown is not something to iron out, control, or risk manage. The more we make ourselves strangers to the unknown, the less resilient, and the more our mental health suffers. And the way in which mental health suffers from too much predictability, too much rejection of the unknown and the strange, is not apparent to everyone. It is possible for someone to excel in the world but experience a strained inner life.

But the point is not to face each problem, to face each unknown, and resolve everything, but to embark on a battle uphill towards the unexplored.

“The meaning and design of a problem seem not to lie in its solution, but in our working at it incessantly.”

Modern Man In Search of a Soul, Carl Jung

The individual is taught at an early age that the good life, like Hobbesian free will, can only exist if it is unencumbered by obstacles. The less dead ends, detours, and unexpected turns, the better. So he learns to construct a distorted, idealistic vision of the world, he refuses to face his problems, and to explore the unknown, and so he is disillusioned at some later point, when things don’t go according to plan. The modern individual panics he what he has wished for is not delivered to him. He is shocked that the forces of the world do not behave like an obedient servant, and when they do not meet their pre-imagined deadlines, the world is broken and beyond repair.

Jung’s advice is to turn away from the taboo that prevents dangerous and uncertain experiments, adventures into the unknown, and unpredictable journeys into the unconscious. In Jung’s language, there is a rich amount of negation “unknown, unconscious, uncertain”, a clear Eastern influence – in contrast to the affirmations that we find in the language of the logical positivist or the scientific materialist. One wants to bury the shadow, the other wants to befriend it.     

“Whoever protects himself against what is new and strange and thereby regresses to the past, falls into the same neurotic condition as the man who identifies himself with the new and runs away from the past. The only difference is that the one has estranged himself from the past, and the other from the future.”

Modern Man In Search of a Soul, Carl Jung

"Silence is the best expression of scorn" - G.B. Shaw

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