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Tuesday, 11 February 2014

The Impulse to Certainty

René Descartes, wearing his favorite shirt
Let’s say I have, in the past, done some things which one might describe as “not the best things.” What is more curious is when I do such things (things that are destructive somehow) with consciousness awareness that (1) I am doing the thing, and (2) it is a destructive thing which I should not be doing. In combining the two, I believe the implicit hope is that the self-awareness, contemporaneous with the act, will actually perform not an aggravating but a mitigating role: in being self-aware I am hedging my bets, so to speak, against feeling guilty after the fact (after performing the destructive act). For, once the act is done, I am able to think back and say, “Indeed, I knew what I was doing even then.” Thus I have planted in the memory of the event a get-out-of-jail-free card. More precisely: the acknowledgment of consciousness (redundant complicity) becomes a way of actually (oddly) buffering the responsibility for the crime; it paradoxically provides the comfort or assurance that one cannot be reprimanded because one ALREADY KNOWS (and even during or even before the act has reprimanded oneself). 

Here is a connected but different, and more subtle, phenomenon, a phenomenon which exhibits a startling thing about our (at least my) impulse to certainty. It goes: “I did this self-destructive thing knowingly, in full consciousness of its self-destructiveness; I did it simply because I wanted to do something self-destructive while conscious of its self-destructiveness, and I did it in full consciousness so that I would be free of the guilt.” In this phenomenon, the individual has tied their motivations in a loop. Their mind and its predicament becomes self-referential, tautological, and therefore fully in their control. There is nothing outside it, which they might refer to as an explanation, and therefore there is no risk of an eternal deferral of a complete explanation (in reality, of course, “motivation” is a deep mystery that goes all the way down one’s personal history and indeed also all the way down metaphysical reality, but this is precisely the reality such an agent is seeking to avoid). It has the character of a therapeutic repetition of trauma, but in this case the impulse to contain and control one’s own psychology spawns from a traumatic encounter with the enigma – ungraspability – of the self. What we have here is the self-quarantine of the psyche within a self-constructed self-referentiality. I experience this occasionally, and I believe this is the deeper meaning of this psychological phenomenon.

To interpret this phenomenon theologically: The impulse to create this loop is the impulse for dis-ambiguation that exists in the individual incapable of faith – i.e. the despairing individual. Kierkegaard writes of the most disturbing way in which such individuals make a mad grasp at certainty: self-damnation.

“‘Some good went down with me.’ … In that remark the last hope of salvation expired. In that remark he gave himself up. Was there still concealed in this thought a hope of salvation? Hidden in the soul, was there still this thought a possible link with salvation? When a remark is pronounced in confidence to another man (oh, terrible misuse of confidence, even if the desperate one only misused it against himself!), when this word is heard, then he sinks forever… This clarity about himself and about his own destruction is even more horrible. It is horrible to see a man seek comfort by hurling himself into the whirlpool of despair” (Purity of Heart 64-65).

Thomas Merton makes the same observation about self-damnation: “Despair… is reached when a man deliberately turns his back on all help from anyone else in order to taste the rotten luxury of knowing himself to be lost” (New Seeds 183).

In Crime and Punishment we find the same principle at work: Raskalnikov is so desperate for closure that he is tempted to turn himself in just to escape of the torment of uncertainty. The investigator knows this and provokes him. Is this not startling, and a little terrifying? We have such a strong impulse to certitude that we are willing even to destroy ourselves, just to attain it!

In sum: certainty drive > aversion to “damnation.” 

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