The Dangers of Certainty

dogma | ˈdôɡmə |  noun: a principle or set of principles laid down by an authority as incontrovertibly true: the rejection of political dogma | the Christian dogma of the Trinity.

The name that can be named is not the eternal Name. The way that can be shown is not the eternal Way. —the first two sentences of the Tao Te Ching

     As a rule, I avoid hanging out with Burmese Buddhist monks (and also with wild-eyed western fundamentalist ones, even though I pretty much was one myself in my younger days). Almost all Burmese monks have an essentially medieval, faith-based, scriptural fundamentalist attitude towards Buddhism that I cannot really accept for myself, and so it’s generally best to steer clear of them whenever convenient as a way to avoid ideological friction. From the traditional Burmese point of view, to the extent that one deviates from the established dogma, to that same extent one is just plain wrong. Some religious philosophers have considered divine revelation to be an absolutely reliable source of knowledge or truth; and Buddhism has its own version of this: If the Buddha, a fully enlightened being, said it, then it has to be true—and of course the scriptures reliably convey what he said, because his early followers who compiled the texts were enlightened adepts who would do nothing wrong.

     Devout Burmese Buddhists are often charitable to us foreign barbarians, and assume that we’re just ignorant of the pristine Right View of Lord Buddha’s teachings. We just don’t know any better, poor dears, and we may be treated accordingly. Otherwise, of course, our deviations from established dogma, or our standoffish skepticism towards it, would render us malevolent heretics with Pernicious Wrong View. Some of the Burmese upper social classes assume as a matter of course that all foreigners (generally including the Thais and Sinhalese) are too simple-minded, muddle-headed, or ignorant ever really to understand Buddhist philosophy correctly, as it was handed down in its pristine purity since the time of the Blessed One himself.

     This is all symptomatic of a relative incapacity for independent thought in East Asians, which I philosophized about in a recent post. In Burma, phenomenally brilliant Buddhist scholar-monks dedicate their brilliance to mastering an unquestioned dogma. The same was true for Christians in the west in medieval times. Only a few hundred years ago, even the most brilliant western scholars and scientists firmly believed that all the suffering in the world was caused by a man made of soil and a woman made of a bone being tricked by a snake into eating a certain kind of fruit. This original sin then necessitated the Creator of the Universe to assume the form of a Hebrew carpenter in the early Roman Empire to serve as a sacrificial atonement…but I suppose you know the story.

     The thing is, no matter how brilliant a dogmatist is, he’s only as right as his dogma is. No matter how phenomenally intelligent he may be, if he bases all his intellect on false premises, then his work, his conclusions, are bound to be faulty and largely false.

     The same is true now in the west, of course, although it may be somewhat less obvious. There are still plenty of dogmatists, including otherwise very intelligent ones, and they’re not all Christians, or even particularly religious. Now one of the main dogmatic cults is called Progressivism: a dogmatic system with some very tenuous, almost reluctant links with empirical reality. It is based largely on feminized opinion and emotionality, and hence its followers tend to be reluctant, maybe even psychologically unable, to engage in serious debate or exchange of views. Nevertheless there is the same certainty, the same emotional clinging to beliefs, the same mastery of dogmatic cant, the same state of opinion disguised as fact, the same salad-wise tossing together of truth and empirical falsehood, or just unproven articles of faith, the same misdirection if not outright waste of intelligence—in this case devoted not so much to salvation as to the righteous subversion of western civilization and what it stands for.

     Ideological dogmatism is bad enough; but the trouble runs deeper than that, all the way down to the very roots of our humanity. The dilemma is this: We have to believe something in order to function in this world, yet, as philosophers have warned for hundreds of years, even thousands, we cannot be entirely sure of any empirical matter of fact. Intellectually, skepticism—in the sense of suspending judgement, of agnosticism, of admitting “I don’t really know”—is the only really unimpeachable position to maintain.

     Spinoza and Hume, among others, explained that anything that extends partly outside the range of our own sensorium, the boundaries of our own mind, is bound to be uncertain to that extent; and Kant went further and did his best to demonstrate that all we can really know is the symbols conjured up by our own mind. Anything as it truly exists is totally beyond the grasp of our thinking, feeling, perceiving mind. Consequently anything we believe, aside from maybe a purely abstract concept completely self-contained in our head, is unprovable and uncertain.

     No matter how sure we are that anthropogenic climate change is or is not real, or that the earth is or is not flat, or that the Holocaust did or did not happen, or that Whitey’s Patriarchy is or is not responsible for all of society’s problems, still there are now scientific “experts” asserting that they have proof that we’re all living in a simulation—we may just be NPCs in some god’s or advanced space alien’s video game. Then there’s Bertrand Russell’s irrefutable claim that, as far as we can tell, some deity with a strange sense of humor may have created this entire universe half an hour ago, and planted into our minds false memories of events that never happened. How could one prove that that isn’t true? Some Hindus claim that this world is part of a cosmic dream as Lord Vishnu lies asleep on a big lotus blossom. Really, for all we know some deity is dreaming us right now, and at any moment his alarm clock may go off, poofing us out of existence. He’ll press snooze, but it will already be too late for us. Maybe later at work he’ll be sitting there telling the deity in the next cubicle about the weird dream he had, but he won’t be able to remember it very well. Who knows. Practically nothing is absolutely certain, including the most obvious “facts.”

     Even so, as I already mentioned, we have to believe something; we have to work with hypotheses or theories or opinions in order to function, even if the whole world is just an illusion or whatever. But it is best to bear in mind that they are only beliefs, not absolute facts or gospel truth, or anything nearly so certain, no matter how obvious they may seem. Better to acknowledge that one is going with a working hypothesis, and be willing to abandon that hypothesis if a better one comes along.

     One unfortunate complication, though, is that it’s the wild-eyed fanatics immune even to sensible doubts that are most strongly motivated to get things done, even seemingly impossible things. Lukewarm skeptics lack the single-minded drive to accomplish what is vitally important, either in religion, in politics, in love, in much of anything really. That can be a problem.

     In Buddhism there is the idea of two faculties or powers, saddhā and paññā, “faith” and “intellect” (or maybe paññā could be translated as “cleverness” in this context), that should be in balance if one is to live wisely. According to the books, a person with too much faith is able to believe anything, no matter how ridiculous, and thereby be led astray. On the other hand, a person who is too skeptical or clever may reject even the most useful hypotheses, rendering him like a sick person whose sickness is caused by the medicine he takes. You can’t tell him anything, and he also is likely to fail because of it. So it’s good to have balance, and to accept what appears to be true, but hold it in an open hand and not a tightly clenched fist. But then again, this is all just hypothetical also. Just something to consider.



  1. It's only natural that tradition contains a religion and then the higher level stuff. Tradition is not synonymous with religion, which is what the masses participate in to orientate themselves upwards.

    We can't go about denying the religions unless we deny the masses altogether which would be absurd. There is no anguishing conflict there, but organic hierarchy, i.e. to each according to his nature, and that's why kids play outside and why wizards lock up in their towers.

    "Only a few hundred years ago, even the most brilliant western scholars and scientists firmly believed that all the suffering in the world was caused by a man made of soil and a woman made of a bone being tricked by a snake into eating a certain kind of fruit."

    Well, that's a bit of an exaggeration, as modern man did not invent symbolism, almost the opposite: modern man no longer understands symbolism and therefore draws a dark picture of the past which is really nothing but a superstitious belief in progress and their own supremacy.

    And not only did the ancients know symbolism, they also knew antropomorphism and why it's suited for children, women and the masses (the story of most religions, especially Christianity).

    "The thing is, no matter how brilliant a dogmatist is, he’s only as right as his dogma is."

    Not at all, that's just forcing all of life under epistemological constraints, which are not even relevant in many cases. Works and conclusions even on purely fantastic planes have their symbolic value, and before, all life was seen as a symbol of the divine order. Lack of understanding and lack of valid premises are therefore found predominantly on this side of the history.

    "We have to believe something in order to function in this world"

    That's looking at everything through the philosophical lense, which is only one lense and there are others. If you insist that "everyone believes", you're right, but that's not very interesting. Reminds me of the existential dilemma of Sartre as a prisoner without walls... It's more telling of his personal situation than some universal truth. "Freedom", "truth", "mortality", "value", etc, they could all be just commonplace things, but philosophy insists to make life-or-death principles out of them and repress everything under them, again telling of the general decline and constitution of the philosophers themselves in their self-torment.

  2. There's danger in certainty and in uncertainty. I like Marcus Aurelius' take that whether there is a God or not, and even if there is not God then there could still be conceived to be a God in that the universe then could be God, but whether there is a God or not he would pursue moral living because if there is a God or gods they must reward those who live morally, and if there are no gods, then there is no regret because moral living makes you happier anyway. Which is true, it leads to less drama. But the immoral person will say that if there is no God you miss out by being moral; because obviously getting genital warts and aids and waking up in weird places drunk makes them happy.

    1. Well said, I agree completely. I believe Venerable Nyanamoli Thero used similar argument for the attitude on life after death:

      Nietzsche's "slave morality" could be interpreted as such "missing out by being moral", although it's not the only possible interpretation. One could also conceive slave-master morality dichotomy as on another level. Thus "master morality" would in fact also be "moral" from inferior point of view, yet it doesn't come about from that framework but from something higher. For example: a slave fearing the whip vs. an aristocrat seeing immorality as demeaning to oneself.

      What comes to gods, I believe it's an onion-type dilemma at first but there's an actual core in the end. There's a lot to learn from theologies and when you peel the "definitely wrong answers" you will arrive at the core. Guénon et al pointed many of those "false" layers out: antropomorphism, misunderstanding of symbolism, misunderstanding of ritualism, moralism, profanity, etc etc.

    2. I found very relevant quote from Evola's interview that explains so much regarding various relative abd speculative and dogmatic positions:

      “There is no such thing as a reality 'beyond' other reality but rather different means of experiencing one unique thing. The material domain is a projection of the immaterial one. Whenever a man changes his state of being he'll eventually perceive reality in different forms. It is therefore like the radio, one can change the tuner to different positions, and other channels shall be perceived. There is no such thing as relative world and absolute world, but rather relative eyes and absolute eyes. In regard to the issue of what 'God' is, it is something that doesn't deserve any consideration, since in metaphysical terms 'God' is linked exclusively to religious conscience, not to metaphysical consciousness.” Julius Evola Interview 1971 (58:46)

      The bottom line: religion is not tradition, and if you are practising a religion then that's fine and nice but you have nothing to us traditionalists. Many - no, MOST "traditionalists" are unfortunately just religious people.

      Buddhists heavens? Hells? (Like MN 129) They're all out of the question, thrown out the window first thing. There is not even comparison between Eastern naive dogmatists and what Evolian traditionalism is. You can call it postmodern or call it atheistic, but that doesn't make these superstitious folk customs any better, in fact, they remain on a much lower level...

    3. Samuli, reminds me of Blake's statements in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, like: "Man has no Body distinct from his Soul. For that called Body is a portion of Soul discerned by the five senses, the chief inlets of Soul in this age. " Although that doesn't rule out the possibility that so-called conventional truth (as opposed to ultimate truth) isn't to some extent just a subjective hallucination that humans share because of our similarity. You appear to be assuming that Evola is some kind of absolute authority, over reality if not over Buddhist philosophy.

    4. Yes, some of the Masonic spiritualists share a lot with Guénon & Evola, to the point that Right leaning people outright dismiss Evola as basically Masonist.

      Now, there's no evidence that Blake was a Mason, but he certainly was in those circles and his works read like revolutionary masonry 101.

      The connection between him and Traditionalists is however quite shallow if you examine them more comparatively. A similar case to how KABBALAH means literally TRADITION, and that's another spook for people approaching Traditionalism, besides the usual spooks like masonry and theosophism. But all those similarities are little more than superficial, like seeing a buddhist monk and a greedy Wall St. broker both eating only one meal a day..!

      Yes, I tend to glorify him. I take his note in Yoga of Power quite literally:

      "I am not pleased to report that in no work other than my Doctrine of the Awakening it is possible to have an idea of what early Buddhism stood for, prior to its ensuing decadence."

      If you look at what Evola did to the pali canon, he didn't try to follow it or even rationally explain away religious elements from it, no, he deliberately applied his own Traditional method (The Mystery of Grail Pt1) to it systematically. It's hard to explain that method in the confines of this comment section, because it's so out of this world and it changes whole history. For example: time stops being linear; new 21st century myths can acquire validities that are more primordial than, say, 500BC. Mainstream criticisms like ~"Bhagavad Gita merges Vedic and Dravidian elements for a contemporary philosophical and political commentary" become just invalid, as the spread and appearances of myths are nonlinear, discontinuous occurences that can only be revealed by "metaphysical" topological analysis of the said traditions. The usual "contexts", "circumstances", "reasons" etc, everything from Marxist historicism breaks down and is thrown away as useless, not just in the analysis of the past but even in our current situation right now!

      Like Guénon says, the sources of traditions are not even human, let alone the "authors"!

      Even the subjects themselves have often no idea what they're doing, like was the case of Peter Jackson displaying a magnificent and profound anti-semitic critique to the world right in front of their noses. I havn't seen anyone use that tool besides Evola et al. Now, is it absolute revelation? Not, but the issues that it tries to solve must be approached individually. Categorical dismissals are common, but actual understanding of the œuvre seems very rare, for obvious reasons. That's why we get numerous dismissals all over the Internet that are using moot points: i.e. Evola already responded to them before they even wrote them...

      My rambling is over. Yes, I am what the Internet fascists call "evolafaqs", i.e. quite obsessed. But the enormity of this task hasn't been even understood except by very few people. (Kerry Bolton & John Bruce Leonard are rare exceptions)

    5. Venerable Pannobhasa, the reason for my negativity towards this post is that I find it regresses somewhat...

      Evola wrote this in 1930, before he had finished his magnum opus Revolt Against the Modern World. We must not let this Dark Age engulf us with its uncertainties:

      "In fact, ancient certitudes totter everywhere, principles are uncertain everywhere, traditions are lost, spirits are divided, and dark, uncontrollable, and irrational forces impel and overwhelm men and society, playing with them through ideas, interests and passions that they delude themselves into pursuing.

      Haven’t we had enough kvetching and jeremiads? We know things are awry, so what is the point of indulging in criticisms of this injustice or that stupid policy? There is a time for righteous anger and a time for sober reflection. Pace this critique, there must be men who stand above them.

      -They know the ancient certitudes.
      -They are certain about their principles.
      -They seek to recover their traditions.
      -Their spirits are unified in solidarity each other and continuity with their ancestors.
      -They are aware of the dark and chaotic forces within themselves and learn to master them."

      I'm sure Venerable Pannobhasa has mastered some or all of these dark forces, but most havn't. They're like dead horses and we're still kicking them with more skepticism.


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