Last Updated on August 17, 2021 by David Vause
Last week, after doing my intervals, I was doing a couple of miles of recovering running. I put up my iPad and was watching Richard Feynman in a BBC Horizon documentary in 1981 called The Pleasure of Finding Things Out. Two things in this passage really struck me.
And so altogether, I can’t believe the special stories that have been made up about our relationship to the universe at large because they seem to me to be too local, too provincial. The earth, he came to the Earth. One of the aspects of God came to the earth mind you and look at what’s out there. It isn’t in proportion. But also another thing. It has to do with the question of how do you find out if something’s true and if you have all these theories…. of the different religions all different theories about the thing, then you begin to wonder. Once you start doubting, which I think to me is a very fundamental part of my soul is to doubt and to ask. When you doubt and ask, it gets a little harder to believe.
I can live with doubt and uncertainty and not knowing. I think it’s much more interesting to live with uncertainty than to have answers which might be wrong. I have approximate answers and possible beliefs and different degrees of certainty about different things, but I’m not absolutely sure about anything. There are many things that I know nothing about, but I don’t have to know an answer. I don’t feel frightened by not knowing; by being lost in the mysterious universe without having any purpose, which is the way it really is, as far as I can tell possibly. It doesn’t frighten me.
The first thing was that while a philosophy student, I had come to the conclusion that it was impossible to objectively discern, among all the various religions and interpretations of disparate holy books, which one of them was really true. Even Christianity, which is supposed to have one holy book, has myriads of sects all with their various interpretations. Even at 20, I didn’t fall for the stock reply of “believe your heart.” By then, I had already deceived myself in thinking that I finally saw Truth a few times and I realized there was no objective way to discriminate among the various Truths. Determining truth by what feels right is what we call truthy in today’s post-truth times. It amounts to believe what you want to believe, which is no standard at all.
The second was that Thoreau also adopted the “I don’t feel frightened by not knowing” attitude. I cannot cite where, but at some point, he wrote that he would pursue Truth notwithstanding the consequences. If it is ugly, so be it; but he believed he would discover it to be beautiful. Here, the analytical mind will ask for the definition of beauty. That is a morass that I am not inclined to wade into, other than that I agree with Feynman. It has something to do with simplicity and symmetry.
These thoughts were rattling around in my brain as I contemplated the First Noble Truth while walking into work later that morning: “Life is dukkha.” Dukkha is normally translated as suffering, but this is overly strong. Dukkha is more akin to the French ennui with mundane life. But I suspect that Dukkha goes beyond just ennui. It is the frustration with, as Feynman puts it, “being lost in the mysterious universe without having any purpose”. Beyond purpose, it is a lack of engagement, a lack of ownership. Beyond hopelessly poisoning the plant on which we live, we are utterly impotent at having any meaningful impact on the course of the universe. Unless…..
We are impotent and irrelevant unless we have a big, powerful brother. Dukkha, I suspect, gives rise to the need to invent a special story. Believers will claim that the one universal human belief is the belief in one or more gods. Rather, I suspect that the one universal condition is dukkah, and the easy answer to it is the belief in something omnipotent and benevolent. The believer consciously or unconsciously looks up in the impassive night sky and thinks “you may not care about me, but you can’t ignore my big brother and he will take care of me.” Truthy, but not true.