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Musings on Certainty, and a truly excellent TED talk - Synchronicity swirls and other foolishness

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December 18th, 2010

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11:01 pm - Musings on Certainty, and a truly excellent TED talk
I've watched a number of TED talks, and have learned nifty and interesting stuff from them. However, I've rarely seen one as impressive as this one, which deals with happiness, vulnerability, & self-worth:

I agree with the speaker, for everything from the personal to the national or global, from friendship to politics and corporate policy, and also agree that avoiding vulnerability lies at the heart of many personal and social problems. I was also fascinated by her observation about how religion is now focused on certainty, which I've seen in both mainstream faiths, and in a surprising amount of paganism. There are mystics, seekers, and people of genuine faith in both, but many more who seek absolute answers. I'm also reminded of my thoughts about why Western Europe is by and large a place where the citizens are on average both happier and less engaged in crazy and self-destructive politics than people in the US. We live in a society that assumes certainty in ways impossible for people a century or more ago. We generally know why almost everything happens, from natural disasters to diseases. Most often, medicine can diagnose and at least treat, if not cure illnesses, police can solve most crimes, most people in the first world do not ever face hunger or life-threatening violence. Most of what was uncertain is now known, and so the assumption is that everything is known and everything can be fixed. The problem is that this isn't true, and so there's a backlash of (as the speaker mentions) some mixture of numbing, anger, and blame. This is worse in the US, because there's a great deal more uncertainty that's needless.

If you have a good well-paying job, in the US, like in Western Europe, you are almost certain to have adequate food, medical care, housing, and etc... Your life is as certain as modern technology can make it. However, in the US, random chance - economic fluctuations, the random chance of being born too poor to gain the necessary skills and opportunities, culturally embedded prejudice, random health problems or accidents, the ideas or temperament of a newly hired manager or CEO... can cause you to lose this good job, or to be unable to find a good job in the first place. It's clear that greater certainty is possible, but if you don't have it, you look for someone to blame, and so the ugly cycle of US politics and US attitudes starts, and it should hardly be a surprise that there's a lot of irrational anger involved. Meanwhile, in Western Europe, opportunity is more equal, and while uncertainty still exists, there's considerably less needless uncertainty, since losing a job is both more difficult, and far less catastrophic. For example, in the UK, Unemployment payments do not run out, and everyone has access to affordable healthcare regardless of their income or level of employment.

More than a few decades in the past, people had to accept far more uncertainty - not only were there no useful treatments for many diseases, there were no known causes - prior to the 20th century most often people got sick and they either got better or they died, and at most a doctor might at most have a name for the illness, but they lacked both a cause and a cure. Similarly, prior to the last 150 years, all across the planet crops could fail w/o warning or recourse and famine could result. We have thankfully dealt with much of these sorts of uncertainty, and so uncertainty has become something we struggle with, rather than something that is as ubiquitous as the air we breathe.
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Date:December 19th, 2010 03:23 pm (UTC)
The issue of an individual's need for religious or spiritual certainty is something that I ponder on a regular basis, but I hadn't extended it out to this degree. Thanks for thought-provoking entry. . .

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