No one really likes them. Especially if they’re about big things. The following popped out of the memory bank a little while ago as I contemplated this subject:

     He felt toward Kathy a certain strange cynical trust, both absolute and unconvincing; one half of his brain saw her as reliable beyond the power of the telling of it, and the other half saw her as debased, for sale, and fucking up right and left. He could not put it together into one view. The two images of Kathy remained superimposed in his head.
     Maybe I can resolve my parallel conceptions of Kathy before I leave here, he thought. Before morning. But maybe he could stay even one day after that…it would be stretching it, however. How good really are the police? he asked himself. They managed to get my name wrong; they pulled the wrong file on me. Isn’t it possible they’ll fuck up all down the line? Maybe. But maybe not.
     He had mutually opposing conceptions of the police, too. And could not resolve those either. And so, like a rabbit, like Emily Fusselman’s rabbit, froze where he was. Hoping as he did so that everyone understood the rules: you do not destroy a creature that does not know what to do.

     That’s from Philip K. Dick’s masterpiece Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said. I consider it his best novel. Its central character is Jason Taverner: an entertainer, a man of demonstrated gifts of several kinds, who’s thrust by an assault – intended to be fatal – into a nightmare world in which he can rely on almost nothing. Jason is accustomed to certainty, to being in control of his circumstances and assured of what’s coming. All of that has been ripped away from him. The subconscious conviction that he’s “a creature that does not know what to do” paralyzes him for a long spell.

     But as usual, there’s an opposing view:

     “The unknown,” said Faxe’s soft voice in the forest, “the unforetold, the unproven, that is what life is based on. Ignorance is the ground of thought. Unproof is the ground of action. If it were proven that there is no God there would be no religion. No Handdara, no Yomesh, no hearthgods, nothing. But also if it were proven that there is a God, there would be no religion. . . . Tell me, Genry, what is known? What is sure, predictable, inevitable—the one certain thing you know concerning your future, and mine?”
     “That we shall die.”
     “Yes. There’s really only one question that can be answered, Genry, and we already know the answer. . . . The only thing that makes life possible is permanent, intolerable uncertainty: not knowing what comes next.”

     [Ursula Le Guin, The Left Hand of Darkness]

     What a contrast! Yet both these brilliant writers are correct. We both fear uncertainty and need it. Without uncertainty we would be limp, unmotivated. But with too much of it, or the wrong sort, we freeze in place, unable to think.

     Which is rich soil for today’s contemplation of just about everything that matters.


     There’s a whole lot of political uncertainty afoot. Republicans are uncertain that their chosen one will be a free man come Election Day; Democrats are uncertain whether their figurehead will survive that long. Major donors are uncertain whether they’ve wasted their money. Opinion-mongers and TV talking heads are uncertain what to say about any of it to preserve the perches from which they opine. (present company excepted). Voters are uncertain about what difference any of it will make.

     And Independence Day is just ahead. Glorious, isn’t it?

     But along with the political uncertainty comes a more practical kind, something the Founding Fathers would deplore: uncertainty about what our 88,000 governments have done, are doing, and will do. Take it seriously, Gentle Reader; this is vital stuff. What naughtiness have the alphabet agencies been up to, especially the DoJ and the “intelligence community?” What are all those bureaucrats doing to influence the outcome of the election? And what will change, if anything, should the Usurper Regime be ejected from power?

     Those uncertainties are in one way a source of certainty for private citizens. They compel us to hunker down: that is, to arrange our affairs in such a manner that will limit our maximum loss from whatever may come. A dear friend, in commenting on one of my novels, made mention of a term I’d previously not heard: the Xanatos Gambit. That consists of arranging for every possible choice to produce a victory of some kind. Hunkering down to limit all one’s downside risks regardless of the outcome of currently uncertain events is a play in that spirit, albeit pessimistic rather than optimistic about what’s coming.

     And we watch, and wait.


     America is rife with institutional uncertainties. What working American feels secure about his employment? What stockholder feels secure about his investments? What corporate manager feels secure about the direction law and regulation will take a year from now, to say nothing of the dollar? What husband feels secure about the health, affections, and loyalty of his wife? (Lean hard on that last one, gentlemen; after thirty-three years, my first act upon awakening is to check whether the C.S.O. is 1) still there, and 2) still alive.)

     Here again, uncertainty breeds a countervailing certainty: “I must do the best I can at everything.” There is no other prudent course when everything around us looks shaky. Only by one’s fullest and most careful efforts can he fortify his personal position against the tides of fortune. Ask your neighborhood “prepper” about the psychological benefits of having a lot of gold and silver coins, a pantry full of long shelf-life foods, and plenty of ammo. (NB: Concerning ammo, “Enough” plus “Lots More” == “Plenty.” Cf. explosives.)

     And we think, and prepare, and work ourselves to a frazzle, straining to keep our heads above the tide.


     I can’t let this go without touching on the deepest, most profoundly existential uncertainty of all: spiritual uncertainty.

     Every man that ever lives must decide on his life postulates:

  • What he fears;
  • What he desires;
  • What he believes;
  • The proper relations among those three.

     Some people never consciously contemplate those things, yet we all decide about them even if unaware that we’ve done so. Our desires and fears tend to be largely unconscious. They arise in large part from what we are rather than who we are. Yet they can be modified, or re-prioritized, by what we choose to believe.

     Belief is always a choice.

     If you’re familiar with Pascal’s Wager, you’re aware of the “limit your downside risks” approach to beliefs about God and the afterlife. It’s a betting man’s approach to things about which perfect certainty is difficult, verging on impossible. But it excludes the subject of belief itself in preference for a pragmatic approach to the future. One can choose either behavioral side of the Wager without ever choosing a conviction.

     And some do. But there’s a great forfeiture involved: such a person forfeits the extraordinary mental stimulus and emotional richness available from taking the choice itself seriously, plunging headlong into the matter with the determination that one way or the other, he will commit.

     Have a snippet from the novel-under-construction:

     “How’ve you felt about our talks with Father Ray?” Celia said.
     “I think they’re going well,” Juliette said. There was no hint of strain or doubt in her voice.
     “Meaning what?” Celia looked up into her lover’s face.
     She’s such a rock. Even I can’t read her some of the time.
     “We’re learning about the Faith and the Church,” Juliette said. “Some of it I remember from a few years back, but some of it is brand new.”
     “But is it working?”
     “On you. Do you think you like it?”
     Juliette grimaced. “It’s not something to like or dislike, Ceil. It’s something to accept or reject. We have to know what it’s about before we can do either.”
     “Having trouble with it?”
     “No… not really.” Celia chafed at her own confusion. “I mean, given the right assumptions, it’s all plausible. I’ve been wondering whether that’s enough. It doesn’t feel like it is.”
     Juliette smiled and squeezed her gently. “You’re worrying about the wrong thing.”
     “What do you mean?”
     “You’re you. Celia the genius. Galaxy-sized intellect that turns problems the size of mountains into dust with one tap of a pinky. You do it every day, or close to it. It’s your routine. But you can’t do that with faith. At least, not this faith.”
     Celia peered at her lover. Juliette seemed perfectly calm and untroubled. She exuded a sense of certainty, as if the subject posed her no difficulty. Yet something about it made Celia feel as if she were about to leave her body.
     Kate couldn’t help this way. She was a Catholic from birth. Absorbed it with her mother’s milk and never questioned it afterward.
     “Keep going, Jules,” she murmured. “You sound like you know what I need to know.”
     Juliette met her eyes and nodded once.
     “Faith isn’t about logic,” she said. “It can’t be illogical, but you can’t get there through logic alone. There’ve been some very smart people who never made it all the way because they insisted on proof. Logical proof, like faith is some sort of theorem with given conditions and postulates and lemmas and all that crap. Is that what’s got you twisted up?”
     Celia suppressed a tremor. “No, not exactly. It’s more… I keep expecting a burst of illumination. You know, for Father Ray to tell us the Big Secret that makes it all inevitable, and suddenly we have a breakthrough and become Christians.”
     Juliette smiled broadly. “You’re waiting for a dose of satori, huh? Like the Buddhists? Become an Enlightened One, walk the Noble Eightfold Path, lose all desire for earthly things and seek the fulfillment of nirvana?”
     Celia cringed and hid her face against her lover’s side. “Please don’t laugh at me, Jules. This is tough for me.”
     Tougher than I expected it to be.
     “Sorry, babe.” Juliette squeezed her. “I’m not making fun of you. It’s more that I’m thinking about what I used to expect. Jesus descending from the clouds, opening my heart with a touch on the brow, proclaiming me a true child of God, then wishing me a nice life and sending me off to play. Taking all the work out of it.” She chuckled. “It’s probably why I didn’t get it in the first place.”
     “I still don’t follow you.”
     “I know. The work isn’t intellectual. It’s almost exactly the opposite. It’s getting set inside yourself to offer yourself to God all the way. As a servant committed to doing his will, with the teachings of Christ to guide you.”
     Celia was torn by a blend of longing and fear. She felt as if she stood at the threshold of something even more final than death, a complete negation of self. Yet it called to her with an inexplicable sweetness.
     “I worked it out a couple of days ago,” Juliette said. “It’s not about smarts. It’s about commitment. The willingness to give everything. An act of courage.”
     “A blind step into the dark,” Celia whispered.
     Juliette shrugged. “Or the light.”
     “You sound… ready.”
     Juliette nodded. “I am.”

     I hope that requires no further explanation.


     We often address our uncertainties with distaste, even loathing. Yet they keep us going. They energize and actuate us in ways of which we aren’t always conscious. And so it must be, for a life of perfect certainty is no place for a project pursuer (cf. Loren Lomasky).

     But in a final irony, the greatest uncertainty is the one that informs and conditions all the others. Our choice there, as Celia says above, is “a blind step into the dark.” It cannot be resolved under the veil of time. Yet its influence on all the other choices we make in addressing our uncertainties is all-enveloping.

     Just a few thoughts for the last day of June. I hope you found them diverting, at least. And may God bless and keep you all.


  1. FYI: The term “Xanatos Gambit” is from TV Tropes, and is named after David Xanatos, one of the chief antagonists in the animated series Gargoyles. (Voiced by Jonathan Frakes, aka Commander Riker!) He’s particularly good at planning with multiple objectives in mind, so he always benefits, no matter which way things turn out. (Almost.)

    I can see parallels between Celia’s struggle with Catholicism and Todd’s struggle with it in the early parts of Polymath. And they’re for the same reasons: faith demands, not intellect, which both Todd and Celia have in abundance, but imagination.

    1. …faith demands, not intellect, which both Todd and Celia have in abundance, but imagination.

      The Christian term for its fulfillment is the Beatific Vision. Saint Thomas Aquinas declared it the indispensable need. Stay tuned!

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