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Zero-Certainty

September 15, 2010
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I’ll just tell you straight out right now. I am completely out of my depth on this subject. What I mean is, some of what I’m about to say probably runs into…I dunno…philosophy or epistemology or something or other that’s been discussed and analyzed ad taedium by people much more knowledgeable than I. As excited as I am to share this idea with you, it’s full of its own logical holes, so…I guess…take what you can from it; take what’s useful. But don’t take it too seriously. I don’t know what I’m talking about :) .

A lot of people who read and (especially) write personal development literature come off as very positive, proactive, optimistic, forward-looking. It seems as if they must have been born that way. But if you stick around a bit and dig a little deeper, you start to find out that almost all of these people were at one point incredibly pessimistic, fearful, perhaps even “depressed”. Richard Bandler, Steve Pavlina, Jim Rohn, Tony Robbins…all were sad and cynical at one point.

What really hit me about Pavlina was that he continues to listen to personal development recordings to this day. He’s even mentioned that when he goes a long time without listening to that kind of material, his baseline mindset begins to take a dive; he starts to go a bit…you know…Goth.

That big shots are just little shots who kept shooting is edifying, but it’s not today’s topic. So back on topic…Yes…where were you…

OK, so…a lot of times, people will tell you to be positive. Have a positive outlook. Have a positive mindset. And they’re right. But unconvincing.

Why are they unconvincing? Well, for the same reason that people who depend on schools to teach them mathematics almost invariably end up semi-numerate math phobics. People get lost in math at school because books and teachers make massive, unexplained (unjustified) logical leaps. That and there isn’t enough time given to real practice; in a very real sense, mathematics is a language — a sportand it should be treated (practiced) as such. [Aside: most people who have trouble with math have trouble with it in large part because they don't actually know what the symbols mean...they haven't had enough input. It's like trying to read Japanese without knowing what kanji mean. Not gonna work].

Similarly, calls to positivity are unconvincing because we’re too smart to accept the “handwaving they invariably entail. Suppressed premises. We know something is missing…some steps are missing. It can’t really be that simple. And so we reject optimism in favor of pessimism. Because if there’s one thing pessismism is (or at least seems to be), it’s ruthlessly logical.

But then…it hit me that…unexplained optimism and thoroughgoing pessimism actually share the same common flaw: they are both forms of certainty. Certainty is the great enemy of mankind. I’m almost…certain…of that.

Certainty is the great enemy of mankind. I’m almost…certain…of that.

You probably don’t want to be too certain of this idea, because certainty itself is probably the problem. Having said that, any way you cut it, you do kind of end up being certain of something. All I’m offering in this post is that you try being more or less semi-certain about uncertainty. Don’t be too certain about uncertainty, either. We’ll call this noncertainty “Zero Certainty” because the only thing we’re still even vaguely certain about is the zeroness — the lack — of certainty. And even then, not really.

Weak certainty is like a balloon — easily popped. Strong certainty is like a rock — created with a lot of time, effort and pressure, destroyed quickly given the right technologies. Non-certainty — zero-certainty — is like a squishy ball or water or maybe even a gas: mobile, flexible, uncrushable. Hmm…metaphors breaking down. Screw it. Whatever.

Really, think about it: you don’t know what’s going to happen. Read conspiracy theorists and Peak Oil doomers — the ultimate pessimists. It sounds so rational, so numerical, so logical, so convincing, until you realize that:

(1) If these people really know all this stuff and can really predict this much, they must be gods

(2) Which they aren’t

(3) If the people who are supposedly running the conspiracy are so omnipotent and omniscient, well then, they, too, must be gods…

(4) Which, again, they aren’t.

(5) If you look back you’ll find that their “predictions” are always changing. Hmmm…Funny that.

Example 1: One conscipiracy website predicted that Kerry would win the 2004 Presidential election because he has more royal blood than Bush…Yes…yes, that went well.

Example 2: Every Peak Oil doom book or article always predicts a peak within +/- 2 years of its publication. Convenient, that, innit’?

Look forward. Take any prediction ultra-pessimists make today, make a note of it — put it in a time capsule — and wait. See what happens. Y2K. 2012. Take a look-see. None of that noss is going to happen. The world just doesn’t end as easily as a Dean Devlin/Roland Emmerich movie. Believe that. Be pessimistic about the world’s chances of ending so cleanly.

You see, accuracywise, pessimism is as much a steaming pile of crap as the optimism it so wryly derides. The difference is that optimism actually helps. Pessissm calls for laziness (not the good kind) and armchair quarterbacking.

But again, to be fair, optimism can be a steaming load of crap, too. It’s 2010, people. We have no flying cars (I don’t know whether we really want them, but…), no moon base, no faster-than-light travel [too much sci-fi for me, folks]. Not yet anyway. The 1986 Transformers animated movie promised intellgent robots by 2005. I don’t even have a robot vacuum cleaner yet…I mean, they’re out, but they’re not a commodity yet; they’re not, like, you know, at the level of fridges yet.

So we need a new breed of optimism. A more refined optimism. Optimism’ (“Optimism prime”). Optimism 2.0, if you will. Old optimism says: “it’s definitely, absolutely gonna work!”; this brand of optimism can be brittle; it is easily harmed and turn into rabid cynicism and pessimism, because it shares with them this quality of absolute certainty — the only difference is the direction of certainty. All it takes is one question: “come on, dude, are you sure?”, one event: “oh crap, it didn’t happen”, to destroy this kind of optimism.

Optimism 2.0, our new optimism, is saying: “I’m not sure if it’ll work, but let’s play anyway. Let’s try and see. Let’s do something that helps”. This is that AJATT brand of optimism. Will listening to Japanese while you sleep make you fluent? Dunno. Maybe. It can’t hurt(?) It’ll probably work better than listening to English. It must help — it’ll help much more than sitting around having an English flamewar about it. Optimism 2.0 says, to put it bluntly: just do s[tuff] that f[lipp]ing helps…I’m starting to sound like Moss now.

Optimism doesn’t need to be justified. Confidence doesn’t need to be backed by past experience (in fact, when confidence is backed by past experience, it’s not actually confidence any more — it’s just memory: almost by definition, confidence is baseless). But the reason optimism doesn’t need to be justified…needs to be justified. A lot of smart people realize that optimism is unjustified, so they give up on it. What someone needs to tell them is that that’s actually the point: we choose optimism not because it’s correct, but because it helps (self-fulfilling prophecy). But if you can’t seem to get yourself to hold any brand of optimism, then at least have neutrality — have no certainity, zero certainty of anything whatsoever.

You don’t know jack. Either way. You don’t effing know. You have some fuzzy probabilities based on past experience, but as Nick Taleb would happily tell you, your white swans can get Cullen Jonesed up very easily. Know less. Try more. Experiment more. Help more. And if you must know, choose the malleable, resilient kind of knowing that will help you. Or not, this could all be BS. I dunno. Just trying to help.

Anyway, I imagine that someone else has already had and expressed these ideas, so…if you know of any books/videos/websites that cover these ideas better, do go ahead and share a link or two to that information.

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21 Responses to Zero-Certainty

  1. Seth G on September 16, 2010 at 01:02

    This is one of the best posts you’ve ever made. I couldn’t agree with you more. Really wonderful job of explaining a concept that is at once very simple and very complex. Great post!

  2. The Songlei on September 16, 2010 at 03:22

    this is an idea that i’ve been playing around with for a while now, at least i think so. the way i see it is that you can’t be too dogmatic with any method.

    self help books usually provide a kind of overarching method, a grand, easy-to-remember approach to solving a host of problems. it’s kind of like what marxism promised to do for china, but then in terms of getting chicks or becoming rich.

    in fact, reality is too complicated to capture in self help books or in any book for that matter, at least, that is what i believe, and by the looks of it, you too. perhaps i’m wrong, but i recognize some strains of pragmatism (as in philosophy, not it’s popular usage) in your post there. maybe you should give richard rorty a shot (contingency, irony and solidarity), or read some william james. good luck and thanks for the content here on these pages!

  3. Jarrod on September 16, 2010 at 07:47

    Here’s how I like to do it.

    I have come a long way since being born and learnt ridiculous amounts of stuff. Everyone else who has ever achieved something or been happy also came from this same base.

    Therefore I am confident that if I keep learning and living I will eventually be capable of achieving and experiencing anything I want.

    Also as I discovered I can be happy just from an internal decision I know I can be happy whenever I want, I like being happy :)

    Did you notice all the little assumptions and generalisations. By consciously generalising about the majority of people and my capabilities it makes it easier for my brain to handle and because my brain gets it it can then respond with a solid response and say, ‘yes you should be optinistic (because you benefit so much from it. Aka immediately get to be happy and try new things)’

    The decision becomes ingrained and optimism a habit. Because thought is no longer required I become certain, memory becomes my existence.

  4. Theo on September 16, 2010 at 12:30

    That’s quite interesting. It’s good to see that Khatz is going philosophy hehehe. I’m kinda sleepy now but i’m gonna share my view. I’d say that ajatt said it was that certainty must be a living thing, realistic(?), or better, practical, which I agree. [So far as I understand, is that right?] I think in the beginning of the text he said ‘have no certainty’ then it passed to zero certainty, zero sounds reasonable because is kinda a magic number, balanced, that’s what sounds to me… free of pessimism or optimism, not without ambition but free of it too… i don’t know, i have to sleep hehe… GB

  5. Jaybot7 on September 16, 2010 at 21:14

    I’m 80% certain that Pavlina is a whack-job. No, no… make that 99.9% certain. But you gotta enjoy the big lug, simply because he’s a whack-job who sincerely believes in… But I’m digressing here.

    I’m all for certainty with uncertainty, some people call it hope, I guess. I call it… well, I don’t call it anything. I just do something knowing the end result will be pretty close to what I want, and if it isn’t then I don’t fall into a spiral of despair, and instead just make some tweaks and try again, or dump the plan in the trash.

    We could just call it the ‘Fark it, let’s give it a shot and see what happens’ principle of certainty.

  6. Tyler on September 17, 2010 at 03:07

    Currently at school, so I’ll make a quick comment.

    Look up Ross Jeffries’ site (www.seduction.com/blog).

    He calls it Acceptance Confidence.

  7. URAHARA on September 17, 2010 at 03:27

    Playing with words and definitions… again….

    zero-certainty…
    do you imply that you can measure certainty?
    we should think of something else….

    I understand that you mean the absence of certainty, non-existence, nothingness (Buddhism). And this nothingness can not be described (with words).

  8. Theo on September 17, 2010 at 03:57

    www.dougwils.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=1588:True-Certainty&catid=60:postmodernism

    He’s a very good theologian which I admire, He talks about True certainty, you wouldn’t agree with all stuff but without prejudice just read it!

  9. Theo on September 17, 2010 at 03:59
  10. Thomas on September 17, 2010 at 04:17

    I think you hit the nail on the head, and quite coincidentally I just made a post about being optimistic very much in the vein of what you mentioned.

    I think different ‘brands’ of optimism work for different people. And while your brand is about rolling the dice, so to speak, I prefer the brand of optimism that does involve certainty. From personal experience, it works better.

    As you said, it can be fickle. It can be crushed if something bad happens or if someone questions your optimistic attitude (Which will no doubt happen quite often.) but I firmly believe that it can be just as strong, if not stronger than the ‘Well there’s a 50/50 chance either way, so I might as well try’ take on things.

    Being an optimist is like being an inverse paranoid. No matter what happens, you automatically assume it’s for your benefit, even if the event that has taken place appears to be catastrophic. Having taken this attitude in my own life, I’ve often been absolutely amazed at the results. A lot of the positive results I’ve experienced can no doubt be attributed to my positive attitude, in that when something bad happens I’m not beating myself up about it and thus am more prepared to deal with the events at hand.

    The problem is that, as you said, there is no way to convey that kind of attitude or how to adopt it to someone. Sure, you can extol the values of that brand of optimism, but it’s hardly convincing. There’s no hard science behind it, no logical explanation that I’ve encountered as to how it works. Ironically, had I told my past self about the benefits of being optimistic about all outcomes, I would’ve laughed in my own face.

    But it does work. I can say that with every fibre of my being. It does work.

    Perhaps it’s better to make steps towards it, though. Take the attitude of Optimism 2.0 first. It’s much less of a leap– it requires much less faith in… whatever you want to attribute it to.

    Great post, Khatz. You’re more than qualified to venture into the realm of philosophy.

  11. Chad M. on September 17, 2010 at 07:34

    Nice post Khatz. I understand the feeling of “wanting to share, but not quite fully understanding enough to put it eloquently”. I thought you did a great job of sending the message, especially with those last 3 paragraphs.

  12. Ken on September 17, 2010 at 08:40

    I agree completely with what you say about optimism. I’m all for being optimistic and just trying schtuff without knowing for sure whether it’s going to work or not.

    That said, I think the “having fun” aspect takes up a lot of slack here. (I think that “have fun” is one of the fundamental concepts of AJATT, more so than “kanji first” or even “SRS”.) I don’t feel I need any extraordinary optimism as long as I’m having fun with what I’m doing.

    Michael Jordan may have been the basketball world’s biggest optimist, and for most of his life thought “if I practice for 23 hours a day I’ll be an incredible player!”. Or maybe he didn’t care so much about that, but would simply rather practice playing ball all day than do anything else. They both work, right? (The truth is probably somewhere in between.)

    Maybe dorking around in Japanese stuff all day is going to make me a brilliant Japanese speaker, or maybe not, but it’s still a perfectly good and valid use of my time if there’s nothing else I’d rather be doing right now. Havin’ fun here!

  13. tcharo on September 18, 2010 at 23:19

    A similar observation expressed here:

    alumni.mckinsey.com/alumni/default/public/content/jsp/alumni_news/20090908_Laurence_Shorter_Feature.jsp

    > A noted French Buddhist tells him that “stupid optimism” is thinking that things will always go your way; true optimism is not attaching happiness to any external situation.

    Stupid optimism is brittle. True optimism comes from the fact that you accept that you’re gonna fail with some probability anyway.[*] So you accept failure, even if you made conscious efforts to avoid it, without damaging your optimistic mindset.

    [*] Related maybe? en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Many-worlds_interpretation

  14. ujhold on September 20, 2010 at 04:17

    “Pessissm calls for laziness”; but what is optimism? What if I certain about that I can finish something on time; because I am optimistic. Because this statement seems correct. What if I fail , because I am too much confident. 2) If I am pessimistic, because I am fear, maybe do not achieve things if I expect too much.
    Maybe I am always lack of informations, what is needed to decide. If I already spent countless hours to achieve something, but maybe it is the time to change. But change is illogical in this situation. But without change, I can not improve myself, or I will not able get some informations to be able to decide in the future. Can It be, that I fear to do something, because the future is undetermined :P.
    I am pessimistic, I know what to do tomorrow, I need to gain more experience. But it is not about, who is paranoid and who is not. It is all about, sometimes I need to decide over my own “logic”. I need to accept my fail sometimes to improve. I wonder why I am not pessimistic about being pessimistic.
    Ignore me if I am speaking trash. >:D

  15. Zach on September 20, 2010 at 05:11

    You’ve been reading The Black Swan recently haven’t you?

    ブラック・スワン[上]─不確実性とリスクの本質 by ナシーム・ニコラス・タレブ t.co/Lju73mp

    If not, you really should. It deals with this very subject. That is, we are far more capable of creating stories from nothing than we are at accepting what we don’t know.

    And what we don’t know is what we should be doing anyways to find out. It’s easy to be pessimistic because we’re so damn dramatic about EVERYTHING.

  16. Michel on September 21, 2010 at 08:03

    You respect your own philosophy by not being too certain about what you’re stating. I just discovered you and am already starting to like you.

    I read some of the replies and someone disagreed with the fact you’re “quantifying” certainty by giving it a number. Completely missing the point … Zero Certainty, as you put it, is a goal. You *aim* for zero, and zero is more of a concept than an actual number… Logically, nobody would say that you’re going to reach it and stay there.

    Scientific method works pretty much like that too (a real scientist cannot be too certain, he has to consider that he may be wrong). Critical thinking too (suspending judgment until enough evidence has been gathered). And you’re suggesting that we should try and apply this to other aspects of our life such as being optimistic/pessimistic about something. Really, you’ve made me think more in 30 minutes of viewing your site than the past few weeks together.

    Considering how science has pushed us forward so quickly since we adopted it as a standard for knowledge gathering, I think applying it to our life in a broader sense has the potential to push us ahead even more.

    Religions will fight this way of thinking because they’ll feel it threatens them, but eventually they’ll have to give up.

    Great post! Keep it up :)

  17. 我我我普通 on September 24, 2010 at 01:02

    I do think these ideas have been expressed before. This article reminds me of a lot of what I know about Buddhism.

    Unexplained optimism. This is what the French buddhist was refering to in one of the previous posters comments.

    you tell someone, “be positive man!” and then they fail and a nasty cycle of self punishment ensues.
    What the French Buddhist in that story referred to then was that we are positive already. we are already beautiful, we are already equiped with everything we need. Optimism 2.0 is when you aren’t grasping for validation from the outside but are in sync with everything that is right about you on the inside. I’m going to do whatever is helpful for me to learn Japanese because I am good enough to learn Japanese. There is no barrier then. No, “I’m going to do 100 anki reps everyday because if I don’t I won’t learn Japanese”. You live in the moment because you are already the person you need to be.

    We all know why pessimism sucks. cause… well, it’s boring and whiny and doesn’t get you anywhere….

    I have always thought of AJAAT as a Buddhist world view. to me the connection is very easy to make:

    take the 8 fold path for instance:

    right view: good input, j-shows and j-songs,
    right intention: the difference between likeing j-pop and the commitment to learn japanese
    right speech: read that stuff out loud, practice it, copy it, mimic it, sing it loud and proud
    right action: get a japanese girlfreind/boyfreind, take a all japanese kendo class, talk to the guy at the j-grocery
    right livelyhood: getting a job really helps buying that plane ticket to narita. pretty practical stuff here.
    right effore: If you study 10 cards a day, it will take you 300 years to know japanese… put a little elbow greace please?
    right mindfulness: this is the immersion environement. most of what AJAAT for me is, is in this step
    right concentration: this is what todays article was about. this is the philisophical nugget of buddhism. my concentration is on not being obsessed with any of the crap that i did before. concentrate on not being certain. on living in the moment and having fun.

    (right concentration comes from sitting down and practicing not being certain about things. . . i.e. meditation)

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