Friday, May 25, 2012

Zoopy-zoop and the quest for uncertainty

"Running is a simple sport. You don't need all the zoopy-zoop." --Bill Squires

On the first day of my philosophy classes, I tell my students that the object of philosophy is fundamentally different from the object of their other classes. In the other disciplines, the point of study is to acquire specific and concrete knowledge and skills. The proper expectation is to leave with more than you came with. There will be tests and quizzes and things of this sort that measure more or less what you have learned. Most of academic life simply takes the value of the quest for certainty and knowledge for granted and sets about getting it done.

The aim of my class is almost entirely opposite. A philosophy class is successful when after a semester's work, the student feels less knowledgeable, less sure of himself and of his capabilities. Uncertain of himself and even his most precious values. Sure, philosophy has a set of knowledge and skills--certainly we have terminology and methods of inquiry and a history of the discipline, etc. But fundamentally philosophy is an attempt to see things freshly, and the main impediment to seeing freshly is the assurance of certainty. It's for this reason that philosophers hold up Socrates as their hero. He was a genius of ignorance; a philosopher.

So, I tell these students that in their academic careers philosophy will be an exception. For the vast majority of their time at the university, they will be gaining knowledge, skills, and habits that will be invaluable in their lives. But, for the three hours a week you are subject to philosophy, you will leave behind this noble and useful task of learning and try your best to do some unlearning.

I justify these three hours by making a distinction between wisdom and knowledge and saying we are after wisdom. But if you've spent much time with philosophy, you know that the idea of wisdom is really an embarrassment for philosophers. First of all, who knows what it means? It's vague and wishy-washy and pretentious to even assume that one might have it, much less teach it. Second, have you ever met a philosopher in real life? Usually not the paragon of wisdom. Third, shouldn't wisdom and knowledge go hand in hand?

But really it is precisely these embarrassing aspects of the idea of wisdom that make it such a useful tool. Philosophers appear to be unwise--even are unwise--precisely because they are busy making experiments into different forms of wisdom. Imagine taking experimentation so seriously, that you model your life after it--instead of, say, a set of rules or principles or commandments. This is a huge risk: to live your life as if you do not know its purpose or meaning. This is the atmosphere of philosophy.

Really, this atmosphere shouldn't be so hard to imagine. Everything we do is a quite radical experiment, even if we rarely reflect on this fact. Getting married, committing to a career, having children, buying a house--each of these decisions are made without full knowledge of their consequences. Every commitment we choose butchers a thousand other possibilities, murders a host of unlived lives, some of which might have turned out better. Indeed, what gives a choice its character as a commitment is the very fact that it might lead to failure. Commitment to a sure thing is no commitment at all. We hold these various experiments into life together with guts, elbow grease, and lots of help from family and friends--and yes, even occasionally some knowledge. And sometimes, despite our best efforts, things fall apart.

To take up philosophy is to affirm this precarious and experimental nature of life. It tries to practice living with the fact that we don't know. Embracing that ignorance and affirming its connection to wisdom may allow for unimagined successes, even if it is also sure to bring unanticipated failures.

The famous marathon coach Renato Canova describes the value of that affirmation for runners in the June issue of Running Times. "I think, in past, coaching may have been [a] big limiting factor on runners," he told Scott Douglas. "When I was national coach of Italy, we measured everything. We had a very precise idea of controlling everything. I think this created limits for athletes in their minds. What is better, athletes and coaches must have the mentality of explorers, so that you can overtake your limitations. You take one step into the darkness. If it's a mistake, you step back. If not a mistake, step again. Only in this way can you increase your knowledge.

"I think this is true not just of marathoning, but for every situation in life, no?"

Sometimes the primary impediment to wisdom is all the zoopy-zoop that allows us to forget that we don't know. Philosophy looks past the zoopy-zoop to the simple darkness that lies at the horizon of every life. It reminds us that there is always some darkness into which we might step, and in its best moments, it gives us the courage to actually take that step.

In a life that is fundamentally uncertain, confusion and hesitation is the mark of honesty and deep insight, not a sign of weakness. The best coaches and athletes never eliminate uncertainty from their training. The small miracle is that they train with great passion, full vigor, and deep attention, despite the fact that in every experiment failure will eventually come. Life is a simple sport; it leads onwards, ever, into the darkness.

5 comments:

  1. "It reminds us that there is always some darkness into which we might step, and in its best moments, it gives us the courage to actually take that step." Yes, yes, yes.

    I've found that, accepting that I might get it wrong, in whatever context, gives me the courage to move forward and get it.

    Perfectionism and anxiety seem to feed one another.

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    Replies
    1. Good points, for sure, Nader. Sometimes a coach can provide an illusion of certainty that gives us the space to work on uncertainties that had us previously paralyzed.

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  2. Jeff,

    I have found your last two blog posts extremely interesting. I know you try to avoid jargon laden discussion in your blog but indulge me for a second....You seem to be outlining what Sextus Empiricus described in the "Outlines of Phyrronian Skepticism" which was a response to the epicurians and dogmatists I think. Anyway he put forward the Agrippan trilemma (or should I say extended it) that said all epistemological claims are subject to:
    1. assumtive reasoning
    2. infinite regress
    3. circular logic
    His response was not a Descartian crisis but rather to suggest that things cannot be know for certain and to say "it seems" before any claims as it seems absolute certainty was elusive. Some have suggested he was advocating a kind of classical scientific method. Anyway, I think you have nailed modern debates problems on the head pointing out that people argue to win and attach their ego to an outcome. Have you examined the dunning-krueger effect? It suggests that people who perform poorly are likely to over-rate their abilities and people who perform highly in any given skill set underate their abilities. Running is the perfect example of this phenomenon. Secondly as far as uncertainty and running are concerned their seems to be a pattern of looking for the magic fix from VO2Max in the 90's to Mileage to intervals to shoes to form.American health follows the same pattern from emphasis on fats, antioxodents, calories, protein, dietary fiber etc. Anyway, I think your recommendations are spot on and would like to see not only running apply them but lots of other aspects of modern life. I would also add control to that list of things that people are unwilling to let uncertainty enter into the equation on (not self-control but control og the extrenal world). It reminds me of two quotes:
    "Hope for the best prepare for the worst"
    -cannot remember who said this
    "everything in moderation including moderation"
    -college roomate

    Kevin

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  3. Hi Kevin,
    Thanks for the comment. I am not so familiar with Sextus Empiricus, but yes, you nailed it. I do not think that the consequence of realizing that we cannot know in any absolute sense should lead to a crisis of value or knowledge. On the contrary, it seems to me like values like religious tolerance, continuous inquiry, and critical consciousness can be grounded in the impossibility of absolute certainty.

    I agree absolutely that this tendency to something like reductivism in running and in life has to do with a sort of need for the feeling of control. It would be nice if running could be reduced to VO2max or minimalism or _______ latest fad, but the reality that experienced runners know is that we are constantly tweaking a multitude of variables. Intelligent training, for better or worse, relies on hunches and intuition, not scientific certainty. Absolute control or knowledge cannot be had in running or life. But this is not such a bad thing! It is what keeps things interesting, no?

    Anyways, on the philosophical side, my take is that the "postmoderns" who figured this out and who embody this attitude of reasonable experimentation were the American pragmatists--James, Dewey, and Peirce. I think you would enjoy Dewey's "The Quest for Certainty," which gives a pretty full account of pragmatism's response to the supposed epistemological crisis of modernity. This post was written in the shadow of that book.

    Cheers,
    Jeff

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  4. Enjoyed this post as usual, Jeff. I never thought of choices like marriage and children as radical experiments--but yes, there is quite a lot of uncertainty going into such undertakings. It's a relief (and a reinforcement) to read them named as such. Taking this attitude toward life implies not only a willingness to screw up and take risks, but also a quality of optimism. As someone who hates motivational cliches and false inspiration (and therefore is often labeled a cynic and/or a pessimist), it's sort of refreshing to think of myself as an optimist by this unconventional definition.

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