LIFE is confusion. When I was younger, I found social situations so threatening that I unconsciously avoided all socializing and instead played online video games with friends, or built ‘friendships’ with people on internet forums that I never met or knew beyond a superficial, digital relationship.
When it came to girls, I was petrified and thought the best way to handle that would be to adopt some kind of ‘cool guy’ mask or simply to talk and make jokes until they laughed and liked me.
When it came to my life, the idea of responsibility was alien to me. I suppressed the idea that I was actively determining my future and instead fantasized about one that I hoped would just occur of its own volition, but in fact, never did.
In each instance, I eventually came to realize that I was the common denominator in all my problems. Nobody was going to solve them but me. But because social situations, girls, and responsibility were all things that threatened me, I sought out advice that would explain to me, in simple, intellectual terms how to solve all of these problems.
Because surely there had to be a solution.
Life never follows the pattern we want it to follow. Try as we might, it refuses to conform. We’re successfully funny and charming on nine dates, only for that to fail on the tenth, with the girl we liked the most. We research the work ethics of successful people, find the common denominator habits and attempt to implement them ourselves, but nothing seems to stick. We read books on socializing, rapport building and leadership, but the techniques work in just as many situations as they don’t.
The reason is that there is no solution to your life’s problems.
And your attempts to find one only make it worse.
THERE IS NO ANSWER
One of, if not the most prevalent ideas of the 20th century was that life could be explained via a theory. That human behavior, motivations, individuals, and societies could be explained with all the certainty that we could find in the most concrete of intellectual fields – I.e Geometry.
This was (and is) the ultimate desire of the sciences, and it could be said, thought itself. Each one wishes to be as certain as the one before it.
Physics desires to be as certain as mathematics, Chemistry desire to be as certain as physics, Biology desires to be as certain as chemistry, and this keeps going all the way down until we get to psychology, and it’s jealous offspring, social ‘sciences.’
The idea that permeates all of these fields is that there must be absolute rules to each. Just as 1 + 1 always equals 2 and all the angles of a triangle always equal 180 degrees, there must also be definite rules to every other field of thought.
Everything must become fact. Everything must become science. Everything must become knowable.
Life must become a science. And there must be fundamental rules that, once understood, will leave us to perfect harmony, utopia, and 24/7 happiness.
This idea underpinned many of the biggest social movements of the 20th century. And no, I don’t mean women’s liberation or Martin Luther King Jr championing equality for African Americans. No, I mean the really, really big social movements – like National Socialism, or Soviet and Chinese communism.
The ideas behind all these were the same two principles.
- There are fundamental rules to human life.
- We have found them.
1 led to 2, and 2 directly led, as Aleksandr Solzenitsyn and Dostoevsky before him illustrated, to the horrific deaths of over 100 million people. After all, if you know the fundamental rules of life, how could anyone be justified to oppose you?
Through their adherence to principles, they came into conflict with life itself – one that stubbornly refused to be rational and explainable. It’s no wonder violence followed soon after.
Now, these might seem like far-flung examples. ‘Visko, that all makes sense,’ you might say, ‘but, how do the ideas of genocidal dictatorships have anything to do with me?’
Well, the more you seek a theory that explains, with certainty, how you ought to behave, the more you’re going to find yourself in conflict with life itself.
UNCERTAINTY IS EVERYTHING
All theories exist to be disproven. This is inherently scientific.
Given the inherent desire within all fields to become a “true science”, it’s surprising that arguably the creator of science himself, Aristotle, completely rejected the idea that all knowledge conformed to one model. In the Nicomachean Ethics, he wrote:
“It is the mark of an educated man to look for precision in each class of things just so far as the nature of the subject admits”
His view was simple. Not all fields were made equal. Although Euclidean geometry was a perfect example of true, universal knowledge, it was also not subject to the thousands, if not millions of variables that other forms of knowledge were.
He constantly wrote that some subjects could never be approached the same way as say, mathematics. In instances like ethics, he would write “on the whole, and for the most part” – a phrase which has zero place in certainty.
The closer the forms of knowledge got to human life, the more the variables didn’t simplify, but rather ramified and mystified. That is, they grew more and more complicated.
Sometimes infinitely so, and in the case of questions that regarded consciousness (which 2300 years later we still don’t understand any better than they did then) only became more and more unknowable.
As a result, any theory about your life, my life, or societies life must be taken with a couple of metric tons of salt.
Writers like Tolstoy and Dostoevsky continued Aristotle’s warning.
Both writers lived during a time of massive intellectual upheaval. The term, intelligensia, actually comes from the period in which they lived. It referred to an individual who subscribed to a particular ideology (read: theory of life) and held this to be more important than anything else.
Both writers went to war with this kind of thinking through their fiction.
Tolstoy, in War in Peace, demonstrated how war and greatness are ultimately determined by random chance rather than any strategy or individual will – and thus applied this idea to every other ‘science’ of human behavior.
He also sought to demonstrate that those who write the theories of life, often do so with their own interests at hand (who wouldn’t?). As he says, the only reason we don’t see histories claiming shoemakers made the world is because shoemakers don’t write history books.
In other words – the irrational guides the attempts of the rational.
In Anna Karenina, Tolstoy showed how we determine the course of our lives in infinitesimally tiny, mundane moments that we pay attention zero to, and that the big moments are largely irrelevant. He also showed how our perception of events, and our prediction of them, occurs never, ever how we anticipate (or in many instances, want).
Similarly, in Crime and Punishment, Dostoevsky demonstrated that there are many logical reasons for murder, but the ultimate motive is irrational and almost always truly unknowable. After all, we don’t understand how consciousness works.
He also sought to show, in Demons, that, as the concept of original sin implies (Dostoevsky was extremely religious), humans are equally as innately evil as they are good – and no possible theory could erase the existence of this innateness. Some part of us is not made socially, some of us simply is.
In short – both were saying three fundamental things:
- The biggest rule in your life is that it’s subject to random chance. This applies to everyone’s actions, so the rule only swells with importance the more people interact.
- Human action is infinitely complex as it exists in small, unnoticed moments.
- Human behavior is ultimately irrational at its core, and thus incompatible with a true rational (scientific) understanding, and thus mysterious and somewhat unknowable.
When you combine all three you get a single message: real life doesn’t give a shit about how you think it works, has worked, or will work. And it will constantly spit on any attempt you make to try.
But if there’s no way to learn life, then what do we do?
PRACTICAL KNOWLEDGE IS EVERYTHING
The rewards that would come from finding a cure-all solution to all of your problems are so great that you’re inherently motivated to look for one.
Imagine if you found a way to perfectly socially interact every time? Imagine if you found a way to always seduce the opposite sex? Imagine if you found a way to master your own mind and make your dreams a reality?
Or more simply, imagine if you found a way to be consistently happy?
We all want these things. We crave certainty in these areas because the uncertainty that results from things not going our way is really embarrassing, sad, or sometimes painful.
But the more you seek this kind of certainty, the more you delude yourself into thinking certainty exists, and train yourself to live badly.
Life then requires a different approach:
In this article I’ve argued two things:
- Because human activity is incredibly, incredibly complex – any theory or attempts to understand or predict it with certainty will likely be wrong (see: everyone’s predictions on how the Brexit vote or the 2016 US Election would go).
- Because of this, it’s best to avoid applying a uniform theory to anything, and instead of taking things as they come on a case by case basis.
The best knowledge is that which applies practically to the situation that confronts you.
For instance, although, in theory, it might make sense to do X, Y, Z, if the moment calls for A, B, C then your theory couldn’t be more wrong.
A commonly held theory might say to you that you need to work harder. But practically, you as an individual might require time off to help your creative juices flow.
A commonly held theory might say that you need to need to be trusting and open with people in order to live an emotionally healthy life. But practically, if you come up against a manipulative psychopath, that’s going to fall to pieces.
Likewise, a commonly held theory might say you need to be distrusting and guarded with people, but the second you meet someone who’s honest, compassionate and unguarded with you, you’re just going to push them away.
But far and away the best example of this comes from people who struggle with conversation. In conversation – there is no theory. There are simply tips, all of which are nothing compared to presence of mind.
Conversation, especially in a group, is inherently chaotic. You’ve got a group of people, who don’t even understand how they think, sharing ideas and opinions that may or may not be true based on how they feel, to pursue goals they’re likely not even aware of.
In that instance is the best advice to tell a good story? Be unlikeable? Flirt well? Or not be boring? All things I’ve recommended. Or is the best advice simply to react to the moment as it happens. To improvise – because any and all of them may apply, or none of them may apply.
Because that is the one thing to take away from this. You have to learn to adapt to the situations that are occurring in front of you and use your judgment to apply what you’ve learned, what you experienced, and what you want to try.
Because nobody knows what truly works, and life is best lived in uncertainty.
But if you question everything, improvise in the moment, and stop assuming you can explain or predict the world – you might just realize it never mattered what worked in the first place.