Finding Certainty

By: Daniel Ganopolsky  |  October 31, 2022

By Daniel Ganopolsky, Opinions Editor

The realization that you can never really know anything for certain is often mentioned in philosophical discussions, and usually elicits two types of reactions. People either see the notion as pointless because it doesn’t change our human experience or they see it as negating the possibility of a discussion at its onset. 

However, there are people who view this statement as undeniably true and necessary for any level of nuanced thinking. Unfortunately, it is possible that someone could misconstrue the concept and give up on life when faced with the guarantee of uncertainty. This attitude will evolve and develop to a point where the person has no motivation or desire to improve himself or the world around him. He loses his grounding and sense of purpose. 

The search for meaning is a way to change this mindset of self-doubt and lack of purpose. It is an attempt to clarify an amateur notion while still always remaining open to new ideas. In his famous essay, “Self-reliance,” American philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson found the individual to be the foundational leverage point. From here, one can navigate the universe with at least some conception of truth connected to his actions.

Historically, society and its great thinkers have not trusted the individual. We try our hardest to appeal to externalities (turning to philosophers, religion, artists, or thought leaders) in seeking truth and meaning. Emerson expressed that the way to discover truth is by turning inward as the external things we tack on to our individual perspectives are really a source of corruption. The deepest connection available between people and the transcendent, immaterial aspects of the universe, is the most primary thing we have access to: our own individual human experience.

To clarify, Emerson was not telling people to shirk education. On the contrary, it is good to expose ourselves to the information in the world around us. However, he would say the second the source changes from telling you the facts of the matter to telling you how you should be feeling about those facts it shifts from education to indoctrination. 

Emerson only makes sense because he is a deist. He believes there is good and ultimate truth, but that God does not intervene in our world. Therefore, we need the individual to discern the good from the not-so-good.

Naturally, Jewish ideology takes a different approach. In his book, The Lonely Man of Faith, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveichik describes two competing drives within human beings. One aspect of man seeks a “dignified existence”. This is what Emerson would consider the only true purpose. We use our reason and logic to conquer nature, create the inconceivable, evolve mankind, and ultimately create a better existence. This task belongs solely to the individual. However, the Rav explains that this man is missing the direction and purpose of that great endeavor. The second aspect of man, the man of faith, seeks an ultimate purpose, and that can only be provided through a relationship with God. 

We believe that God not only gave us the Torah – the only source of good and ultimate truth – but also intervened, and continues to do so in our world today. This idea is the driving force behind our day-to-day actions, and how we choose to live our lives on a broader scale. Because we believe that God intervenes, we don’t fall into the trap of self-doubt and we don’t lose our sense of purpose. What Emerson didn’t understand is that instead of fighting society, man must embrace society in order to find meaning, and then look to God to find certainty.