The previous post may have been somewhat elliptical. I was trying to dra a distinction between systems of certainty & systems of contingency. Science & the arts are systems of contingency (though they have deep epistemological differences, whereas fundamentalist religions & conspiracy theories are systems of certainty. Systems of certainty are, by both definition & experience, fantasy. I was about to say that systems of certainty are infantile, but in fact most six-year-olds have a better sense of the world's uncertainty than the various peddlers of fundamentalist faith. The hatred of the quasi-Christian & quasi-Islamic fundamentalists is a function of the difficulty of maintaining a simplistic worldview. I heard an interview with the cognitive scientist Marvin Minsky on the radio this afternoon in which he noted, in passing, that when people are angry, their brains are not "looking ahead" & that brains in such states cannot perform the reflective & executive functions required for basic self-awareness. I don't agree with Minsky about the prospects for thinking computers, but anyone who has read Sophocles knows the psychological cost of anger.

Author: jd

Joseph Duemer is Professor of Literature Emeritus at Clarkson University in northern New York state. His most recent book of poems is Magical Thinking from Ohio State University Press. Since the mid-1990s he has spent a good deal of time in Vietnam, mostly Hanoi. He lives with his wife Carole & five terriers (four Jack Russells & one Patterdale) on the stony bank of the Raquette River in South Colton.

5 thoughts on “Contingency”

  1. I like your contingency-vs.-certainty view because of meeting so many “certainty-people” who complain that Science is just like another religion. I try to point out that although these two social organizations have many similarities, the personal goals of their ‘converts’ are quite different. In the ‘fundamentalist’ religions, one big goal is Faith — which Mark Twain described as “believing what you know ain’t so.” In contrast, ambitious scientists aim toward achieving their Sainthood (which in Science is called The Nobel Prize) by (1) designing experiments to show that established beliefs are not quite right and (2) discovering new, better explanations.

    My radio lecture came out OK, but it was a very condensed version of ideas in Chapter 1 of my new book “The Emotion Machine,” which you can read at

    I also agree with you about Sophocles. Many of my students study modern ‘cognitive psychology’, and I try to persuade them to supplement this with the insights of Aristotle’s

  2. Thanks for your response, Professor Minsky. I thought of Sophocles as soon as you mentioned anger. In Oedipus Rex, which is all about seeing & blindness, both real and metaphorical, anger prevents Oedipus from “seeing” the truth about himself. In any case, both science & the arts, along with many religions, recognize that certainty is a one-dimensional response to an uncertain world, a kind of intellectual & spiritual death.

    Thanks for the link to the book chapter on which the radio segment was based. I look forward to reading it.

  3. Religion is the most contingent system out there, because what you believe is largely determined by what family you happen to be born into. Yet a contingent system that does not recognize itself for what it is… that’s fundamentalism. Any intelligent believer knows that he or she believes what she believes because of a series of contingencies–cultural and family tradition, temperament, etc… not because that particular religious tradition is objectively true. So I always experience cognitive dissonance when someone from the Catholic church, say, talks about the value of objective truth. Religion is the most postmodern thing that could possibly exist, the best demonstration that notions of “truth” are relative and contingent.

  4. AXIS

    Faith in fundamental
    and faith in fundamental

    for mankind earth the cosmos
    these two doorposts
    threatening to fall in
    on one another

    bullying ghosts mostly of
    ancient murders sealed
    in bloody recapitulations

    unholy pact of rival brothers
    dedicated to annihilate
    any middle way.

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