Overvaluing Trivial Uncertainty

Nick Williams
7 min readJul 24, 2022

Art: Mixed-media painting by Ross Hendrick | Artfinder

In everyday life we substitute trivial uncertainty for the real thing (i.e., ‘uncertainty of the radical variety’). This substitution is complete, which is to say once it has taken place then we have no relationship with the real thing at all. Trivial uncertainty has now become everything. Trivial uncertainty is the only type of uncertainty that is permitted within the Realm of Thought — it has to be everything because nothing else is allowed! There are a number of ways in which we could talk about Radical Uncertainty but the neatest way is to say that it is the uncertainty of whether we achieve our goals or not.

Whether I achieve my goal or do not achieve it is profoundly insignificant of course — it may matter an awful lot to me but that is only because I have projected that value on it. I have said that it is ‘all-important’ and so it is — to me, at least! What we are saying (or implying) here is that the difference between one of our mental categories and another is real rather than being a purely nominal type of thing; the difference is nominal of course but we say that it isn’t. We proceed on the basis that it isn’t and we never look back; we never look at this basis, we never question what we have assumed…

What we are actually doing here is that we’re ‘replacing intrinsic with extrinsic order’, extrinsic order being the order that we ourselves project onto the world (as opposed to the order that is already in it). Talking about Trivial Uncertainty is just another way of talking about games — extrinsic meaning is the meaning we find in games, the only type of meaning we can find in games. The ‘uncertainty with respect to whether we obtain the designated goal or not’ is the uncertainty regarding whether we win or lose, and what more is there to games than this? The ‘uncertainty with regard to the question of whether we win or lose’ is the game — everything in a game comes down to this question, needless to say. The trivial uncertainty as to whether we succeed or fail in the task becomes our whole world; the unequivocal polarity of ‘win versus lose’ greedily subsumes everything into it, in other words.

We can also look at this in terms of James Carse’s celebrated dichotomy of ‘finite versus infinite play’ — in a finite game we always play for a particular known outcome and so not obtaining this outcome very straightforwardly constitutes losing. Winning therefore means not being thrown out of our comfort zone (or not having to come anywhere close to acknowledging that there is such a thing as ‘the Radical Unknown’). When we play the Infinite Game we have no interest in obtaining a known outcome at all; that is of no consequence to us whatsoever, what we are interested in, as Carse says, is being surprised. ‘Surprise me!’ we say to the universe (which is of course a rather brave thing to ask).

This shows the perfectly complementary nature of finite and infinite play — the first is all about valuing staying in control (and staying therefore in the Territory of the Known) whilst the second is when what is precious to us is not ‘our ability to stay in control’ but what we might call ‘our vulnerability’ — ‘vulnerability’ meaning that we can be acted upon by the world in an unpredictable way, such that a type of change takes place that we do not understand and which, therefore, we cannot bring about ourselves. James Carse talks about ‘power’ on the one hand versus ‘strength’ on the other — power allows us to maintain our position of control (so that we’re not vulnerable to change) and strength is what allows us to have the courage to allow ourselves to be moved by the world in this unpredictable way. Strength has nothing to do with our ‘ability to do’ (or our ‘ability to control’) but our ability — so to speak — to not resist change, to not disguise our vulnerability, to not cover over our fear.

Finite play corresponds to the Realm of Trivial Uncertainty therefore, and the Realm of Trivial Uncertainty (i.e., the Domain of the Known) is created by the projection of our home-made boundaries out onto the world. The Domain of the Known (or the Realm of TUC) is the game we are playing, in other words, and this is the domain we withdraw to in order to compete with each other, in order to see who has the most power, in order to see who has the ‘greatest ability to control’. This is the world of ordinary human affairs (otherwise known as society) and it is not a real world. The only thing this unreal world is good for is competing in, is for playing our finite games in.

We make a whole world of trivial uncertainty and we do this in denial of Radical Uncertainty — we can’t take TUC seriously if we have any awareness of the real thing. That just can’t work, we can’t have the two on the same page! One way of talking about TUC is to say that it is the uncertainty that exists with regard to the question of ‘whether we achieve our goals or not’, whereas RUC could be explained by saying that it is the irreducible uncertainty that attends the uncomfortable question as to whether our goals are actually meaningful or not! Or, as we could also say, it is the uncertainty we might experience with regard to the question of whether the one who wants so much to achieve the goal actually exists in the first place. That’s called ‘getting philosophical’ and in our culture we really don’t like to do that…

Another way of talking about the dichotomy of < TUC versus RUC > would be to say that the former has to do with the uncertainty of whether the elements that make up our environment should be evaluated as being ‘this’ on the one hand or ‘that’ on the other. We are ‘selecting from known alternatives’ — for example, ‘is the result of me tossing a coin going to be heads or tails?’ Focusing, as we do, on this question very effectively prevents us from being aware of the bigger question, which has to do with the reality — or otherwise — of the issue that we are getting caught up in. In other words, playing the game causes us to be unaware of the fact that the game is only a game. To put this even more simply, playing games is our way of becoming unconscious. By thinking exclusively within the box we neatly arrange things so that there only is the box. This is a version of the salesman’s trick, as described here by Douglas Flemons –

As any good hypnotist, magician, or comedian knows, the offer or availability of freely choosing between alternatives at a given contextual level brings the particularities of choice into the foreground of conscious awareness. This necessarily relegates to the background (i.e. out of awareness and out of the realm of conscious choice) the higher-level context or premise determining the range and meaning of the offered alternatives. The presence of choice (between particularities) at one level masks — and in some sense precludes — choice (between premises) at a more encompassing level.

When we stick within the boundary then the boundary ceases to be ‘a boundary’ (i.e., it ceases to be an arbitrarily-assigned demarcation which has two sides to it) and it becomes an unquestionable and invisible rule — it becomes an absolute limit to our perception of reality, to our perception of what ‘the world’ is. The rules that we have ‘within our heads’ gets projected out onto the world where they cease to be ‘rules that we ourselves have made’ (which is a petty thing) and become instead ‘the world itself’. When we don’t own our own rules these rules become the world itself, we might say. What we have denied in this exercise is this thing that we have called Radical Uncertainty, which is the very thing that — when we acknowledge it to be there — shows up our boundaries as being perfectly meaningless. If the bigger picture is ‘an irreducible question mark’ — so to speak — then how can we divide this Inexplicable Whole into parts that are — somehow — knowable in every respect? The only way we can take our arbitrary (and therefore profoundly petty) divisions seriously as if we deny the Whole, and this equivalent to saying that we can only play our games by denying the Enigma which is Radical Uncertainty.

A boundary is ‘the very essence of the Known’, we might say. It is the very essence of the Known because it can be exhaustively described — there is ‘UP’ on the one side and ‘DOWN’ on the other and everything has to be seen or understood within these terms. This is the same as saying that when we are operating within the framework then the only way we can ‘take something seriously’ is if it makes sense within that FW. The framework determines what we should pay attention to and what we should not pay attention to; it determines what is real and what is unreal. And yet despite the crushing authority of the FW, the crushing authority of the Domain of the Known, and therefore of Thought (which is the rightful master of this domain) the entire endeavour can only seem meaningful to us (or real to us) when we contrive to remain completely oblivious to the way in which the framework itself was arbitrarily abstracted from the inscrutable Whole. The world we ourselves create is petty (because it is made up entirely of the boundaries which thought has created) whilst ‘petty’ is the one thing the inscrutable Whole can NEVER be! The price of our positive knowledge is ignorance of reality itself, in other words.