The basic philosophy of OCD: a Life of Pi

I cannot help it—in spite of myself, infinity torments me.” — Alfred de Musset

OCD is Infinity experienced in the finite brain

The human brain, for the sake of survival and basic functioning, has a mechanism which we all experience throughout our day as an illusory feeling of certainty, that subconscious “good enough” feel.

When I get in the shower I don’t expect to slip, get my hair caught in the drain and drown. When I leave the house I’m pretty sure I won’t get hit on the head and be killed by a falling sacrificial goat. Despite, both of these cases having reportedly occurred before. We are experts at living with uncertainty the vast majority of the time, we have to be – even those with OCD. Certainty, or at least “safe enough” is a comforting illusion.

Pliny the Elder once paradoxically said: “the only certainty is that nothing is certain”. And, according to Nanamoli Bhikku (a late British Buddhist monk who I admit I never heard of until I saw this quote): “certainty is the absence of infinity, infinity is the presence of uncertainty“. If both of these statements are true, which I believe they are (though I cannot be certain), we can conclude that infinite uncertainty exists.

Thus we live in a world where nothing is certain (even death?); we only have probabilities and information which is always <100%. There is always an argument, no matter how convoluted, that can throw doubt on an assertion.

From a philosophical point of view then, OCD is when a thought or idea (usually involving pain, suffering or death to the self or others) bypasses the “good enough” brain system and the finite meets the infinite. This is ultimately where the problem lies. The brain uses finite information/actions in the form of compulsions to attempt to solve a potentially infinite problem. However, the brain doesn’t understand this at the basic level, it just sees it like any other potential danger. The normal warning signs are repeatedly triggered and you feel compelled to act. But unlike “normal” potential or illusory dangers where 1 + 3 + 6 – 2 = 8 and we move on. OCD demands that you write down all the decimal points of Pi before its satisfied that you or others are safe.

Thus, depending on the nature of the obsession that bypasses the system: no matter how many times you clean the kitchen surface with bleach, no matter how many prayers you say, no matter how many times you check the door is locked, or circle back in your car to check you haven’t ran somebody over accidentally, or try to prove you even exist – the infinite always wins. There is always another decimal point that can be added.

OCD demands the impossible, a Life of Pi.