Can doubt be a basis for certainty?
Rene Descartes, famous French philosopher
Painting by Frans Hals
Descartes thought so.
Remember his famous affirmation, “I think therefore I am.”
The thoughtful Descartes was thinking about doubt. And the faint hope of certainty he seized upon was that, even if doubt could not be overcome, the existence of doubt itself bore witness at least to the existence of the “doubter.”
Of that he could be certain.
[And of course we have the lesser known story where Descartes accidentally declined an invitation by saying, "I think not," and he immediately disappeared, never to be seen again.]
But seriously, can finite creatures ever be absolutely certain about anything? And yet, do we really have to have absolute certainty to claim some degree of knowledge?
These are good questions. The answers are suggested by looking at three approaches to certainty.
Deductive Certainty: This approach offers certainty but no new knowledge beyond the narrow system it champions. Moreover, philosopher-mathematicians now agree that no completely self-contained system of knowledge can be constructed. All but the most trivial must have a starting point outside themselves. And a similar thing is true on the output side. Deductive systems cannot be connected to the real world without an inductive move that introduces more uncertainty. These necessities make the certainty of Aristotelian deduction unavailable to the questions of life. If all this sounds too academic, then the implications should be clarified by simply saying, “finite creatures can never be absolutely certain about anything. The only being who is certain is God.” This modest viewpoint not only explains the nature of doubt, but also the role of faith, and the nature of knowing. We don’t have to have certainty to claim knowledge.
Inductive “Certainty”: “Certainty” is in quotes because inductive systems do not provide the rigorous philosophical kind of “certainty” available within deductive systems. They do, however, offer a degree of “certainty” that can be deemed “knowledge.” In other words, we can claim to know something without being absolutely certain about it. (If this were not true, then rational action would not be possible and doubt would become monstrous, spiraling downward into radical skepticism.) Inductive systems make claims to knowledge with warrants grounded in the “commonplaces” of social understandings about the nature of God, humanity, knowledge, good and evil, etc.
Pseudo-Deductive “Certainty”: In this case, “certainty” is in quotes because the approach is deceptive in using deductive forms to claim certainty while hiding the overall inductive nature of the system. The payoff is that finite creatures get to claim absolute certainty, particularly on matters of morals and religion. A practical example would be the Scholastic-like sifting of the Bible into a system of knowledge from which deductive certainty appears possible. This is what some religious groups. If that sounds OK, then consider that the focus of “faith” (if “faith” is even the right word) is not on God or even the Bible, but on “the system.” One result is the development of environments where honest conversations that cast doubt on claims to absolute certainty are not welcome — where anxious people, keen on being certain, work to shut them down.
- The impulse to deny the reality of uncertainty is understandable in the face of those with weak consciences who eagerly embrace opportunities for subjectivism to their own hurt.
But failure to admit the inherent uncertainty of human knowledge leads many well-intentioned people to attempt a defense of what ultimately can’t be defended.
In the meantime, absolute “certainty” will continue to be a lot like “infinity” — a familiar concept, but nonexistent in the real world.
And so Western philosophy’s pursuit of such certainty has failed — and for good reason. Absolute certainty flows from omniscience — and omniscience belongs to God.
Not to worry though, the proper stance of finite creatures before an infinite Creator is not absolute certainty, but faith.
Conversely, lack of absolute certainty (doubt) is not necessarily a failure of faith. Rather it is an inescapable aspect of human finitude.
- The three approaches described above are all related to what philosophers call “espistemic” certainty — the certainty that a particular proposition is justified.
- Psychological Certainty — relating to the feeling of being certain.
- Espistemic Certainty — relating to the justification (argument) for being certainty.
- Metaphysical Certainty — relating to the correspondence of a proposition to ultimate reality.
- How a person feels (psychological certainty),
- How well he/she argues (epistemic certainty), and
- Whether he/she is really right (metaphysical certainty).
Epistemic certainty fits into a framework of three categories:
In other words, categories of certainty in terms of . . .
Epistemic systems vary in foundations, rules, rigor, formality, and efficiency.
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- The preceding categories suggest some interesting questions . . .
- Which of the categories of certainty is possible?
Which is/are relative/absolute?
How do the categories relate to each other?
How do the categories relate to faith?
Which relate(s) to “salvation”?
Which would make faith impossible?
Which involve(s) deductive systems/ syllogisms?
Which are culturally/communally determined?
- Metaphysical certainty is absolute and belongs only to God and is therefore impossible for human beings. A human claim to metaphysical certainty is most likely a claim about the quality of an epistemic argument.
The categories are independent; e.g., epistemic certainty fosters psychological certainty but does not guarantee it and vice versa.
Metaphysical certainty would make faith impossible. Epistemic certainty can foster faith in the “system” and can thus be problematic.
In Christianity, salvation is a matter of psychological certainty. Epistemic certainty is a matter of Christian maturity/apologetics.
Syllogistic systems are characteristic of epistemic certainty.
Psychological and epistemic certainty are culturally and communally determined. That claim, however, does NOT reflect “relativism” if the cultures/ communities in question are NOT all given equal weight.
Knowledge, truth, and rationality are also culturally/communally determined. What can be “known,” what is “true,” and what is “reasonable” vary across communities. Some communities “know” things that others do not, not necessarily from lack of information, but from unwillingness to grant certain things the status of knowledge.
The loci of certainty . . .
Returning to Descartes . . .
- “Cartesian certainty” is a phrase typically used to describe the most rigorous kind of epistemic certainty. It is certainty grounded in justification considered so compelling it could be described as “demon-proof.”
Descartes saw sensory perceptions (empiricism) as deceptive/defective and viewed the mind (reason) as providing the “foundation” of genuine truth.
Most modern-day philosophers take the opposite view and see the mind as hiding the nature of ultimate reality rather than exposing it.
If “knowledge” be defined as necessary, universal, and certain, then humans are not capable of knowledge, since humans only have access to the “particulars” of human existence, not its universals. Particular experiences, no matter how numerous, can never really add up to a universal conclusion. And conversely, if universals exist, how do they relate to particulars. God Himself would have difficulty with all of this if not for the nature of the Trinity.
For a biblical view on the possibility of absolute certainty, see . . .
1 Cor 8:2– If anyone supposes that he knows anything, he has not yet known as he ought to know
1 Cor 13:12– For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face; now I know in part, but then I will know fully just as I also have been fully known
SIMPLE EXAMPLE OF UNCERTAINTY INVOLVED IN CONNECTING A DEDUCTIVE SYSTEM TO THE REAL WORLD:
Mathematics is the closest thing humans have to a “heavenly language” that actually participates in the objects it addresses. Yet even deductive systems built on mathematics still have trouble connecting to the real world. The example below shows some of the uncertainties introduced into the application of mathematics to a question on the area of a dinner plate. Is it “certain” that any two people will arrive at the same answer? The answer is no.
Tags: certainty, deduction, deductive logic, doubt, empiricism, epistemic certainty, epistemology, faith, induction, inductive logic, knowledge, metaphysical certainty, omniscience, philosophy, psychological certainty, rationalism