Under what circumstances can one be absolutely certain of anything? I had intended my previous post to be on that question, but the preliminary inquiries to it were significant enough that I thought they deserved their own post. I end that post, like the earlier “Certain knowledge” post, on a note of uncertainty; I don’t discuss any circumstances under which certainty is possible. So is it possible at all?
I generally lean toward saying no – and an uncertain no. I leave the possibility open that something will be revealed to me that I can be absolutely certain of; but I don’t think one exists. The happy thing about this kind of uncertainty is there’s no contradiction in it. While “there is no truth” is a contradiction because it asserts that the truth is there is no truth, and “we cannot know anything” is a contradiction because it implies that it can be known that nothing can be known, the same is not true about “we cannot be certain about anything.” The last can be asserted as a statement that is merely highly probable; it doesn’t need to be certain to be true, and therefore can be true without contradicting itself.
Still, I do think there’s one circumstance where real certainty is possible – though it is merely a hypothetical circumstance. My thoughts here go back to an exchange on an early post of mine, dealing with C.S. Lewis’s “trilemma” about Jesus. Lewis tries to argue against those who see Jesus as a great human moral teacher. Following from the (highly arguable) claim that Jesus claimed he was the only begotten son of God, Lewis tells us we have only three options: Jesus actually was the only son of God; he was lying; or he was insane. I pointed to the example of Mohandas Gandhi as someone who was at least a little bit insane, and yet also a great moral teacher. Defending Lewis, commenter DJR argued that – assuming Jesus did in fact believe he was the Son – such a belief is far more insane than Gandhi’s morally questionable beliefs and quirks. In my reply I noted:
Suppose you actually were the only begotten Son of God. How would you know? Whatever certainty you might have, whatever reasons you might have to justify the belief, couldn’t there also be someone who wasn’t the Son and had the same beliefs and certainty? Psychologically, from the inside, it would seem hard to tell the difference, unless there’s something I’m missing. The upshot of all this would seem to be: if Jesus the Christ can be relied on as a great moral teacher, then why can’t Jesus the mere human being? The core belief is true in one case and false in another, but it’s very difficult to tell which.
But I realize in retrospect that there would be a way to know. If you really were the Son of God as that idea is typically understood, you would know everything. And if you knew everything, then you could be certain that you were the Son – and you could be certain of everything else too.
I say this because I think the necessity of doubt follows from our status as finite and limited human beings. Whatever we’re most confident of, there are always other very smart people out there who have thought about the issue at length. They may very well have come up with something that we didn’t. Even assuming (as I do) that truth as such is out there and does not vary from person to person, we still can’t have absolutely reliable access to it as individuals; we could always be wrong.
A genuinely omniscient being, on the other hand, would have no such constraint. Such a being, by definition, would already know every argument that had ever made or ever would be. (And someone who was such a being could likely verify this knowledge with little difficulty.) Only in this position of omniscience would one eliminate the need for doubt, and have absolute certainty.
I suspect these points are among the reasons for the widespread popularity of belief in omniscient beings. Even early Buddhists, whose beliefs don’t depend on any kind of divinity, still claim that the buddhas are omniscient. The thing is, such a belief helps wrap up a tricky philosophical problem: given that our knowledge as finite humans is necessarily limited and partial and subjective, how can we say anything about what’s actually or objectively true? If you posit an omniscient being, you can be done with it in a sense: the objective truth was found by that guy over there, whose knowledge isn’t finite. This step seems to have been taken most explicitly by the Jains, with their theory of anekāntavāda: they argued that we each see a limited side or part of the truth, but it is only the tīrthaṅkaras, the fully liberated beings, who can see the whole thing.
The problem with taking such a step, of course, is that then you, as a finite human being, still have to establish that the tīrthaṅkaras or the buddhas or Jesus or whatever similar beings actually were omniscient. I’ve yet to see a good argument for that, and that’s why I don’t believe that there are omniscient beings. But I understand the urge to create them.