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.
“I generally lean toward saying no – and an uncertain no.”
This seems self-refuting in just the way this sort of skepticism typically is. If you are uncertain, you can’t sensibly say “Yes” or “No”! Of course, you can assert “Yes” or “No” conditionally or with qualifications, but this is different from an “uncertain yes” or “uncertain no”.
The rational thing to do if you are sincerely or genuinely uncertain about something is to suspend your judgment. You can’t have your “skeptical cake” and eat it too!
Amod Lele said:
This is a rather peculiar perspective coming from an advocate of “common sense.” It sounds like you’re saying we should consider ourselves “certain” of anything of which we are more than 50% confident! It is absolutely not rational to suspend one’s judgement when one is not certain – that way lies complete Hamlet-like indecision. Indeed, it’s only on these grounds that I find any agreement with your comment here: we must exclude apparently implausible views because we need to act even when we are uncertain. Not because we are arrogant enough to assume with absolute certainty the necessary falsehood of views we have not examined with any care.
It looks like you are conflating philosophical views and empirical judgments. It also looks like you are conflating certainty and probability.
The words “certain” and “doubtful” are mutually exclusive. It is a misuse of those words to use them as though they were compatible.
However, the words “probable” and “doubtful” are not mutually exclusive. Probability, of course, admits of degrees.
Thus, if we have reasonable doubt concerning an empirical judgment despite evidence for it, we have to consider the judgment probable to some degree or other. The higher the degree of probability, the less the grounds for “uncertainty” and also for suspension of that judgment.
But probability does not apply to philosophical positions such as skepticism. How on earth does one calculate the degree of probability of the view that none of our judgments are absolutely certain?
Amod Lele said:
You are conflating the concept of mathematical probability with the word “probable,” which predates it. One does not have to be able to calculate a degree of probability to say that something might or might not be true.
Moreover, your blanket statement above, as written, applies fully to empirical claims. If one must suspend judgement about those things on which one is uncertain, that includes those things which are merely probable in a mathematical sense. If something has a 50% chance of happening, then I am uncertain as to whether it will happen (though the reverse if-then does not apply).
Amod, have you considered knowledge of conventions, e.g., knowledge of the meanings of words, signs, rules, etc.,?
Anyone familiar with traffic conventions knows with Absolute Certainty that a red light means “Stop”! Anyone familiar with the English language knows with Absolute Certainty the meanings of the words in English they do happen to know. Anyone familiar with chess knows with Absolute Certainty that the rules of chess don’t permit you to move your king to a square under attack by an opponent piece!
Thill, knowledge of conventions seems like just another example of probabilistic certainty; you can be close enough to certain to act like it in everyday life, but there’s still plenty of room for error. Haven’t you ever used a word, and had somebody say cautiously, “Um, that means X, not Y?” Have you ever played a game with a new-to-you opponent, who said “No, you’ve been playing it wrong, the rule actually goes like this?”, and found out he was right?
You missed my point. If you do know a convention, then you know it with absolute certainty. If you do know the rules of chess, then you know it with absolute certainty. And if you make a mistake about a rule, and the person who corrects you knows that rule, then that person knows it with absolute certainty. It’s obvious that it can’t be otherwise with conventions. Remember, we make them! So, we know them with absolute certainty!
“Haven’t you ever used a word, and had somebody say cautiously, “Um, that means X, not Y?” Have you ever played a game with a new-to-you opponent, who said “No, you’ve been playing it wrong, the rule actually goes like this?”, and found out he was right?”
If you and your opponent are unsure about a rule or word, you can look up the latest official book of rules or the dictionary, and learn with absolute certainty the rule or the meaning(s) of the word.
There are plenty of examples of ordinary knowledge and scientific knowledge which are cases of absolute certainty or beyond all reasonable doubt. I hope you have no “doubts” about what to do to stop your car or accelerate its motion! Your knowledge of everyday objects such as artifacts and natural objects such as rocks and trees is also permeated with absolute certainty. Again, the qualifier here is “knowledge”. If you do know that it’s a car, or a chair, or a tree, then you do know it with absolute certainty or beyond all reasonable doubt.
I’m not surprised Thill that you are a prescriptivist and not a descriptivist when it comes to words. Etymologists will tell you that the dictionary is written and revised based on usage and usage of words changes over time.
This is, of course, a side issue. I think the real issue is the certainty with which we impose our concepts on the world. In the abstract, you can of course create a concept that has meaning and certainty. A clear statement such as “It is nighttime” certainly has meaning — but the interplay between the concept and the world has greater subtlety. In the world, “night” is a continuum from dawn until dusk. It also implies a speaker making his or her statement at a particular place and time on a particular world. In short, it is a relative concept.
From my point of view (and I think Amod’s as well), doubt is more an openness to what exists than a negative statement or a disagreement.
It is irrelevant to point out that some words change in meaning over time. My point is not that all words have an eternal meaning, but that he who knows what a word means at any given time, knows it with absolute certainty.
Could you give one good reason to doubt that “bachelor” means “unmarried male” in English now? If you don’t have one, then instead of clinging to your “gospel of doubt”, concede the point that our doubts occur against a background and backdrop of impressive certainty!
If the road is icy, I might not know what procedure will stop my car adequately.
Bachelor can have implications of homosexuality in some contexts (particularly the phrase “confirmed bachelor”). Depending on how it’s said, I might miss that kind of implication, or infer it erroneously. Note that this meaning is not in many dictionaries.
Game rulebooks can have unclarities or typos in them, which subsequently get errata on the internet. And then, heck, those errata can be errataed.
There are many things on which we can get VERY close to certain- close enough to act without doubt. But as with Amod’s main point, “certain enough to act decisively/consistently” is not the same as “absolutely certain with no logical room for doubt.”
It’s certainly possible to come up with examples of knowledge that are simple enough that there’s no convincing way to find uncertainty. But there’s no category of knowledge that allows true certainty, not social conventions nor word meanings. I will concede that something intensely *simple* can eventually eliminate all possible room for ambiguity (an exaggerated example: “This sentence contains words”). However, that seems more like avoiding the problem than solving the problem.
From the fact that in some unusual conditions you can’t be certain of this or that, it doesn’t follow that the same holds true in normal conditions! From the fact that people with deteriorating eyesight cannot be certain of many things they see, it doesn’t follow that people with normal eyesight also cannot be certain of many things they see. To think otherwise is clearly a case of Non sequitur.
“Amod’s main point, “certain enough to act decisively/consistently” is not the same as “absolutely certain with no logical room for doubt.”
Ah, so your standard of “absolute certainty” is “no logical room for doubt”! In other words, if it is logically possible to doubt X, then X is not absolutely certain. Well, in that case the conclusion that almost everything lacks absolute certainty follows! “Almost everything” because you still can’t doubt what is logically impossible to doubt, e.g., “A is A”, “Bachelors are unmarried.”, “There is doubt.”, and so on.
Note that if it is logically possible to doubt X, i,e., if there is no inconsistency in doubting X, it doesn’t follow that it is reasonable or sensible to doubt X. It is logically possible to doubt that you have parents, but I am sure you will agree that it is asinine to do so! It is logically possible to doubt that the ground will give way when you take your next step, but in normal circumstances this doubt is pathological.
It would be wise to consider whether one’s doubt, regardless of its philosophical dressing, is just plain pathological and tantamount to or similar to irrational suspicion or paranoia.
In the Islamic philosophical tradition, there is a category of knowledge called ‘ilm huduri or “presentational knowledge.” Suppose for example that one is happy; one’s knowledge of this happiness is certain because in this instance there is a union of the knower, the knowledge, and the known. In other words, the one who is happy is the very happiness itself and happiness is not other than knowledge of one’s own happiness. In fact, certainty can be defined by a union of the knower, knowledge, and the known or between the subject, object, and a third element that arises from this union. Interestingly, one sees a parallel in the Hindu description of the Absolute as Sat, Chit, Ananda or Being, Consciousness, Bliss, the third element in this case being the Bliss “born of” or “intrinsic to” the union or non-difference of Being and Consciousness.
Returning to the example of ‘ilm huduri, one could argue that one could later become doubtful of one’s happiness and grow to question it, but there can be no doubt that at the time of happiness one was happy. From this observation, however, comes the question: is there a certainty which is abiding? Obviously this can only be where the subject and the object enjoy a union which is not subject to change or let us say, where the distinction between subject and object is quasi-illusory to begin with. Considering that certainty arises out of the union of Subject and Object, it is easy to see that absolute certainty (this term is necessary) can only exist with realization of the Self or of the Absolute. In other words, rather than knowledge of a particular state of the Self such as happiness, there is one’s own knowledge of one’s self outside of any particular state or thought. One might doubt the possibility of such a knowledge, but the fact that this is where absolute certainty is to be found is “self-evident.” Another way to say the union of Subject and Object is to say that the distinction does not exist at that level; now if there is no distinction then there is neither a subject nor an object nor a union of the two. This appears to me as essentially the Buddhist perspective which is an equally valid way of looking at the situation.
I hope you find my comments interesting and thank you for the blog.
Welcome Kareem. Stick around and we’ll drive Thill crazy.
Bill Rough said:
Kareem, I wonder about the problem of mistakes or error. We might think we are “happy” only to be mistaken. Another aspect of this would be the question of what “happiness” means. If just a feeling, then I would agree with you, but if happiness is a “way of life” like in Aristotle, then I would have to remain uncertain, like in the case of Solon who suggested “count no man happy until they are dead.”
Amod Lele said:
Thank you very much for the post, Kareem. As Jim says, I hope you’ll stick around.
However, I actually do question whether we can necessarily know whether we’re happy even at the moment of happiness. I expressed my doubts in this post and this post: our own feelings are often less transparent than we think they are, even to ourselves.
michael reidy said:
By your lights you have to in the first instance believe that the avatar is omniscient before you can believe in what he says. I ask whether there it has ever been reported that this order of business was followed? I cannot recall such a sequence and I’m inclined to think that it is something like asserting that you have to be able to swim the channel before you can swim a length of the pool. Looking at C.S. Lewis’s own conversion as I recollect it came to him as a conviction which he was reluctant to accept. His trilemma is more of a reason for continuing to believe than the spur to belief. In the Christian tradition faith is regarded as a theological virtue and a gift and not something you can wrassle yourself to. The vedic tradition makes more of sabda pramana and sraddha i.e. reliable testimony and assurance. The hearing (sravana) of a mahavaka such as ‘that thou art’ is supposed to bring instant realisation to the ready seeker but again those who believe in this have never been able to offer an instance from the lore of saints and sages.
“If you really were the Son of God as that idea is typically understood, you would know everything.” Lewis would disagree. As he wrote in the essay “The World’s Last Night:”
It would be difficult, and, to me, repellent, to suppose that Jesus never asked a genuine question, that is, a question to which he did not know the answer. That would make of his humanity something so unlike ours as scarcely to deserve the name. I find it easier to believe that when be said “Who touched me?” (Luke 7:45) he really wanted to know.
For myself, I think omniscience is a completely inconceivable circumstance from our perspective– not even understandable by analogy.
Amod Lele said:
Interesting. It’s not a theological question I’ve explored much so far. Certainly the Jesus of the New Testament does not appear omniscient. On the other hand, I’m not sure the Yahweh of the Old Testament appears omniscient either. For good reason – it’s really hard to write a good story about an omniscient being.
Skholiast, it’s Luke 8:45, not 7:45.
What follows, going by the Gospel account, Jesus’ strange question “Who touched me?” is interesting. His question is strange because Peter points out that the whole crowd was pressing against him! Anyway, Jesus claims that his reason for asking that strange question is that ““I know that power has gone out from me.” He clearly believed that he had some “power” which could “go out” from him by means of touch. What a curious belief! And how remote from our own humanity!
Quite right, Thill– chapter 8. Thanks for catching that. I should always triple-check.
You are also right that, although the question “Who touched me?” admits of a common-sense interpretation, as Lewis insisted, the whole context and reason for Jesus’ asking in the first place is not quite commonsensical (to us).
completely inconceivable circumstance from our perspective– not even understandable by analogy.
Skholiast, it’s not omniscience which is “inconceivable”, not to mention “not even understandable by analogy”. There is a simple and clear definition of “omniscience”: X is omniscient if X knows of any true proposition that it is true and of any false proposition that it is false.
What is truly “inconceivable” and “not even understandable by analogy” is the belief that Jesus is God and “Son of God” at the same time!
Thill, leaving aside the theological definitions (which even the Athanasian creed insists are “incomprehensible”, though of course it doesn’t quite mean what the English means by the word), I’m not talking about the definition of omniscience, I’m talking about some imagined subjective experience of it. While some would argue that your definition harbors hidden paradoxes, I am willing to stipulate for these purposes that it’s coherent. What I maintain is that we can’t actually imagine being omniscient, any more than we can imagine being omnipotent (assuming for the sake of argument that these are different). Our own knowledge always transpires against a horizon of our finitude. This means that even the word “knowledge” can only refer by analogy in the case of omniscience, and as for imagining the experience, I say even this won’t get us very far.
michael reidy said:
It would be absurd to accuse Hindus and Buddhists of a Christian heresy namely Docetism because of course the ‘dokesis’ (appearance) is canonical yet I have read that the apparent illness and deterioration of jnanis is merely an appearance. My own view is that the ‘omniscience’ of the perfect master extends to that which is good for the devotees and does not extend to the laws of science and the winner of the upcoming Grand National. Here I think there is a confusion between ‘appearance’ as a metaphysical doctrine and appearance as incarnationally manifested.
Bill Rough said:
I would think that we can be certain that we know that we do not know everything.
Amod Lele said:
Thanks, Bill, and welcome to the blog! That’s a good one, and I will need to think about it more. It would depend on the terms of the definition. East Asian “Buddha-nature” thinkers, for example, might argue that we are in some sense already omniscient Buddhas; but even they must agree that in another sense we don’t know that.
The thesis that we don’t know anything with absolute certainty or beyond all reasonable doubt seems like a hasty generalization from some cases of empirical/scientific knowledge and numerous kinds of philosophical, metaphysical, or religious claims. It ignores many cases of mathematical knowledge, linguistic knowledge, knowledge of many natural entities and artifacts, knowledge of one’s limbs (knowing one’s nose, ears, etc.,) knowledge of conventions, etc., in which genuine knowledge is tantamount to absolute certainty.
“our own feelings are often less transparent than we think they are, even to ourselves.”
And how do you know that this is true? If you know that this is true, it only proves the point that our knowledge of our own feelings is incorrigible!
I am absolutely certain that Amod and Thill are engaged in a debate on certainty and doubt.
Amod is right to emphasize the importance of doubt in enriching inquiry. I will add that this doubt should not be “idle doubt” but meaningful, constructive, and productive.
Thill is correct in his emphasis on certainty as the background and foundation of inquiry and the fact that it makes doubt possible.
Certainty without doubt is stagnant. Doubt without certainty is sterile.
Amod Lele said:
Thanks, Neocarvaka, and welcome. I like your alias, BTW.
Why do you say that certainty makes doubt possible? Certainty about what?
As Thill pointed out, you must be certain that you know the meanings of the words you use to express your doubt in order for your doubt to make sense to you at first. You must also be certain that those words are intelligible to those to whom you are communicating your doubt. Without this basic certainty of linguistic knowledge, the articulation of doubt is not possible.
Amod Lele said:
I don’t see that this is the case. It sounds like another instance of Wittgenstein trying to bewitch us with language. Dogs respond well to a variable reward ratio – to a situation in which a certain behaviour is sometimes rewarded and sometimes not. The dog knows that it might not receive the reward, but also knows that it might, and therefore continues the behaviour – but it doubts whether its behaviour will be successful, despite having no language in which to express the doubt.
Even if it true that a dog can doubt, this has no bearing on the fact that when humans doubt whether they know anything at all (a dog can never have that sort of doubt!), they are using language to formulate that doubt (indeed, this sort of skepticism is impossible without language) and, hence, must know with certainty the meanings of the words they use to formulate and communicate that doubt. Total skepticism is, therefore, self-refuting.
This is very peculiar! You are claiming to know that dogs can doubt, but deny that you don’t know what the word “doubt” means in the sentences you are using to express your interminable doubt!
How do you know that dogs can doubt?