CORE ESSAYS

HOMECOREQUOTESCHANGE FORMAT




 

CURIOSITY: The desire to enlarge oneself is the desire to embrace
more and more possibilities, to be constantly learning,
to give oneself entirely over to curiosity.

 

 

CERTAINTY R.I.P.
4-9-03

“How could it be anything but the most shameful ignorance to think one knows what one does not know?” — Socrates

“The true philosopher is always the person who knows he does not know.” — Pierre Hadot, What is Ancient Philosophy?

I think we can put certainty to rest in three easy steps.

1. Certainty is based on judgment.

2. Your judgment comes from you.

3. You are a vague, unfathomable, discontinuous, somewhat opaque, erratically functioning and idiosyncratic collection of half-formed thoughts, feelings, hopes, dreams, fears and fantasies — influenced by genes, personal experience, parenting and culture — all sprinkled over with a hodgepodge of partly digested, half-remembered knowledge.

Your statements about belief are more like revelations about your character than comments on truth. The study of certainty belongs more to psychology than theology.

TO KNOW THAT YOU KNOW

Even if you should stumble across the truth, your certainty would still be your certainty. Nothing more. It's as if we're on one side of a smoked-glass wall and truth is on the other. We might catch a glimpse of it on occasion but never own it — or know that we know it.

Thomas Aquinas put it this way:

When the intellect begins to judge about the thing it has apprehended, then its judgment is something proper to itself — not something found outside in the thing.

The idea also is captured in a poem by the pre-Socratic philosopher Xenophanes.

The gods did not reveal, from the beginning,
All things to us, but in the course of time
Through seeking we may learn and know things better.

But as for certain truth, no man has known it,
Nor shall he know it, neither of the gods
Nor yet of all the things of which I speak.

For even if by chance he were to utter
The final truth, he would himself not know it:
For all is but a woven web of guesses.

And a guess, after all, is a form of judgment.

I don't reference these philosophers as proof that the theory is true but only to show it has a noble though forgotten history.

TWO OBJECTIONS

Allow me to anticipate two objections.

1. FAITH

I think someone is going to say that faith guarantees certainty. But faith is just another word for certainty, so it can't guarantee itself. That's just talking in circles.

Moreover, faith is another word for judgment, the heart's final verdict on a long series of lesser evaluations. Whatever we say about judgment applies to faith.

In short, your faith comes from you. It’s your faith, a form of certainty based on your assessments, evaluations and choices to the best of your knowledge so far. Truth may exist apart from you in the world “out there” but not certainty, belief or faith. Those things are interior and personal. So we are back to judgment, an acceptable foundation for individual claims but a very shaky one on which to erect absolute truth.

2. GRACE

I think someone is going to say that the grace of god guarantees faith as something more than personal judgment, but that doesn't even fit in with Christian doctrine.

I don’t know how it is for other religions, but Christianity builds free will into the equation of belief. The idea is that god does not impose himself on people, that he does not want robots but free moral agents making right choices. This is one of the central concepts of the myth of Christianity.

The point being, according to this system, is that god can't or won't do anything to override choice or the need for individual judgment because that would negate free will and break the very rules Christianity has set for itself.

It’s mistaken for a Christian to think “the objective reality and truth of god” makes evaluation irrelevant or forces a predetermined logical or commonsensical conclusion. People who make such claims forget about competing truth claims, free will and the crucial role of personal judgment in sorting out life's complexities.

To say, as I have often heard, “I believe (the truth) because it's true,” is to forget about judgment and misunderstand free will. Simply put, your judgment and belief doesn't come from god or reality: It comes from you. What you have at the end of the day is your judgment and your certainty.

OUT THERE

Yes, that which exists independently “out there” helps set the judging process in motion, but it never guarantees the validity of judgment. We can't be sure that we've reached past personal judgment and grasped what's really there. We grab it, hold it and examine with judgment, not bare hands, not objectively.

To say “I'm objective” reveals the problem of objectivity; you'd have to leave “I'm” out of the equation, but then “you” wouldn't be there to comment. That you're interested in a topic and want to express yourself on it reveals you're not objective. To say “I'm objective” makes as much sense as saying, “I'm mute” or passing someone a note that says, “I never learned to write.”

ALWAYS MORE JUDGMENT

Trying to guarantee the validity of judgment always requires more judgment, a never-ending series of tentative evaluations that help fine-tune your sense of life; to imagine that some final judgment will end the judging process altogether is the hope of all absolutists, who want to believe, not think. As Kundera said:

Man desires a world where good and evil can be clearly distinguished, for he has an innate and irrepressible desire to judge before he understands. Religions and ideologies are founded on this desire.

This “either-or” encapsulates an inability to tolerate the essential relativity of things human.

The novel’s spirit is the spirit of complexity. Every novel says to the reader: “Things are not as simple as you think.”

The world of one single Truth and the relative, ambiguous world of the novel are molded of entirely different substances. Totalitarian Truth excludes relativity, doubt, questioning; it can never accommodate what I would call the spirit of the novel.

JUSTIFICATION

We are always justified in citing our heartfelt beliefs as beliefs based on the best of our knowledge so far, but we are not justified in totalitarian claims that those beliefs match up with the truth of the matter, not because of a quote from Aquinas, Kundera or Xenophanes, but because we can't show that our judgment is unerring because we can't verify that our character is free of prejudice or distortion, capable of seeing clearly through hope, fear and opinion to the fact of the matter.

Having a mind that doesn't completely know or agree with itself, and having feelings that contradict each other, reveals what Kundera means by “the relativity of things human.” The resulting confusion can seem overwhelming at times, so people try to simplify life by creating for themselves an unambiguous, one-truth world. Such a feat can be accomplished, but at what cost?

Novelists shine their light on the situation, and philosophers want us to understand that not even science or logic can bear an absolute-truth burden — so how much less the human personality?

ERROR

From this perspective certainty is only a cover story that pops up when we lose track of judgment. Likewise for claims of objectivity.

Those odd bedfellows, the science-minded logician, the fundamentalist and the theological realist, want to tell us what's really there, objectively speaking. But what’s really there is the ever-present need for judgment; otherwise, individuality and the doctrine of free will are simply rubbish.

If neither god nor reality force you to believe something, then the choice is yours. To cite god or reality as the source and cause of your certainty is to duck responsibility for your own views and judgments.

IN THE END RESULT

Certainty is based on judgment.

Your judgment comes from you.

Since you don't know yourself through and through, there's no way to verify the validity of your judgment. It all comes back to the fallible human mind mysteriously interacting with itself in a twilight of clouded self-awareness.

The only way to claim certainty is to confuse objectivity, ideology or theology with psychology, and that's a very dangerous mistake. Dangerous for you. Dangerous for your loved ones. Dangerous for the world at large.

Maybe reasonable doubt isn't so bad after all.

Maybe it's progress.

If you can explain how judgment is divorced from belief — or is infallible — I will be glad to remove this nonsense from my Web site.




QUOTES

UNCERTAINTY: Living with no supernatural justifications,
no complete explanations, no promise of permanent
stability,with guides of merely probable validity.