I'm Certain that There Are Two Kinds of Certainty

There is a lot of huffing and puffing nowadays about “postmodernism” and “skepticism” and “certainty” and “absolute truth.” And it’s been going on for a long time.

On one extreme we have those who affirm that all statements are simply indications of one’s own state of mind, simply matters of opinion, and have no determinable reference to reality. On the other are those who declare their belief in absolute truth and in the absolute truthfulness of their conviction about their favourite absolute truths.

I’ll deal with the radical postmodernists/skeptics/cynics/social constructivists/solipsists another time. (I’ve already dealt with postmodernism in a previous book—Humble Apologetics—and doubtless will again.) Today, let’s deal with the other end of the scale, those who declare not only that certainty is to be had, but that right-thinking people and particularly Christians ought to say that we have it about the main convictions of our outlook.

Alas, too many of these folk proclaim that anyone (such as your servant) who questions whether a human being is actually equipped to enjoy certainty about his or her convictions is guilty of betraying the faith. Some of these folks are clearly off their rockers, while others seem sensible enough on most matters, if regrettably strident and rigid on this one.

The situation boils down to a simple distinction between two kinds of certainty. The former describes a situation and the latter describes a state of mind.

The former kind of certainty entails a situation in which one knows something, let’s call it x, and one somehow knows that one both knows x and knows that one could not possibly be wrong about x. One is certain, that is, in the strong—really, in the absolute—sense that one somehow knows enough about one’s situation to know that one has apprehended x entirely, that one has interpreted x correctly, and that there are no more data to be had that might alter one’s perception of x, such as new information suddenly showing up tomorrow or next week.

Indeed, one somehow knows that there is no possibility of the situation being other than it seems—that one might be in The Matrix, for instance, or (to go back a few hundred years to Descartes) that one is being deluded by an evil demon or (to go back a few thousand years to Daoism) that one is actually a butterfly dreaming he is a man, rather than a man dreaming he is a butterfly.

To be sure (and I told you I’d deal with the radical skeptics soon, so let’s do it now), there is little reason to believe that we are, in fact, being deluded by an evil demon or that we are butterflies dreaming that we’re people. So one doesn’t have to feel awash in a sea of doubt just because the theoretical possibility arises that things are other than they appear.

The main point today, however, is that one also cannot claim to be in an epistemic situation of certainty, either. For how could a human being claim such a thing? We all too often are mistaken about things, change our minds about things, find out new things about things (!), and so on. Worse, our own theology (if we’re Christians, say) or our own common sense (if we’re honest) tells us that we tend to see what we want to see, to hear what we prefer to hear, and to believe what is in our interest to believe.

Again, it’s not as if our sense experience, say, or our memory, or our logic is utterly unreliable. Of course not. It is to say instead that our perception of reality is never other than limited and biased and is always at least possibly mistaken because of our limitations and biases.

Some Christians retort that our certainty is guaranteed by God. Because God speaks only absolute truth, they say, and because we Christians possess God’s Word in both the Bible and in the testimony of the Holy Spirit, then we can and should claim two things: that we know absolute truth and that we know that we know it beyond question—that is, certainly. Anyone who says otherwise is claiming that the Bible might be wrong and the Holy Spirit might not be trustworthy.

Those are serious charges indeed, but they need to be laid elsewhere. I happen to believe that the Bible and the Holy Spirit do, indeed, speak the truth. Now, what “truth” means in this context requires some careful nuancing, to be sure. But it remains the case that no matter in what sense the Bible and the Holy Spirit speak truth, my epistemic limitations and biases remain.

I, that is, cannot somehow get outside my own head to look back on my situation and see without any possibility of error that I am seeing things (such as the Bible or the testimony of the Holy Spirit) exactly aright.

In fact, we fall into an infinite regress here, where I look at myself looking at myself looking at myself ad infinitum, trying to get to some location of absolute sureness that I now could not possibly be wrong because I have surveyed all there is to know about this situation and I know that my biases aren’t getting in the way and I know that something else (an evil demon, a hallucinogen, a hypnotic suggestion) is not affecting me in any way.

I can only ever say how things look to me at present.

Now, I may well know this or that truth about reality. Two plus two might indeed equal four, period. In fact, I think a lot of things that I believe about reality are just plain—that is, absolutely—true. I do not at all deny the existence of absolute truth nor do I deny that we human beings can know absolute truths. I am saying instead that we cannot know certainly that we know absolute truths or that we know that this particular thing, x, is absolutely true. We human beings are never in a situation such that we could not possibly be wrong—and that’s what certainty in the former sense is.

We can, however, be highly convinced of x. In fact, we can be so convinced of the truth of x that we live our lives as if it were true. I live my life as if Newton’s laws of motion and optics were true. I live my life as if what my wife tells me were true. And I live my life as if the gospel were true. (In fact, I believe that last part so thoroughly that even my job depends upon it!)

So I think it’s fine to say that I am “certain” about these things. When I do, I am reporting on my state of mind. I am saying that I am so highly convinced of them that I entertain no serious doubts about them. I think, and feel, and act with untroubled confidence in them.

And that is what the Bible promises me: that I can enjoy such confidence—note that word: such “with-faith-ness” (con fide)—that I can make crucial life decisions according to such convictions.

The Bible, that is, doesn’t promise somehow to lift me above my human limitations into an epistemic situation such that I can know something truly and also know that I know it truly and could not possibly be wrong. How could I, as a human being, ever experience something like that?

(And those who quote passages such as Luke 1:4 and Hebrews 11:1 need to consult the Greek lectionaries to see what is actually meant in the English translations that use “certain” words therein. Those words do not mean certainty in the former sense I’m defining here.)

No, the Bible promises that I can know with such assurance, such conviction, such well-grounded faith that I then can and will act in accordance with that faith—and thus be faithful.

This is, finally, the point of it all. We Christians “live by faith, not by sight” (2 Corinthians 5:7)—and so does everybody else, actually, since no human being can transcend our common situation of epistemic finitude. In fact, if we enjoyed all the certainty (in the former sense) that some Christians say we should claim, well, then, we wouldn’t need faith anymore. We would just know things, and we would know that we were entirely right about them.

Instead, we know things more or less well, just like I know various people more or less well, or various songs more or less well, and thus I have more or less confidence in my knowledge of them. I don’t know anyone or anything in such a way that I could not possibly be wrong about them.

Is that a bit scary? Yes, it is, and I think fear motivates a lot of people who spout off about absolute truth and certainty and the rest of it, and who condemn anyone who suggests that we can’t be as sure of things as they say they are. But claiming certainty in a big, belligerent voice doesn’t alter the situation one bit. And I wish such bullies would calm down and face, so to speak, reality.

Welcome to the human condition, friends. We have to sort out the world as best we can, with whatever help we think we have found.

I think the Christian religion, the Christian Church and, especially, the Christian God help me to know things much better than I ever would on my own. But they don’t make me other than human or lift me out of my humanness. They don’t make me certain.

And I’m certain about that.

0 Responses to “I'm Certain that There Are Two Kinds of Certainty”

  1. Myron

    Haven’t checked your blog in a while, and what a treat do discover when I do that you’ve got a nice post on epistemology! Here are a few ramblings on the themes you address…

    My own preference is for the fallible/infallible description over the fallible/certain description of this feature of our cognitive life, because while fallibility and certainty come in degrees (I can be more or less certain about p, for example), infallibility doesn’t come in degrees; this makes it a nice contrast between what is we’re often trying to express by noting our fallibility.

    I also confess that I’m never quite sure what the modifier “absolute” is intended to add to “truth” when its used, because (as you allude to), it seems most often used to make some kind of *epistemological* point. But as a kind of correspondence theorist about truth, I think that truth (at least insofar as we’re talking about the truth of statements) is a *metaphysical* property, not epistemological. The *absoluteness* of *absolute truth* in a lot of discourse seems to be a reference to epistemological certainty or infallibility of a kind (i.e. “not possibly mistaken”), but being “possibly mistaken” or “not possibly mistaken” strike me as epistemic properties describing some cognitive fact about knowers of truth, and not about the statement purported to be known.

    As you know, philosophers, with the help of ‘possible world semantics’, make use of the distinction between necessary and contingent truth. Contingent truths are those propositions true in some possible worlds but false in others (it’s true that I’m at my Dell laptop now, but things could have turned out differently such that I’m at a Mac desktop now, or not typing at all, etc.). Necessary truths are those propositions true in every possible world, and the typical examples here are truths of math and logic–and taking God to be a necessary being, truths about God, too. So, I think I can have lots of knowledge in the Matrix, because whether we’re in it or not, I can still know, for example, that 2+2=4, and that Descartes’ *cogito* is true.

    So combining the above, I adopt the following taxonomy for knowledge categories: (i) fallible knowledge of contingent truth, (ii) fallible knowledge of necessary truth, (iii) infallible knolwedge of contingent truth, and (iv) infallible knowledge of necessary truth. I think I’ve knowledge in each of the four categories, though (iii) and (iv) would be the smallest groups by far.

    It seems to me that there’ve been two main falliblist traditions in philosophy (at least in the 20th century): one which says that our knowledge claims are fallible because we might be actually mistaken and thus be actually believing false things (I think this is a form of latent skepticism), and another which locates the fallibility of our knowledge in close possible (but not actual) worlds. Because I think that knowledge entails truth–even fallible knowledge entails truth–I adopt the latter view.

    Okay, this was way too long.

    Take care!

    –Myron A. Penner

  2. John Stackhouse

    Whew: That was quite a comment, Myron! In reply I’ll just say a few things.

    First, I like your term “infallible” to denote “could not possibly be wrong.” But certainty doesn’t necessarily come in degrees: “Are you sure?” “Yes, in fact I’m certain.” That means 100 per cent. So I think the terminological distinction I’m making is still worth making. Don’t you?

    Second, “absolute truth” would make sense if by that we mean that “x” is a perfect representation of whatever reality it purports to represent. “Truth” is thus a quality of a representation, and it possesses more or less of this quality as it more or less accurately represents whatever reality it is supposed to be representing. I agree that the phrase “absolute truth” is often used sloppily or just plain wrongly, but it does still have at least this one valid meaning.

    Third, I’m not sure how the distinction between contingent and necessary truths is germane here. But I will say that, while you identify with a possible worlds theory (which I confess I don’t entirely follow in what you’re written), I would be in the former category, a not-so-latent skeptic and for theological reasons!

  3. Steve Dawe

    Awesome post, as long as it remains a statement of our inability to transcend personal bias and perspective in the expression of even our certainties. It’s essentially an epistemologically mandated humility, that while what we are certain of may be true, what we point to is truth, not our own knowledge of it.

    Can that be incorrect? Yes. Is it? I don’t think so.

    Though unfortunately, that will be used by some to assume that we are simply appealing to “faith” and that all our appeals are equal. Or worse, that we appeal to faith while others appeal only to the knowable.

    Jesus is the way the truth and the life. My mental constructions are not, though they may actually accord with the truth.

    Though I’m not a philosopher.

  4. Humility and Epistemology « (considering) 8:28

    […] April 12, 2008 Humility and Epistemology Posted by Stephen Dawe under Atheism, Culture, Ethics, Philosophy, Rant, theology   This post is a result of several things, including a conversation with a friend and a post on John Stackhouse’s blog (found here). […]

  5. How Do You Know? « Rumblings

    […] in a word of warning to those tempted toward claims of certainty in the arena of faith, has recently posted on the importance of recognizing the epistemic limitations faced by all human beings, religious or not. Here’s a summary […]

  6. certainty, stickers, homelessness, & city kids « signs of life

    […] Prof Stackhouse takes on certainty in Christianity. It’s long but very worth the read. The main point today, however, is that one also cannot claim to be in an epistemic situation of certainty, either. For how could a human being claim such a thing? We all too often are mistaken about things, change our minds about things, find out new things about things (!), and so on. Worse, our own theology (if we’re Christians, say) or our own common sense (if we’re honest) tells us that we tend to see what we want to see, to hear what we prefer to hear, and to believe what is in our interest to believe. […]


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