• John G. Stackhouse, Jr.

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.