The Search for a Criterion


Absolute Certainty

Along the ages, the search for certainty left philosophy in doubts.  

Some philosophers blamed the concept itself: “Absolute certainty is unattainable” -  

and the reason for this claim was that: “our senses cannot give us true knowledge”  Timothy Ryan

Such belief has its roots in the skeptical attitude of thinkers in the 16th century towards knowledge and its limitation to the senses.  Descartes' views resonated with this trend of skepticism.  Doubting the correctness of information supplied by the senses, Descartes decided to set the senses aside in his process of investigation of what is trustworthy and certain:

     “Anything that admits the slightest doubts I will set aside as if I have found it to be wholly false,

     and I will proceed in this way until I recognize something certain”.

      (Second Meditation, Descartes, quoted in Philosophy of Mind, Dr. Chalmers p. 10)  

Descartes' search for certainty

With good faith, Descartes aimed for the ultimate purity in reasoning by getting rid of anything, which may be questionable in the process of his search for certainty.  This led him to the method of applying extreme and exaggerated doubt – but as Simon Blackburn writes, this method does not seem to be logically justified:

     “What exactly is he thinking? Perhaps this: 'The senses sometimes deceive us. So for all we know, they always     

     deceive us'.  But this is a bad argument – a fallacy. Compare: 'Some banknotes are forgeries. So for all we know,

     they all are forgeries'. Here, the conclusion is impossible, since the very notion of a forgery presupposes valid notes”.

       (Think, Simon Blackburn, p. 22. Oxford University Press 1999, ISBN 978-0-19-285425-4)

The senses, which the 'Cartesian Doubt' dismissed as deceptive, can also lead to correct information and can correct our mistakes:

    “ …we only know that the senses sometimes deceive us because further investigation - using the same senses –

     show that they have done so”.  

      (Think, Simon Blackburn, p. 22. Oxford University Press 1999, ISBN 978-0-19-285425-4)

Distrust to the abilities of the senses - as tools for acquiring correct knowledge -  was the product of that period of time, preceding the scientific and industrial revolutions - which stretched the capabilities of the senses to a staggering degree.

Tools and instruments (which can be regarded as extensions to the range of detection of the human sense organs),

developed in a way beyond the imagination of the skeptics.  For example, an article in New Scientist magazine (2005) reported a measurement of time intervals with uncertainty of 1 second in 30 million years - a sufficiently accurate measurement to dismiss doubt about 'uncertainty' of information, and which can be rather extremely accurate and reliable.  If Descartes' method of exaggerated doubts was questionable, then what about the conclusion it led him further to the famous iconic principle: the Cogito?

The weak foundation of the Cogito: if Descartes search for certainty started with a wrong assumption, a fallacy or - at least - employed an unjustified exaggeration - then the conclusion he reached with the Cogito cannot be taken as based on a sound philosophical ground.

The Three Arguments about Certainty

1/    The religious argument: In response to the skeptics denial that Certainty can be reached, the “religious argument” about certainty goes like this: if there is no certainty, then life is meaningless and lacks purpose, so we must do something about it by assuming and believing that absolute certainty is knowable:

     “The skeptical perspective seems to be in direct opposition to human nature and only provides

     us with a viewpoint that is depressing and meaningless without any purpose or order”.  

The "religious argument" presents a criterion for searching for certainty, a criterion based on the question: does the concept of certainty lead us to “benefit”?  If the concept of certainty is beneficial for people (satisfying their enquiry about trustworthiness or meaning of knowledge) - then we should believe in its existence.  

History tells us that the application of the religious argument (about the benefit of religious beliefs) led people to conflicting results.  Religious certainty is based on a belief in an external authority, that of God.  In reality however, many incompatible beliefs about God developed in the minds of different people.  Instead of stability, benefit and order among people and societies, competing claims about the religious certainty has led humanity to disagreements, doubts, conflicts and to disastrous wars.  

2/    The scientific argument:  A shift in approach to the question of certainty developed through applying the methodology of science in studying natural phenomena.  The new criterion for investigating certainty became the criterion of reason.   

According to Timothy Ryan's article:


     “Beginning in the 17th century new philosophical and scientific doctrines began to emerge as a way to combat

     skepticism as well as religious dogma and to discover a method that could be employed to establish absolute

     certainty in the natural world through reason.  

There is a question, however, whether we can attain "philosophical certainty" - just by logic and scientific reasoning.  

Reasoning is based on principles of thoughts established by man.  In reality, however, there is no reason why the absolute truths of the world - has to be confined to our Principles of Thoughts or standards - and which are relative and can change in time.  Logical conclusions established by the 'method of induction' can lead to what is probably true, not to what is absolutely certain.

3/      The argument of "Universality" : If there is an observation that is universally valid in all places and all times, and is agreed upon by all people, then its occurrence in reality of life cannot be denied; it is certain without doubt.   Eastern philosophy approaches the question about certainty through observing what is undeniable, starting with the experience of the universal phenomenon of life and death.

The Certainty of Universal Patterns

Eastern philosophical perspectives distinguish between two kinds of Truth: relative and absolute;

          “Mahayana Buddhism speaks often of two types or levels of truth, the worldly or relative truth

          and the supreme or absolute truth". Note on the Ongi kuden

According to Buddhist reformer, Nichiren (1222 - 1282) - a truth is considered relative, when it is valid within specific range of categories of time and space.  Nonetheless, a relative truth (or a specific event) can give a glimpse on the general (or universal principle), which is at work in the background of the observed event:

          [In his explanation of the Lotus Sutra, Nichiren] frequently moves to a higher level of truth,

          reinterpreting the same event or passage in terms of what he sees as their absolute meaning or intention,          

          namely, how they apply to other places and ages, or to all ages and places, to all humankind". Note on the Ongi kuden

Nichiren's view then is that a truth is considered absolute if it applies to all places and times, and also if it is valid for "all humankind".  To view "the absolute" as beyond the limitations of Time and Space is understandable, but the view that the truth should be valid for all people - is quite remarkable.  It is so rare for people to agree on anything.  If a truth is considered as 'absolute' but only by some people - such as believers in "God" considering him as the "Absolute"  - then in this situation this truth is rather relative, because it is valid for believers and for their specific branch of thought - but not for others.

The criterion of validity in Time and Space and for all people, implies that the described certainty must be then experienced by all people, all along the history of our ancestors - and will be undoubtedly experienced by the coming generations.  If a certain truth becomes known for all people through experiencing it (an experience, which had been also experienced by their ancestors in history) then it is fitting to consider such a truth as spanning all categories, offering no opportunity for dispute about its certainty.  

The criterion for certainty based on the 'common experience of all people' surpasses criterions of religious beliefs or rational analysis.  The proof of such a truth need not be theoretical, but is based on a real experience, which offers it the actual proof of validity.

The Three Certainties

According to Eastern perspectives, there are three universal truths:

1.    Impermanence:

It is indisputable that we exist because we experienced birth in the first place.   The event of birth was the start of a process of growth and which will be followed by decline and death.  This process is universal; it is expressed by all what exists - and is called the Truth of Impermanence, or - in other words - the truth of change in time.  The certainty of change is expressed by the physical aspect of the body and by the mental aspect of mind.  Beyond any doubt: the pattern of birth, growth, decline and death expresses the absolute certainty of 'change over time' – taking place at each moment in the realm of living being, and also in the field of inanimate matter.  Even natural landscape, or planets, stars and galaxies - also express the Certainty of Change.

2.   Interconnectedness

We exist in reality through experiencing relationships with other people and with the environment.  The air we breath is a sufficient indication for our interdependence on the environment, and our childhood, education and daily life - express our interconnectedness with other people, close and far.  Even a simple product or item we use - could exist only because of a chain of interconnected events and coordinated systems involving a huge number of people.  The reality of Interconnectedness of self and others is observed by each individual and experienced, both physically and mentally. The Truth of Interconnectedness of phenomena in nature is beyond any doubt.

3.   NonRandomness or Order

All people agree that the world is not random, changes occur but their occurrence is not chaotic.  The relationships we experience follow patterns, principles and rules.  Experienced relationships express the dynamism of causes and motivations leadting to consequences and effects.  In all aspects, we realize that there is a certain "order" in the occurrence of events; there are directions, preferences, attractions, repulsions, and principles or laws of nature.  At the background of all phenomena - a dynamism of consistent patterns express the Truth of NonRandomness or Order that is undoubtedly at work, where causes of actions lead to resulting effects.  

The Three Certainties of: Change, Interconnectedness and Order of Reality - are valid without restrictions of time or place, and are facts experienced by all people,  thus can be considered as absolute truths or absolute certainties.


The Mutual Possession of the Three Certainties:  It is possible to consider that each of the three certainties is possessed of the other two certainties.  

-      The process of Change in phenomena is not arbitrary; it does not occur randomly, but follows relevant patterns.  Objects are affected by changes in external objects which they are dependent on.    

-      Interconnectedness means that nothing can exist in isolation, and that the characteristics of objects are influenced by changes in other objects - a dynamism occurring through processes of consistent patterns.  

-      Obviously, the NonRandomness of the world implies that there is a bond, or a law, which binds the changes in interdependent phenomena.  The dynamism of changes manifests a link between causes (of occurring events) and their results, a link expressing a law of consequences of actions (or their effects).  For this reason, it is possible to consider that all events follow a general law of cause and effects - which integrates all phenomena occurring in the world we experience.

Referring to the order that binds causes of changes with their inevitable effects as the Universal Law of Cause and Effect - it is possible to consider this Law as the Absolute Truth operating in all aspects of reality, and experienced within the life of each living being.

Implications of the Three Certainties

Absolute certainty is that which is experienced without doubts by all people in time and space.  The three certainties are inwardly "experienced," not just "observed".

This view, based on Nichiren's perspective about the Absolute Truth, is rather revolutionary.  Philosophical literature tends to locate the Absolute Truth or Absolute Certainty outside the individual, while Nichiren's perspective indicates that the individual is in fact a personal expression of the Absolute Truth, and that the Absolute Certainties are to be found within the life of each individual.


Author: Safwan Darshams