The Search for a Criterion
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”(*), - but then: can we be 'certain that certainty is unattainable'?
The attitude of thinkers in the 16th century towards knowledge and human capability was outrageously skeptical, and 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)
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 and accuracy of the human sense organs,
developed in a way beyond the imagination of the skeptics.
An outstanding example is the successful landing of the
European Space Agency spacecraft “Rosetta” -
on a mere 4 km wide comet, orbiting a complicated
trajectory between Jupiter and Mars
(at a speed of 135.000 km/h) – landing on the comet and
sending 3D images at a distance of 24 million km.
Such an accuracy of knowledge in locating and then in landing on a comparatively very small object - millions of kilometres away - deprives the claim of doubts about the correctness of information supplied by the senses, of any justification.
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)
The argument here is that: if Descartes search for certainty started with a wrong asumption, 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:
the skeptics denial, the religious demand and the scientists argument of reason
In response to the skeptics, the “religious argument” about certainty goes like this: if there is no certainty, then life is meaningless and lacks purpose, so we have to believe that absolute certainty is knowable:
“The skeptical perspective seems to be in direct opposition to human nature and only provides
The "religious argument" presents a criterion for searching for certainty, a criterion based on the question: does the concept of certainty lead to “benefit”? If the concept of certainty is beneficial for people (answering their enquiry about a trustworthy and meaningful knowledge) then we should believe in its existence. There is a problem in this view, which demands belief in a certainty: what does it mean to be 'beneficial' and to whom?
The application of the religious argument led to conflicting conclusions. Religious certainty is based on a belief in God as the “ultimate truth”. While the “ultimate truth” implies being - obviously - one ultimate truth, in reality however, many beliefs about God developed in the minds of different people. Instead of stability, benefit and order in history, competing claims for ultimate certainties led humanity to doubts and also to disastrous wars.
Beliefs describing Hinduism-based Gods offer a different and incompatible view about the “ultimate truth”, which is perceived within other beliefs, such as the beliefs of Abrahamic religions - and which also differ between each other in their own perspectives about God. (In 2014, it was ruled by court of law that the word “God” of the bible is not exchangeable with the word “Allah”). (**)
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:
“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
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, based on deduction and induction - are useful for verifying partial truths. It is not possible, however, to 'conclude' absolute certainty through deduction from preceding premises. Additionally, the 'method of induction' can lead to what is probably true, not to what is absolutely certain.
The Criterion for Absolute Certainty
Let's consider the reality of life and death. The fact that one is alive at the present time and that one's death is a definite future event - this obvious fact can lead us to an insight about the criterion for what is certain. In order to establish a criterion for absolute certainty, there is no need for hundereds of pages of philosophical investigation about the subject.
Additionally, everyone is ceratin about life and death. Everyone - means there can be no single person who can doubt about it, hence a certainty must be acknowledged by all people, regardless of intellect, age or any categorization.
The 'Criterion for Absolute Certainty' is that which offers no opportunity for dispute among all people about it - in time and place. What is valid for us as absolutely certain must have been also be valid for our ancestors, whereever they lived.
This perspective implies that what is considered as 'Absolutely True Without Doubt' - is that which is inwardly clear for all individuals in any place and time. Any claim of “certainty” or “truth” – not agreed upon by all people throughout history - will be then only partly - but not completely - agreed upon, and hence cannot be considered as absolutely valid for all people.
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 it. The criterion for certainty based on 'common experience of all people' surpasses criterions of religious beliefs or rational analysis. Experience is the actual proof.
The Three Certainties
There are three truths, which all people would agree upon their certainty without any doubt:
1. The first observation about the common experience starts from observing this current moment of time. We reached this moment of time because of previous moments and events, retrospectively starting from one event: that of our birth. The fact that we are here because we were born in the first place - is undisputable. The certainty of the event of birth carries within it the certainty of change in time (both bodily and mentally). It also becomes known for us (through observing as well as through sharing information) that both birth and death are a certainty. Beyond any doubt: birth, growth and death express the absolute certainty of 'change over time' – taking place at each moment.
2. The fact of 'sharing of information' is also an essential common experience of all people, weaving an invisible thread of interconnectedness between individual and others. We exist in reality through experiencing relationships with other people and with the environment. The reality of Interconnectedness of self and others manifests through both physical and mental aspects of each individual's life. Interconnectedness of phenomena in nature is also an undisputable truth.
3. Finally, all people agree that the relationships we experience follow patterns, principles and rules. Relationships are value-oriented. Certain values are beneficial, while others are not. Values, such as pleasure and pain, are 'already established', and undoubtedly experienced since birth. 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. The world is very complicated but it is not arbitrary, it is not chaotic. At the background of all phenomena - a dynamism of consistent patterns or NonRandomness is undoubtedly at work.
From the Cogito to the Three Certainties
Absolute certainty is that which is experienced without doubts by all people in time and space. The three certainties which are experienced by all living beings (change over time, interconnectedness and consistency of natural patterns) are universal in all aspects of existence.
Rosetta landing on its comet. Image courtesy http://blogs.esa.int/rosetta/