The Search for a Criterion for 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 human capability.  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.

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.

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 have to believe 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 jjjjjjjjja 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 (answering 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 God as the “ultimate truth”.  While the “ultimate truth” implies being - obviously - one ultimate truth, in reality however, many incompatible beliefs about God developed in the minds of different people.  Instead of stability, benefit and order in history, competing claims for each God's ultimate certainty led humanity to 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 :


     “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, 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.

Eastern Philosophy

and the Criterion for Absolute Certainty

The approach Eastern philosophy takes in examining the concept of "Absolute Truth" can be a guide for establishing a criterion for "Absolute Certainty".  Buddhism distinguishes two levels 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

The "Absolute Truth" is viewed as the principle which operates all phenomena, while - 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 absolute principle, which is at work in the background of 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.  Not only it is so rare for people to agree on anything, but we usually understand the absolute as something objective, beyond the views of people.  On the other hand, 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 but not for nonbelievers.

If something is valid in Time and Space and for all people, then it must be also valid for all people in history, and in fact valid past, present and future!  Nichiren's perspective on what "the absolute" describes a power, which is all pervasive.  

Although the task for finding out what all people would consider as "the truth" - may seem extremely difficult, it would however become possible if we start from something common and shared - for example: birth and death are undeniably certain.  This means that 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 the 'common experience of all people' surpasses criterions of religious beliefs or rational analysis.  The proof of validity of such a truth need not be theoretical, but a real experience, which offers the actual proof.  

The Three Certainties

According to Eastern perspectives, 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 indisputable.  The event of birth, however, followed by growth and then decline and death is a manifestation of a general principle of Impermanence, or in other words the change in time (both in the physical aspect of the body and the mental aspect of mind).  Beyond any doubt: birth, growth and death express 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.   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. Interconnectedness of phenomena in nature is indisputable 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 by all living beings.  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.

The Three Certainties of: Change, Interconnectedness and NonRandomness - are valid without restrictions of time or place, and are 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, they are interdependent on.    

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

-       Obviously, the NonRandomness of the world implies that there is a bond, or a law, which binds the constantly changing phenomena, which are connected with other changing phenomena.  The dynamism of change and interconnectedness manifests a link between causes and events a law of nature  For this reason, it is possible to consider a general law of cause and effects - which integrates all phenomena - as the Absolute Truth, because it is valid in time, space and the lives of all living beings.

Implications of the Three Certainties

Absolute certainty is that which is experienced without doubts by all people in time and space.  The three universal certainties are "experienced," not just "observed."  Whether a living being is enlightened to the fact that its life is an expression of the Three Certainties - or not enlightened to this fundamental truth, this does not change the fact that the life of any living entity is a practical expression of the mentioned three absolute certainties.  We are experiencing the Absolute Certainties at each moment in time, everywhere we go.

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.  

The Absolute Certainties are to be found within the life of each individual.


Author: Darshams