Of what can we be certain? Not much, I’m afraid. We hear others say that they are certain of a thing and sometimes they can be quite persuasive in their assertions. Sometimes we say we are certain of a thing, but sometimes we say it to persuade others and, in doing so, we hope to persuade ourselves. Sometimes we just don’t want to stand out from the crowd as someone who is uncertain thereby drawing the concentrated and collective ire of the crowd.
But in our heart of hearts, when nobody can read our thoughts, when we have no choice but to decide for ourselves, a matter of life and death, of what can we be certain? This is Practical Philosophy 101 taught in the School of Hard Knocks.
We are certain of the truth. The problem is that there is a wide range of things out there asserting their truth. How does one determine the relative degrees of truth in each category of assertion?
I have come up with a list of eight categories representing the range of assertions of truth, based on degrees of certainty as I conceive them:
The following two categories would be suitable to a rational person:
“An elephant is an elephant” and “an elephant is walking down the street is true because an elephant is walking down the street is true”. The statements are constructed to always be true. Even if “an elephant is walking down the street” is false the statements will be true. Such truths have the highest degree of certainty but are totally useless, no matter what the situation is.
Systems, like mathematics, logic, and games are based on a formal set of axioms and rules for transforming those axioms into new propositions. Axioms and givens are assertions that cannot be proved within the formal system but, if you don’t accept them, you won’t be able to derive the propositions, which might be very useful to you under certain circumstances. Given that “all Communists read Karl Marx” and “John Doe is a Communist”, then “John Doe reads Karl Marx”; however, the assertion that “John Doe reads Karl Marx” doesn’t imply that “John Doe is a Communist”. Go tell that to Senator Joseph McCarthy. A formal proposition may or may not be true, depending on the truth of its axioms or givens, or the correctness of the application of the rules of derivation and transformation of the proposition from those axioms or givens. Formal systems have the second highest degree of certainty and can generate useful propositions that are not readily apparent to the average person, but no detective except for Sherlock Holmes ever relied almost totally on logic to solve a crime.
The next category would be suitable to a pragmatic person:
The truth of verifiable assertions has been verified or is capable of being verified by observation using pragmatic methodology. The verifiable category consists of three sub-categories, in order by degrees of certainty:
- Verified by oneself:
Those assertions that you’ve verified yourself with your own eyes using a methodology that makes sense to you have the highest degree of verifiable certainty. No reasoned argument by any astronomer, government official, or journalist will persuade you that there’s no truth to reports of UFO sightings, if you’ve seen one with your own eyes. The ground beneath my feet is solid and my feet are also solid, and no amount of explanation will persuade me otherwise.
- Verified by a reputable person:
If you are not a scientist or the phenomenon in question is out of the realm of your personal experience (macro, micro, or quantum), then claims of assertions verified by professional people of reputation, like scientists, doctors, teachers, or experts may be taken as the next best degree of certainty. In other words, if you haven’t seen a UFO yourself, then you’d best accept the certainty of the assertions of astronomers who claim that none of the UFO sightings are credible.
- Verifiable in principle:
This is an assertion in the form of a hypothesis which may be tested against specific criteria agreed upon by a community of professionals in order to determine whether it is true or false. Such assertions are much better than assertions that are so vague or out of the realm of reality, that they can never be verified to be true or false.
The next category would be suitable to a person who often exercises his judgment:
The truth of these kinds of assertions depends on the truth of some other assertion. They could be formal, like “if it snows, my roof will be covered” or they might be informal, like hearsay or what you read in the newspaper. Jack told me that he was planning to kill Jill. Sources high in the government suggested Jim had been acting suspiciously for a long time. Astronomers discover a new Earth-like planet outside our solar system. The truth about who killed Jill depends on the truth of what Jack told me. The truth about Jim depends on the truth of those sources. The truth about the new Earth-like planet depends on the truth of those astronomers. Judges have to deal with contingent assertions based on the weight of the evidence after listening to testimonies and arguments. The stakes involved in the outcomes of such judgments can be very high.
The next category is suitable for most of us who have opinions:
“Well, it may not be true for you, but it’s true for me” and “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter” are examples of relative assertions. These are just subjective opinions masquerading as truths: my truth, your truth, and their truths. There’s no need to argue because everybody is right in his own way.
“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.”
“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”
“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master – – that’s all.”
(Through the Looking Glass, Chapter 6)
Opinions represent the sum of our personal experiences. We tend not to verify them or to check them too carefully because they are, well, after all, our opinions. Except for a friend of mine from many years ago who told me there was no sense in arguing with him, since he had kept careful records of the fact that he was right 97% of the time and so I didn’t have much of a chance of being right or persuading him. My oldest son made a similar claim, a couple years back, that he was right 100% of the time because whatever argument he made, if I persuaded him that he was wrong, he would quick-as-a-wink switch positions and claim that this was his opinion all along. Other people’s opinions are generally disregarded because they are, well, not our opinions. Objectively speaking, the opinions of professionals, providing they come from the domains of their profession, are worth more in terms of certainty than the opinions of non-professionals or professionals outside their domains.
The next category is suitable for creative types of people:
Books, theater, and dreams make up these kinds of assertions. Everybody knows they are constructed from false assumptions and yet people willingly suspend their judgments to accept the assertions as true in order to be entertained, to be moved, to learn a higher truth, or against their will. The experience in which one immerses himself is virtual. It is not true in reality. It never happened but it might have happened. The character doesn’t really exist, but what he says or does moves us as much as if he really did exist. Such assertions are known to be false at a lower level but are often held to be true at a higher level. Sometimes we are hard pressed to decide on which level we should be focused.
The next category is suitable to “True Believer” proponents:
Beliefs are like axioms, assertions not to be questioned or proved. We all have them but they can vary greatly from person to person. This category consists of two sub-categories:
- Personal beliefs:
These are assertions like “the world that I perceive is the world as it really exists”, “other people have minds, think their own thoughts, and feel their own feelings”, and “the mind is not extinguished just because the body dies”. You’ll probably never be able to verify these assertions scientifically but, still, you are “certain” they are true. You may have been born with these kinds of beliefs or you may have picked them up along the way while you were growing up and accumulating experience.
- Inculcated beliefs:
These assertions include religious beliefs, political beliefs, economic beliefs, racial beliefs, sexual beliefs, and humanitarian beliefs among many others. You were not born with these beliefs. You may have been subjected to these beliefs when you were too young or unequipped to decide for yourself or you may have picked them up along the way while you were growing up and accumulating experience. There are usually organizations and institutions that impart and reinforce those beliefs in you from time to time. These organizations and institutions are served by your beliefs in them, and they will do everything in their collective power to increase their reach as much as they can and to survive as long as they can. Make no mistake: these organizations and institutions grow in darkness. They cringe in the light. Their assertions are not only unverifiable; they resist verification vehemently, often violently.
The last category is most suitable to sellers of snake oil:
Lies are assertions we know to be false, but which we make anyway in order to gain some temporary advantage by fooling somebody else. Lies are always claimed to be true and the liar would hope that they would not be easily verified. One of the problems with lies is that over time the memory forgets the lie that was told and only remembers the truth. A person who lies becomes a slave to the memory of the person to whom he lied. That and Kant’s Categorical Imperative “what if everyone lied and no one told the truth?” Language would lose its meaning and purpose, and civilization would collapse. We believe lies because we are too trusting. Trust is not a strength. It is a vulnerability. Often we have no choice but to trust someone, but if we do have the means of verifying a person’s claims without going too far out of our way, we should “trust but verify” or “praise the Lord, but pass the ammunition”.
If you have reached this point without finding some category capable of providing you a modicum of certainty, then you must be a true skeptic, one who doubts everything, no matter what, and is paralyzed by his or her doubt. Skeptics don’t assert. They respond to assertions by saying “no it’s not”.
Of course, you would probably say “no they don’t”.