Absolute Certainty

I’ve been putting this post off for quite some time for various reasons, but I finally want to author it and eliminate a great deal of confusion and misconceptions that people have pertaining to knowledge. In all areas of knowledge, people often utter phrases like “You can’t be certain,” “You can’t be 100% sure that x is not the case,” and “You can’t know for sure.” Certainty, knowledge without an chance of error, is an impossible standard that no person should ever demand, hold, or expect. To demand that we need to be certain about anything would severely undermine our knowledge because we couldn’t be “certain” of many things except for logical absolutes and the idea that we’re thinking.

We don’t need 100% certainty to accept claims, but we do need good justification for accepting claims. If a claim is supported by evidence that places it on a level in which reasonable doubt is not justified, we should be happy. Claims are beyond a reasonable doubt when they provide the best explanation for something, are testable and falsifiable, open to examination by everyone, doesn’t raise more questions than it answers, etc.

Some people think that certainty is a prerequisite for knowledge, but this isn’t the case. Knowledge is based on evidence, reason, and argument that we have acquired.

We can have a tremendous amount of evidence to support a belief, but it’s impossible to be certain for many reasons:

-1) Something may change tomorrow.

-2) Wild skeptical possibilities (Life is an illusion, We’re living a dream, This is the matrix).

-3) We could almost always be mistaken and/or deceived.

Reading up to this point may place someone in a philosophical quagmire and may lead someone to unjustified conclusions such as “we have no basis to believe anything,” but this isn’t the case. I’ll expand on points one and two. Point three is self-explanatory.

1)The idea that something might be the case in the future does not entail that all of our knowledge is incorrect or that a certain proposition is true because it might be true in the future. We must admit that knowledge is based on what we currently know about the world. Great. If we find new information and this information turns out to be justified, we revise our beliefs…but just because this may be the case does not allow us to jump to conclusions about any claim. Sure, we might find out that people can talk with dead people (and get answers) tomorrow, but we’ve no rational reason to believe that today. Unless we have rational reason to believe something today, we should not believe it. The idea that something might be true in the future does not threaten our current base of knowledge or allow us to believe in things that might be true.

2) It’s possible that we’re living in a world that is programmed by some intergalactic overlord and the “game” of this life is to be as rational as possible and reject all supernatural claims. It’s possible that we’re actually experiencing life on earth, but we’re really husks on the planet Krebulub. It’s possible that we’re all a part of a “dream of life” in which we really feel alive here on earth, but aren’t. It’s impossible to disconfirm all of these wild hypotheses, but we can feel comfortable in saying that there’s no rational reason to accept any of these scenarios. These threats alone undermine certainty, but that’s okay. The mere possibility of error is no good reason to doubt knowledge that is reasonably justified to a point in which only a fool would rebut. In other words, the possibility of any of these skeptical claims should not lead us to doubt that water freezes at zero degrees Celsius.

Can we be certain about historical events in the past? Historians want to determine what probably happened by using various standards and gathering evidence. Historians want to find various accounts attesting to an event or person, contemporary sources from that time period, and disinterested sources. We can’t be certain that there was or was not a man named Jesus who was the focus of the New Testament, for example, but we can look for evidence to come to a conclusion based on the evidence we find (or don’t find). If you still want to hold on to the idea of certainty being a prerequisite for knowledge, you’ll have to abandon almost all that we know from about 1900 B.C.E. to the beginning of time…but this obviously isn’t the case. We have good amounts of evidence to suggest that Julius Ceaser existed, for example. We can’t be certain about it, but we can be justified in believing that he did exist.

What about the phrase “You can’t be certain that x doesn’t exist?”

Hopefully by now I’ve convinced you that we should throw out the concept of certainty because certainty is impossible and an unfair standard to place on someone. If this is the case, I don’t need to argue farther…but I’m sure there are some out there who still don’t understand the burden of proof and the idea of disproving something, so I’ll continue.

It’s ridiculous to demand that a person “disprove” something. It’s unfair to demand that the non-believer in claim y scour every inch of the universe and come to a conclusion that claim y is not supported by evidence/ there is no good reason to believe claim y. If we have no evidence for something, we simply should not believe in the something. Absence of evidence does not entail that claim y is plausible; evidence is needed to justify a claim. You certainly wouldn’t accept me saying, “I believe in ESP because it hasn’t been disproven” or “Until you prove that ESP doesn’t exist, I’m justified in believing in ESP.” Regardless, the burden of proof for a claim being made is on the person making the claim, not the person who doesn’t accept it…and just because something hasn’t been conclusively refuted doesn’t mean that it’s true.

Certainty is an impossible standard to attain and should be removed from argumentation. The mere idea that we can’t be certain does not undermine our knowledge and does not allow people to believe whatever they want just because there is no certainty. Hopefully this post was convincing and will allow for an end for people bringing up certainty in debates.

Euthyphro’s Dilemma

This post is a slightly updated version of an essay I submitted for a philosophy class in my third year of college.

In the Euthyphro dialogue, Socrates and Euthyphro discuss piety and morals. The central issue uttered by Socrates is, “The point which I should first wish to understand is whether the pious or holy is beloved by the gods because it is holy, or holy because it is loved by the gods” (Euthyphro 9). Other issues arising from the dialogue concern determining how to distinguish from right and wrong and how to account for the origins of morality. If believers in benevolent deities adhere to a certain religious moral code, it should be important to understand this moral code and have a response to the central issue in this dialogue. Non-believers and believers should also be able to understand and account for naturalistic origins of morality.

Euthyphro presents himself as a very knowledgeable individual in regards to the nature of piety and the gods, so Socrates proceeds to question in order to achieve understanding. Euthyphro says, “Piety, then, is that which is dear to the gods, and impiety is that which is not dear to them” (Euthyphro 5). Socrates notes that the gods have quarrels and different opinions (Euthyphro 6), but Euthyphro counters and says that the gods have agreed on certain matters and agree that injustice should be punished (Euthyphro 7).

Eventually, Socrates and Euthyphro discuss the central issue in the dialogue. Euthyphro doesn’t understand the distinction that Socrates makes, but Socrates elaborates so that Euthyphro can understand. Euthyphro says that piety is loved by all the gods because it is holy, but Socrates says that “the holy has been acknowledged by us to be loved of God because it is holy, not to be holy because it is loved” (Euthyphro 10).

Using a god or gods for the sole basis of morality is very problematic for several reasons. Who or what determines that the gods are moral? The gods simply declare what is moral and what is not moral without any standards or external judges. If there is no guideline outside of what the gods determine is moral, morality may be designated by the gods. With no guidelines for morality, the gods can declare certain actions like rape and murder to be morally acceptable in any given situation…and this obviously can’t be the case.

If what is willed by the gods is willed because it is good (not because the gods decided that it is good), then the good is independent of what the gods determine and the gods did not establish what is good; morality is clearly grounded apart from the gods. If the gods, for example, endorse charitable giving because it is good, we learn that the good actions are good regardless of what the gods have endorsed.

Some modern-day and past apologists assert that God would never or could never endorse something like rape, but this means that there is some sort of standard that limits God that can be viewed as external, thus we need not evoke a deity in the moral realm. Others may assert that God’s character is what makes God’s commands moral, but this backs the dilemma up a step and forces the theist to consider “Is an action justified because God’s character endorses/is in line with the action or is an action ethically justified because it is endorsed/is in line with God’s character?”

Another main problem is how we can even establish, in the first place, that a god is good or, in the case of many theists, that a god is omni-benevolent. When we consider whether a person is moral or not or, in the case of god, whether a god is moral or omni-benevolent, one would, I would wager, look at the actions and inactions, in many cases, of a being. What examples, exactly, do we have to draw from to establish that god is good? With threats such as the problem of evil or specific religious passages in which gods endorse abominable actions, it’s quite hard to establish this.

Some theists will assert that God, by definition, is omni-benevolent because he is the greatest conceivable being, but where does this get us? I can assert that a gooblegoop exists and is, by definition, an omni-benevolent being, but this, simply like asserting things about a god, makes no progress to establish a conclusion. Why, also, must the greatest conceivable being be all-good? Is not a ‘greatest conceivable being’ subjective from person to person and how can we objectively declare what a greatest conceivable being is? I can formulate a very good argument, for example, that the greatest conceivable being is actually a being which interferes least in human affairs and designed the universe in such a way that humans would only die to old age, violence, and accidents. I could posit that such a being might be simply good, loving, and very intelligent, but not maximally so and perhaps this would be best because if an omni-God existed and humans knew this, bad consequences would follow (I don’t necessarily agree with this, but am simply positing it here for sake of argument although many theists actually do argue that bad consequences would follow if God frequently intervened in human affairs and revealed himself unequivocally).

Humans are social animals who need to work together to some basic degree in order to have a society. Although survival of society is by no means the only consideration for morality, this is a good explanation for how morality came to be. We treat others how we would like to be treated when we arrive at the conclusion that other humans have basic desires such as we have like need for shelter, security, privacy, stability, etc. At a very basic level, people refrain from being immoral because they want to avoid punishment and maintain a good reputation. It is possible to account for a naturalistic morality separate from what the gods declare to be moral or immoral.

Morality is informed by human knowledge, research, philosophy, evolution, basic intuitions, and societal rules. Over time, some actions previously considered acceptable such as slavery and stoning adulterous women have been abolished because of our increased understanding and empathy toward others. In the case of slavery, the god of the Old Testament explained rules for owning other beings. Today, whether or not people believe in any gods, we can look at these passages with horror and come to the conclusion that owning other humans beings is morally wrong. We can judge the rules that are said to come from the Christian god and view them as morally repugnant.

Reflecting on the Euthyphro dialogue reveals that morality can be had independent of what the gods say. If we agree with what the gods say is moral, the decision of the gods is arbitrary and the gods are just endorsing what we already know. Regardless of whether or not any gods exist, we can deliberate and come to conclusions about moral issues and even revise our moral zeitgeist when our current state of knowledge advances. With morality declared by the gods, this doesn’t seem to be the case because the questions have already been answered and the word of the gods is supposed to be final. Morality is determined independent of the gods and humans can come to conclusions without divine declarations.

Works Cited

“Euthyphro.” MIT.edu, 2009. Web. 25 Sep 2010.