Are You Absolutely Certain About Your Certainty?

Are you absolutely certain about your certainty?  If certainty was your criteria for knowing a genuine belief, would you ever be able to know or believe anything? There are many things in our day to day experience that we think we certainly know. Then upon closer investigation we found that we were wrong. Perhaps we didn’t have enough information about the thing in question, perhaps our perceptual understanding failed us, there are many factors that could cause is to be wrong about something that we were quite certain about.  Epistemic questions about certainty can get pretty dicey but they are deffinately important. As it turns out what ever someone believes to be the case epistemologically will ultimately determine that “facts” of their experience. Take Rene Descartes for example. He writes in the Meditations:    

“…in as much as reason already persuades me that I ought no less carefully to withhold my assent from matters which are not entirely certain and indubitable than from those which appear to me manifestly to be false, if I am able to find in each one some reason to doubt, this will suffice to justify my rejecting the whole.”  –Descartes, Meditations

In his work On Method, as well as the Meditations, Descartes appeals to a principle of epistemic certainty as  a prerequisite for genuine knowledge.  In other words Descartes’ project necessitates evidence that is indefeasible much like the types of evidences we find in mathematical proofs.  His major premise can be understood as: in order to know P one must be absolutely certain of P (we will refer to this as the “certainty principle” [CP]).  Thus, if there exists, even the smallest possibility that your knowledge of P is not absolutely certain then you are not in any epistemological state to know P

One example of this that has been give is The Lottery Argument.  No matter how strong your evidence is that your ticket won’t win (or in this case the odds of winning are against you) you’re never absolutely certain that your ticket won’t win.

This is the same principle being advanced in the skeptical thesis (ST). That is, if you cannot claim to know something absolutely then you cannot claim to know it at all.  When we take honest inventory of the beliefs we posses the number of those beliefs that we can be infallible about are very few and far between.  But does this warrant skepticism?  Some skeptical arguments leave us with no claim to knowing anything about the external world unless we have absolute certainty.  On this set of beliefs one could never truly know if she is walking outside in the sun or a brain in a vat.  Perhaps the question over the validity of the certainty principle as the only claim to knowledge is the wrong question to be asking.

A more desirable epistemic state would be one in which belief in P can be accepted as knowledge in spite of the absences of certainty providing that P is true.  This is called the fallibilist principle of knowing (FPK).  The key difference between fallibilism is the notion of certainty.  Epistemic fallibilism does not require your evidence for P to be indefeasible or infallible but it still treats knowledge as being factive.  For example you might look into the sky and notice a full moon.  You suddenly realize that every time you noticed a full moon in the past it was followed by a high tide.  You take your finding to the library and notice the phenomenon has been taking place centuries.  You further read about the moon’s gravitational pull on the earth causing high tides.  Based on this evidence you believe that a full moon always precedes a high tide.  However, there is a chance you might be wrong; moreover, your evidence is defeasible.  That being the case the fallibilist would say you are still in a desirable epistemic state to know that a full moon precedes a high tide.

Descartes’ Dream Argument


At this point I would like to return to Descartes dream argument from the previous post Descartes’ First Meditation:
FIRST Descarte has had dreams where he dreamt that he was awake. From this he concludes that when he’s dreaming he is not in a good epistemic position to say wether or not he is dreaming or awake.
SECOND and even more significant is what follows; namely if he cannot discern wether or not he is dreaming or awake while he is dreaming then it is possible that he cannot know if he is in fact awake.
This movement of Descartes’ is from a claim of the form:
1. One cannot tell if she is in an epistemologically bad situation when she is in such a situation.
2. Even if one percieved to be in a good epistemological position she still cannot know if she is or is not in a bad epistemological position.
The question is wether or not this is a valid form. For example, if the bad situation is blindness; is it not difficult to determine blindness? After all it could be the case that its pitch dark and one is not blind at all. Does it then follow from the idea that its difficult to determine blindness to the idea that if one was sighted it would be difficult to determine if she was sighted. If one was sighted she may be able to see which would confirm that she was sighted. The same is the case in drunkeness. Just because it is dificult for one to determine if she is sober when she is drunk does not mean she will find the same difficulty determing if she is drunk when she is in fact sober. Thus people who are in a bad epistemic situation do not know they are. However on the reverse people in the good epistemic situation can know they are in a good situation through clear headed experiences.
However, Descartes wants argue that wether or not a person is in a bad situation or a good situation they still cannot discern their present situation.
First, Descartes considers the hypothesis that he can know he is not dreaming:
“…at the moment my eyes are certainly wide awake when I look at this piece of paper; I shake my head and it is not asleep; as I stretch out and feel my hand I do so deliberately, and I know what I am doing. All this would not happen with such distinctness to someone asleep.
Indeed! As if I did not remember other occasions when I have been tricked by exactly similar thoughts while asleep! As I think about it more carefully, I see plainly that there are never any sure signs by means of which being awake can be distinguished from being asleep.”
The argument that Descartes is advancing is that no matter how much one believes she is awake it is still possible that she is dreaming. However, this does not seem to follow in my blindness example. For the sake of Descartes argument he is maintaining that there are no experiences one could have when she is awake only; any experience she might have could be dreamt. Even if a test was applied the results themselves could be dreamt. This is why Descartes believes that one can never say wether or not they are dreaming.
If it is true that one cannot discern wether or not she is dreaming then is it possible for her to know anything about the external world based on her sensory experience? Descartes would say no; in order for sensory experience to be valid one must know that she is not dreaming her experiences. This is the skeptics argument.

Descartes’ First Meditation

Descartes’ First Meditation
Descartes begins his epistemological project by confronting the dilemma of false beliefs. We have all accepted beliefs and upon further investigation found them to be in error. In many cases a false belief will influence many other beliefs that one may have. For example you may have concluded A and from that established belief you reasoned to B, C, D and so on only to find later that you wrong about your original belief A. In the First Meditation Descartes takes inventory of his beliefs and places those beliefs that are questionable aside until he can first establish a secure epistemological basis for beliefs that are beyond doubt. Only then will he be able to move on and address the questionable beliefs.
Descartes observes that many of his beliefs are based on sensory knowledge. Therefore he takes up the task of calling into question the reliability of sensory beliefs.
1. Descartes’ first move is to note that his senses have been in error. However, because his senses have been in error at various times it does not follow that his senses are always in error. Therefore he has reason to question some of his sensory beliefs. What must be questioned at this point for Descartes are the perceptual conditions. For example, the error in his sensory equipment may be caused by poor lighting, he may be under the influence of mind altering substance, or for what ever reason the perceptual conditions are not such that his sensory equipment can interpret the experience. At this point Descartes can say that only some of his beliefs that are formed by his senses are in error and we trust that those beliefs that are accurate posses prime perceptual conditions.
2. However, what about dreams? Descartes recalls certain dreams where he falsely believed that he was awake. It is because of these dreams that Descartes believes he can’t distinguish between his dreams and when he is awake. What follows is he must call into question his perception of things. How can he know he is moving his hand right now? It could all be a dream.
In the movie The Matrix Morpheus poses the same question:
“Have you ever had a dream, Neo, that you were so sure was real? What if you were unable to wake from that dream? How would you know the difference between the dream world and the real world?” I will return to this dreaming argument for further scrutiny.
Descartes believes that his dream dilemma gives him reason to question sensory beliefs, even beliefs obtained under prime perceptual conditions. At the same time he also holds there are beliefs that the dream argument does not address. The particular beliefs we form when we dream (“This is the best cigar I’ve ever smoked in my life” the dream I had last night) are usually false, the objects of our dream (the smoking lounge I was in, the cigar vendor, the cigar itself) come from things we experience when we are awake, and Descartes believes we can still be confident that some things of those kind exist. Thus for Descartes the dream argument does not address general truths about the world (the belief that there are physical objects, that they move in such-and-such ways, etc.) Also, the dream argument does not give Descartes reason to call into question beliefs about mathematics and the like.
3.In his pursuit of doubt Descartes considers the possiblity that he was created by God so that he existed in a constant state of deception even about things we have discussed above.

However this seems to fly in the face of Descartes’ conception of God. He writes: But perhaps God would not have allowed me to be deceived in this way, since he is said to be supremely good.
At the moment Descartes does not think this line of reasoning is valid. He says: But if it were inconsistent with [God’s] goodness to have created me such that I am deceived all the time, it would seem equally foreign to his goodness to allow me to be deceived even occasionally; yet this last assertion cannot be made.
What Descartes is saying is there are times when our senses fail us. If God would allow our senses to decieve us some of the time, and if this is compatible with his goodness then why can it not be compatible with God’s goodness to let us always be decieved? Thus Descartes places himself in a position to conclude that it is possible for God to have created him in such a way that he is decieved all the time.
Later in the Meditations Decartes returns to this argument and conclude that it is wrong. He will argue that although God allows us to be decieved some of the time it is against his goodness to allow us to be decieved all of the time.
4. Descartes does consider the possiblity that he was not created by God. In such a case Descartes believes he would have been created buy some inferior cause and that such inferiority would be compitable with the possiblity of being created defective so that he could be always decieved.
Hence if he was created by God it is possible for him to be decieved about general beliefs as well as mathematical beliefs. Likewise if something else created him. Thus Descartes has placed himself in an epistemologically pessimistic position where he may be mistaken about all his beliefs.
He concludes the First Meditation with a malevolent demon whose purpose is to deceive him about as much as possible. He begins to contemplate if there is anything left for him to believe that he can be sure about so that he can pull himself from his pessimistic pit.
In the Second Meditation Descartes will make advancements in his ability to know that he exists for after all if he thought then right or wrong, true or false, it would be he who was doing the thinking. This is his popularized quote cogito ergo sum (I think therefore I am). It his here that Descartes begins to address all that he doubted in the First Meditation.

Rene Descartes’: Mind Body Argument

I have never judged that something could not be made by God except on the grounds that there would be a contradiction in my perceiving it distinctly [that is, in my conceiving of a situation in which it is true].


In other words Descartes is asserting that all things that one can conceive of without contradiction are possible.

Descartes develops this assertion later in the Meditation: 
I know that everything which I clearly and distinctly understand is capable of being created by God so as to correspond exactly with my understanding of it. Hence, the fact that I can clearly and distinctly understand one thing apart from another is enough to make me certain that the two things are distinct, since they are capable of being separated, at least by God… It is true that I may have…a body that is very closely joined to me. But nevertheless, on the one hand I have a clear and distinct idea of myself, in so far as I am simply a thinking, non-extended thing; and on the other hand, I have a distinct idea of body, in so far as this is simply an extended, non-thinking thing. And accordingly, it is certain that I am really distinct from my body, and can exist without it.

The thing to keep in mind is to “conceive of” anything does not necessitate that one believe. To “conceive of” anything means one can coherently think about that situation. Thus, one can conceive of a situation where donkeys fly or that the IRS would cease to over tax, but one can’t conceive of a situation where 1+1=10.

The argument can be formulated this way:

1. All things that one can conceive of without contradiction are possible.
2. It’s possible for me to conceive myself existing as a thinking thing only, excluding my body.
3. I can conceive of my body existing solely as a non-thinking thing, without me inhabiting it.
4. It must be possible for me and my body to be separated.
C. Thus I am really distinct from my body, and it is possible for me to exist without my body.
What one should consider in this argument of Descartes’ is what can be conceived and what is within the realm of genuine possibility? Perhaps one should consider that in thinking about the IRS as well.