How Is Certainty Possible?

Custom Student Mr. Teacher ENG 1001-04 6 November 2016

How Is Certainty Possible?

Certainty is defined as being free of doubt. In philosophy is there such a thing that we know without any doubt? Do we know anything with absolute certainty? Although we may believe to have genuine knowledge in some cases, there are other cases in which we do not know, but only think we know. Now therein lies the problem, how do we distinguish what is absolutely certain and what is not? This is why the idea of knowledge and certainty is so important. Both empiricists and rationalists have attempted to determine this.

When you know something you not only have an opinion, but that opinion is true. Now how do we distinguish which opinions are true. We can’t just say because we believe something, it is true. Although everything we know is also believed, not everything we believe is known. A person can believe something is true but in fact he can be wrong about it. Take a weather man for example he can believe that it will rain or not rain tomorrow and then in fact be wrong. However, if he were to say that its either going to rain or not rain tomorrow, he wouldn’t be wrong.

There is no way he can be proven wrong. However we learn nothing from this. This is why it is so difficult to determine what is certain in the world. In fact many philosophers believe we cannot say anything is certain in the world. So what can we know with absolute certainty? Perhaps only that I exist, and some mathematical, logical self evident truths. Then came Descartes, who like many others, tried to apply mathematics to philosophy in order to find certainty. In order to disprove skepticism, Descartes decided to use skepticism.

He would out-doubt skeptics by doubting everything he had ever believed until he arrived at something that could not be doubted. While doubting everything he believed he also found a way to doubt the empiricists’ view, the view that knowledge comes from the senses. His first reason for doubt is the common experience of being deceived by the senses. People sometimes suffer from delusions, such as the insane and those on drugs. Other instances in which the senses mislead us are mirages, deliriums, and delusions stemming from fever. For these people what reality seems to them is not real at all.

Another ground for doubt is that, while sleeping, we dream. While dreaming we believe what is happening is real when in fact its not. It is only upon waking that we can tell the difference between the real world and the dream world. How can we be sure that we are not in fact in a dream world at this moment? Its sort of like the Matrix. In the movie the main character is in a dream world his entire life up until others come to free him. If it weren’t for them he would’ve been in that dream world his entire life and would not have known the difference.

In trying to achieve certainty, Descartes tried to establish something that cannot be doubted. It then occurs to him that the act of doubting itself is the answer he was looking for. Doubting is a form of mental activity, a form of thinking. Even if we are unsure of what we are, where we are and the world around us, there is not doubt that we are thinking. Even if we are deceived by our senses, even if we are dreaming we are still thinking. From the fact that we think, we can conclude that we exist. “I think, therefore I am. “-Descartes.

In contrast to Descartes rational views on knowledge was the empiricists’ view. What could be more obvious than the view that the senses are the only dependable source of knowledge? “Seeing is believing,” as we would say. Empiricists argue that there is nothing in the mind that was not previously in the senses, the senses are the only means we have of knowing anything. Locke, an empiricist as well, argues that “senses give us a sort of alphabet of knowledge. Just as we take twenty-six simple letters and combine them in units of ever increasing complexity-words, sentences, etc.

So in learning, we begin with simple impressions, which are then combined into units of increasing complexity. We can recall to mind past sensations through the power of memory, and we can combine sensations and the ideas resulting from them in fanciful ways through the power of the imagination. ” The only problem with this is what about things we do not personally experience? If we cannot appeal to our present sense impressions, or summon past impressions from our memory, how do we extend our knowledge of things?

This is where Hume comes in. He points out that the principle of cause and effect is the link that ties our present experience of the world to other possible experiences of the world both past and future. We can assume that the sun will rise everyday because we have seen it rise everyday. However the problem with this is that we cannot be certain that the sun will rise everyday. Cause and effect are conjoined, not connected.

Empiricism has proved that there is no proof for empiricism. Hume also proves that without the senses a person with all the reason in the world would not be able to reach the idea of cause and effect. He attempts to prove that “all belief of matter of fact or real existence is derived merely from some object present to the memory or senses and a customary conjunction between that and some other object; or, in other words, having found in many instances, that any two kinds of objects, flame and heat, snow and cold, have always been conjoined together. ” A compromise is made between the empiricists and the rationalists, thanks to the work of Immanuel Kant.

He argues that even though “there can be no doubt that all our knowledge begins with experience, it does not follow that it all arises out of experience. ” “Without sensibility no object would be given to us, without understanding no object would be thought” ? Kant Philosophers have been unable to discover the absolutely certainty in knowledge. The only thing we can know for certain is logic and mathematics. However this does not imply that knowledge is impossible. If we understand knowledge as something less than absolute certainty, then knowledge is indeed possible.


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  • University/College: University of California

  • Type of paper: Thesis/Dissertation Chapter

  • Date: 6 November 2016

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