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  2. “We must believe before we can doubt, and doubt before we can deny.”
  3. Methodic doubt | philosophy |
  4. The doubt-certainty continuum in psychopathology, lay thinking, and science.

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This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed. Skip to content Robin asked: What is the common sense reply to Descartes method of doubt? Like this: Like Loading Published by Admin. Therefore, since many of us certainly have false beliefs, we ought to be careful to live an examined life and be clear on why we believe what we do.

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  • It is also important for us to approach every subject with humility, recognizing our own limitations and fallibility. Although I disagree that humility necessitates an absence of confidence, I agree that an attitude of personal arrogance is wrong. But having said that, I would like to call attention to a major problem with the skeptical attitude towards certainty and towards belief in general. In my opinion, what appears to be skepticism on the surface can actually consist of adherence to a whole set of rigorously unjustified beliefs.

    Indeed, the real danger of the skeptical position is that it can be very unreflective about its own dependence on assumptions. The first question we need to ask is: what is certainty?


    A skeptic may decry certainty without actually thinking about what he means by this word. Upon reflection, a skeptic might say that certainty refers to the rigorous assurance that something we believe is actually true. Barring the objection of self-inconsistency already made, I do believe that it is possible to deny that certainty is possible in any way.

    Unfortunately for the skeptic, this denial is a slippery slope. To see why, let us consider a few examples from everyday life. First, we could consider simple mathematical proofs. Given some set of basic axioms and the rules of logic, we can prove a multitude of theorems with seemingly perfect assurance as to their truth.

    No one that I know would claim any kind of uncertainty regarding the proposition that one plus one equals two. Second, almost all skeptics, especially the scientists among the Neoatheists, would affirm and would even applaud the kind of assurance and certainty we obtain from using the scientific method.

    “We must believe before we can doubt, and doubt before we can deny.”

    As a consequence, skeptics like Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins claim that scientific explanations like the theory of gravity command a degree of certainty that is categorically different than any religious claim. Finally, we are all familiar with the kind of certainty that we have regarding everyday matters.

    When I start my car in the morning, I am absolutely certain that it will not turn into a pumpkin. The problem arises when we try to explain the grounds for our certainty. For instance, what grounds do I have for believing that my car will not turn into a pumpkin? I could enumerate all the evidence I have for the regularity of nature, the many times in the past when my car has not turned into a pumpkin, and so on. But if truly pressed, could I really claim that I had rigorous certainty? To be perfectly honest, I could not.

    Where would such certainty come from except from an assumption of the continued regularity of the laws of nature? Even regarding scientific theories, Dawkins and Harris recognize that there is always a remote, nagging possibility that any given theory might be wrong. The truth of any given scientific proposition may be extremely, extremely likely. But we can never be rigorously certain.

    We might expect that, of all places, the realm of mathematics can offer us relief from the specter of uncertainty. But even there, we find that all of our careful reasoning and logic depends on the assumption of certain axioms. Can I be certain that these axioms are true? There are really only two possibilities then.

    The first is to affirm that certainty of any kind is utterly impossible. But then not only is absolute certainty impossible; any kind of certainty is impossible. For instance, consider the following question: how certain am I that the objective universe is not some kind of persistent illusion or a computer simulation like the Matrix?

    Methodic doubt | philosophy |

    Upon reflection, not only is absolute certainty regarding the existence of the objective universe impossible, but any numerical estimate of my certainty is equally arbitrary. My belief that the objective universe actually exists is an assumption without any rigorous evidence or empirical justification. If even the existence of the objective universe is not certain, then any subsequent reasoning derived from scientific observation of the objective universe will be equally uncertain. If we demand rigorous certainty of even the most basic truths of mathematics or science, we are left completely empty-handed.

    All truth ultimately derives from the assumption of certain axioms, about which we can have no rigorous certainty. In practice, experiential certainty shows itself in a myriad of ways, most notably in the consistency of our actions and responses.

    The doubt-certainty continuum in psychopathology, lay thinking, and science.

    Although a truly skeptical philosopher may claim -rightly- to have no rigorous certainty that his car will not turn into a pumpkin, he still puts his keys in the ignition each morning. A skeptic might claim -rightly- to have no rigorous certainty that the entire universe is not a figment of his imagination, but if he is mugged, he still expresses rage and frustration. These illustrations show that even those who recognize the impossibility of rigorous certainty and even despair of the possibility of real knowledge still possess and act upon experiential certainty on a daily basis.

    At this point skeptics ought to be deeply distressed. As I said in the introduction, skepticism often masks a worldview with a deep commitment to some particular set of presuppositions, all the more problematic for being unrecognized. For a skeptic who truly clings to the belief that the skeptical worldview offers rigorous certainty apart from any assumptions, it is worth considering the following questions:. All of these questions expose assumptions that almost all of us make about the nature of reality.

    These assumptions often go unquestioned because they are shared by such vast segments of our communities. And yet, if we were challenged to provide rigorous proof of one of these beliefs, we would have to recognize their axiomatic nature. Merely appealing to their widespread acceptance or innate appeal is a dangerous business.

    Presumably, a skeptic would not wish to assert that theism is a valid presupposition because of its widespread acceptance by all cultures throughout human history. If not, then we cannot appeal to widespread acceptance or innate appeal to rigorously justify any of our other beliefs. I -just as much as any skeptic- view certain beliefs as false and utterly ludicrous.

    I would very much like to be able to dismiss these beliefs as unwarranted, unjustified, and rigorously indefensible. But I cannot do that.

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    If someone truly recognizes their assumptions as assumptions, then all beliefs which follow from these assumptions are rational and logical, even if they are utterly false. Similarly, there is no guarantee that our experiential certainty is necessarily correlated with true belief. A man with false beliefs may have just as much if not more experiential certainty than a man with true beliefs. These epistemological truths may be hard to accept for both Christians and non-Christians raised with a post-Enlightenment confidence in human reason.

    But the reality is that human reason is simply unable to provide us with assurance that we are using the correct presuppositions or with rigorous certainty regarding our deeply held beliefs. Having made the distinction between rigorous and experiential certainty, I would like to examine the connection between certainty and biblical faith. If -as I have said- rigorous certainty is impossible, then what does it mean to have faith?

    To begin with, we need to examine a common fallacy made by both Christians and non-Christians regarding the nature of biblical faith. Both Christians and non-Christians assume that biblical faith translated from the Greek pistis has to do primarily with intellectual belief. In fact, the early Reformers recognized that faith consists of three components: notitia, assensus, and fiducia. Notitia is a bare cognitive knowledge of the gospel; assensus is an intellectual belief that the gospel is objectively true; but fiducia is a personal trust in the gospel.