The problem with certainty

  1. Being purely sure (100% confident) of something (or, likewise, assigning anything zero probability) is claiming that it is indefeasible (completely irrefutable) – literally, nothing whatsoever could possibly refute it, for the simple reason that the lower the probability (or uncertainty), the stronger the evidence must be for that. (That is, for an event with low probability, the probability of the information favoring it must be high, and of course lowering it makes the requirement even higher). In the 0% case the requirement would be infinite and so there is no amount of information that would suffice.
  2. Claiming indefeasible knowledge equals claiming unconditional belief – the same as saying “I believe no matter what”, for the simple reason that if there is no information that could refute it, then one’s belief is independent of whatever the evidence might say and so even overwhelming evidence to the contrary wouldn’t affect it.
  3. Such a pure unconditional belief would have to be supported by another such irrefutable belief since otherwise, it’s support would be refutable and so the belief, being independent of even that, would be unfounded.
  4. Such a belief being founded on another such belief would simply presuppose that it is rational to have such a belief, leading back to the original problem.
  5. An totally unfounded belief would be irrational and arbitrary, allowing anything to be chosen as such and leading to inability to favor any belief, resulting in skepticism as it’s logical conclusion.
  6. The presupposition that it is rational could be applied to anything, hence allowing every belief and disbelief to be equally well-founded leading to skepticism as it’s logical conclusion.
  7. Therefore, being 100% sure – that is, claiming infallible or indefeasible knowledge ( “pure dogmatism”), is completely irrational and self-refuting and contrary to true knowledge, which is probabilistic at least to some degree.

15 thoughts on “The problem with certainty

    1. No, I don’t think that. Very close, yep. I don’t know how close, but not exactly, for the reasons mentioned in the post. Any “proof” of anything still presupposes something. Either that, it seems, or it’s subjective or trival or can be applied to anything. Even cogito egro sum still depends on some premises and axioms, which may still be refuted.

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      1. I like your skepticism.

        I think there is a 100% chance that the proposition, “In this exact moment, I exist” is true, but I am not absolutely certain that this proposition is true. This is the difference between thinking something is impossible and being certain that something is impossible. Here is my proof that the statement, “In this exact moment, I exist” is true:

        1. To exist is to experience something.
        2. Therefore, if in this exact moment, I am experiencing something, then in this exact moment, I exist.
        3. In this exact moment, I am experiencing something.
        4. Therefore, in this exact moment, I exist.

        I cannot be absolutely certain that this proof is sound, but I still think it is sound. Thus, I think there is a 100% chance that in this exact moment, I exist. However, I am not absolutely certain that in this exact moment, I exist.

        Do you ever say that something is impossible, or would that violate your claim that you cannot be certain of anything?

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      2. “I think there is a 100% chance that the proposition, “In this exact moment, I exist” is true, but I am not absolutely certain that this proposition is true.”

        You mean, like as in the difference between objective or metaphysical and subjective or epistemic probability?

        “Do you ever say that something is impossible, or would that violate your claim that you cannot be certain of anything?”

        I guess I’m fine with that as per the distinction above.

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      3. Could you explain what you mean by objective or metaphysical probability?

        Maybe a better way of stating what I meant to say would be that I think there is a 100% chance that the proposition is true, but I do not think I know there is a 100% chance that the proposition is true.

        Do you think you can know anything? Are you an epistemological nihilist?

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      4. “Could you explain what you mean by objective or metaphysical probability?

        Maybe a better way of stating what I meant to say would be that I think there is a 100% chance that the proposition is true, but I do not think I know there is a 100% chance that the proposition is true.”

        I guess I meant as in objectively logically necessary, which is different from one’s credence in something.

        https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Probability_interpretations

        “Do you think you can know anything?”

        Probably not in the strict sense of complete and total confidence, but probably in the virtual approximate sense of having a pretty good idea about some things.

        “Are you an epistemological nihilist?”

        I don’t typically use that term, to avoid confusion with philosophical (metaphysical \ ethical \ existential) nihilism (e.g. the denial of any concrete non-trival objects, qualities like value judgements, any meaning or significance of life, ect.), ( https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nihilism ),
        but no, I’m not a radical skeptic. I’m probably a moderate, somewhere in between certainty and complete neutrality (having no idea at all).

        I think this article has a pretty good explanation:

        https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/skepticism/

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      5. “Probably not in the strict sense of complete and total confidence, but probably in the virtual approximate sense of having a pretty good idea about some things.”

        I feel the same way about what I can know.

        I try to avoid using the term nihilism too, as there are so many different types of nihilism. I hadn’t come across metaphysical nihilism before.

        Have you studied philosophy in an academic setting, or are you self-educated?

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      6. “Have you studied philosophy in an academic setting, or are you self-educated?”

        The latter and still trying to learn more about it among other things.

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  1. “The latter and still trying to learn more about it among other things.”

    I’m self-educated too. I’ve taken two philosophy classes in college but I didn’t get much out of them. One was taught by a nun and the other was just about logic.

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  2. What about beliefs that you can’t even conceive of being false. For example that 2 plus 2 equals 4. Or that if X, then not not X. Or other rules of logic. Like

    If all men are mortal,
    and
    Socrates is a man
    then
    Socrates is mortal.

    Or that there is nothing. It seems impossible that there is nothing since I am having an experience of something. So it must be that there is something even if there are only mental things.

    It seems to me that if something is impossible to even concede being false then it is indeed self evident.

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    1. I agree with Liam: I am, all things being equal, quite sure of such things. That doesn’t mean I am forever dismissive of other views. If, for instance, someone provided me with an alternative logic or math system, like paraconsistent logic or an alternative number system like the binary system, then I might well take it seriously.

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      1. Yes I agree with that.
        I am trying to address what you say here:

        “3Such a pure unconditional belief would have to be supported by another such irrefutable belief since otherwise, it’s support would be refutable and so the belief, being independent of even that, would be unfounded.
        4Such a belief being founded on another such belief would simply presuppose that it is rational to have such a belief, leading back to the original problem.
        5An totally unfounded belief would be irrational and arbitrary, allowing anything to be chosen as such and leading to inability to favor any belief, resulting in skepticism as it’s logical conclusion.”

        I do not believe these things based on some other propositional belief. I simply believe they are true because I can not conceive that they are false. If someone showed me how I could coherently believe they were false then ok that would be different. But for now I guess I am stuck – but I am not sure there is anything epistemically problematic with being stuck with these beliefs.

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      2. “I do not believe these things based on some other propositional belief. I simply believe they are true because I can not conceive that they are false. If someone showed me how I could coherently believe they were false then ok that would be different. But for now I guess I am stuck – but I am not sure there is anything epistemically problematic with being stuck with these beliefs.”

        It seems, I guess, that you see those as “foundational” beliefs. I tend to agree, (I, however, do take alternatives to foundationalism seriously), but I think my point still stands even if you hold your beliefs to be self-evident.

        My point is that A’s infallible or completely irrefutable knowledge claim can be cancelled out by B claiming the same thing about their own position. The fact that one could be much more rational than the other is irrelevant. You can’t show that X is unreasonable if you reject the whole idea that it could be unreasonable.

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