Can I believe the latter of these

Can we be certain of anything? This is a question packed
with conflict. There is a myriad of arguments believing we can and also
believing we cannot, however there has to be an answer to this incessant philosophical
conundrum – it’s just that nobody has found it quite yet – in fact, we cannot
be certain there is an answer! This essay will be exploring different
arguments, such as Descartes’s Meditations, and will try to elucidate these and
weigh up the different considerations and how well they work in solving the
question. We will find arguments, counter these arguments and propose solutions
for the counter-arguments, and by the end try to foster a clearer image of the
answer lying beneath the crust and potentially create our own resolution.

Firstly, what actually is certainty? Oxford English
dictionary define it as “From conviction that something is the case” and “A
fact that is definitely true or an event that is definitely going to take
place.” I believe the latter of these is not acceptable from a philosophical
point of view, as you can never be certain
that an event is definitely going to take place, such as with Hume’s
argument about whether the sun will rise tomorrow, and that we cannot rely
solely on past experiences to predict what will happen in the future. Hume uses
the sun rising tomorrow as an example of something that occurs so often and
frequently, but he states that we cannot be sure it will rise again – it would
be just as reasonable to think that a bowl of tulips will rise into the sky
tomorrow, or that nothing would rise at all. This argument has a key part in
laying the foundations for a solution to the certainty question, and shines
light on the fact that we cannot be certain of something that will happen in
the future. Period. Just because everyone else has died doesn’t mean I will
die, just because eggs, flour and sugar made cake yesterday doesn’t mean they
will today. If I were to go onto the streets of London and ask people whether
they liked Marmite® or not and the first 1000 people said they like it, I would
have no valid reason to believe that the next person would like Marmite®. It is
just as ridiculous to think the next person will like Marmite® as it is to
think the sun will rise tomorrow, or anything else in the future for that
matter. Certainty in the future is not plausible, and through research I have
found no valid counter-arguments for this proposition.

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Subsequent to this, is there such thing as certainty of anything?
By looking back through time, you can remember past events – it may be a
birthday, a holiday, or anything in particular, yet it feels so real you can be
sure it has happened. Can this be certain? And can you be certain of where you
are, what you are experiencing or your current state? According to Peter Klein,
a belief “is absolutely certain
just in case it is subjectively and objectively immune to doubt”
and his argument is as follows:

“p is absolutely certain
for S if and only if (1) p is warranted for S and (2) S is warranted in denying
every proposition, g, such that
if g is added to S’s beliefs, the warrant for p is reduced (even if only
very slightly) and (3) there is no true proposition, d, such that if d is added to S’s true beliefs the warrant
for p is reduced (even if only
very slightly).” (1992, p. 63).

In simplified
terms, this argument states that p can only be certain if p is justified for S,
for example I believe I am experiencing pain, and it can be certain for me that
this is the case, then this satisfies the first part of the argument. It gets
harder to verify the next stage, as it means S has to deny every proposition,
in the example meaning I could deny everything that could possibly say I am not
experiencing pain. According to ‘plato.stanford.edu’ this could be invalid
because my mind may contain some false beliefs, leading to me denying every
proposition, possibly incorrectly, so this is why the third stage is here, as
it focuses only on true fact. This is very ambiguous in itself as you have to
be sure of d, but that counters the argument as you must repeat the argument to
be sure of d. It is almost paradoxical in nature. Klein’s argument does work
for finding out whether something is true or not, but I do not believe it can,
as an argument in itself, justify providing certainty for anyone at all. It is
like comparing the argument to a maths problem. 2a+2a+2a equals 3b, yet this
equation in itself is useless. You could not usefully apply it to anything. The
same goes for the argument. I can justify I feel the pain, I can deny any
proposition saying I am not feeling the pain, yet I CANNOT know I am feeling
pain based on any flawed belief, for I cannot be certain I have no flawed
beliefs. From this argument I can conclude that it is a useful basis, but by no
means solves the problem as nobody could ever use it.

It would be
simply wrong to talk about certainty and not mention René Descartes, a famous
French philosopher. In his first Meditation, Descartes thinks about a meditator
sat in front of a fire who learns that all experiences and knowledge come from
the senses, as these are the pathways to the outside world. The Meditator knows
that the senses can sometimes deceive, and that he sometimes dreams of fires as
vivid as the one in front of him, making it hard to distinguish between his
dreams and ‘reality’. This suggests some experiences could be false even though
someone is ‘certain’ it happened. He also learns that even meek things can be
doubted, and that a God who is omnipotent could manipulate humans and even make
maths seem real, even though it is all flawed. The Meditator learns that
anything can be doubted, providing a strong case against certainty. This is a
widely accepted argument, as it is hard to disprove it, and whilst I believe
that all the points are valid, it doesn’t seem to conclusively and
comprehensively conclude the argument. We will look at a possible counter
argument when we come back to Descartes in a moment.

Instead of an
evil demon messing with his mind, a later argument, similar in nature, states
we could be living in a simulation, potentially run by an omnipotent being or a
more technologically advanced species. This begs the question ‘What is the
meaning of life’, however it can also help with our certainty argument. The
idea of being trapped in a simulation is not an uncommon one, and is entirely
feasible. Physics, Maths, Chemistry and Biology could all be lines of code on a
supercomputer somewhere unbeknown to us. This argument of simulation is as hard
to disprove as whether there are aliens for the fact that we cannot comprehend
the abilities of a much more technologically advanced species, like we cannot
comprehend the scale of the universe. The simulation argument is most certainly
a strong one, and as a freestanding argument it shows we cannot be certain of
our surroundings.

Moving back to
Descartes, we come to one of his most well-known philosophical thoughts –
“Cogito ergo sum” translating to “I think, therefore I am” in English. This is
Part One of his Second Meditation, and takes place the day after the first
meditation we explored earlier. The whole idea of the meditations is for the
meditator to discount any and all information that has even the slightest
possibility for any doubt. This means that the meditator is left only with fact
he can be certain of. According to Descartes, all is doubted, yet after this,
the meditator looks at the bigger picture. He realises that to have all these
doubts, he must be in existence, therefore leaving one piece of certainty
behind – “Cogito ergo sum” being it. Because the meditator can have these
thoughts and doubts, then he must be something, for there must be something
having these thoughts for him to be able to doubt them. He is therefore certain of this one thing. I also
believe that this meditation has the potential to disprove the first
meditation, as it is true that you cannot doubt that you are a being. Yet this
argument does not conclusively close the debate. How can you possibly know that
you are something, because you can think? Somebody (i.e. a God), could be
placing ideas in your head, so you may not be thinking anything. It may just be
a state of mind, or just nothing at all, for you may be non-existent, having
not ever lived, but just had a body to leave behind someone else’s legacies,
frozen in a time of false belief, which we know can be possible as an
omnipotent being or higher civilisation could produce something we cannot
picture, or change the laws of the world, which ties nicely back into the
simulation argument. You could say this invalidates the “I am” part of the
argument, which is the only “certain” thing in the whole world, as it certainly
is not without any doubt that we are trapped in an illusion of life, but by no
means does this fully counter the argument. This is because if a being is doing
the thinking for you, it could be argued that the being is yourself.

To conclude, I
think it is important to iterate that certainty is a very abstruse and unique
problem, so some arguments, such as Peter Klein’s, may appear difficult to
understand at first, and it is only through the dissection of the different
layers of the argument that a conclusive result can be obtained. Each argument
begs different questions, and reveals different pathways to an answer.
Throughout this essay we have explored many propositions, and explored them in
a high level of detail. I believe the strongest of these has been Hume’s
argument on the sun rising tomorrow, as it is philosophically sound, although
in terms of answering our question, it is probably one of the least successful.
This is because it only focuses on future events, instead of looking at the
bigger picture and seeing the past and present tenses. Therefore, I believe the
most conclusive argument is Klein’s argument. This argument is effective
because it works, and gives the conditions for something to be certain. That
having been said, this argument, as said earlier, is useless in terms of human
consumption. Nobody can be certain of anything based on this argument because
of the fact that it relies on having no false beliefs – something we cannot
guarantee we don’t have. As a result of this, the best arguments are
Descartes’s Meditations. I have come to this deduction because of the fact that
they work and are strong arguments. They are not the strongest, they are not
the most conclusive, but they are the best at solving our question due to the
fact that they look at all forms of certainty, and form a solution to our
question. It is therefore true that, according to Descartes, certainty is
non-existent, other than in one form – “Cogito ergo sum” or, “I think,
therefore I am”.