“I tore myself away from the safe comfort of certainties through my love for truth; and truth rewarded me.” – Simone de Beauvoir
When I first decided to write a book titled Philosophical Guidance, the use of the practical or speculative philosophy of the great thinkers to pattern a meaningful life, I planned as preparatory work a description of reality and ethics followed by an exploration of some limited, mostly unambiguous special topics: good and evil, God, death and immortality, free will, teleology, and suffering. I specifically hoped to avoid the more formal and tangential disciplines of epistemology and logic. However earlier investigations came back again and again to the issue of certainty, and I have come to see that effective guidance is utterly dependent on having a means to distinguish knowledge which can be relied upon from that which is suspect. The fulcrum of all understanding and decision making comes down to the skill in appraisal of levels of certainty and doubt, and on one’s level of confidence in knowledge and action. Thus I propose now to take on this subject despite its theoretical difficulties.
As in the past I plan to break up this complex topic into its constituent parts:
2. Definitions and distinctions
3. Truth and subjectivity
6. Science and certainty
7. Perils of certainty
8. Confidence levels (statistics)
9. Personal table of certainty
We will begin with a clarification of terms and subtleties of definition. Next will be the distinction of truth from certainty and a brief look at Kierkegaard’s epigram: “Truth is subjectivity.” From there we look at the opposite ends of the poles of certainty: (1) Foundationalism, the search for absolute certainty; and (2) Skepticism, the doctrine that nothing can be known. Then we assess science as potential certainty with particular attention to the opposing concepts of falsifiability and verifiability. Next we examine the dangers of certainty: the inevitability of error and the potential harm of strong but unfounded opinion. In closing we will revisit statistics to understand the concept of “confidence level,” and I will present my attempt at a chart of certainty or confidence, before a final synopsis.
Join me next time as we start with definitions and distinctions.