The seventh most certain ethical principle is the golden rule: Treat others as you would have them treat you. This universally expressed principle follows flawless logic and is rephrased by Immanuel Kant as “never treat a person as a means, only as an end.” The universalization of this law assures each person equal protection in a world of others.

Logic alone gives us the seventh most certain ethical principle: Inaction is a form of action. Therefore, duty to others and community requires deliberation even on the decision not to act. The eighth follows a  complicated analysis as outlined in the section on good and evil:1 The highest good is the combination of happiness and meaning.

When we apply reason to the third, fourth, and sixth tenets above, we arrive at a contingent certainty: When possible, maximize the good for self and others. This is the fundamental principle of the Utilitarians. Its greatest weakness is the difficulty of ascertaining action or actions that maximize the good for self and others, but the deontological validity is unquestionable in the face of the impeccable logic it reflects.

Again we can construct a chart of these top ten ethical ‘certainties.’ And again other propositions can be added such as Membership in society entails obligations or duties to that society, a highly justified belief as the benefits of social organization are based on universal compliance with accepted rules and one  may freely choose to withdraw from the society.

Kant may be correct that we can never know what will make us happy, but compliance with these carefully determined propositions seems likely to make us “worthy to be happy.”

1 I have free will. 99.5
2 Human conduct has effects. 98.8+
3 There is good and evil. 98.8
4 Good conduct is preferable to evil conduct. 98.7+
5 First do no harm. 98.7 To other people.
6 I should aim to make a good life for myself. 98.6+ Without doing harm to other people.
7 Treat others as you would have them treat you. 98.6
8 Inaction is a form of action. 98.5+
9 The highest good is the combination of happiness and meaning. 98.3
10 When possible, maximize the good for self and others. 98.2+ Utilitarianism
Membership in society entails obligations or duties to that society. 97.0
  In matters of importance, one ought to tell the truth. 96.0 One of Kant’s principles of universalization.


Next time we will investigate truths of the highest degree of certainty regarding ultimate reality.

1See post 1/23/2019 this site.

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“The answer therefore to the first of the two questions of pure reason with reference to its practical interests* is this: Do that which will render thee worthy to be happy.” – Immanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason.

The last four blogs looked at subjective or internally derived metaphysical statements of the highest degree of certainty and empirical truths of lower, but still high certainty. We can now intersperse within these an analysis of ethical certainties, or propositions of human conduct.

The first of these is the fifth metaphysical proposition – I have free will. Any theory of human conduct must begin with the assertion or the assumption of free will.  Ethics is premised on choice. There is no ethical question on the destruction caused by a tornado since the tornado is not thought to be a cognitive  agent with free choice. Likewise there is no moral responsibility for my kicking the physician who taps my knee with his hammer while standing too close to my foot. Only voluntary actions are the subject of ethics.

The corollary of this first principle is: Human conduct matters. This is derived from pure reason based on the meaning of free will as free agency and the definition or assumption of conduct as a form of causality with resulting effects. If human action despite being free has no effects, conduct does not matter and ethics is undermined.

Next is the crucial point – There is good and evil. This we must assume for ethics to apply, but is also experienced phenomenologically via perceptions filtered through reason. While specific goods may be subjective, the concept of ‘good’ as opposed to ‘evil’ is intuitive and universal. Common sense and humanity lead all to assume a child accidently stepping off a cliff is evil while a body of fresh, clean water is good for a person alone dying of thirst in the desert. Obviously many goods and evils are less self-evident.

By logic we arrive at the next ethical certainty, Good conduct is preferable to evil conduct. Therefore any value system will support saving a healthy, innocent child from stepping off a cliff rather than pushing him or her to her death. The corollary to this proposition is the mandate of the physician: First do no harm. In all human conduct the avoidance of harm to others is the highest priority by intuition and experience. Similarly, needless blinding of innocent animals, even if pleasurable (presumably to a mentally ill person) is not justified in any system of ethics.

Within the limits above, the ethical principle of the next highest degree of certainty is I should aim to make a good life for myself. Logic and common sense inform this, even when making a good life for oneself is sacrificing for the good of others or self-denial. Choosing the saintly road is premised on the belief that a good life for myself is one of saintliness, not that concern for others makes a bad life for myself.

(continued next post  http://philosophicalguidance.com/2020/07/31/certainty-synthesis-part-v-continued/)


* What ought I to do?

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In continuing a listing of highly certain empirical tenets, the next regards change – that is Existence involves change. This is experienced as both mental and physical changes occurring to myself and perceptions of flux in the world. In the history of philosophy these concepts of existence and change are traditionally depicted as the dichotomy of being and becoming. So a less immediately clear variation of this principle is Being involves becoming. A mixed phenomenological and metaphysical point follows this one– a being changing over time is aging – something I both experience and intuit. Therefore I am aging is the eighth highly certain empirical principle.

In the experience of the world, I become aware of others – some like and some unlike myself. Those like myself and most other living beings have a limited lifetime, that is, living beings appear to be mortal. Other than my private knowledge of myself, there is no apparent difference between me and others like me, therefore I recognize I too am mortal giving the ninth empirical certainty by association – I will die. This principle is of lower but still very high certainty, but subjectively essential to the phenomenological interpretation of my life.

Closing out the first ten, perhaps not so much on the degree of certainty, but rather by its significance is the powerful and unyielding notion: Dead people remain dead. At this point we cross the boundary into existentialism and its attendant anxiety which reinforces phenomenologically the last two points.

Now we can create a second chart as below covering empirical propositions and again add some additional examples for comparison.

1 Time passes. 99.8 Also on the metaphysical chart.
2 I have experiences. 99.7 Also on the metaphysical chart.
3 I have moods. 99.5+
4 I have a body. 99.3
5 I control my body. 99.2+
6 I experience a world of space and objects. 99.2 Objects includes other people
7 Existence involves change. 99.1+ Alternatively, Being involves becoming.
8 I am aging. 99.0+ Time plus change.
9 Living things have limited longevity. 99.0 By association, I will die.
10 Dead people remain dead. 98.9 By association, I will remain dead after I die.
Consistently experienced objects and facts are real. 98.0
Change includes events which cause other events or effects. 97.9 Cause and effect.
The sun will rise tomorrow. 97.8

Now that I have assessed the degree of certainty of my identity, time, my having a beginning and a limited lifespan, and the existence of an outside world and other people, the stage is set to look at the third arena for analysis – the ethical realm.

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“Natural objects, for example, must be experienced before any theorizing about them can occur” – Edmund Husserl






The last two blogs looked at subjective or internally derived metaphysical statements of the highest degree of certainty. Today we depart from that level of confidence and take on in logical order the next category in this process – truths of experience which I will call empirical truth. Necessity forces us to hold on further intuition and introspection of areas such as ethics until we establish the arena of action – that is the external world. Phenomenology will be our main tool on this subject.

First a word about phenomenology. This method developed by Edmund Husserl differs from traditional science and empiricism in that perceptions are utilized as mere examples from which are abstracted basic ideas about reality while the objects of perception are ‘bracketed’- meaning their actuality is not assumed or confirmed, but deferred. For example, my experience of a “box” is examined rather than the actuality of the box before me; my experience includes seeing some of its surfaces, but not others (the back and underside of the box). Phenomenology says I experience color while empiricism and science define the apple as red.

We have already seen the two most certain phenomenologically derived truths: time and the fact of experience itself. Next in order of certainty, it seems to me, is I have moods, one of the earliest recognitions of Martin Heidegger in his book Being and Time. For the moment we ‘bracket’ the origin of moods in keeping with Husserl’s method.

We have less confidence in the next point – I have a body, through a variety of experiences including my sensations (vision, touch, hearing, smell, and even taste if I choose), my regular needs such as those due to thirst or hunger, my apparent ability to move, and the effect of external stimuli (e.g. pain). Again all of these may be bracketed while the assortment of experiences lead to the idea of body. There are reasonable alternative versions of this point: (1) I am a body, (2) My mind inhabits a body, (3) I have a physical as well as mental manifestations, and so forth. However the original iteration above seems just as reasonable.

Very closely related is the statement: I control my body. This is confirmed not only by my ability to move its various parts, but also by my ability to focus my attention on the various components of perception such as isolating listening to a “bird” or smelling of a ‘flower.”

The sixth and still highly certain empirical principle is that I experience a world of space and objects. Clearly I perceive an environment separate from my body which in which I am located and which is confirmed by all of my senses and by my ability to move within space and make physical contact with at least some objects not part of my body. Husserl and Heidegger also come to this conclusion early in the process of phenomenologic exploration, though of course this idea is accepted by most on the basis of common sense alone.

(continued next post)

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Tightly associated is a second phenomenological point: as thinking, thoughts, and experiences occur, they transition to memories, leading to the very secure belief that “my memory records my actual prior experiences.”

I also appear to be able to change thoughts on my own volition– thinking of a random number or recalling past memories, thus free will is implied in the ability to migrate thought with no apparent outside influence or credible physically sufficient cause (e.g. it seems unbelievable that an asterism, causal chain,  chemical reaction, or quantum flux makes me choose to think about the number 7 rather than 12 or 17,849,205 and not 17,849,206?).

The last of the most certain ten references language – most of my thoughts are in words that form a recognizable language with meanings (for example ‘time’ or the number 5), therefore “language is a valid mode for thinking.”

These propositions and some which follow are so nearly certain (beyond a shadow of a doubt) that common sense suggests they need no demonstration. Still a powerful justification can also be asserted – they are the very axioms that must be accepted in order for any meaningful internal or external discourse to take place. In fact their denial negates all truth and action completely devastating human existence.

We can take these ten ranked principles and formulate a table as below based on the degree of certainty (100 point scale). To it we can add progressively less confident beliefs with estimated ranking for later use. It is also revealing and instructive to place some common metaphysical affirmations of lower certainty in the table for comparison purposes such as “God exists” or “I have a soul.” A partial table follows:

1 Something exists. 99.9+ Alternatively – There is thinking.
2 Basic logic is valid. 99.9+ Includes simple mathematics and geometry.
3 Nothing is certain 99.9 Other than perhaps the first two listed.
4 I think, therefore I am. 99.8+
5 Time passes. 99.8 First phenomenologic priniciple.
6 I have identity. 99.7+
7 I have experiences. 99.7 Second phenomenologic principle.
8 My memory records my prior experiences. 99.6
9 I have free will. 99.5
10 Language is a valid mode of thought. 99.4
11 I had a beginning. 99.1 Alternatively – I have not always existed.
There is a God. 50 God defined as conscious creator of the universe. Equal to: There is no God.
I have a soul. 5 Better: I have no soul. (95% certain)

Next time we will apply this formulation to empirical principles of highest degree of certainty.

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“The quest for certainty blocks the search for meaning. Uncertainty is the very condition to impel man to unfold his powers.” –  Erich Fromm

In the creation of a personal corpus of beliefs of the highest degree of certainty, we start with metaphysical principles. These are derived from introspection, or looking internally, and the methods of intuition or “mental seeing” plus phenomenology, the extraction of abstract relationships underlying basic perceptions. So what is the most certain feature of internal reality? Of course it is our own thinking process which Descartes distilled into his famous phrase “cogito ergo sum” or “I think therefore I am.” However, with all due respect to Descartes, slightly more certain is a modification by Bernard Williams, “There is thinking,” although I feel the most certain sentence imaginable is more nonspecific: “There is something.”

While that ‘something’ is thought itself, we cannot be absolutely certain that thinking establishes personhood, so in my opinion, the next most certain metaphysical principle is the validity of basic logic and by derivation simple mathematics and geometry. Logic or reason is intrinsic to any processing of reality and a premise of this phase of our work. The most important logical certainty is identity, that is, A = A. Mathematically this translates into 1+1=2 where 2 is defined as 1+1 or in other words 1+1 = 1+1. Since 3 is defined as 1+1+1, next we see that 1+2=3 is really translated into 1+2 = 1+1+1 or 1+1+1=1+1+1 and so forth. Geometry is more complicated, but still boils down to intuitive logic once one grants the axioms of planar space. Our mere innate reasoning confirms Euclid’s propositions such as number 15; “If two straight lines cut one another, they make the vertical angles equal to one another.”

Sadly no metaphysical statement that follows these two is more certain than the skeptic’s proclamation – “nothing is certain” although I might add the qualitative statement “other than the first two statements.”

Following these first three seems to be Descartes’ cogito – I am extremely confident it is I who am thinking my thoughts. Thereafter one comes unhesitatingly upon the first phenomenology-based metaphysical principle – “time passes.” This is the inevitable conclusion of having even two thoughts where one must be first and the second must follow – thought chains require the existence of time. Closely related is the recognition that the series of thoughts that instantiate my existence over time also confirm “I have identity” as the being with that particular chain of thoughts through time.

Just behind, I also am aware that my existent being with identity through time has other experiences such as sensory perceptions, leading to the highly confident statement that in addition to thoughts “I have experiences.”

(continued next post)

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Certainty, generally, is an illusion, and repose is not the destiny of man.” – Oliver Wendell Holmes



Last time after rejecting absolute certainty as both counterproductive as an aim and perilous when assumed, I suggested we consider a quasi-foundational approach to knowledge tailored to the five levels of reality. Briefly we end up with a matrix:

Level of Reality                        Informed by:

Internal Reality                         Subjectivity

Proximate Reality                   Subjectivity and science

Societal Reality                        Multiple authoritative sources

Cosmic Reality                          Science

Ultimate Reality                        Subjectivity and science

However principles justifying our greatest confidence seem to be more practically separated into four types: (1) metaphysical, (2) ethical, (3) empirical, and (4) ultimate. Metaphysical principles derive mostly from internal reality and subjectivity; ethical principles from a mix of internal and proximate reality and thus subjectivity and some science; empirical principles from understandings of cosmic reality and science; and ultimate reality and principles from subjectivity mixed with an element of science. The hope for any degree of certainty in societal reality is quite limited, a fact which reverberates as the peril of all forms of political dogmatism.

We also reviewed some useful tools for this scope of work including:

Author                          Tool

Santayana                   Reason (meaning and unity) and human ideals

Adler                               Common sense and intelligibility

Scruton                         Truth value and trust in language

Baggini                            Sincerity, accuracy, and objectivity

So now I hope to take these tools to task in creating a list of important principles within each group stratified on the degree of certainty of each. We begin with metaphysical principles next time.

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The basis for this approach to a quasi-foundationalism is not entirely novel. In The Life of Reason, George Santayana explores reason as the vital impetus to meaning and unity. Reason allows man to distinguish between spirit and nature allowing him to understand his wants and needs and how to satisfy them. Instinct is transformed into human ideals that exceed simple survival needs as for example in the case of the highest human ends – goodness and art.2

Mortimer Adler makes the case for a common sense understanding of reality, particularly denying idealism (Kant’s thesis that reality for humans is a construct of the mind) and Heisenberg indeterminacy (the exact status of subatomic structure depends on an observer) . He specifically challenges the increasing tendency by physicists to assert that ‘what they cannot measure does not exist.’ Adler feels a genuine reality exists separately from human experience of it but is made intelligible by the human mind.3

Roger Scruton speaks of assigning a ‘truth value’ to a statement in a sense similar to that between an object and its name (for example Venus as both morning and evening star) as argued by Gottlob Frege.4 He also quotes Ludwig Wittgenstein:  “the world is the totality of facts, not of things.”5 And while the skeptic can challenge thought as depending on language and the imperfect meanings of words, Scruton thinks trust in thought is  justified since those words are human in origin and hence are correctly applied to human reality. Moreover the fact that language is shared by others  validates our belief that the mind is not completely private.6

Julian Baggini discusses the view of Bernard Williams that truth requires two virtuous features – sincerity and accuracy. Reasoned objectivity underlies legitimate beliefs even if others do not share those beliefs. Again the skeptic is undermined in blanket disbelief as he too relies on reason to challenge us, further confirming a rational approach as the means to justified belief.7

Before moving on to my hierarchy of most certain truths, it is worth remembering that much of what  impels doubt is based on our unavoidably particular experience of the world as a species and as individuals. The human experience is clearly different from that of a fish, a fly, or a bat; perhaps none of these is definitive, and it is chauvinistic for us to elevate the human picture above the others. However, since we are, after all, human and have only our own biologic equipment to inform us, it is difficult to imagine a better alternative from which to determine degrees of certainty or a plan for living.


1See Posts on this site 11/9/18, 11/12/18, 11/14/18, 11/16/18, 11/21/18, 11/23/18, 11/25/18, 11/26/18, 11/28/18, 11/30/18, and 12/2/18.

2Magill, Frank, Masterpieces of World Philosophy in Summary Form. Harper&Row Publishers, 1961, pages 761-767.

3Adler, Mortimer J., Intellect – Mind Over Matter. Macmillan Publishing Company, New York, 1990. ISBN 0-02-500350-X, page s 90-114.

4Scruton, Roger, An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Philosophy. Penguin Books. New York, 1999. ISBN 0 14 027516 9, page 29.

5Ibid., page 31.

6Ibid., pages 43-57.

7Baggini, Julian, The Edge of Reason. Yale University Press, New Haven, 2016. ISBN 9780300208238, pages 113 and 137-139.

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“You cannot prove realism to a complete skeptic or idealist, but you can show an honest man that he is not a complete skeptic or idealist, but a realist at heart. So long as he is alive his sincere philosophy must fulfill the assumptions of his life and not destroy them.” – George Santayana.

The last twenty-four posts have considered and rejected various forms of certainty. First were Kant’s a priori statements or self-evident truths which we saw were limited in number and often mere tautologies. Second was the philosophical quest of foundationalism – wherein certain or near certain truths might be built into secure doctrine – a quest which eventually failed. Third and most successful came science which is, however, not only imperfect, but applies mainly to natural phenomena rather than the human existential problem.

We also examined the threats of lost opportunities in the futile search for certainty and the perils of unjustified certainty. But there is another danger overlapping these two – the danger of extreme skepticism and doubt as the eradication of all principles. Philosophical guidance in living requires us to pull ourselves out of this epistemological quagmire. Today I hope to outline a rational course for us to follow.

First we need to return to the levels of reality.1 It appears that science is sufficient for human needs when considering cosmic reality and some aspects of proximate and societal reality. Our knowledge of societal reality will always remain deficient, but the most accurate picture of the human world possible is attained by consulting the writings of a variety of reputable historians and journalists. Still caution must be observed however sure we think we are in the realm of societal reality.

On the other hand, the blueprint of a meaningful and flourishing life is more dependent on internal, proximate, and ultimate reality – none of which can be fully informed by science or outside authority. So we disembark in our journey at Kierkegaard’s great discovery – subjective truth. Using a mixture of individual intuition, experience, belief, and reason, each person must define fundamental principles in approaching life and the world which are validated by their coherence, instrumentality, and predictive efficacy. No principles thus derived are absolute, but with careful reflection and constant re-evaluation, we can structure them in degrees of certainty or justification for action. Once we stratify these principles, they can be deployed for priority in action. At that point science can be instrumental in effecting our priorities. Of course we also need to have fortitude to comply with our own stratified ‘certainties.’

(continued next post)

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“I beseech you in the bowels of Christ think it possible you may be mistaken.” – Oliver Cromwell.



It turns out that not only is certainty elusive, but the seeking of certainty and the belief in one’s own certainty represent significant perils to humanity. Let’s start with John Dewey’s masterpiece The Quest for Certainty. Dewey’s thesis is simple – humans live in a world of hazards and thus seek security. In early civilization security was sought in two ways:  (1) superstitious belief and hope and (2) the development of simple technology. The first led to dogmatism which stifled human progress and became a cause of strife as societies attempted to impose their belief on others. The second depended on the study of nature, itself changing and inexact, pushing great minds of the past to defer its study to others as they sought absolute truth (e.g. Plato and Aristotle).  A dichotomy developed between theory and practice that delayed human advancement.

Philosophers receive the brunt of Dewey’s criticism and rightly so. His remedy is for philosophy to forsake “the quest for illusory certainty for discoverable paths to enjoyable goods.”1 In short, by abandoning certainty as its goal, philosophy paradoxically can improve the human condition.

J. Bronowski examines the obverse side of the coin – the danger of unwarranted certainty. In The Ascent of Man, he devotes a full chapter (or episode of the television series; available on YouTube) to this topic.2 He begins with science’s eventual recognition that material certainty is impossible referencing Carl Friedrich Gauss and his Gaussian curve with its ‘areas of uncertainty’ and Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle. He tells us: “All information is imperfect…There is no absolute knowledge and those who claim it whether they are scientists or dogmatists open the door to tragedy.”3 Bronowski thinks the acceptance of uncertainty translates culturally into ‘a range of tolerance as opposed to belief in unwarranted certainty which manifests as  intolerance. He concludes with a stop at the site of a former concentration camp where he argues the holocaust was the result of intolerance stemming from the ‘certainty’ of Nazism which ironically occurred at nearly the same time science was demonstrating certainty to be an illusion.

In our own time, zealots such as Islamic extremists and white supremacists echo similar intolerance and danger informed by their dogmatic certainty. Other examples will likely occur to readers. Dogmatism it turns out is not only the enemy of truth, but also of our species. The more rational  alternative is a mixture of approaches and attention to degrees of subjective truth which is  the subject of our next post.

1 Magill, Frank. Masterpieces of World Philosophy. HarperCollins Publishers.  1990. ISBN 0-06-270051-0. Pages 552.

2Bronowski, J., The Ascent of Man. Little, Brown, and Company, Boston, 1973. Page 353-375.


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