“That which expresses necessary self-grounded fact, and which we must believe, is distinct both from the hypothesis of a science and from illegitimate postulate – I say ‘must believe’, because all syllogism…is addressed not to the spoken word, but to the discourse within the soul, and though we can always raise objections to the spoken word, to the inward discourse we cannot always object.” – Aristotle, Posterior Analytics, Book 1, Chapter 10.

The last 36 blogs on this site have investigated the concept of certainty and thereby indirectly truth and knowledge. It is time to summarize what we have uncovered. First, all analysis arrives at the fundamental conclusion that very little is in fact certain at least for our species. A tiny number of metaphysical concepts such as the existence of something, indispensable logic, and simple mathematical relationships appear to be the limit of absolute truth. Virtually all of our ‘knowledge” is no more than reasonably justified belief, while many or most of our strongest convictions are mere opinion or individual prejudice. From this arises the compelling corollary that it is perilous to trust in uncertain beliefs.

On the other hand doubting or negating all beliefs, particularly those justified by reasonable evidence, is incapacitating. Only a nihilist defaults to assuming nothing is true and no individual action can be justified. Strict skepticism obstructs human progress and eliminates the hope for a meaningful existence. The solution to this quandary is to rely on principles of the highest degree of certainty while mitigating for those of lesser certainty.

(continued next post)

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“The game of doubting itself presupposes certainty.” – Ludwig Wittgenstein, On Certainty, #115.

Our syntheses of the four categories of concern in the meaningful life – metaphysics, experience, ethics, and the ultimate – can now be integrated into a more comprehensive table (see Appendix, Table 6;  posted 8/10/20 http://philosophicalguidance.com/table-of-certainty/). Obviously this roster is subjective, and of course the reader may take issue with my choices and designations. If you feel I am far off, I encourage you to synthesize your own list. For this blog, I will refer to my table.

We see that in general the most certain propositions are metaphysical (the top 5); likely because they are based on pure reason and also serve as axioms for later propositions. Empirical propositions make up a second tier, but I emphasize that these are phenomenologic conclusions of internal and proximate reality and demonstrate the limit of our individual ability to identify highly certain truths beyond our immediate sphere.

Propositions regarding ultimate reality come next although such items are very limited and God can only be asserted by a circumscribed definition, many persons may deny as defining ‘God’ at all. For those who accept this tautology, we cannot escape the disappointment that God’s characteristics are otherwise uncertain. Religion then is extremely speculative and caution must be exercised in following it to a purposeful life. The ultimate propositions of moderate certainty – the universe as creative (#20) and directional (#45) however yield some hope of cosmic meaning for those who seek it.

Surprisingly we are least confident of ethical propositions, in part because free will is itself not certain, but also because good and evil are intangible and elusive concepts. Here we hope that Immanuel Kant’s argument – moral deliberation proves the existence of free will and the possibility to be worthy to be happy  – emboss ethical truths with sufficient certainty.

I also wish to point out that the modern foundational approach of science comes in at #34, making many beliefs more certain than scientific facts and laws. On the other hand, since me must accept these for any modern existence in the world, I believe those rated higher should be considered effectively as factual.

As we begin to move from our preparatory work to a formulation of the meaningful and flourishing life, the table of certainty will serve as a yardstick for guidance. Each reader should be prepared to defend his or her own version of trusted beliefs when confronted with the big questions.

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The sixth most confident proposition of ultimate reality is I am a part of something larger (the unity of the universe). Unless one denies the existence of an external world and other people, one is only a part of a whole. Participation in and identification with that whole is a fundamental understanding for a person seeking a meaningful life. In its extreme form we get the wonderful ancient Hindu truth atman = brahman; your inner self is the same as the ethereal self of the cosmos.

Next is Something always existed. This is perhaps more accurately a metaphysical principle based on the logic that something cannot come from nothing. It is echoed in our own being: while we “know” nothingness as that state before our birth, we concede, nonetheless, that our existence was caused by something else. The corollary is of a lower degree of certainty, but remains the most rational explanation of eternal existence – Somethingness is necessarily existent. No other explanation offers equal justification and plausibility.

Eighth in order is Nature and others should be respected. Since nature and others are that portion of the cosmos with which we make contact and we are undeniably one with the cosmos, this follows as a mixed ultimate and ethical principle.

Ninth is I sense the divine at times. Most of us will have at least transient experience of an ethereal realm of beauty and oneness, which phenomenologically we recognize as integral to the human condition. Only the strictest materialist will deny this experience, and here I follow Husserl in bracketing the source of that experience.

Last of the top ten is Contemplation is one means to participation in ultimate reality. This proposition is far too vague to stand up to rigorous philosophical or scientific scrutiny, but is subjectively true. Detachment from the everyday and internal meditation on the fundamental nature of reality brings one to the ultimate, but its internal origin means this truth cannot be shared directly with others. Readers will have to discover this on their own.

We are ready now to tabulate our results again with addition of a few additional propositions important in thinking about practical philosophy.

1 The cosmos is a unity 99.6+
2 There is a state of nothingness. 99.5+
3 God defined as the origin of the universe or the universe itself exists. 99.4+ Other characterizations of God are of low certainty.
4 The cosmos is governed by rational laws. 99.3+ Mixed empirical and ultimate principle.
5 Creativity is an element of the universe. 99.1+
6 I am a part of something larger (the unity of the universe). 99.0
7 Something always existed. 97.9 Somethingness is necessarily existent.
8 Nature and others should be respected. 97.8 Mixed ethical and ultimate principle.
9 I sense the divine at times. 96.9 Others’ mystical experiences are less certain.
10 Contemplation is one means to participation in ultimate reality. 96
What is, is supposed to be. 92 There is no alternative possible world.
I am here for a reason. 91
World religions incorporate authentic ultimate reality. 80


1See the section on God on this site, especially blogs dated 3/18/2019, 3/20/2019, and 3/22/2019.

2See blogs this site dated 7/20/2020, 7/22, 2020, 7/29/2020, and 7/31/2020.

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e’heyeh aser’ e’heyeh.”Exodus 3:14.*




In the process of outlining beliefs justified by the highest degree of certainty, we have in the last six posts identified some thirty seemingly evident propositions of metaphysics, experience, and ethics. Today we delve into the elusive sphere of ultimate reality. This may appear to be a futile exercise as the author of The Cloud of Unknowing would certainly attest. Ultimate reality is shrouded beyond perception and not apprehended like rules of logic, mathematics, or the facts of science. Divinity is not experienced in the usual sense, but encountered through participation while one is detached from traditional knowledge and sensation. This strict materialist may also scoff at this effort, but it is worth attempting if only because it offers the hope of greater understanding and meaning for a limited creature like Homo sapiens.

The most fundamental proposition of ultimate reality is The cosmos is a unity. Alternatively mystics speak of the One and existentialists of Being. Positivists typically consider this statement nonsensical as it can be neither proven nor disproven, but then the number 1 also suffers from this weakness. Like the cosmos it appears to be multiple as an infinite number of fractions make up the number 1, while all understand its significance. Most of us know, at least at times, what the word ‘cosmos’ signifies – an envelope enclosing everything.

Slightly less certain is the second proposition, There is a state of nothingness. While philosophers such as Parmenides argue that “Not being cannot be – there is no void.  The One fills every nook and cranny of the world and is forever at rest,” our own recognition of the nothingness prior to our birth demonstrates this with near certitude. Most of us acknowledge, with utmost regret, we will return to this infinite state after death.

Nearly equal to the first two is the third proposition, God defined as the origin of the universe or the universe itself exists. Of course this is a mere tautology, but serves to define the limit of any certainty we can express regarding the existence of God.1

Next most evident: The cosmos is governed by rational laws. This is less likely to be debated as true, and more likely to be challenged as ultimate since science depends on this principle for its truth. However rational laws of the cosmos include those of logic and reasoning that defy scientific scrutiny including the metaphysical and ethical propositions previously discussed.2

Fifth, Creativity is an element of the universe. Phenomenology and science inform this principle. Phenomenologically we appreciate the creativity represented by the particulars of the world we inhabit while scientifically we learn that a relatively limited number of identified subatomic particles combine and recombine into a seemingly unlimited number of structures and forms. We also experience the creative nature of being in our own capacities as a species, whether it be the epic of Gilgamesh, a Chagall painting, or our own imagination.

(continued next post)

* “I am that I am.” (KJV translation) or “I am who I am.”  (NLT translation). Also note that YHWH may mean “he who causes to be.”

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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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