Monthly Archives: July 2013

Certainty and Doubt

    Of anything I believe, the one thing I know to be true beyond any real doubt, that is the fact that I am real and conscious. In his Meditations, Descartes makes the point that much of what we know, which is based entirely in our senses, is corruptible and falsifiable. His famous phrase cogito ergo sum further illustrates this point by showing that in order for one to doubt your own existence, you must exist to doubt it. The question of the implications of the existence of the self or the rest of the world are hard to recognize. It is, in fact, its own philosophical issue. Does it really matter whether I really exist if I am still sentient and capable of experience?

    Those who believe in strict creationism are, according to accepted science, convinced of their knowledge of the nature of the creation and development of the universe and all organisms. Though there is a slim possibility that they are correct, and that those of us who regard evolutionism as the truth have been deceived, but it is extremely unlikely. They believe that they are absolutely correct, and they argue that they have access to special knowledge from God or some other force that informs their understanding of biology and cosmology. The consequences of their belief in these principle are that they will continue to live without accepting the thoughts and wisdom of others, and they will attempt to spread their ideas to others who are not, in fact, wrong.

    When I doubt myself while taking a test, the potential outcome is that I could be correct or incorrect. This is a situation where the implications, for me, are rather steep. I may pass or fail a test based upon the doubt of my initial thoughts and knowledge. This, however, is a relatively unimportant consequence for others. Questions of doubt and certainty in issues such as the debate over the origin of species and universe have much wider impact, and the outcome threatens to change the way we examine the natural word. These doubts control what we allow to color our views of the universe, religious certainty, or scientific doubt and skepticism. Perhaps the best outcome lies somewhere in between.

    Everything we do in our lives is based in knowledge of things. Without really knowing what we are talking about, we will come to conclusions similar to the hypothetical future cosmologists in Brian Greene’s lecture. We will make assumptions about the universe without actual knowledge to back them up. In that situation, the old knowledge of the cosmos is ignored because of the lack of physical or sensory evidence of the existence of what was recorded. This is the result of a lack of knowledge regarding the situation being dealt with.

    Perhaps a better question than to ask if there is anything we do that requires knowledge, would be to ask if there is ever anything we can do without prior knowledge of things. In his Meditations, Descartes points out that even the most fantastic dreams and images we can conjure are composed of parts which we already understood. This shows that in order to complete most complicated tasks or thoughts requires some understanding of what is going on. Perception of reality in order to collect the necessary knowledge is one of the few things we do without knowledge.

    I think that there are certainly things which are not knowable by humans, chiefly among them the true nature of reality. We can only really grasp things as fully as our senses allow us. Once again this deals with the deceptions of Descartes “demon” of lies. That demon represents the fact that our senses can be tricked, and that what we believe to be truth cannot be entirely proven. Our knowledge of reality cannot extend beyond what the human brain is capable of deciphering.

    An example of this idea is found in the senses of a snake. Snakes have eyes which are relatively similar to ours, however they see in what we have classified as “infrared.” Computers are often able to sense heat and simulate what a snake might see, but we cannot see heat in exactly the same way as a snake. It’s vision is as precise and highly evolved as our own, but it perceives reality in an entirely different way. The snake will never know realty as we do, and we will never really know it as the snake does, but neither of our species can know the true nature of the universe.

    Knowledge changes throughout history, and it advances, or retreats, within very short amounts of time. Our knowledge of the natural world has advanced indescribably since our emergence from Africa as modern humans. Merely the fact that I know that shows that our understanding of our origins and of the process by which we have developed has grown. We owe the advancement of our knowledge not only to scientists, but to the wise men who help us work through the philosophical issues inherent in our sentience. The retreat of knowledge is, unfortunately, not a rare event either. This negative change in knowledge happens at moments such as the execution of Socrates, the crucifixion of Christ, the burning of the Library of Alexandria, and the destruction of cultural and intellectual advances by the Soviets after WWII.

    My own knowledge has change though the course of my life similarly to the collective knowledge of the human race. I do not, however, experience any loss of knowledge. Mental disease would be the only reasonable cause of such memory loss. I gain knowledge whenever I learn new things, or even when my senses perceive new things or ideas. This increase in knowledge is at a more basic level than the intellectual knowledge of the humans race. My knowledge changes as I learn more through basic experiences. Certainty and knowledge will change through the course of both human and individual experience.

    I was once certain of the existence of a literal, anthropomorphic, personal god. As far as I was concerned, God was literally watching over me, hearing my prayers, knowing my thoughts. This certainly went away as I learned about other religious and philosophical schools. I realized that the eastern religions’ pantheons of gods were just as viable as my understanding of God as the Judeo-Christian creator. It seemed to me to be an arrogant assumption to presume the accuracy of what my church and my family had always taught me. Uncertainty about this old knowledge lead me to hold a more open and changeable understanding of God. This is a less literal knowledge of God or gods.

    It is entirely possible that something of which I am currently certain could be shown to be false. This is actually something which I expect. Descartes’ “demon” is at work whenever we use our senses. The demon could be deceiving me right now, but I wouldn’t notice. I think it is healthy for someone’s certainties to be shaken up and changed. This allows for the wisdom and knowledge of those who disagree with you to make their way into your worldview. Dialogue and discussion are more effective if those participating are willing to take on the position of their partner. It is preferable to be uncertain about most things, even if they are true, because when we have questions we will seek answers, and those answers will lead to other questions. This cycle allows the progression of knowledge to unforeseeable heights.

Works Cited

Brian Greene: Is Our Universe the Only Universe? Dir. Brian Greene. Perf. Brian Greene. TED Talks. TED, n.d. Web. 30 July 2013. <;.

Descartes, Renee. “Meditation I and II.” Meditations on First Philosophy. N.p.: n.p., n.d. N. pag. Print.


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A Discussion of Belief

     Belief is a complex issue which, though I discuss it occasionally with friends, I rarely approach with my family. In discussing the questions presented in an activity on meta-belief in my philosophy class, I was able to learn quite a lot about the views and beliefs of my close family members. Upon examining myself, I found that the questions were more difficult to answer after contemplation than it seemed when I initially read them. Many of my personal beliefs can be proven, and to create a list of them and the evidence backing them up would be quite a task.

      Some basic beliefs I hold that can be proven are based in scientific theories. I accept the evidence presented by scientists to back the theories of evolution and the big bang. I also, generally, accept that quantum physics is useful for determining the answers to some questions that may not otherwise be answered. I generally avoid believing in things absolutely, but when things can be reasonably defended with evidence, I tend to accept them as being close to facts. I must admit that the educational background and profession of the individual making these claims tends to play into my acceptance of these ideas as “proven,” but I don’t think that anything can be claimed beyond a shadow of a doubt.

      Things I cannot prove among my beliefs are a bit harder to organize in a clear way. I try to avoid believing things that are not defended by facts, but there are a few things that I accept despite a lack of proof. The central belief that holds together most of my thought processes is that; though we can never really know anything absolutely, there is some “Absolute” of existence. I believe that there is some binding factor that prevents all mater from falling apart and becoming nothing.

      This Absolute can best be summarized as the collection of natural laws that maintain order in nature. Einstein called this God, saying that “I believe in Spinoza’s God, who reveals Himself in the lawful harmony of the world, not in a God who concerns Himself with the fate and the doings of mankind…” I sympathize highly with this belief, and I have considered myself to be a pantheist, in some form or another for over a year now.

      Many others believe in the existence of an anthropomorphic, personal, loving God who cares for each individual person. I disbelieve the claim that such a figure exists, and the idea of proving its existence seems strange to me. I accept that I cannot prove the existence of my pantheistic Absolute, and I do not understand the idea of having proof for something that cannot be proven. I respect their beliefs, and I often agree with them on many issues, but I have trouble grasping the idea of a personal, loving God standing by in the face of such massive human suffering in the world. If I stopped believing the beliefs I currently hold, my life would be only marginally different. My idea of God as the Absolute is only a rough concept by which I think the universe is sustained, but if some view of God served this purpose more efficiently, I would jump at the opportunity to understand it.

      I sat down with a few members of my family with whom I am quite close to ask the same questions and hold a discussion of meta-belief. My grandmother is full-blood Italian, and when she was younger she was a strong Catholic, but her belief has waned in recent years. She works as the secretary at my mother’s office. My mom is a podiatrist, and she has similarly changed the way she thinks from her Catholic upbringing. My grandfather is retired, and he is a follower of many New Age ideas. He is a great admirer of Edgar Cayce.

      They reacted similarly to the question of which beliefs they held could be proven. My mother primarily cited her belief in the theories of scientists. We agreed that it is difficult to prove many beliefs conclusively because there is a lack of information about some subjects which seem easily proven. My grandmother, for example, said that she believed she was her parents’ daughter. My mother pointed out that we can only conclusively prove that she was her mother’s daughter, and that due to a lack of DNA tests, we could rely only upon a strong family resemblance to prove her relation to her father. We ultimately agreed that it can be difficult to find proof, beyond a doubt, of most beliefs.

      When we approached the question of beliefs that cannot be proven, my grandfather listed many of his deepest held convictions about God, the universe, and the afterlife. He believes fervently in reincarnation, and he is a strong Christian. He also has many “New Age” beliefs including the idea of an “Akashic Record” of the lives of everyone who ever lived, and he told us about the teachings of the clairvoyant Edgar Cayce. Though he admitted that he can’t prove these ideas in a conventional way, he said that he can prove them because they come directly from the “Universal Forces,” which he says are at work all around us.

      As a group, we began to see that, when it comes to important beliefs, what is considered to be proof varies from individual to individual. We applied the question “why do you believe this?” in addition to “why do you not have proof of this?” in order to properly express the fact that proof is different for each of us. My grandmother, though she no longer believes in God, does think that an evil person is capable of putting a hex or “evil-eye” on another person. She admits that she cannot prove this belief, but she has seen people’s lives fall apart after being given what they saw as a hex. My mother said that she believes the universe is infinite, but she cannot prove this. She also hopes that there is a God and an afterlife, but she doesn’t think it is likely due to the lack of proof.

      We all disbelieve the ideas of many world religions. My grandfather specifically stated that he disagreed with Muslim rules about women. We discussed the idea that people will claim to be able to prove many things, and they will be able to prove those things based on their own sense of what is and is not proof. We also talked about respecting others’ beliefs despite our disagreement or disbelief. All three of my family members believed that without the sense of God, morals, guilt, and the afterlife in which they were raised, they would have lived quite differently. They were not sure if it would have been a negative thing, but they knew they would have been different. My grandmother told me that without the faith he holds, my grandfather would fall apart physically and mentally.

      Overall, we concluded that beliefs are put in place by individuals based on the teachings of those around them, and in some cases they are positive, while in others they have clearly negative effects. Each of my family members regretted some portion of their lives in which they felt their beliefs held them back from fully experiencing life. I learned a lot about the way other people think, and I learned more than I probably ever would have about New Age thought. This discussion and activity was a fascinating opportunity to discuss belief with my family and to uncover some new ideas that I can now consider.

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