Doubt and Skepticism

[This subject is treated in greater detail in Modes of the Finite, Part 1, Section 1, Chapters 1-5.]

1.1. How to appear wise

"If there's one thing certain in this world, it's that there's nothing certain in this world."

That's a statement you sometimes hear from people who are supposed to be intelligent. It's on a par with, "No generalization is worth a damn--including this one."

But when you think about it, why would a person make a statement like that? If it's true, then you shouldn't listen to it--because if it's certain that there's nothing certain, then it's not certain that there's nothing certain (because the statement itself is not certain)--and if it's not certain that there's nothing certain, then there might be something certain, in which case, it's just plain silly to say that there's nothing certain.

Or if no generalization is worth a damn, then (as the statement admits), the generalization that no generalization is worth a damn isn't worth a damn, and so why should anyone pay attention to it--unless there are generalizations that are worth a damn, in which case this one, certainly, is worth a good deal less than a damn.

Statements like this are such obvious stupidity that when apparently intelligent people make them, we assume that they contain a "kernel of profound truth" or something, and we marvel at the depth of intelligence of the people who can see so clearly the fallibility of our intelligence.

But I'll tell you a secret. The emperor has no clothes.

There's no profundity underneath these statements; they're plain silly. You can always sound "deep" if you make a statement and then contradict it--because you sound as if you understand the paradoxical nature of reality. Now reality is, in some respects--in many respects, in fact--paradoxical; but it doesn't follow that every paradoxical statement gets at something about reality.

Try it. Doesn't it sound really intelligent to say things like, "The nice thing about a small college like this is that it's so big." "Enjoying yourself is such a depressing way to get through life." "Nothing attracts like repulsion."

You can read a meaning into these things, and sometimes a rather deep one. But the fact is, they were just made up by putting together opposites. "The best way to sound intelligent is to be really stupid."

Now that you're in on the secret, don't be fooled by people who make clever statements. Examine what is said to see if it makes sense.

1.1.1. The prevailing "wisdom"

The reason this has to be mentioned at the outset is that the present age thinks it has made the Great Discovery.

This is supposed to be something that the world had no inkling of before: that we now finally realize that "absolute truth" is a myth; that we can reach likelihood and even high degrees of probability, but we must give up the quest for certainty, because it's a quest for the end of the rainbow--no matter how far you pursue it, it recedes off into the horizon.

Admit it: suppose somebody tells you that something is absolutely true, without the slightest possibility of a doubt; don't you automatically disbelieve him? It's not possible, you think, for anybody to be that certain--and be right. Our minds just aren't built to be able to reach that degree of certainty. We can always be wrong.

Oh yes? How certain are you that we can always be wrong?

You see, you've been drinking in the "prevailing wisdom" of the age ever since you learned that there's no Santa Claus. You take it so for granted that no one can really be absolutely sure of anything that you'd never admit that anyone could be--you're so sure that we can't be sure.

I had to listen for four hours once to lectures to the faculty of our college, whose purpose was to get us to be better teachers. The "new discovery" in the learning process was this: Students (the lecturer said) begin at Stage One, by thinking that there is "truth" and the teacher has it. When they learn that the teacher doesn't know everything, then they reach Stage Two, which is that there is "truth" out there somewhere, but nobody (yet) has got hold of the truth of it; but our goal as teachers was to bring students to Stage Three, the final stage in learning, which is "critical relativism," which abandons the search for "truth" and evaluates what people assert with a critical eye.

Well, I evaluated this assertion with a critical eye, and saw that either this "new discovery" was a "truth" that the lecturer thought she had and was trying to inform us of (in which case, Stage Three wasn't the final stage of learning), or (if we were at Stage Three) we should take her assertions with a grain of salt, because who was she to know whether it really was futile to abandon the quest for "truth"?--in which case, Stage Three was as likely as not to be an illusion. And if it wasn't, what was she doing up there trying to convince us that if we were really smart, we shouldn't be listening to her?

Needless to say, I posed a question which as politely as I knew how hinted that if she was right about the abandonment of "truth" as a goal, then how was it she was trying to convince us of this "truth"--at which point, I was relegated to Stage Two. I hadn't arrived yet. Sad.

My own experience with students is that, once they're in college, and (from what I can gather) once they're well into high school, they're entrenched in Stage Three, with such dogmatic assurance that it's almost impossible to get them to admit the possibility that "truth" might even exist, let alone that they might be able to latch on to some part of it.

The object of this part of the book is to lead you from Stage Three back through Stage Two and on to Stage One. Yes, Virginia, there is "truth"; and you will get acquainted with it as we progress, provided you aren't so wedded to the "truth that there is no absolute truth" that you refuse to follow.

God knows we're ignorant; and we certainly should admit it. But please, entertain the possibility that we might not be totally ignorant, and don't close your minds with the supposedly absolute knowledge that absolute knowledge is beyond our grasp.

If you do, there's no hope for going on. You'll just read this and say, "Well, that's your opinion," and not examine anything, and think yourself wise in taking everything written here "with a grain of salt," on the grounds, "Well, I might not be able to prove him wrong, because he's got a Ph.D., but who does he think he is to say that anything he says is absolutely true? That's bound to be wrong."

I've talked to people who have said that no one can be certain of anything; and when I asked them, "Are you certain of that?" they wouldn't admit they were--because if they did, then they'd be certain of something, wouldn't they? And they were so sure that nothing could be known for certain that they wouldn't admit they were sure.

Remember what I said: Now that you're in on the secret, don't be fooled by what sounds wise. Examine it to see if it makes sense. How can it make sense to say that nothing can be known for certain? How could you be certain of that? And if you can't be, then why do you say it? The most you could say would be, "Well, I've never been certain of anything yet; but I might meet something tomorrow that can be known without the slightest possibility of a doubt."

1.1.2. Skepticism

The other thing about this Great Discovery is that it's nothing new.

A man named Pyrrho of Elis, who lived around 300 B.C. in Greece, was one of the earliest important figures in this view of things. Those who followed him called themselves "skeptics," which means "examiners," and their idea was to "examine" everything to see if you could find absolute truth in it; and their conclusion--if you can call it that--was that you couldn't.

But skepticism, in one of its many forms, is actually a stage of thought that passes. It comes about after an age of confidence that we've got "the answer" because of some scientific advance, and then one of two things happens. Either another scientific advance occurs, making the first one seem false (as quantum physics and relativistic physics made classical physics seem totally wrong--and we were so convinced that it was unassailable); or the ordinary people push the scientific advance beyond its evidence into areas where it shows up as false. And if science is wrong, can we really know anything at all?

One of the amusing things about skepticism is that when it occurs, it's always heralded as the Great New Discovery, and True Wisdom, and The Last Word, and Unanswerable, and The Admission of Human Fallibility Opposed to the Stupid Certainties of the Past, and so on. It is arrogance masquerading as humility, and it poisons the wells of knowledge, because it presumes to have "examined" and found out that you can't really be sure of anything--and therefore there's no need to examine further.

But then what happens, historically, is that skepticism becomes skeptical of skepticism itself, because those who are interested in the facts don't bother themselves with whether they can "really know" or not, and proceed to find out things and actually learn something. A scientific breakthrough occurs, the people become confident once again in the ability of our minds to know, and skepticism dies for a while until this discovery once again proves that it wasn't quite what we thought it was.

Our own brand of skepticism, as I mentioned above, came about because we were sure that, even if other areas of knowledge were a waste of time, we at least had hold on "the truth" in physics and mathematics. But at the turn of this century came quantum physics, which didn't fit with classical physics, and relativistic physics, which repudiated Newton's "laws" of motion and gravitation. And the advent of non-finite mathematics and the rejection of Euclid's "axiom" that only one line parallel to another can be drawn through a point (which rejection, by the way, is at the foundation of Einstein's General Theory of Relativity) made mathematics, from something that described the "real world" into a kind of axiomatic game that was fun to play, but wasn't "true" except with its own "internal truth." And then Kurt Goedel showed that even the internal truth of mathematical systems supported statements like "This theorem, which follows from the axioms, doesn't."

Well, if you can't find truth in the King and Queen of modern-day sciences, where can you find it? So we've all become skeptics.

1.2. Doubt

That's why we're where we are today, basically.

It's more complicated than that, of course, and has to do with the philosophies of Immanuel Kant and Georg Hegel to explain why we put so much trust in science and let everything else go, but we'll see more of Kant and his effects later. Our job is to see through the skeptical position and realize that at least some things can be known without the slightest possibility of a doubt.

But let's first get clear what we're talking about when we talk of doubt.

DEFINITION: DOUBT is the realization that what you think is true might actually be false.

That is, doubt is the state of mind you're in when you think you might be mistaken. If you know that you are mistaken, of course, then you're not in doubt any more; you know what the facts are (or at least you think you know).

So doubt is a subjective state; it's a state where you hesitate to make an assertion that "such-and-such is definitely a fact" because it might not actually be a fact.

Notice, however, that it's not of itself an emotional state. You don't have to be worried to be in doubt; you just have to suspect that what you think is true might not be true. If this worries you, then you doubt and are worried about it; but the doubt isn't the worry. You may doubt, for instance, that we're the only intelligent beings in this universe, and the possibility that there might be E.T.'s somewhere that know things may or may not bother you--in which case, your doubt does or does not cause you emotional distress. You may, by the way, be convinced that there are other intelligent creatures, in which case, you have an opinion, not a doubt.

But just to clear up what might be a confusion, let's have separate technical terms for these two states that are both ordinarily called "doubt."

DEFINITION: SUBJECTIVE DOUBT is the emotional condition of being worried whether what you think is true might be false. It is purely subjective when there are no facts which would indicate the possibility of error.

DEFINITION: OBJECTIVE DOUBT is having some facts which would indicate that what you think is true may be false.

Note that objective doubt is (as we said above) a subjective condition (it's a state of your mind). Nevertheless, it is objective because there's facts to back it up (it's based, somehow, on the way the world "out there" actually is). Subjective doubt has nothing to go on except your fear that you might be mistaken.

Now doubt's opposite is certainty. We will discuss various kinds of certainty later; but for the moment, let's define it, distinguish objective from subjective certainty (parallel to our distinction about doubt), and then talk about absolute certainty.

DEFINITION: CERTAINTY is the realization that you are not mistaken in what you think is true.

DEFINITION: SUBJECTIVE CERTAINTY is "being convinced" emotionally that you are not mistaken. It is purely subjective if there are facts known indicating that you might be wrong, and you refuse to consider them.

DEFINITION: OBJECTIVE CERTAINTY is knowing facts which would make it impossible or in fact not the case that you are mistaken in what you think is true.

DEFINITION: ABSOLUTE CERTAINTY is the realization that it is impossible for you to be mistaken in what you think is true.

DEFINITION: UNIVERSAL SKEPTICISM is the position that absolute certainty is never possible for the human mind.

That's a lot of definitions. Let's pause to look at them. When you're certain, you "know you're right." If the "knowledge" is of the order of "Don't bother me with facts; my mind is made up," then you have purely subjective certainty. If you can give reasons to support your position and there are no reasons against it then you have objective certainty. Note that you don't have to know that there can't be any reasons against your position in order to be objectively certain of it, but just that there aren't any that you know of.

Again, even objective certainty is a subjective state: ("I know that X is true for Reason Y, and I know of no reason why it is false."). It is objective because it is based on the way the world is "out there" insofar as you know it.

Absolute certainty is a type of objective certainty. In it, you know of a fact that says it is impossible for you to be mistaken. Obviously, if such a state is possible, you can't be wrong.

As far as skepticism goes, there are skeptics and skeptics. Before the beginning of this century, there were a lot of people who were skeptical about things like the immortality of the soul, the existence of God, and so on, but were certain that what physics and math said was true; but then that, as I said, seemed to be a dream also, and now there is a kind of universal skepticism around.

It might be a good idea to be a skeptic in certain matters; I am very skeptical about what scientists say, especially in areas outside their field. What we want to examine at the moment is universal skepticism.

1.2.1. Descartes' methodic doubt

Around 1600, there was a man named Rene Descartes. You may have heard of him.

His Latin name is "Cartesius," and he is the discoverer of the "Cartesian coordinates" and analytic geometry. He had an interesting kind of skepticism, whose purpose was precisely to get his own times out of their skeptical condition (that Galileo, among others, was responsible for).

His doubting was not because he wasn't sure of anything. As a good Catholic, for instance, he was sure of the truths of his faith; and as a man of common sense, he was sure that there was a real world and that he wasn't dreaming it all up. But he decided to fight fire with fire. If people doubt everything, let's look at doubt, and see if there's something that you can't possibly doubt.

So he chose doubting as a method, to see if you could arrive at what is absolutely certain. He began by doubting the obvious things that we weren't sure of, and continued by considering that sometimes when we're dreaming we think we're actually seeing things--so maybe we're dreaming now. And since there might be some demon who is trying to convince me that there's a real world and that I have a body, then I can doubt this.

But then he came up with, "Yes, but when I'm thinking, no demon can convince me that I'm not thinking, or that nobody is thinking." And this led to the "philosophical" statement that he is famous for, and almost everyone has heard:

"I think, therefore I am." ("Cogito ergo sum" in Latin.)

Here, he thought, he had found the absolutely indubitable statement. Anyone who is thinking can't doubt that he is thinking, or that he exists; it's impossible, because doubting is a form of thinking, and how could you doubt without knowing that you doubted--in which case you don't doubt that you're there, doubting.

It sounds very convincing, the way he puts it. The trouble is that if you accept as a possibility that everything can be doubted, you've dug a hole you can't really get out of.

And, in fact, historically, it turned out that people found ways of doubting Descartes' "I think, therefore I am." "How," they asked, "are you so sure that there's a person 'behind' this thinking? You might say that 'thinking is going on, and therefore thinking is going on,' but how do you know that there's anything more than just the thought? 'You' might just be an aspect of the thought itself, and not 'something that thinks.'

And in fact whole philosophies were built around the idea that there isn't any "person" who thinks, but that what each of us is is just a "stream of consciousness," like a movie that is going on. John Dewey held something like this.

So what Descartes thought was impossible to doubt actually got doubted--and in fact denied by intelligent people.

Now why did I say that methodic doubt digs a hole you can't climb out of?

Because methodic doubt admits the possibility that the mind is incapable of reaching absolute certainty; but since the mind is the only tool you have to get rid of the doubt, once you make this admission, you're using a dubious tool to arrive at absolute certainty.

Hence, it's not possible to arrive at absolute certainty if your mind is possibly incapable of it. How could you ever be certain that this time your mind wasn't failing you--since you know it can fail?

But what this means in practice, interestingly enough, is that, if you start from admitting the possibility of never arriving at absolute certainty, you become certain of the impossibility of arriving there--for the reason stated in the preceding paragraph. And in fact, you could say that you're absolutely certain of it, because there's no way that it could ever be the case that you wouldn't have to admit that there might be some way you could be mistaken, no matter how sure you seem to be.

But that's where we all are, isn't it? Absolutely certain that you can't really reach absolute certainty? But that's madness.

The point is that universal doubt as a method for getting rid of doubt has an implication that poisons the method and makes the goal impossible--and makes skepticism an absolutely certain position; which is clearly insane.

Hence, it seems that methodic doubt is not a way to go about settling the question of universal skepticism.

1.2.2. Something that can't be doubted

So let's forget about doubting as a method for removing doubts, and see if there's something that no person who knows what is meant by the words can doubt. Descartes' "I think therefore I am" can give us a clue, however. Even those who doubted Descartes' "I" as a thinker admitted that if

there is thinking, there is thinking.

So suppose we take the following:

There is something.

meaning that it is not the case that there is absolutely nothing at all, or that nothing at all exists, or however you want to put it.

Now if you try to doubt that, there is at least the doubt, and that's something, or there is the statement or idea, or whatever it is that you're doubting--and that's not absolutely nothing. So there is something.

It's impossible to doubt this without having that peculiar kind of awareness called doubting, whether there is a 'you' who is doing it or there is just the doubt itself as a kind of disembodied thought; in which case, you know that there's something or other, and not simple nothingness.

Now of course, you could define "nothingness" in such a way as to include this state of consciousness (if you said, for instance, that "nothingness" means "nothing physical no object that the consciousness refers to"); but that isn't what I mean. I mean nothing at all. You know that the consciousness is occurring, and so you know that something is happening, however you may define it.

So, twist and turn as you might, you can't actually doubt that there is something.

And since it's not possible to doubt that there is something, then there is something we can be absolutely certain of.

Our minds, then, can reach absolute certainty. There isn't the slightest possibility that we could be mistaken when we realize that there is something; because even the mistake would be something. There is no way it could be true that there is nothing at all, and have somebody realize it; so as long as there's a doubt or any thought at all, there is something.

Sure, it's conceivable that we could all go out of existence, and then if that happened, there would be nothing at all; but in that case, there would be no doubt, because there would be no one to wonder if there was anything or not. So as long as there's the possibility of doubting anything, it can't be doubted that there is something, because the doubt itself is always something.

All this long journey for this? That we know that there's not absolutely nothing at all? Ah, but remember where you were before we started. You thought that it was always possible for us to be mistaken. Now you know that there's at least one instance where it's impossible that you could be mistaken, because the mistake would be something.

"If there's one thing certain in this world, it's that nothing is certain in this world." You once thought, perhaps, that that was wise. Now you know that it's not only silly, but false. Universal skepticism is not a viable position in knowledge.

1.3. Self-evidence

Certain facts, then, are known to be true as soon as you know what they are.

That is, as soon as you know what you are talking about, you are certain that what you are saying is true. Such truths are said to be "self-evident" or "immediately evident"

DEFINITION: EVIDENCE is the cause of our knowledge that something is a fact.

DEFINITION: IMMEDIATELY EVIDENT means that the knowledge itself causes our knowledge of its factuality.

DEFINITION: SELF-EVIDENT means immediately evident.

That is, evidence is what you use to "prove" that something is true. Ordinarily, you prove that Y is true by taking some X, known to be true, which couldn't be true unless Y were also true. Thus, you can prove, for instance, that you will die because you know that the human body is so constituted that it can't go on forever in the condition it is in.

Not everything has to be proved.

If everything had to be proved, then nothing would be able to be proved. Why? Because you can prove that Y is true only if you already know that X (its evidence) is true. Thus, if X also needs proof, you only know that Y is true after you have proved X (by means of your knowledge of the truth of W, which proves it).

But if all things known have to be proved, then Y cannot be known to be true until X is proved, which cannot be known until W is proved...and so on forever, since every piece of evidence would itself need proof. But since you could never get through the proofs needed, you would never be able to prove Y; and this would be true no matter what Y is. Hence, if everything needs proof, nothing at all can be proved.

Not everything can be proved.

This is not something that is necessarily true, but is in fact true. That is, by the statement above, there must be some immediately evident facts, because otherwise everything would have to be proved--in which case, nothing could be proved. But it is possible that something could be both immediately evident and provable by means of some other fact. It wouldn't need proving, but it could be proved in this way.

Nevertheless, there are certain facts, (like "There is something") whose "proof" would already rely on their truth; and hence there are some facts that cannot be proved.

That is, if you are going to try to prove that there is something, you would have to do it by means of some other fact. But this other fact is already something, which presupposes that you already know that there is something. Hence, there is no other fact you could use to prove that there is something, because that other fact could only be known if you already knew that there is something; your proof would depend on what you were trying to prove by it.

DEFINITION: BEGGING THE QUESTION is an attempt to prove something by a fact whose truth depends on the truth of what you are trying to prove. It is a fallacy (a case of faulty reasoning).

Therefore, there must be, and in fact there are, at least some immediately evident truths: things we know to be true simply by knowing the meaning of what we are talking about.

They need no proof, since they are truths that deal in one way or another with our awareness itself (e.g. that it is something), and to deny them would mean that we are unconscious. Our awareness needs no "medium" by which it is aware of itself, and in fact has no "medium" by which it is aware of itself; and hence, our knowledge of our act of knowledge is im-mediately evident to itself.

"Immediate," then, does not mean "right away," when it is used in this context. It means "without using something else" and is connected with the word "medium" or "means" or "middle-ground" between it and itself.

And that is why "immediately known facts" are "self-evident." They are their own evidence, because our awareness of our awareness is our awareness. Hence, it is its own evidence that it is happening.

And the immediately evident facts we are talking about can have no proof, because any proof would, as I said, already presuppose our knowledge of their truth, and would beg the question.

So how do you know that there is something?

By knowing what you mean by the statement, "There is something." It is self-evident.

Summary of Chapter 1

It seems wise to say that there's nothing anyone can be certain of. But "wise" sayings (since the world is in part paradoxical) can be easily manufactured by making contradictory statements. Don't be fooled by this.

Our age has found that many things, even in science, that we used to be certain of are in fact false, so that it is now assumed that the best we can get is probability. This position is called "universal skepticism," and existed in 300 B. C. with Pyrrho of Elis.

A person has subjective doubt if he is afraid he is mistaken. A person has objective doubt if there is some fact indicating that what he thinks is true might be false. A person subjectively certain if he is convinced he is right even against the evidence; he is objectively certain if (a) there are facts indicating that he is right and (b) no facts he knows of indicating that he is wrong. He is absolutely certain if he knows a fact indicating that it is impossible for him to be mistaken.

Rene Descartes in 1600 tried to "doubt everything doubtable" to see if there was some absolutely certain fact; but this method implicitly doubts the power of the mind to reach certainty and so undermines itself; and his "I think, therefore I am," which he thought absolutely certain, was doubted by those who said there might not be anything but the thought.

Nevertheless, there are things that no one can doubt (except subjectively), among them "There is something," in the sense that there is not absolutely nothing at all. One who would doubt this knows that there is the doubt, which is something. Thus, we can be absolutely certain of at least one fact.

Evidence is the "reason why" we know some fact to be true (the cause of our knowledge of its truth). A fact is immediately evident or self-evident if it itself is its own evidence; since our knowledge knows our knowledge, the fact of our knowledge is self-evident.

Not everything can be proved, because a fact which needs to be proved is known to be true only after its evidence is known; and if all facts had to be proved, there would never be an end to proving the evidence; thus no fact would ever be known to be true.

Not everything needs proof, because some facts are self-evident, and the attempt to prove them presupposes that you already would know the fact. This begs the question.