Chapter 4

Doubt



If we start, then, from where the deconstructed world of thought is at the moment, we find, as was said, that the primary aspect of the general attitude is that we can't know what "the facts" really are; indeed, whether there is anything that can be called "the facts" to be known.

And what is behind this, as I also mentioned, is the Galilean-Cartesian discovery that the sensation I have of red is not a copy of the electromagnetic energy, so that I perceive red as a lesser degree of the same thing as blue, and a greater degree of the same thing as heat. But the energy which gives me the sensation of redness is simply a lesser degree of the same energy which gives me the sensation of blueness and a greater degree of the energy I feel as heat.

But the very fact that we recognize this as a real problem implies that there is a solution, because if we couldn't somehow know that the two colors "as they are out there" are different degrees of the same type of energy, we could never be aware that our sensations of the colors did not match what was giving us the sensations. Somehow we have to be able to get at what is "really going on out there".

But the actual way we manage this is too far down the road for us to talk about now; I mention it to give hope that we somehow do manage it, and if we take small steps, we can discover how we do it.

The problem before us at the moment is more primitive. How do we know we can know anything at all for sure: that we can know something that we can't be mistaken about? Can we ever really know what the facts are?

Of course, either it's a fact that no one ever knows what the facts are, or it isn't. But maybe we shouldn't be too confident one way or the other. Maybe we can know some facts, but maybe we can't know any; but the question is, how could we know we knew?

Logically, if you say we should suspend judgment on this, because we don't know if we know that we can't know (or that we can), then by implication, we're saying that we can't really know what the facts are; still, we're not after logical consistency necessarily (who says logical consistency has to be correct or inconsistency incorrect?), but what is the case--and we just don't know. Whether we can't know, or whether we can know we can't know is one thing; but whether we know we can know (or can't know) is something else.

That is, in the state of horrendous skepticism we're in at the moment, we are not necessarily open to refutation, because our diffidence in knowing "the facts" is not really a confident assertion that we can't know them, and we are not so sure about logic (aren't there even different logics nowadays?) that we can be refuted. Our view of our knowledge is so shaky that even its inconsistency can't shake it back into any kind of solidity.

There are those(1) who say that once you get into this kind of doubt, you're locked in, because you're doubting the ability of your mind to reach certainty (for whatever reason, either because of a defect in your mind or a defect in "reality" or a defect in the relation between the two); and since the only tool you have to get rid of the uncertainty is the (uncertainly reliable) mind itself, then you can never get rid of it. Thus, once you doubt the ability of the mind to get at certainty, it is impossible ever to get at certainty; and since it's impossible, it's certain that you never will arrive at certainty.

But once again, all this says is that logically, if you doubt whether you can arrive at any certainty, you can be certain that you never will--which, of course, contradicts the doubt. But in the actual state of people's minds, that doesn't solve the problem, because who says that just because logically you'd have to admit that you're certain of something, it has to be true? The fact is that people do seriously question whether we can know anything at all with absolute certainty (that is, without the slightest possibility of a doubt), and yet are willing to be shown; that is, they think that it might be possible to arrive at certainty; they are not certain that certainty is impossible. "You show me one fact," they say, "that can't be seriously doubted, and I'll believe you."

Now we can't use Descartes' statement, "I think, therefore I am," because however intuitively convinced we are that we exist, subsequent philosophers (like Locke, Hume, and Dewey, to name just a few) have contended that maybe there isn't an "I" that is doing the thinking, and all there is is a stream of consciousness. And the past and future consciousness in this "stream," as Derek Parfit has recently pointed out(2), might conceivably be not parts of it--or, to make somewhat more sense, might just be just peculiar aspects of the present moment, which are taken to refer to consciousness gone by.

Be that as it may, "I think, therefore I am" is not by any means so "clear and distinct" that no one could possibly doubt it. And even Augustine's version that even if I doubt I can't doubt the doubter, suffers from the same defect. Augustine couldn't doubt the doubter; but he wasn't as sophisticated in doubting as we have become since Descartes. Nowadays, you have to give evidence to show that there's a "self behind" the consciousness; you can't just assert it and get away with it.

But what about the consciousness itself? Surely you can't doubt that. Well, what is consciousness? God knows, there have been any number of theories about it, and people have found what they thought were good reasons for not holding each of them.

No, if there is to be something that can't be doubted (from any point of view), it has to be something even more primitive, if possible, so that it doesn't rest on some world-view (which might be dubious) in order to hold it as indubitable. But there can't be anything like that, can there?

Take the following:

There is something(3)

Now by "something" here is meant the contradictory(4) of "nothing at all." That is, I do not assert by this that "something" has to be "material" or "mental" or whatever; anything with any characteristic (or the characteristic itself, whether or not it is supposed to be a characteristic "of" something) will do as an example of "something."

Now then, suppose you doubt this. Then there is the doubt--and that is something; it's certainly not absolutely nothing. And of course, if you recognize that you doubt this, there's the recognition, which, whether it's identical with the doubt or not, is something.

Suppose you entertain that it might be false that there is something. All right, it might be, but not while you're entertaining this possibility, because entertaining the possibility is something. That is, it might be conceivable that everything would go out of existence, and then there would be nothing at all, in which case "There is something" would then be in fact false. But in that case, it could not be known to be false or thought to be false, because the knowledge or thought would be something.

So as long as "there is something" can be either known or doubted, it has to be in fact true, because the knowledge or doubt verifies that it is true.

Note that I am not saying here that "There is something" is necessarily true (that it can't be false); I am just saying that it is in fact true, and (if the meaning of the words is understood) it cannot be denied to be in fact true, because the denial is something--which would make it true.

It might be that somehow or other it is "necessary" in some sense that there be something(5)

, and that for there to be nothing at all is an impossibility. But for us to be absolutely certain, this kind of "necessity," with all of its pitfalls, is not necessary. ("What pitfalls?" you ask. Ones like this: Does "necessary" mean "logically necessary," so that its falsity involves a contradiction? But then you have the problem of the "move" from the "logical" to the "ontological" order, and who says that it can't be the case that what is self-contradictory can't exist? And so on.)

No, remember, we are not dealing with the person who is so absolutely convinced that nothing can be known for certain that he can't be shown, but with the person who is willing to look for himself. What he wasn't sure of was whether we could ever know a fact in such a way that we couldn't be mistaken about it; and here we have one. Even if you are mistaken about some fact, the mistake isn't nothing; and so there is something; so the fear that you might be mistaken if you assert that there is something is also something, and verifies that there is something.

There is nothing you can do, no way you can twist or turn to get yourself into a position by which you could be mistaken that there is something; because the position itself as well as the mistake would then be something and not just nothing at all. There is no point of view from which it could be false that there is something--even supposing that everything can go out of existence--because that point of view would not be nothing at all, and would not exist if everything went out of existence.

So yes, we know at least one fact: there is something. And we know it with absolute certainty; there is no way we could be mistaken when we assert this fact, because the assertion itself is something. Not only is it true; it is known to be true, and known in such a way that it is not possible for the knowledge to be mistaken.

Note what this implies:

Conclusion 1: The mind is capable of reaching absolute certainty.

It is capable of reaching absolute certainty because in at least one case (however trivial it may be) it actually does reach absolute certainty. So in all those cases in which you make mistakes, or even those in which you don't actually make a mistake but could conceivably be making one, this is not due to the fact that your mind is radically incapable of (1) knowing something to be true, (2) knowing that it cannot be false, and (3) knowing that it knows this.

Note that the fact might conceivably (some day) be false (if everything some day goes out of existence because it is not "necessary" in some sense that there be something). But the knowledge that the fact is (now) a fact is "necessary" in the sense that it cannot be a mistake; to entertain it as a mistake is to show that it is not a mistake, because this "entertaining" is something and not nothing at all.

The contingency of the fact known does not necessarily, therefore, mean that the knowledge of it is uncertain. How do I know? Not from some theory, but from the example of "There is something," supposing it to be a contingent fact and not necessary. It still cannot be known as "possibly not true at the moment" for the simple reason that there would be this knowledge, which, however contingent it is, is still something.

Need I belabor this any more? For those who are still not convinced, I can only say, "Look at yourselves and ask yourselves why you are not convinced. Is it because you can see a way in which "There is something" can be entertained as false, or because you have some theory that "we can't really ever be absolutely sure of anything," and you are so eager to hold onto it that you will do so even to insanity?

I don't mean to cast aspersions, to make some ad hominem argument that will shame anyone into admitting as certain something that he's not sure of. What I am simply saying here is that if you aren't sure that there is something, what's got to be going on in your mind is something like, "Well, yes, Blair; you've come up with all kinds of arguments and I can't answer them at the moment; but how do I know that someone sometime won't be able to find a point of view from which 'There is something' is false? I mean, how can you be so sure it can't be done?"

Because the point of view would not be nothing at all. Any "refutation" of "There is something" is something.

But there is a move that can be made that might cast doubt on "There is something," and that I think must be at least mentioned. This is the contention that the sentence "There is something" is actually meaningless, because every meaningful statement has to be of the form Fa, asserting some property of some object (i.e. it has to be of the form, 'X is a something-or-other' and not just 'X').

To put this another way, "There is something" is asserted to be the equivalent of "Something is"; but (it is alleged ) you can't say that, because all that says is "Something." That is, if you say, "Something is," a person will ask "Something is what?" Or in other words, "Something is" is an incomplete sentence masquerading as a complete one; it really should be written "Something is..." and is waiting to have the dots replaced with content.

One answer to this difficulty is that every language seems to have locutions such as this "forbidden and meaningless" one. Il y a in French (Literally, "it has there"); es gibt in German (it gives); hay in Spanish (it has), and so on, where the "subject" of the sentence is simply asserted, without giving a characteristic or property of it. If it is meaningless, why have all the known languages found it indispensable? If it is simply incomplete, why have all the known languages accepted it without the "such that" addition? "Is there an Abominable Snowman?" is a legitimate question, whose answer might be, "Yes, there is an Abominable Snowman," without adding "such that he has enormous feet."

So the first answer is, "On what grounds do you say that a statement like, 'There is something,' or 'Rome exists' or 'George Blair is real' is meaningless?" After all, "George Blair is real" is recognized in ordinary talk as not only meaningful but true, while the statement, "There are unicorns" is recognized as false.

It sounds suspiciously as if a person who would say that "There is something" is meaningless is a person who has constructed a theory of language for the express purpose of disallowing as meaningless what users of just about every language have always considered meaningful. When one's theory doesn't fit the facts, it isn't the facts that are the problem.

A second answer is that "There is something" need not be formulated in this way to get the idea across. It could be stated, "Knowledge is not absolutely contentless," meaning that if you know, you can't know absolutely nothing, because you would at least know that you are knowing. If you "know" nothing at all, not even that you are knowing, then there is no meaning to the word "know," because (to use William James's criterion for "truth,") then "knowing" in this case would be absolutely indistinguishable from "not knowing."

Now someone might object that "Knowledge has some content" is not the same as "There is something," because the latter supposes that something exists, and this is not necessarily the same as "to be the contents of knowledge."

True, "to exist" doesn't mean "to be the contents of knowledge" (as we will see later, but can be shown now by saying that we know precisely that unicorn's don't exist, which we couldn't say if their being the contents of our knowledge meant they existed). But in the case in question, either the person making this last objection has conceded the point that "Something exists" ("There is something") is a meaningful statement--in which case I revert to it--; or he wants to say (if he is still objecting to the certainty that there is something) that knowing is not itself anything at all, so that nothing has happened when you know, and if you know you know, you know about nothing at all.

That is, on this second type of objection, you would be distinguishing between knowing and "being something," which would make the act of knowing not a special case of "being something" or a member of the class "something" but totally different: absolutely nothing. But then I don't know what you mean by "absolutely nothing," if your "absolutely nothing" has definite, describable characteristics.(6)

I think this is another dead horse I don't have to beat further. We do know that there is something and not absolutely nothing, and even those who would construct bizarre grammars in the attempt to make it possible to say we don't can't do so in any coherent way.

As I mentioned several times already, if you're so determined to be sure that you can't really be sure of anything, you can perhaps come up with some rationalization which, however inconsistent it might be, will satisfy you that it is (unreasonably) reasonable to believe that you're not sure when you are; but in that case, you have probably been so indignant by this time that I haven't shown "respect" for your opinion that you've stopped reading.

If you are still with me, I assume that you've assured yourself that you can't in fact doubt that there is something, and that nobody who understands what the words mean can doubt it either.

Next

Notes

1. For instance, Reginald O'Neil, in his book Epistemology, on which I cut my epistemological teeth, and to whom as a teacher I owe a great deal (in spite of the fact that I think he would be shocked at what I believe he would interpret--incorrectly, I think--as my "mediate realism").

2. I have only heard of this second hand by papers critiquing his views, and so what I think he is saying about "past selves" may be unjust. I mention it here because from what I gather, he thinks that my present self is the only self I am, and my past is the past of another self that's just connected with it more intimately than the other selves around me. I must say that I think this view is silly (and so do the commentators I have heard); but it's a view that's being commented on nowadays, and so presumably is "respectable." (If you wonder why I think it's silly, note that if it's true as I understand it--that the present self doesn't contain the past--then you can't even know "my present self," because the "self" that knows the word "self" is a different self from the one that knew the word "present.")

3. Ayn Rand starts with this same statement, but in my view immediately makes what is in part an illegitimate leap. She concludes that this shows that knowledge is knowledge of being, and that therefore being is prior to knowledge. But she seems to imply that knowledge is somehow different from being, as if the act of knowledge were not in itself a reality (i.e. that the only being it knows is the being of something other than itself). But then how can anyone discuss what his knowledge is? How could we possibly know it?

And this arbitrary "separation" of consciousness from being does not refute idealism, unless one says that consciousness is (à la Jean-Paul Sartre) non-being or nothingness. Hegel, for instance, could agree with her (that knowledge is a knowledge of being), but say, "Well yes, but there isn't in fact any being apart from the being of the act of consciousness." I assert here that since consciousness is a form of being, and since the act of consciousness knows itself as well as whatever other being it might also be "referring to" (as when you know this page, you also are aware of the reality of your act of knowing this page), then this immediate knowledge of the act in the very same act is why we can use doubting or questioning or whatever as the "something" we are aware of as existing--and since there is no "medium" between the act of knowing and the act of knowing that you know, we can't be mistaken about this knowledge. We will see more of this later. At the moment, I think we have to stick with the fact that we do know that there is not absolutely nothing at all, and only discuss the implications that necessarily follow from this fact.

4. There are two sorts of "opposites": opposites of the black-white kind (called "contraries") where there are "in-betweens" that are neither black nor white (as the shades of gray and the other colors as well as anything that isn't a color at all); and the black/non black kind ("contradictories"), where anything that doesn't belong on one side is (by definition) on the other (gray is non-black, and so is red, and so is sweetness, nothingness, etc., etc.).

5. It is, in fact, but for reasons which will emerge considerably later.

6. There are those who make a radical distinction between knowledge and being, like Jean-Paul Sartre, and, in a peculiar sense, Ayn Rand. She doesn't say this, but her analysis of why "thought" can't produce "being" (and therefore there can't be a creator-God) seems to me to imply that consciousness is something different from being. If it is also a form of being, then why can't it have effects insofar as it is being rather than as thought? Granted, you (or at least we humans) can't make something exist just by asserting or thinking (however fervently) that it does, which is what she is driving at: the facts determine our consciousness, not the other way round. But after all, we decide (a conscious act) to move our hands, and lo and behold, they move. So consciousness does have an effect on the material world. If you say, "But only through our bodies," then you have missed the point. If consciousness can't have an effect on the material world, it can't have an effect on our own bodies either.