Certainty is an Unobtainable Luxury

I find the debates between atheists and theists interesting. I’ve seen some recent posts from the atheist’s side that bring up issues of epistemology. Having been a philosophy major in college, epistemology is a subject I respect and enjoy. I do not assume that you are aware of what it is.

epistemology |iˌpistəˈmäləjē| Noun. the theory of knowledge, esp. with regard to its methods, validity, and scope. Epistemology is the investigation of what distinguishes justified belief from opinion.

In other words, epistemology seeks to answer the question, “How do we know that we know something?” It is a daunting philosophical question that most of us don’t consider in our day-to-day activities.

But, “How do you know?” is a valid question. Especially in our information-saturated, anybody-can-edit-Wikipedia world. Does our information come from a reliable source? How do we know it is reliable? For some questions, we are willing to chance it, trusting the “crowd-sourced” wisdom of the internet. “Urbanspoon says this restaurant is liked by 89% of reviewers….”

For other questions, it seems, we should have greater confidence in our information.

“Is this an accurate medical diagnosis?”

“Is this a sound retirement investment?”

“Why am I here?”

“Is there a God?”

Many of the atheist authors I’ve read recently hold up the standard of certainty. We should only accept knowledge that we are certain is true. That sounds reasonable on the surface. I certainly agree with the driving motive, that we should seek truth over falsehood. But there is a fatal flaw with epistemological certainty.

It is impossible to attain.

Doubt is always lurking. Counter-examples can be constructed for most any proposition we put forward. Many like to point to science, but history is littered with the crumpled remains of disproved theories and thesis. It is hubris to think our current batch is somehow impervious to the same fate.

Obviously, we have learned many things along the way. Electricity, gravity, antibiotics. We’ve figured out some very useful stuff. But if the history of science teaches us anything, it is that the next disruptive discovery is always lurking in the future.

Obviously, other disciplines have the same historical track record. Religion, philosophy, even history. They have all made mistakes.

But even on the personal level, certainty is not possible. Name one thing you know with certainty.

Could it be wrong? Can you construct a situation where you may be deceived? Of course we can. All we have to do is watch the Matrix (or read Plato’s allegory of the cave, which is really the same basic story). Walk into most any Philosophy 101 class and you will hear enough doubt cast about to last you for the rest of your life.

We can talk about what is reasonable doubt versus unreasonable doubt. It may seem mad for me to deny the existence of my coffee table. But that doesn’t mean I can’t. I have had dreams. I have had hallucinations, thanks to high fevers. How do I know the coffee table isn’t one of those?

We can spend the next several hours establishing the reasonableness of the existence of the coffee table. But, at the end of it all, can we prove it exists? Not just show strong statistical evidence significant to >0.00001. That still leaves room for doubt.

Now, consider everything else we encounter in any given day. Do we stop to reason it’s existence? Do we inspect everything? Of course not, we’d never make it out of bed in the morning. There is not enough time.

No matter how materialistic (in the philosophic sense) one may be, we cannot escape doubt. Doubt is the defining human characteristic. Rene Descartes, in pursuing truth arrived at his famous dictum, cogito ergo sum, I think, therefore I am, by doubt. He doubted everything he could possibly doubt and was left with the activity of his doubting and the only thing he could not explain away.

The antidote for doubt, the way we escape this paralysis of thought and action is this:


Even with no theism in sight. Even with no questions of ultimate purpose and meaning, every single human being exercises faith. You just did.

You tapped your computer to make it scroll down. You acted in faith that that physical action would result in some result. You didn’t stake your life on it. You, undoubtedly have experienced a time where pushing that key did not achieve the desired result. But you did it anyway, without 100% certainty. This is played out constantly throughout our days.

My point? Atheism needs to find a new argument, because doubt leads down a rabbit hole to nothing. We must be intellectually honest enough to admit that we can do nothing other than live by faith. Once we do that, we can start a rational discussion of what are worthy objects of faith and what are not.

The definition at the top of this post reminds us, “Epistemology is the investigation of what distinguishes justified belief from opinion.” We like to think we can somehow isolate facts. Derive truth. But we can’t. Certainty is a luxury we cannot obtain.


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