GIVING UP ON CERTAINTY
The quest for certainty has gotten epistemology into a lot of hot water, and I propose we give it up as a mistake. We should freely admit we cant be certain of anything, and move on. It is, of course, a reasonable question whether we can consistently get along without certainty, and even if it is possible, whether there is some terrible price to be paid if we do. I will argue that it is indeed possible to do without any epistemologically useful notion of certainty. I will also argue that, while there may be prices to be paid, they are by no means as high as the prices to paid by those who wish to keep certainty as a viable epistemological concept.
But first, let me make good my claim that a lot of trouble in epistemology has been caused by the quest for certainty. First, consider the case of Plato. In the Republic, Plato argues that since knowledge requires certainty, and certainty requires an unchanging subject matter, true knowledge can be only of unchanging forms. There can be no true knowledge of the changing physical world, which then becomes the realm of changing, uncertain doxa, mere opinion. In a stroke, all the kinds of knowledge we take to be constitutive of science are demoted. It is true that Plato has other reasons for espousing his theory of forms, and even if he had himself followed by advice and given up on certainty, he would have had ample reason to retain the theory. Nevertheless, some of his most perplexing epistemological pronouncements would have been left entirely unmotivated. For example, the doctrine of Recollection espoused in the Meno rests on the claim that the only possible explanation for geometrical knowledge, given its apparent innateness and certainty, is that everyone was in contact with the forms before they were born. No certainty, no problem, or at least a different problem. It would have been open to him then to embrace the justified true belief analysis of knowledge–more accurately, true belief with a logos–that he ultimately rejects in the Theaetetus. Epistemology could have leaped ahead two millennia, and some Hellenistic Greek could have been Ed Gettier.
Perhaps a more famous victim of the quest for certainty is Descartes. He noticed that he was often wrong about things he thought he knew, even about some things he believed with a great deal of confidence. Not only have some of his well-grounded theories turned out to be wrong, but even the most certain of things, like his mathematical calculations (who hasnt made a mathematical mistake?). Even his senses sometimes deceive him, when he experiences an illusion or hallucination. Because of this, he came to realize he is not at all sure what he knows and what he doesnt, so he tried to sort out the true knowledge from everything else. The only way to do this, he thought, is to try to doubt everything, to see if there is anything that cannot be doubted. In other words, he applied a very strong test of certainty; all knowledge is certain, so if there is any real knowledge, it will have to be something that is absolutely immune to doubt. To check his beliefs to see if they were certain, he devised his famous two tests: the Dream test and the Evil Genius test.
Everyone who has passed Beginning Philosophy knows how it goes from here. The only things that are absolutely immune to doubt are that I exist and that the current contents of my consciousness are whatever they are. A strong requirement for certainty–namely indubitability–seems to leave us trapped in our own heads, unable to acquire knowledge of an external world at all. Indeed the straits are so desperate that Descartes has to enlist Gods help in getting out, by way of one of the most dubious arguments for the existence of God ever offered in the history of philosophy.
But even empiricists are not immune to the charms of certainty. Like Descartes, Hume is interested in discovering the extent of human knowledge. Unlike Descartes, Hume doesnt demand absolute indubitability for knowledge; he is content to settle for a lesser degree of certainty (he uses the word assurance). For Relations of Ideas, it is enough that they should be demonstrable. For Matters of Fact, it is enough that they should be either the deliverances of sensation or memories of such. The senses and memory, while not guaranteeing certainty, are good enough to rest on. But again, we who have studied Hume know how the story ends. It turns out that if all knowledge must be of one of those two types, there can be no non-circularly grounded knowledge of anything outside ones own experience. After all, all such grounding would have to be in the form of reasoning, which would have to rest on knowledge of cause and effect. Reasoning about cause and effect is always based on past experience, as experience alone can teach us what causes go with what effects. But such reasoning can tell us about things outside our experience only on the assumption that things outside our experience are relevantly like things in our experience, and this assumption is itself neither a demonstrable Relation of Ideas nor a thing learned from experience. So the problem of induction is born, and even the limited kind of certainty Hume sought led to trouble. In fact, it led directly to Kants transcendental idealism, and from there to Hegelian idealism, not to mention Schopenhauer and Fichte. In the end, we owe to the quest for certainty many kinds of skepticism, the problem of induction, and a raft of unattractive idealisms; if thats not trouble, I dont know what is.
But can we give up certainty? I suppose we can easily give up indubitably in the Cartesian style as criteria for knowledge, but can we cut ourselves completely loose from Humes much more innocuous demand that knowledge be based on some kind of reasonable, certifying ground? In order to answer that question, we need to get clear on what it is we would be giving up. The word certainty is used in a lot of different ways, and we must be sure we are not indicting some for the sins of others. To begin with, we can dispense with psychological certainty without another thought. A feeling of certainty is clearly not necessary for knowledge, and bitter experience has taught us all that it is not sufficient. I also want to distinguish certainty, whatever it is, from two less problematic notions: knowledge and necessity. The kind of certainty I am concerned with is not simply identifiable with knowledge, so that giving up on certainty is simply embracing skepticism. As we will see, it is an open question whether we can give up on certainty without embracing skepticism, but if my project entails skepticism, I will count that as a defeat. I am also not interested in arguing that there are no necessary truths. To say that we cannot be certain of a propositions truth should not be taken to entail that the proposition in question in contingent. Again, it is an open question whether it is possible to split these notions apart, but if my project entails that there are no necessary truths, I will count that as a defeat, too. Finally, I am not asking you to give up the use of the word certain and its cognates. Lots of words have natural uses that dont lend themselves to substantive epistemology. Feel free, under appropriate conditions, to claim certainty for yourself as to where you parked your car, or what your birthday is, as long as you dont use that claim as warrant to do any epistemology.
You may reasonably wonder if there is anything left that can ask you to give up. It turns out to be difficult to spell out. The main thing I am asking you to give up is any claim to infallibility, with respect to any proposition, in any situation. There is no epistemically privileged person or realm. Absolutely anyone can be wrong about absolutely anything. Certainly we can be wrong about most logical and mathematical truths, be they ever so necessary. Though we may be subjectively certain they are wrong, even dialethic logicians (those who, like Graham Priest, believe that there are true contradictions), should not be dismissed without a hearing; after all, they may be right. There is even good reason to suppose that we can be wrong about our own mental states, within reason. Perhaps, as Bertrand Russell noted, even the belief that I exist can turn out to be wrong, since such a belief involves supposing that there is an enduring substance underlying my thoughts. Eliminative materialism and other movements in the philosophy of mind have given us some reason to think we can be wrong even in the positing of our own thought or mental states, insofar as these involve applying predicates that have no application. It is not far to see that the same sort of thing could be said for pains and other qualia. So it is not entirely unreasonable to say that we have reason to believe that human beings are fallible in every epistemic realm. In other words, we can be wrong about anything. In fact, I will make so bold as to offer the following general argument for my thesis:
1) Every assertion involves, at a minimum, identifying some property as 1.instantiated. Whatever a persons evidence, she may have misidentified the relevant property.
2.Therefore, Anyone may be wrong about anything.
A full-fledged defense of premise 1 is hard to mount, but I will rest content with its prima facie plausibility; feel free to try to come up with counterexamples. Premise two seems to me to be an obvious consequence of the human condition. Moreover, it seems to be supported by the fact that past claims of infallibility for some realm or other have always quickly been followed by doubts being raised about that very thing. Think of the various Kantian proposals for synthetic a priori propositions. All but the mathematical examples are now seen to be controversial metaphysical claims, if not downright false. Or consider the notion of absolute simultaneity, once thought to be entirely unproblematic, but now known to be untenable. There is a strong inductive case, at least, for our universal fallibility.
A problem arises when we try to formulate explicitly this doctrine about the human condition. Any adequate formulation of the thesis should fulfill two conditions. The first can be expressed as a dilemma: the formulation should neither entail skepticism, nor entail that there are no necessary truths. Some theorists try to dodge this requirement by restricting their statement of the thesis to cover only empirical truths, but there is ample reason to think we can be wrong about the a priori, too. The second requirement is that accepting the formulation should be, in some yet-to-be-analyzed way, inconsistent with being dogmatic. The great fallibilist C. S. Peirce thought that espousing fallibilism is the only way to insure that the road of inquiry was not blocked, and that this is an excellent reason to be a fallibilist. After all, one of the points of espousing and arguing for fallibilism has always been to inculcate intellectual humility as ultimately beneficial to the process of inquiry.
Dogmatism has Do been the name of a lot of things in the history of philosophy, from an epistemic vice to the denial of skepticism. For the purposes of this inquiry, being dogmatic is not to be understood as having an attitude of confidence toward ones belief, even if that confidence is extremely high, or even higher than the subjects evidence warrants. Instead, I wish to understand dogmatism as a disposition to behave in a certain way in the face of challenges to ones beliefs. In particular, I wish to understand dogmatism as the disposition to ignore arguments or evidence that one ought to consider as having a bearing on ones beliefs. Note that one might have such a disposition for a great many reasons; the disposition need not spring from overconfidence, though that will frequently be its source. A person might be disposed to ignore relevant evidence because of bad training or habits. It is also worth noting that this understanding of dogmatism makes it an objective matter whether one is dogmatic; anyone who ignores relevant evidence, whether she appreciates that she is doing so or not, is dogmatic.
The preceding paragraph leaves us with a problem in understanding the second adequacy condition, since it is difficult to see how any thesis can be inconsistent with a disposition–or, indeed, with anything other than another thesis. Obviously, we cannot be looking for logical inconsistency here. The kind of inconsistency we need is the kind we find in appraising actions by comparison to a moral code. For example, greed (a disposition) can be said to be inconsistent with the Golden Rule. The Golden Rule is not a thesis, but it is a propositional entity of some sort. Greed is inconsistent with it in that an appreciation of the Golden Rule gives one excellent reason to try not to be greedy. In the same way, any adequate formulation of fallibilism should be such as to give people excellent reason to try not to be dogmatic.
One general problem with formulating fallibilism, as noted above, is capturing the insight that we ought always to be prepared to consider evidence against any of our beliefs, but not in a way that entails either that we dont know anything or that there are no necessary truths. Many have recognized the second danger; that I could be wrong in any of my beliefs seems to entail straightforwardly that any of my beliefs could be false. Since some of my beliefs are of tautologies, it seems to follow that tautologies are possibly false. This shows that it is inadequate to identify fallibilism with the thesis that each of my beliefs is possibly false, for any non-epistemic notion of possibility. The thesis can be understood as the claim that it is epistemically possible for any of my beliefs to be false, but that tack substitutes one unanalyzed notion for another equally in need of analysis. One can see the project of giving precise definition to the fallibilist thesis as the same as the project of explicating the notion of epistemic modality.
Heres one try at formulating fallibilism. Susan Haack tries to avoid the problem of meeting the first adequacy condition by understanding the thesis of fallibilism as a disjunction: For any of my beliefs p, either my believing p does not guarantee its truth, or I might have believed something inconsistent with p. The first disjunct amounts to what it is to be fallible with respect to the empirical, the second what it is to fallible with respect to the a priori. This is expressed formally as
(p) o(Bp p) v o Bp
In other words, my fallibility is captured by my not tracking the truth in the right way. As far as contingent a posteriori beliefs are concerned, I might believe any of them without their thereby being true, so they present no problem for the fallibilist. As far as my a priori beliefs are concerned, some of them are necessary truths, and some are such that my believing them entails their truth, but in each of those cases I might have had a different, false belief in its stead. The same can be said for necessary a posteriori truths. This formulation makes the thesis of fallibilism consistent with the claim that there are necessary truths and a priori truths.
Haacks formulation is not without its own difficulties, however. Peter Mott points out that Haacks formulation of fallibilism (combined with some plausible assumptions) entails the claim that it is possible for us to believe anything at all. Even if we understand possibility here in its broadest metaphysical sense, so that we need not hold the laws of human or non-human nature constant, Haacks principle still has the consequence that there are no limits to our doxastic abilities. Finding this consequence unacceptable (as it certainly is), he tries another tack. Noting that the locus of fallibility is to be found in us and our believings, not in the content of our beliefs, he suggests that fallibilism is best understood as the claim that we have no guaranteed routes to the truth, “that there are no infallible methods.” Even this formulation, Mott realizes, does not completely capture fallibilism, because it is compatible with believing, on any given instance, that we are very probably right, and so is compatible with a certain degree of dogmatism. In other words, although it correctly describes our epistemic condition, it does not sufficiently underwrite epistemic caution to be what fallibilists want. As a curative to this failing, Mott finally suggests “a more sweeping admission the spirit of which is that we are always wrong.” This suggestion, of course, cannot be taken to be universally and literally true, or paradox threatens immediately; the idea is that in all of our high-level theorizing about things, we always have some degree of inaccuracy, and we never know beforehand where that inaccuracy is. Very probably, then (according to Mott), all our high-level theories are false. I leave as an exercise for the audience why this doesnt escape paradox.
Another attempt to capture the idea of fallibilism has been offered by L. S. Carrier. He starts from the idea of fallibility as proneness to error, and defines the thesis as the claim that you never know that you are not mistaken with respect to any of your beliefs. This is stated formally as
where Mxy means x is mistaken with respect to y. Being mistaken with respect to a proposition is defined as believing it when it is false. Since you never know, for any of your beliefs, whether you are mistaken in holding them, you also never know whether your beliefs are false. Surely this formulation meets the second requirement of underwriting epistemic caution and counseling against dogmatism. It remains to be seen whether it meets the first adequacy condition.
George Schlesinger, in the process of developing his own view, makes some serious criticisms of both Motts and Carriers. He finds Motts final version of the fallibilism thesis inadequate, even while agreeing with Motts rejection of Haacks version. Perhaps the most telling criticism is that Motts statement of fallibilism–roughly, that there are no infallible methods–means that there are no methods that always lead to the right answer with respect to the truth value of a given proposition. But this is a much weaker claim than fallibilist typically intend to make; they want to say certainty about any proposition is never one of our attainments, whereas on Motts principle, we could be certain much of the time in the use of a particular method, as long as it was not the case that we were always certain in the use of that method. So even though Motts thesis meets the first adequacy condition (it entails neither that we know nothing nor that there are no necessary truths), it founders on the second by being compatible with a dogmatic attitude.
Carriers thesis is in even deeper trouble, according to Schlesinger. It is inconsistent with the assertion that we do know some things, and therefore fails to meet the first adequacy criterion. The proof is as follows. For any proposition p, if I know it is true, then I know that any disjunction that has it as a disjunct is also true. In particular, I know the disjunction of p with the claim that I dont believe that p. That is equivalent by Carriers definition of the being-mistaken operator to the claim that I know I am not mistaken with respect to p. Therefore, since the process could be repeated with respect to any proposition p, whenever we know that p, we can also come to know that we are not mistaken with respect to p. Carrier objects that Schlesinger needs a controversial principle of inference to make this argument, namely, the Principle of Knowledge by Entailment (PKE): If you know that p, and you know that p entails q, then you know that q. However, it should be obvious that Schlesinger need not endorse anything like so strong a principle. First of all, he only needs it to be the case that when you know that p, then you know that (p or q); he need say nothing more general about entailment. Second, he need not endorse the claim that you always know the logical consequences of your beliefs, but only that you can come to know some of them, and surely that is uncontroversial. If I know that p, and can come to know thereby that I am not mistaken with respect to p, then it is possible for me to have infallible beliefs, and so fallibilism is false, even on Carriers own understanding of it.
Schlesingers positive account involves distinguishing several grades of justification; he then defines several matching grades of epistemic possibility as the absence of the corresponding degree of justification for the negation of the proposition in question. This yields the result that there are several corresponding grades of fallibilism, each defined as the claim that all propositions are epistemically possible. Its difficult to say what to make of this version of the thesis, though, since its plausibility relies entirely on undefined operators standing in for degrees of justification. It might well be–that is, its epistemically possible for me–that Schlesingers thesis-schema for fallibilism doesnt meet our two criteria of adequacy on any spelling out of the notion of justification.
The deep problem with all of these views is the same: they either lack normative bite, or acquire normative bite at the cost of skepticism. They are all trying to define fallibilism as a description of our actual epistemic state, and derive therefrom a normative propriety about how we should respond to other inquirers. Most are dimly aware of the twofold nature of the beast they are trailing. Haack says “What Peirce calls fallibilism is, in part, an epistemological thesis–a thesis about our propensity to hold false beliefs–and, in part, an epistemological recommendation–that we should always be willing to revise our beliefs in the light of new evidence.” She then goes on to say that she will be concerned with the thesis, and only then turn to the recommendation. Schlesinger says that “Fallibilism–unlike many forms of skepticism–is to most people who subscribe to it a practical, as distinct form a mere metaphysical, thesis.” He also criticizes Haacks formulation on the grounds that it defines fallibilism in terms of logical possibility, and so is completely compatible with total actual infallibility. If so, then it is surely compatible with total dogmatism about all my beliefs. Carrier says that “Fallibilism should not be defined so as to be compatible with universal omniscience. To say that, as a matter of fact, one is both omniscient and fallible appears to be a contradiction in terms.” Of course, this is mere appearance; there is no contradiction. Only if you think of omniscience as an essential propertynot just actually knowing all the truths, but necessarily knowing all the truthsdoes it entail infallibility. Nevertheless, Carrier is on to something.
What they are all noticing is the same thing: no matter how the descriptive thesis is worked out, recognizing it to be true is perfectly compatible with a dogmatic attitude in any particular case. I can grant that I am often wrong, or that I am mostly wrong, or that none of my methods is infallible, or that all my cognitive apparatus are prone to error, and still add, quite consistently, “but in this case Im quite sure I got it right, so I need not listen to you.” No descriptive thesis is going to do the anti-dogmatic job fallibilists want done.
What will do the job, then? We have two choices here. The first, and, I predict, more popular response will be to say, “So much the worse for fallibilism; certainty is attainable after all.” My only complaints are a weak one that believing we can be certain is tactically dangerous, as it leads to theories of forms, problems of induction, and idealism, and an apparently only slightly less weak one that believing we can be certain will underwrite a vicious dogmatism in some people. Bear with me; there are excellent reasons to believe that this second objection is less weak than it appears. Assume that it is true that it would be best if we all behaved in a non-dogmatic way, taking no position as so well justified that we can safely ignore challenges to it. We are partly justified in taking this to be true on the strong inductive evidence that for any possible claim, there are imaginable challenges to that claim that are not obviously crazy. As we saw earlier, even the law of non-contradiction has been challenged in such a way that we cant simply dismiss the challenge as crazy. To understand what underlies this normative propriety, we should first understand in what way descriptive facts underlie normative proprieties. One thing we clearly dont need is for the description of the underlying facts to entail that the normative propriety holds. No description of a football game in the language of physics will entail that movements of a certain kind should be treated as instances of defensive pass interference. Only the description of the disposition of objects in space plus a description of the rules of football–themselves normative proprieties of a sort–will have that entailment (if even that is enough).
One picture of the function of epistemic principles is this: justification and knowledge are completely reducible to natural facts about knowers and their contexts, and so true epistemic principles are true descriptions of the conditions under which knowers are well-placed with respect to their subject matter. Here is another picture: justification and knowledge are, at least partly, irreducibly normative, and so epistemic principles are endorsements of strategies for acquiring information. To say that someone knows something, or is justified in believing something, is in part to endorse her cognitive state, or how she got into her cognitive state. The proper way to evaluate an epistemic principle, then, is to ask whether people should follow it. The principle of fallibilism is no different. This second picture of the function of epistemic principles, which we owe to Wittgenstein and Sellars, sees epistemic talk as a sub-practice of linguistic practice, concerned with the asking for, giving, and evaluating of reasons. The practice is a rule-governed language game. On this account of epistemic principles, for example, Cartesian foundationalist principles can be seen as a set of recommendations for which assertions to allow to be unchallenged and which must be defended if challenged. The claim that I exist is always immune to challenge, as are claims about the current contents of my consciousness. Further claims must be defended (if challenged) by being deductively derived from these immune claims. Further, any possible doubt, no matter how hyperbolic counts as a legitimate challenge.
On the naturalistic picture of epistemic principles, fallibilism is probably untenable. But it fares much better on the normative understanding of epistemic principles; on that sort of view, fallibilism is best understood as a proposal for a normative propriety in epistemic language-games. The idea is that it is best if we treat each other in such a way that no statement is de jure immune from criticism; any claim, no matter whether logically necessary or obtained by privileged access, must be defended if it is met with a challenge that is itself within the rules of the game. We may be subjectively certain that Graham Priest is wrong when he issues a challenge to the law of non-contradiction, and the law of non-contradiction can be necessarily true (after all, it is), but we may not simply ignore what he has to say. The fact that he challenges the law of non-contradiction from premises that he himself is entitled to hold, by methods that we all endorse as reasonable, makes it the case that his challenge is a fair one we must be prepared to answer. It may be that there are claims we cannot be wrong about, but even about those it is best if we follow the fallibilist rule. The reason this rule binds us is not strictly entailed by any facts about us. The various attempts to make such underlying facts explicit have all collapsed into skepticism, or entailed that there are no necessary truths, or had some other bad consequence. Instead, we should realize that the fact that we are frequently wrong, and that we are sometimes wrong about the things about which we feel the most certainty, and that we are in general bad judges of the success of our own epistemic endeavors, is enough to show that we ought to be very cautious indeed. Just as a judge may not rule on a case in which he has an interest, because people in that situation are prone to bias, so we ought to behave as if we could be wrong in any particular case, because we are wrong in so many cases. We think it the best procedure in general if the particular judge is not permitted to preside in that case, even if he is in fact immune to bias. In the same way, we should think it right to treat every one of our beliefs as potentially in error, even if in fact we cannot be wrong. The question fallibilism answers is the question of what rules are best for knowledge-seeking as an endeavor. So fallibilism is best understood, not as a thesis about our abilities, but as a rule to guide our epistemic endeavors.
One final note. Espousing fallibilism is a no-lose proposition. If my arguments succeed, I have shown fallibilism to be a desirable view. If my arguments fail, I have given inductive support to fallibilism. Either way, fallibilism turns out more probable. So you might as well give up now.
Mark Owen Webb
Texas Tech University
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