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Tuesday, August 01, 2017


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Dear Bill,

a couple of points:

1) I too have sometimes the impression that Fuchs tends to conflate truth and certainty; but it does not seem to me that you have shown that he does it just here. Instead, it seems to me that Fuchs simply does not accept your cardinal premise: "Justification is sensitive to agreement and disagreement".

2) Why should someone like Fuchs (or myself) reject such a claim? Because of his understanding of what knowledge is. The "justified true belief" definition of knowledge is too broad for the traditional conception, because there can be objectively certain and true belief which is not called "knowledge" but "faith". The distinction consists in the manner of justification, or kind of certainty involved. There are two fundamentally distinct kinds of certainty: The certainty of knowledge implies evidence of the proposition known (e.g., it is evident that 1 + 1 = 2). The certainty of faith (assumed theologically) would be based on the evidence of reliability of an epistemic authority (God, an expert, an eye-withess etc.).

3) Therefore, any number of disagreeing epistemic authorities not rising to the level of absolute reliability is insufficient to compromise the certainty of knowledge, as long as there is one, since that is based on internal evidence of the object known and the external factors do not affect this evidence. And it is impossible that an absolutely reliable authority, should there be one, disagreed with what is certainly known on the basis of internal evidence.

4) One needs to distinguish here the fact that an epistemical authority disagrees, and an actual argument objection by him. The objection as such can of course have bearing on the internal epistemic status of a believed proposition: but here its author is irrelevant, one only has to be acquainted with it. E.g., it makes no difference whether the objection comes from a overwhelming majority of competent opponents, or whether all the competent peers actually agree with me but I invented this objection myself. It is one thing to count authorities qua authorities, and quite another thing to ponder the weight of an objection. In the former case the actual arguments are irrelevant, in the latter case numbers are irrelevant.

5) I think I can grant that if a subject has not yet any piece of genuine philosophical knowledge, then the fact of disagreement among philosophers makes for a good _probable_ argument that philosophical knowldge is impossible. But I also maintain that adding further information to the premises ruins this argument - I mean information such as the difficulty of the matter, unwelcome practical implications of the true answers, prejudices and ideologies, original sin and general lack of virtue in philosophers...etc. And I also maintain that it is not irrational to attempt to gain genuine philosophical knowledge even if one has reasons to believe that success is improbable: because to know the answers is vitally important (it makes a whole world of difference to know that God exists, for example).

6) The assumed fact of disagreement is IMHO vastly overblown. For one thing, the present state of philosophy seems to be a historical anomaly. Approximately until the end of the 17th century there was - despite often extremely unfavourable historical circumstances - a continuous tradition of philosophical culture with a slowly growing established consensus. The era of of disparate non-communicating philosophical idiosyncrasies was born from the revolutionary nature of the so-called "early-modern philosophy" and its genesis can arguably be well explained (This is an extremely complicated matter that cannot be adequately dealt with here). And even in the present state of philosophy there are some limited areas of growing consensus - for example, the "synchronic" interpretation of modalities: virtually any expert on the subject will agree that it is a substantial and permanently valid achievement.

Excellent comments, Lukas. Helpful and challenging. I'll try to respond to all of them eventually. For now, let me address #1.

I would be very surprised if Fuchs accepted my "Justification is sensitive to agreement and disagreement."

My point, however, is that he does not even seem to see the problem. Instead, he slides from truth to certainty. That is, he makes an inference that needs justification while apparently failing to see that it does need justification.

On Lukáš point 6 above, almost every sentence is open to challenge. (i)Is the present state of philosophy seems a historical anomaly? (ii) Was there a slowly growing established consensus by end of 17th C? (iii) Was the genesis of 'disparate non-communicating philosophical idiosyncrasies' really a direct result of early-modernism? (iv) I do agree that this is an extremely complicated matter that cannot be adequately dealt with here.

Welcome back online Bill, you were missed. There is much to discuss.

Helpful: Thanks for the kind words. Hope you are well. Good to be back. I agree with you as against Lukas.

As evidence against L's point (i) we need only think back to the competing schools of late Antiquity that arose after the high point represented by Plato and Aristotle: the Academic skeptics, the Stoics, the Epicureans, and then the Pyrrhonists culminating with Sextus Empiricus. A main motivation for the Skeptical epoche (suspension of judgment) was precisely the interminable and bitter strife of systems.

Plenty of other examples could be given. That the present state of disarray in philosophy is an historical anomoly is pretty obviously false; it is rather 'par for the course.' (a golf expression).

Response to Lukas #2.

The modern (post-Cartesian) mind has trouble with the notions of faith as knowledge (cognitio fidei) and a fortiori the notion of an objective certainty of such knowledge.

I grant that one can acquire a true belief from the testimony of an eye-witness or an expert. But I balk at the idea that the true belief one acquires in this way is *objectively* certain. Suppose the witness is reliable or the expert is competent in his field. Then the true beliefs I acquire will be justified. But they would be objectively certain only if I were objectively certain that the witness is reliable in the particular case in question or the expert competent on the matter at issue. And that is not something I can be *objectively* certain about.

Response to Lukas #3.

It is interesting that you shift from a sort of externalism to a sort of internalism. In #2 you speak of the reliability of witnesses, but in #3 you speak of internal evidence.

I am prepared to grant that the disagreement of others will not, and ought not, shake my certainty that I seem to see a tree, or am being appeared-to treely, or am having a visual experience as of a tree.

Here we have certain knowledge. Or to be really cautious and not beg the questions whether there is a subject of experience: Here and now a visual experience as of a tree! That's certain, but the report concerns merely a mental state. But what is at issue is knowledge of objective reality, not knowledge of subjective states.

I am obviously not maintaining that nothing is certain.

The issue is whether there are philosophical propositions about objective reality that we can know with certainty. Example:

*Omne ens qua ens est intelligibile.* (Every being as such is intelligible.)

Peter Wust calls this *der Urprinzip der Philosophie.* (Have you read *Ungewissheit und Wagnis*? It's in Czech but not in English) Two questions: is the primal principle true? Do we have apodictic insight into its truth, i.e., do with we have certain knowledge of it? My concern is with the second question.

There is disagreement. If Sartre contradicts my report that I feel nauseous, I tell him to get lost. But if he tells me that the EN SOI is unintelligible, this cannot be so easily dismissed. How do I know that to be = to be intelligible? That is not an analytic proposition, nor is it a subjective report.

Some say that universe exists as a matter of brute fact. Do we know with certainty that this is false? How?

Response to Lukas #5:

>>And I also maintain that it is not irrational to attempt to gain genuine philosophical knowledge even if one has reasons to believe that success is improbable: because to know the answers is vitally important (it makes a whole world of difference to know that God exists, for example).<<

We agree on this: existentially, it makes a world of difference whether one believes that God exists and acts on this belief or the opposite. And the same goes for whether we survive our bodily deaths and have a higher destiny or not. Nothing matters more than these questions about God and the soul.

We disagree in that you think we can KNOW with objective certainty by discursive reasoning that God exists whereas I deny that we can KNOW with objective certainty by discursive reasoning that God exists.

I also deny that we need KNOWLEDGE of the existence of God; it is enough to have a reasoned faith in the existence of God. You, on the other hand, seem to have a strong need for doxastic security; you want to be able to claim demonstrative kn. of God's existence. You want PROOFS.

I say there are no PROOFS. Give me your favorite and I will show you why it is not probative.


Please give me some examples of philosophical propositions about objective reality that you think you know with objective certainty.

Consider this proposition: The law of noncontradiction is not just a law of thought; it is also a law of reality: every being qua being in itself 'obeys' this law.

Would you say that we know this with absolute, objective certainty?

Thanks for your reactions, I will try to respond piecemeal.

Ad #3:

a) I am not sure we have the same notin of objective certainty. For me, "objective" does not mean "for evrybody". Certainty is always subject-relative. It just means that it is not a mere subjective feeling but a real epistemic status in which it would be irrational (not impossible!) to doubt.

b) I am not switching from externalism to internalism, I am trying to separate these kinds of justification. I say that both can provide certainty but only internalist justification can provide what is traditionally called knowledge. And because opinions of experts qua such only affect external justification, they cannot compromise knowledge.

c) In my opinion, "Here and now there is visual experience of a tree" is a piece of certain knowledge of objective reality. My visual experience is, of course, part of objective reality, since it is objectively there (whatever its nature might be). As such, the existence of such a certainty proves that there are certainties of objective reality, i.e. that our cognitive faculties are, in principle, reality-revealing (and not reality-constructing, reality-shaping etc.). Thus, even these "merely subjective" certainties have important epistemological implications, as they rule out a whole bunch of epistemic positions (transcendental idealism, e.g.).

Ad #2: I am not advocating faith as a kind of knowledge but as a kind of cognition (knowledge is certain rational cognition based on evidence of the cognized object). I don't think that should be controversial: obviously, when you believe something because someone said that, it is a cognitive act (although it often needs to be elicited by the will). Regarding certainty of faith, I was being sloppy; I did not want to say that anyone except God counts as absolutely reliable epistemic authority (the other items were just examples of epistemic authorities simpliciter). For that reason, only religious faith can be certain. Furthermore, in the Catholic view, one needs the help of grace to attain such a certainty; naturally one can attain only a very high degree of probability (based on the testimony of the Church, the veracity of historical account of Jesus etc.). This supernatural certainty is what distinguishes the infused divine virtue of faith from mere natural probable belief.

So this certainty is not something that is in our power to achieve, but (in the Catholic view) it is an objective epistemic status and not a mere feeling, for rejection of such faith is culpable. It would seem to me very strange if God did not provide us with a means to have certain knowledge of matters necessary for salvation.


Here are examples of what I regard as my philosophical certainties:
- that God exists;
- that there are substances;
- that there are some necessary truths, even some de re necessary truths;
- that my cognition is capable of truth and certainty;
- that there are no contradictions in reality (indeed).

Ad #5: Regarding natural knowledge of God's existence, I don't think that it is necessary for everyone to have it in order to thrive spiritually. But I think that humanity would be in an absurd situation if such a knowledge were impossible. Certainy is the final goal of cognition, and knowledge about God is the most important kind of knwoledge. So if it was impossible to have knowledge about God, it would mean that our cognitivity is seriously impaired, that it naturally strives for a goal that is impossible to achieve. A good God would hardly create such a cognitivity.

My favorite proofs of God's existence? Several of them: Scotus's, Gödel's, Plantinga's, (elaborations of) Anselm's, even the classical causal one (e.g. in Suárez's version). And if the essence-existence distinction can be granted (which is what I am not sure of), then the Aquinas's one from De ente et essentia would be the most elegant one to me.

A sketch of my own eclectic version:

A pure perfection is that which is always better (more perfect) than anything incompatible with it.
Ergo, all pure perfections are compatible with each other.
Ergo, a being having all pure perfections in the highest possible degree is possible. Let's call him God.
A power to cause is a pure perfection (if anything is).
Ergo God has a power to cause.
It is more perfect to cause absolutely independently than to depend in one's causation (in whatever way).
Ergo, God has the power to cause absolutely independently, i.e. he is a (possible) first cause.
A possible first cause can exist of itself (i.e. can be without being caused).
But what can exist of itself, cannot be caused, for what is caused cannot exist of itself, being dependent on its cause.
Ergo a possible first cause is incausable.
Furthermore, what neither exists nor can be caused to exist cannot exist at all.
Ergo, what is possible but incausable actually exists.
Ergo, God actually exists.
Furthermore, God necessarily exists, since all the premises above are not merely contingently but necessarily true.


I concur in one thing. It seems the reliability of a witness is never objectively certain (evident), though it may be almost such. More in my book in the epistemology of the (classical Western) Trinitarian belief, esp. ch. IV.2.2. It's published in the same house as the book of Fuchs. (http://www.editiones-scholasticae.de/index.php?page=shop.product_details&category_id=31&flypage=flypage.tpl&product_id=395&option=com_virtuemart&Itemid=1)
I believe I sent you a copy a couple of years ago.

But I think Lukáš is right about everything else.

I should have said: It seems that the reliability of a witness is never objectively certain (evident) _apart from religious experience_. The objective certainty of faith that Lukáš speaks about may stem from certain religious experience provided by (supernatural) faith. Yet I don't think I've ever had this certainty.


You didn't send me a copy of your book. I think you sent a copy to Ed Buckner, though.

I agree with you where you agree with me, but disagree with you on everything else.

Something less cavalier in due course.

Your paper on *materiale Wertethik* looks really good and I hope to read it soon. Thanks for sending it. I am a student of J N Findlay who published on this topic.

Lukas writes,

>>And even in the present state of philosophy there are some limited areas of growing consensus - for example, the "synchronic" interpretation of modalities: virtually any expert on the subject will agree that it is a substantial and permanently valid achievement.<<

What is the synchronic interpretation of modalities?

But whatever it is, I would be very surprised if it turns out to have these marvellous properties you ascribe to it.

And please be aware of a fairly obvious distinction, that between 'intramural' consensus -- consensus within a school of thought -- and consensus across schools of thought. No doubt there is the former among the developers of this 'synchronic' approach to modalities!

The synchronic interpretation of modalities is the one universally shared nowadays, the one that can (but need not) be expressed by means of the possible-world apparatus. The interpretation according to which modal terms do not of themselves involve any reference to time.

Whereas until Scotus the understanding of modal terms floated somewhere between the purely statistical interpretation where "necessarily" = "always" and "possibly" = "sometimes", and the diachronic interpretation, according to which "it is possible that F" means "there is a potentiality that F happens in the future" (which implies the necessity of the past and the present).
For this reason, up until Scotus scholastic modal reasoning was mostly confused. See for example Aquinas's modal theistic proof, employing the premise "whatever is possible, sometimes is", regarded as a self-evident truism about modalities (and misinterpreted sometimes as a version of the Principle of Plenitude).


Please take a look at my "Some Theses on Possible Worlds." Here: http://maverickphilosopher.typepad.com/maverick_philosopher/2009/10/some-theses-on-possible-worlds.html

Would you say that I count as one who subscribes to the 'synchronic interpretation of modalities'?

By the way, 'synchronic' is not the right word for what you appear to be referring to. 'Synchonic' is a temporal word. X, y are synchronic iff x, y occur at the same time. For example, we speak of synchronic versus diachronic identity, i.e., (numerical) identity at a time versus over time.

What you mean, apparently, is ATEMPORAL interpretation of modalities.

You wrote in your first comment above: >> the "synchronic" interpretation of modalities: virtually any expert on the subject will agree that it is a substantial and permanently valid achievement.<<

Really?? I agree that the achievement is substantial, but so was Hegel's Wissenschaft der Logik, which I don't think you accept as "permanently valid."

I will have to write a separate post on this.


Welcome back! I hope your time of unplugging was good. I agree with you that such fasts are salutary for the soul. (Thus, I agree that there is a soul. It’s not an illusion!) I’d be interested to hear about how your fasts influence your work in philosophy, should it interest you to write about the topic sometime.

Here are a question and a comment.

Question: Regarding philosophical propositions about objective reality that can be known, how about these?

- Consciousness is not an illusion.
- There are intentional states of consciousness (i.e., there are thoughts, beliefs, desires, etc.)

Notwithstanding the apparent views of folks such as Dennett and Rosenberg, and assuming these are philosophical propositions, they seem to be good candidates for items of knowledge.

Comment: I agree with your propositions (1-8). I have reservations about (9). It seems that the bar of objective certainty as a necessary condition for knowledge is a bar too high. It is a worthy goal, but is it necessary for knowledge? It seems we can know w/o being objectively certain, which would explain situations in which we say to ourselves things like “Man! I knew I was right about that!”

Consider a similar proposition: “Eliminative materialism as a thesis in the philosophy of mind is false.”

It seems to me that if any proposition in philosophy qualifies as an item of knowledge, this one does.

I also think that more can be said about the nature of proper consensus. I agree that competency in the subject matter and epistemic parity are necessary conditions for proper consensus in philosophy. But I don’t think they are sufficient. We need to add character traits such as goodwill, courage, a willingness to search for the truth, and a sincere desire to find it.

In the concluding chapter of Our Search with Socrates for Moral Truth, Gary Atkinson provides a detailed list of plausible traits of the competent moral philosopher. I think many of them apply to the competent philosopher in general. If he is correct about these traits, then perhaps the number of truly competent philosophers is lower than it appears.

Thank you, Elliot. On the topic of the soul, I recommend Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, *Life Everlasting and the Immensity of the Soul.* Available via Amazon. Good to play off against latter-day Buddhists and Humeans.

I agree: that consciousness is not an illusion is not only true, but a proposition one can legitimately claim to KNOW in a sense of 'know' that entails epistemic certainty.

Unfortunately it is not a very interesting proposition. It is not 'substantive' such as the proposition that each of us is or has a soul, which is a simple substance, and which will continue to exist after our bodies cease to exist. Now that is one substantive (compound) proposition! That would be really worth knowing if one could know it.

The only reason the cs-prop is interesting is because sophists like Dennett have denied it.

>>It seems that the bar of objective certainty as a necessary condition for knowledge is a bar too high.<<

Many would agree with you. But when Augustine say he wants to know only two things, God and the soul, he is not talking about knowledge in some fallibilistic sense; he wants to freaking KNOW. He wants ultimate epistemic security. That's what I want too.

Compare Husserl: "Ohne Gewissheit kann ich eben nicht leben!" "Without certainty I just can't live!"


I agree that EM is a thesis for the lunatic asylum. (Some technicalities aside.) But again, if a lunatic denies the existence of something that obviously exists, and I contradict the lunatic, I have not thereby made a substantive claim.

In other posts I have added those moral traits to my definition of 'competent practitioner.'

Bill, thanks for your book suggestion. I hope to read it.

I agree that the compound proposition about the soul is substantive and worth knowing. Also, I am very sensitive to what you say about certainty. I want it too. My mind thrills about it. I’m inclined to think all genuine philosophers want it, as Plato suggests in Book VI of the Republic with phrases like “a soul which is ever longing after the whole of things both divine and human” and “the spectator of all time and all existence.”

About consciousness: It seems to me that EM can be demonstrably shown to be false in at least two ways: first, by simply pointing to states of consciousness that are obvious upon introspection; second, by using some form of reductio ad absurdam. In fact, a few minutes ago I read for the first time a nice RAA of yours against EM at

It may not be very interesting or substantive to deny EM, but it seems interesting enough to construct a good argument about it. But once the argument is made, one need not hang around the debate about EM. The interesting action is elsewhere.

Lastly, there are thinkers who defend EM (Is ‘thinker’ the right word for a defender of EM?). But if EM is demonstrably false, then I’m inclined to suspect that the defenders of EM are seriously confused. Perhaps they are lacking in one or more of Atkinson’s necessary traits for a philosopher. That leads me to wonder about the nature of proper consensus.

You cited George MacDonald’s “We must not wonder things away into nonentity.” I agree, and I’m inclined to add: “especially the human ability to wonder.”


yes, as soon as you are find sentences like "I am now blogging, but I might have been now sleeping" meaningful, you are wedded to the synchronic interpretation of modalities. It is not my term, it is Simo Knuuttila's (Modalities in Medieval Philosophy), and it seems to be standard by now. It refers to the fact that unactualized possibilities coexist synchronically with the actual ones. But I agree completely that it is not a very good term, and I myself tell the students that "atemporal" is better (and that atemporality only manifests itself as synchronicity in time)! Of course these modalities can be employed outside time as well as in time - that is why Scotus needed them: to explain how contingency and freedom is possible for God.

As for Hegel, indeed, I regard his thought as one of the greatest and most pernicious failures of philosophy (conceived as a quest for truth and certainty concerning the most important and most general questions). Without Hegel, today's Left would not be what it is. Ideas have consequences, only they usually come with some 200-years' delay.


I think you underestimates the philosophical potential of what you regard as "non-substantial" theses. I too believe that EM can be known to be false, and I regard this as a very substantial piece of knowledge about objective reality, with important consequences. And also I know several professional philosophers in my professional neighbourhood who subscribe to EM, not to speak of ordinary people (such as my father).

You seem to believe that there is a clear demarcation line between non-substantial trivialities that only lunatics reject, and substantial philosophical theses that are mostly beyond our ken. I don't think we can draw any such line. On the one hand, many truths that are obvious to me or you are regarded as obviously false by many serious thinkers (while everybody agrees that it is evil to kill innocent Jews, to say that it is evil to kill innocent unborn babies is already a hate crime in many places - and yet I claim that it is equally obvious). Serious and obvious errors in philosophy do, unfortunately, happen to non-lunatics. On the other hand, the fact that many competent non-lunatics will always deny certain substantial philosophical truths does not preclude the possibility of attaining certainty about them, nor does the competence of such thinkers make such errors less disastrous and damaging.

So, in my opinion, it is impossible to stake out a safe space of "the philosophically obvious" which, once acknowledged, will qualify a person as a "non-lunatic" and a peer in the perennial and sterile philosophical play in the outer space where nothing serious can ever happen since nothing can ever be decided. The present "lunatics" have not come out of the blue: they were spawned by iterated substantial philosophical errors. Philosophy is a dangerous business: you can go terribly wrong and suffer the consequences - you and your posterity (this is why I have no mercy with Hegel).

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