We should anchor our thought in that which is most certain: the fact of change, the nearness of death, that things exist, that one is conscious, that one can say 'I' and mean it, the fact of conscience. But man does not meditate on the certain; he chases after the uncertain and ephemeral: name and fame, power and position, longevity and progeny, loot and land, pleasure and comfort.
Wealth is not certain, but the grave is. So meditate on death, asking: Who dies? Who survives? What is death? Who am I? What am I?
Death is certain, but the when is uncertain. Do not try to make a certainty out of what is uncertain, or an uncertainty out of what is certain.
"What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes." (James 4:14)
Thomas Nagel writes that “whether atheists or theists are right depends on facts about reality that neither of them can prove” [“A Philosopher Defends Religion,” Letters, NYR, November 8]. This is not quite right: it depends on what kind of theists we have to do with. We can, for example, know with certainty that the Christian God does not exist as standardly defined: a being who is omniscient, omnipotent, and wholly benevolent. The proof lies in the world, which is full of extraordinary suffering. If someone claims to have a sensus divinitatis that picks up a Christian God, they are deluded. It may be added that genuine belief in such a God, however rare, is profoundly immoral: it shows contempt for the reality of human suffering, or indeed any intense suffering.
Strawson is telling us that it is certain that the God of Christianity does not exist because of the suffering in the world.
How's that for pure bluster?
What we know is true, and what we know with certainty we know without the possibility of mistake. When Strawson claims that it is certain that the Christian God does not exist, he is not offering an autobiographical comment: he is not telling us that it is subjectively certain, certain for him, that the Christian God does not exist. He is maintaining that it is objectively certain, certain in itself, and thus certain for anyone. From here on out 'certain' by itself is elliptical for 'objectively certain.'
And why is it certain that the Christian God does not exist? Because of the "extraordinary suffering" in the world. Strawson appears to be endorsing a version of the argument from evil that dates back to Epicurus and in modern times was endorsed by David Hume. The argument is often called 'logical' to distinguish it from 'evidential' arguments from evil. Since evidential or inductive or probabilistic arguments cannot render their conclusions objectively certain even if all of their premises are certain, Strawson must have the 'logical' argument in mind. Here is a version:
If God exists, then God is omnipotent, omniscient, and morally perfect.
If God is omnipotent, then God has the power to eliminate all evil.
If God is omniscient, then God knows when evil exists.
If God is morally perfect, then God has the desire to eliminate all evil.
If evil exists and God exists, then either God doesn’t have the power to eliminate all evil, or doesn’t know when evil exists, or doesn’t have the desire to eliminate all evil.
Therefore, God doesn’t exist.
It is a clever little argument, endlessly repeated, and valid in point of logical form. But are its premises objectively certain? This is not the question whether the argument is sound. It is sound if and only if all its premises are true. But a proposition can be true without being known, and a fortiori, without being known with certainty, i.e., certain. The question, then, is whether each premise in the above argument is objectively certain. If even one of the premises is not, then neither is the conclusion.
Consider (5). It it certain that evil exists? Is it even true? Are there any evils? No doubt there is suffering. But is suffering evil? I would say that it is, and I won't protest if you say that it is obvious that it is. But the obvious needn't be certain. It is certainly not the case that it is certain that suffering is evil, objectively evil. It could be like this. There are states of humans and other animals that these animals do not like and seek to avoid. They suffer in these states in a two-fold sense: they are passive with respect to them, and they find the qualitative nature of these states not to their liking, to put it in the form of an understatement. But it could be that these qualitatively awful states are axiologically neutral in that there are no objective values relative to which one could sensibly say something like, "It would have been objectively better has these animals not suffered a slow death."
The point I am making is that only if suffering is objectively evil could it tell against the objective existence of God. But suffering is objectively evil only if suffering is objectively a disvalue. So suffering is objectively evil and tells against the existence of God only if there are objective values and disvalues.
Perhaps all values and preferences are merely subjective along with all judgments about right and wrong. Perhaps all your axiological and moral judgments reduce to mere facts about what you like and dislike, what satisfies your desires and what does not. Perhaps there are no objective values and disvalues among the furniture of the world. I don't believe this myself. But do you have a compelling argument that it isn't so? No you don't. So you are not certain that it isn't so.
And so you are not certain that evil exists. Evil ought not be and ought not be done, by definition. But it could be that there are no objective oughts and ought-nots, whether axiologically or agentially. There is just the physical world. This world includes animals with their different needs, desires, and preferences. There is suffering, but there is no evil. Since (5) is not certain, the conclusion is not certain either.
Now consider (2): If God is omnipotent, then God has the power to eliminate all evil. Is that certain? Is it even true? Does God have the power to eliminate the evil that comes into the world through finite agents such as you and me? Arguably he does not. For if he did he would be violating our free will. By creating free agents, God limits his own power and allows evils that he cannot eliminate. Therefore, it is certainly not certain that (2) is true even if it is true. Reject the Free Will Defense if you like, but I will no trouble showing that the premises you invoke in your rejection are not certain.
Pure ideologically-driven bluster, then, from an otherwise brilliant and creative philosopher.
In his magisterial Augustine of Hippo, Peter Brown writes of Augustine, "He wanted complete certainty on ultimate questions." (1st ed., p. 88) If you don't thrill to that line, you are no philosopher. Compare Edmund Husserl: "Ohne Gewissheit kann ich eben nicht leben." "I just can't live without certainty." Yet he managed to live for years after penning that line into his diary, and presumably without certainty.
I would say that the ability to tolerate uncertainty without abandoning the quest for certainty is a mark of intellectual and spiritual maturity. A truth seeker who can tolerate uncertainty is one who will not seek false refuge in dogmas that provide pseudo-certainty. I cannot help but think of Islamo-terrorism in this connection. Had Muhammad Atta and the boys entertained some doubts about the bevy of black-eyed virgins awaiting them at the portals of paradise, they and three thousand others might still be alive.
The trick is to tolerate uncertainty without becoming either a skeptic or a dogmatist.
There is a difference between subjective and objective certainty. If subject S is subjectively certain that p, it does not follow that p is true. That would follow only if S were objectively certain that p. But objective certainty appears attainable only with respect to one's own mental states. I am both subjectively and objectively certain that I have a headache now. This is because the esse of the headache = its percipi. Its being is its being perceived. It therefore cannot be intelligibly supposed that I merely seem to have a headache now, while in reality I do not. With respect to a physical object or state, however, appearance and reality can come apart, and what is subjectively certain can turn out to be false: my seeming to see a mountain is no guarantee that there is a mountain. My seeming to feel elated, however, just is my being elated.
What about states of affairs that involve neither mental data nor physical objects? If S is subjectively certain that torture is always morally impermissible, and T is subjectively certain that torture is sometimes morally permissible, then one of the two must be wrong, which shows that subjective certainty is no proof of objective certainty.
What about this last proposition however, namely, the proposition that apart from mental states, subjective certainty does not entail objective certainty? Is its truth merely subjectively certain, or is it also objectively certain? It is objectively certain. One sees that subjective certainty can exist without objective certainty from the fact that two subjects, S and T, can be subjectively certain of contradictory propositions. Here the mind grasps a truth about a state of affairs transcendent of one's mental state and does so with objective certainty.
I conclude that there are some propositions the truth of which can be grasped with objective certainty even though these propositions are not about such mental data as pleasures and pains. The mind has the power to transcend its own states and not only to know, but to know with objective certainty, truths whose truth is independent of mind. That is amazing.
One some days, existence strikes me as the deepest and most fascinating of philosophical topics. On other days, I give the palm to time: "What, then, is time? If no one asks me, I know; if I want to explain it to someone who does ask me, I do not know." (Augustine, Confessions, Bk. 11, Ch. 14) But today, the honor goes to knowledge.
As Hilary Putnam once said, "It ain't obvious what's obvious." Or as I like to say, "One man's datum is another man's theory."
But is it obvious that it ain't obvious what's obvious?
It looks as if we have a little self-referential puzzle going here. Does the Hilarian dictum apply to itself? An absence of the particular quantifier may be read as a tacit endorsement of the universal quantifier. Now if it is never obvious what is obvious, then we have self-reference and the Hilarian dictum by its own say-so is not obvious.
Is there a logical problem here? I don't think so. With no breach of logical consistency one can maintain that it is never obvious what is obvious, as long as one does not exempt one's very thesis. In this case the self-referentiality issues not in self-refutation but in self-vitiation. The Hilarian dictum is a self-weakening thesis. Over the years I have given many examples of this. (But I am now too lazy to dig them out of my vast archives.)
There is no logical problem, but there is a factual problem. Surely some propositions are obviously true. Having toked on a good cigar in its end game, when a cigar is at its most nasty and rasty, I am am feeling mighty fine long about now. My feeling of elation, just as such, taken in its phenomenological quiddity, under epoche of all transcendent positings -- this quale is obvious if anything is.
So let us modify the Hilarian dictum to bring it in line with the truth.
In philosophy, appeals to what is obvious, or self-evident, or plain to gesundes Menschenverstand, et cetera und so weiter are usually unavailing for purposes of convincing one's interlocutor.
And yet we must take some things as given and non-negotiable. Welcome to the human epistemic predicament.
Some opponents of the death penalty oppose it on the ground that one can never be certain whether the accused is guilty as charged. Some of these people are pro-choice. To them I say: Are you certain that the killing of the unborn is morally permissible? How can you be sure? How can you be sure that the right to life kicks in only at birth and not one minute before? What makes you think that a mere 'change of address,' a mere spatial translation from womb to crib, confers normative personhood and with it the right to life? Or is it being one minute older that confers normative personhood? What is the difference that makes a moral difference -- thereby justifying a difference in treatment -- between unborn human individuals and infant human individuals?
Suppose you accept the general moral prohibition against homicide. And suppose that you grant that there are legitimate exceptions to the general prohibition including one or more of the following: self-defense, just war, suicide, capital punishment. Are you certain that abortion is a legitimate exception? And if you allow abortion as a legitimate exception, why not also capital punishment?
After all, most of those found guilty of capital crimes actually are guilty and deserving of execution; but none of the unborn are guilty of anything.
My point,then, is that if you demand certainty of guilt before you will allow capital punishment, then you should demand certainty of the moral permissibility of abortion before you allow it. I should add that in many capital cases there is objective certainty of guilt (the miscreant confesses, the evidence is overwhelming, etc.); but no one can legitimately claim to be objectively certain that abortion is morally permissible.
There is much popular confusion concerning the topic of relativism. One fallacy I exposed earlier, namely, the mistake of thinking that Einstein's Theory of Relativity implies either moral relativism or relativism about truth. Even more widespread, perhaps, is the notion that one who opposes relativism about truth must be a dogmatist. But there are two distinctions here and they must not be confused. One is the distinction between relativism and nonrelativism, and the other is the distinction between fallibilism and dogmatism. The first distinction has to do with the nature of truth, while the second pertains to the knowledge of truth.
In his magisterial Augustine of Hippo, Peter Brown writes of Augustine, "He wanted complete certainty on ultimate questions." (1st ed., p. 88) If you don't thrill to that line, you are no philosopher. Compare Edmund Husserl: "Ohne Gewissheit kann ich eben nicht leben." "I just can't live without certainty." Yet he managed to live for years after penning that line, and presumably without certainty.