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The Problem with Certainty

Most of us assume that certainty is an unqualified good.  Who wouldn’t want to be sure that they’ve chosen the right spouse, job or college?  Nevertheless, we need to question closely the desire for certainty.  What do we mean by certainty?  Are their different legitimate levels of certainty?  Can we ask to have certainty in every circumstance?  A false step here can lead to consequences as dire and diverse as despair, inability to act, and even mass murder.

The modern world, at least in that part called the West, is at a loss to understand the purpose and meaning of human life.  This is the thesis of the first chapter of E.F. Schumacher’s very interesting book A Guide for the Perplexed.[1]  This book seeks to help us answer the questions concerning what we are to do with our life.

For modern man’s inability to answer the question of the meaning of life Schumacher blames René Descartes (1596-1650), the French philosopher and mathematician.  It is significant that Descartes is often called the Father of Modern Philosophy.  What did the Father of Modern Philosophy teach about certainty?

In order to arrive at the truth, Descartes argued that we must accept as valid only those things that could not be doubted by reason.  We need to have the same kind of certainty as is accepted for proofs in mathematics and geometry.  Knowledge of the truth must be indubitable.

There are several problems with Descartes.  On a strictly logical level his method fails.  He requires us to accept his assertion that we should only admit as valid those things that cannot be doubted by reason.   One problem is that Descartes does not demonstrate that this assertion is indubitable.  Furthermore, it is certainly reasonable to accept as valid assertions that do not have mathematical certainty.  Is it reasonable to put my mother’s assertion that she loves me to Descartes’ test?  I doubt it.  Thus his basic methodology fails its own test.  It can be doubted.

Schumacher highlights the cultural consequences of modernity’s demand for Cartesian certainty.  Since there can be no mathematical certainty about the meaning of life, the existence of God and of life after death, we ought not to bother with such issues.  We humans should just make sure that we develop job skills and, at best, bring a little pleasure to others or, at least, avoid hurting them.  It is difficult to find a lower view of human nature than this modern utilitarian conception.

How can modern man escape the dehumanizing consequences of adopting Descartes’ false ideas about certainty?  Schumacher quotes Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) for the answer.  “The slenderest knowledge that may be obtained of the highest things is more desirable than the most certain knowledge of lesser things.”[2]

Schumacher points out that it is perhaps necessary that higher things cannot be known with the same certainty (Thomas’s “slenderest knowledge”) as lesser things.  This common sense position dates back to Aristotle (384-322 B.C.), who said that different objects of study demand different methodologies.  Mathematics and geometry are not studied in the same way as biology, psychology and theology, nor should they be since they are investigating different objects.  It is thus wrong to expect the same kind of certainty from all branches of knowledge.

Worse yet, if we allow mathematical certainty absolute sway over all of life, we must necessarily only concern ourselves with lesser things.  Is Mozart’s music superior to Miley Cyrus’s?  Am I made in the image of God?  You can’t know; so don’t ask.  Get back to work.  As Schumacher points out, the only matters beyond doubt have to do with dead things.  The demand for mathematical certainty leaves out most of what makes human living human, and we humans cannot live that way.

Humans want more from life than basic physical necessities.  Jesus was absolutely right, even obviously right, when he asserted, “Man does not live by bread alone” (Matthew 4:11).  We desire more because of who we are.  Ecclesiastes 3:11 says that God “has put eternity into man’s heart.”  Augustine famously confessed to God, “Our hearts are restless until they find their rest in Thee.”  The human need for more than food is why Jesus goes on to say that man lives “by every word that comes from the mouth of God.”

The demand for Cartesian certainty with regard to the meaning of life results in despair.  When suicide rates are so high in the most economically prosperous nations, it would appear to be obvious that we should question this inhuman demand for Cartesian certainty.

The despair stemming from the demand for absolute certainty can paralyze the will so that we are unable to make important decisions.  Young men and women can agonize over choosing a spouse because they’re not sure that he or she is the perfect match.  The same can happen with regard to vocational and college choices.  Such a desire for a risk-free certainty is an illusion that can and has prevented people from experiencing life’s uncertain joys.

One of modernity’s most destructive illusions is the false certainty of the ideologue.  The ideologue believes that his program for the perfect society has scientific certainty.  Opposition is thus either stupid or selfish and does not merit serious consideration.  Frustration leads to bitterness, resentment and anger and finally boils over into rage against continued resistance.  It is believed that the opposition deserves to be swept away so that the ideologue’s utopia can be established.  Such was the case with the French Revolution, the first modern revolution.  Such has been the case with later ideological revolutions and such will continue to be the case.

Descartes’ philosophy of knowledge is one of the chief errors that have led to the dead end of modernity.  It needs to be refuted and a more nuanced theory of knowledge and of certainty developed or, dare I say, returned to.  These are fundamental questions, but if the curricula of modern education give us any clue, the powers that be aren’t asking them.  Maybe they don’t want to.


[1] Some of you may remember him as the author of Small Is Beautiful: A Study of Economic As If People Mattered.

[2] Summa theologica, I,1,5, ad 1 in Perplexed, p. 3.

2 thoughts on “The Problem with Certainty

  1. Thought provoking work Bill, thanks. Drives me back to Scripture and grateful prayer. Without God, indeed, all is vanity (worthless, meaningless). Yet He who put “eternity in our hearts” (Ecclesiastes 3:11)grants us peace in finding the only certainty in Him.

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