Saturday, December 4, 2010

Reflection on Certainty: #2

Are you sure?

Argumentation relies on shared premises to move to novel conclusions. Knowledge is regressive, such that any conclusion relies on the premises that precede it. The question remains, how far back does knowledge regress?

Let’s begin with the concept of ontological certainty, the statement that absolute Truth exists and that there is an objective reality to things, the only difficulty being in ascertaining it.

The problem is twofold.

The thesis of ontological certainty is tautological. In order to state the absolute truth of this ontologically objective realm, you must first assume that such a reality exists and that your truth statement is an expression or reflection of it.

It should be noted that tautological statements are not intrinsically false.  The true statement “all dogs are mammals” is tautological, since “dog” is taxonomically defined as a subset of “mammal” and therefore the sentence reads “a subset of A is A.” The problem is that tautological statements are generally devoid of actual content; they rely on the definitions of words, rather than on the reality of things that those words describe.

Second, the thesis of ontological certainty is in a sense almost self-defeating. Assuming an objective reality exists, there remains great difficulty in perceiving it. Indeed, knowledge of absolute truth is so far from our grasp, that our primary reason for asserting the existence of objective truth is not that we might comprehend it, but that we might be inspired to keep seeking it.

By this view, ontological certainty may be considered an almost utilitarian concept: it keeps us focused on the knowledge being pursued and not on the challenges of the pursuit. If there were no princess in the castle, would the knight ever brave the dragon to save her? Belief in objective reality drives us beyond the epistemic cynicism that might otherwise confound us.

Thus seems the contradiction: the thesis of ontological certainty grounds truth in the reality of things, yet is itself asserted as true because of the utility of believing in it.

Neither of these counterpoints prove objective truth to be objectively false. Indeed, as a Christian and more broadly as an Idealist, a belief in an absolute True, Good, and Beautiful is at the core of my philosophy. But I do not wish to take that belief lightly, and therefore look towards the real philosophical challenges that might hinder us on our way.

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