Sunday, December 5, 2010

Reflection on Certainty: #3

Are you sure?

I've previous stated that the sensation of psychological certainty is generally unwarranted. This is based on the problem of epistemic certainty -- the limited ability of humans to directly discern any kind of objective truth. This seriously hampers our efforts at ascertaining ontological certainty.

There have been a number of historical attempts at responding to the problem of epistemic certainty. One of the more famous methods was developed by the philosopher Rene Descartes.

Descartes began by asking, in what way is human knowledge limited? He noted that human knowledge is uncertain to the extent that our material senses are finite. Our senses are imperfect and may often mislead. If we could transcend our senses, might we transcend our uncertainty in the same moment?

Descartes posited a method by which objective truths might be ascertained. Conceding for argument’s sake the most extreme of systematic doubts, he closed his eyes and imagined himself in a vacuum, an infinite void, cut off from all physical sensation. In the realm of pure mind, what could be discerned?

Descartes stumbled across a profound fact while his mind scanned the vacuum for truth: namely, he was aware that he was searching.

In the absence of any sensation, in a world of pure thought, Descartes realized that he could think about his own thinking. He could observe his own thought processes. This discovery, and the realization that any observation requires an object to be observed, led him to his first and most famous dictum:

Cogito, ergo sum. "I think, therefore I am."

Absent any sensory experience, Descartes could conclude with absolute certainty that he existed and that he was capable of rational thought.

The problem of epistemic certainty might lead us to believe that nothing can be truly known. Descartes postulated at least one fact that can be known, and used this as his foundation for further inquiry.

Do you think Descartes’ argument in this regard is valid? Does this method enable us to circumvent universal and systematic doubt?

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