Why Does It Seem Like No One Can Be Sure About Anything?

Certainty is a lack of doubt about something. This exists on a spectrum from relative to absolute. Although philosophers often attempt to differentiate psychological certainty (which is the strength of one’s belief) and epistemic certainty, I believe that reality shows the two to be mutually dependent. What one knows with absolute certainty entails that one believes it wholeheartedly as well. We must have psychological confidence that the certainty we know is accurately represented. For example if I know for certain that my car is parked outside then it I’m able to believe with full confidence.

But can we know anything with absolute certainty? The postmodern zeitgeist (the spirit of the age) would say no. You can see that whenever anything claims to be certain or universal, a general skepticism tends to follow along. Things like grand historical narratives or universal principles are looked at with suspicion by society. This is because we refuse to allow any authority to interpret our lives and give it meaning outside of our self. As humans we like to think we generate our own meaning. It’s not just postmodern or deconstructionist philosophy though, that articulate such ideas. While the philosopher Jean Paul Sartre said as humans, we are ‘radically free’, Disney says ‘it’s time to see what I can do, to test the limits and break through, no right, no wrong, no rules for me, I’m free.’ But if we ourselves are uncertain people, then so too will our knowledge be. And if doubt has become the default attitude of society then it has also become its virtue. And certainty in the modern world is now the bad guy, the sign of arrogance.

Besides everyday life, this issue can also be applied to a religious context: can we know God with certainty? For Christians, the answer is yes because the Christian belief is that God’s special revelation is certain and therefore we should be certain about it too. While there are things we ‘figure out’ such as science, there are deeper, more fundamental truths (which are articulated in Scripture) that are revealed to us from birth, truths that are unchanging and certain, regardless of who we are. They govern the world and are revealed to us rather than worked out. In such a context, doubt then is more vice than virtue because it is wrong to doubt what God has clearly revealed to us. So the reason the postmodern mind thinks that there is nothing that can be absolutely known is because there is no knowledge that exists outside of the self. Here is why I think this doesn’t work (and certainty is possible):

It is impossible to exclude certainty in all cases

The inescapable fact of life is that even denying certainty requires certainty about it – ‘that nothing is certain.’ But of course, how can we know that? So the argument against certainty itself must be uncertain. Further, any argument against certainty must assume that argument can be a means of finding truth. Someone using an argument to test the certainty of propositions claims certainty at least for that argument. In this case, he claims that he can test whether we can legimiately know things with certainty. But a test of certainty must be certain itself because it would become the criterion of certainty. As the theologian Frame says, an argument that would test absolute certainty must itself be absolutely certain.

Certainty is supernatural

At the same time, we know that we do not have certain knowledge of everything, which is proven to us everyday. We’re frequently contradicted by our own words and actions. Each day little discoveries are made, showing us that the world we knew before wasn’t quite what we had thought. Before space, time and relativity, there was simply an apple falling to the ground. And there is a humility that comes with acknowledging what we do and what we don’t know. After all, no one likes a smart ass. Certainty cannot come from an uncertain source and therefore cannot come from us.

For Christians, God’s word (special revelation) is the ultimate criterion of certainty. What God says must necessarily be true because it is impossible for God to lie. Therefore we have a moral responsibility to regard God’s word with absolute certainty and make it our test for all other knowledge. However, our psychological certainty about the truth of God doesn’t ultimately come from our logical reasoning or empirical or even historical evidence (which is useful) but from God’s own authority. As humans we are made with the capability to understand truth and it is to this aspect God’s word is self-authenticating, speaking on its own authority. At the same time, God is a person and therefore he can choose whom to reveal himself to. Certainty is an act of God by his Spirit, often accompanying human reasoning to give us certainty. Yet Christian Scripture never turns away those whom honestly seek to find the answer to such questions.

Conclusion

Secularism ultimately rejects certainty because absolute certainty is supernatural and the secularist is unwilling to accept a supernatural foundation for knowledge. For the Christian, God’s revelation is a wonderful treasure and one that “saves the soul from sin and the mind from skepticism”1. Questioning whether anything is certain is a sign that one hasn’t yet found any sturdy ground to stand on outside of themselves. It is like a blind man, who isn’t sure of the road he is walking on. He feels it in terms of a series of physical sensations, separated by the rhythm of time. A bump here followed by a bump seconds later indicates an uneven road. But it isn’t until that his eyes are opened that he can know that with certainty that it was a road he was walking on all along. So too with God.

  1. Frame, A History of Western Philosophy and Theology, 582-587

Religions Can Neither All Be Right or Wrong

When I first heard the phrase “all religions are the same”, even as a fairly nominal and agnostic Christian, I thought it was a ridiculous statement to make. The fact that even the most similar religions (such as Judaism, Christianity and Islam) had such contradictory claims made it a stupid question to consider. One day, I was shown this story by John Saxe (based on a traditional Indian tale) which made me hesitate:

“It was six men of Indostan,

To learning much inclined, 

Who went to see the Elephant

(Though all of them were blind), 

That each by observation

Might satisfy his mind. 


The First approach’d the Elephant,

And happening to fall

Against his broad and sturdy side, 

At once began to bawl:

“God bless me! but the Elephant

Is very like a wall!” 

The Second, feeling of the tusk, 

Cried, -“Ho! what have we here

So very round and smooth and sharp? 

To me ’tis mighty clear, 

This wonder of an Elephant

Is very like a spear!” 


The Third approach’d the animal,

And happening to take

The squirming trunk within his hands,

Thus boldly up and spake:

“I see,” -quoth he- “the Elephant

Is very like a snake!”

The Fourth reached out an eager hand, 

And felt about the knee: 

“What most this wondrous beast is like

Is mighty plain,” -quoth he,- 

“‘Tis clear enough the Elephant 

Is very like a tree!” 


The Fifth, who chanced to touch the ear,

Said- “E’en the blindest man

Can tell what this resembles most;

Deny the fact who can,

This marvel of an Elephant

Is very like a fan!”

The Sixth no sooner had begun

About the beast to grope, 

Then, seizing on the swinging tail

That fell within his scope, 

“I see,” -quoth he,- “the Elephant

Is very like a rope!” 

And so these men of Indostan

Disputed loud and long, 

Each in his own opinion

Exceeding stiff and strong, 

Though each was partly in the right, 

And all were in the wrong! 


MORAL,

So, oft in theologic wars 

The disputants, I ween, 

Rail on in utter ignorance 

Of what each other mean; 

And prate about an Elephant 

Not one of them has seen!

The story about the 6 blind men was written in the 19th century and has since been used as a poster boy for religious relativism. Granted, it consists of pretty powerful rhetoric but adds little to the actual argument. Similar to the analogy that religions are multiple journeys towards the same destination, the point of the poem are that religions are partial perspectives of the same object. The religious believer is like one of the blind men who see the truth only partially but insists that they have the totality of it. God is present but has left them to their own devices. Like them, we are blindly groping in the dark, attempting to break free of our chains to escape the cave and see the world for what it really is. It isn’t until the king who requested the elephant makes known to them what it really is, that they can truly know what an elephant is. The implication for modern religions is that believers claiming to have the truth are merely expressing their arrogance and ignorance.

Although the poem gave me pause, at the same time there was something intuitively puzzling about it. Upon further reflection and research, here are 2 biggest reasons why I think the argument doesn’t hold water:

1. The truly arrogant claim is the one that all religions are true

The only reason the blind men can know it’s an elephant is that the king reveals it to them. Without the king’s revelation, they will forever be stuck with their impression of the elephant, “its very like a rope!” But if one argues that all religions are partial perspectives of God, then they must assume the position of the king, the perceiver who has access to the complete picture of God. For such a person, he must have intimate knowledge of God and each religion, knowing the conditions that would make each claim true or false, in order to make such a universal statement. It is, as Newbiggen says, to claim knowledge superior to even those of religion. This applies also to the claim of God’s non-existence, which no one is able to know unless it’s revealed to them. The atheist finds himself in a quandary, because in order to deny the existence of God, he must have 1) sufficient knowledge of every religion to decide which religion’s God to deny and 2)transcendent knowledge of what does and doesn’t exist to deny all of them. If we’re honest, we know such kingly knowledge has not been given to us.

So epistemic humility forces us to choose to admit we either don’t know or we do. We cannot escape such a choice. What then do we do in the face of such a diverse range of beliefs? Either one religion is right or everyone is wrong (join the atheist club), in which they can never know that they are. But they cannot all be true (or be mere perspectives) because the very claims of religion are contradictory. It is not as though the elephant felt ropey and like a fan at the same time, whose qualities could belong to the same object, but an elephant who could fit into one man’s hand but not the other’s. Of course the two blind men would disagree because the claims were deductively incoherent!

One of the reasons Christians reject religions is not because they lack knowledge of other beliefs but because the defining elements of every other religion contradict one another, rendering them incoherent with reality. The other is that Christians have had such knowledge revealed to them. Rather than climbing up over one another on our ladders to reach God, he himself has lowered the rope into our pit of darkness, allowing us to reach him, if only we might grasp it. Which brings me to my next point.

“To say, I don’t know which religion is true is an act of humility.  To say, none of the religions have truth, no one can be sure there’s a god is actually to assume you have the kind of knowledge, you just said no other person, no other religion has.  How dare you?  See, it’s a kind of arrogant thing to say nobody can know the truth because it’s a universal truth claim.  To say, ‘Nobody can make universal truth claims.’  That is a universal truth claim.  ‘Nobody can see the whole truth.’  You couldn’t know that unless you think you see the whole truth.  And, therefore, you’re doing the very thing you say religious people shouldn’t do.” – Timothy Keller

2. It assumes that God has not revealed himself

The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything. And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, that they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him. Yet he is actually not far from each one of us, for “‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said, “‘For we are indeed his offspring.’ Acts 17:24-28

Imagine that the elephant opened his mouth. “I’m – !” he said. That would change everything. The blind men would no longer be dependent on their senses as the elephant would be able to give them information as to who he was. This is the unspoken assumption the poem makes. Yet the claim of Christianity isn’t that men are left to their own devices, groping in the dark for some fragment of the truth. Nor are we enslaved individuals capable of using reason to break our chains and escape the cave (like Plato) to grasp God. We are like the blind men, helpless until the elephant invades their world, speaking and revealing himself. This is what Christians believe – that God out of his kindness, reached down by becoming one of us, a man named Jesus, and spoke. And this speaking is what changed everything.

Conclusion

The poem does help us to understand something, namely that without God revealing himself, knowledge about him really is just the speculation of 6 blind men groping in the dark, waiting for the light of the king to enter their darkness. Reason, empirical data, intuition – none of these are capable of reaching up into the noumenal (transcendent) world no more than a baby’s hand can reach up and touch the sun. It is a great tragedy that like the baby, humans too believe they can when in comes to the knowledge of God. Christians can be thankful that the king who reveals what the elephant is like is Jesus, God himself become man.

Further Reading:

https://www.allaboutphilosophy.org/blind-men-and-the-elephant.htm

https://www.str.org/articles/the-trouble-with-the-elephant#.WqDazJNuaRs

https://larrycheng.com/2010/01/23/on-the-blind-men-and-an-elephant/