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