the desire for certainty

Desire for certainty, disguised in various ways and largely unrecognised, is a major motivating factor in modern philosophy.*

This claim might initially strike you as too clichéd and two-dimensional to be worthy of serious consideration. But it is easier to appreciate if you recall what I said yesterday about epistemic circularity. Yesterday I suggested that it is relatively easy to construct thought experiments in which epistemic circularity seems to render my belief not merely uncertain, but wholly unjustified. Because of this, it is easy to create the illusion of a cognitive crisis merely from the premise of pervasive uncertainty. It can then seem, finally, as if averting this crisis requires getting out of our own skin, pulling ourself out of the swamp by our own bootstraps, or some other similarly impossible feat. In a nutshell, it can seem that merely having a particular point of view suffices for our being trapped in Plato’s cave.

The desire for certainty is connected to belief in its possibility, at least in a select number of special cases; e.g. my knowledge of my own existence, my present phenomenal experience, and perhaps a few basic a priori truths. That the justification for these beliefs is also inescapable epistemically circular, and thus that even they are not certain for me, is one basic gloss on Hegel’s (implicit) critique of Hume at the beginning of the Phenomenology of Spirit. On this reading, the necessity of epistemic circularity corresponds to the necessity of mediation.

Now, whatever we might think about the Agrippan trilemma as a source of scepticism regarding knowledge or justification, it surely is a significant challenge to the possibility of certainty. (Note: the problem of epistemic circularity is basically just a mixture of two horns of this trilemma: arbitrariness and circularity). The basic thing to see here is that there is just not much that can be said to the sceptic who challenges even the things that Hume considered certain. For example, even to say that the sceptic refutes herself by depending upon reason to challenge reason is question-begging: it is according to your reasoning that the sceptic refutes herself, but the sceptic does not admit this reasoning.

The real question, in a nutshell, is whether the sceptic’s position is invulnerable, or whether something can be said against it, and in favour of the possibility of certainty. As I shall understand it, this is a question about the possibility of successfully deploying the Cartesian method – Agrippa versus Descartes. On the one hand, my knowledge that I exist falls short of certainty if every belief I could form is subject to epistemic circularity and the latter suffices for uncertainty. On the other hand, we have a very strong intuition that this result cannot be correct. The issue, in particular, is whether beliefs about how things appear to me to be are epistemically circular, as is entailed by e.g. Reed’s account of epistemic circularity, or whether, by understanding belief as relativised in some sense to appearances, I either escape from circularity altogether, or at least mitigate its deleterious effects. More on this tomorrow.

* I am always talking about ‘epistemic’ or ‘objective’ certainty, and never about ‘psychological’ or ‘subjective’ certainty.

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