“I do not pretend to know what many ignorant men are sure of.”  ~Clarence S. Darrow


“Dogmatism and skepticism are both, in a sense, absolute philosophies; one is certain of knowing, the other of not knowing. What philosophy should dissipate is certainty, whether of knowledge or ignorance.”  ~Bertrand Russell


“The educated in [the critical habit of thought] . . . are slow to believe.  They can hold things as possible or probable in all degrees, without certainty and without pain.”  ~William Graham Sumner


“What can be asserted without proof can be dismissed without proof.”  ~Christopher Hitchens


“Doubt is not a pleasant state of mind, but certainty is absurd.”  ~Voltaire


“It is wrong, always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence”  ~William K. Clifford


“The presence of those seeking the truth is infinitely to be preferred to the presence of those who think they’ve found it”  ~Terry Pratchett


“A belief which leaves no place for doubt is not a belief; it is a superstition.”  ~José Bergamín

Red flags go up for me whenever I’m faced with absolute certainty from somebody.  My experience tells me that such a person is probably either a fundamentalist Christian or Muslim or is a didactic pedagogue who feels that anybody who disagrees is obviously wrong.  Among us atheists, of course, religious fundamentalism is ruled out, so it always turns out (so far) that absolute certainty, in atheists, conceals over-confidence or intransigence or (more likely) both.

I used to feel certain that no entity, all-powerful or not, could possibly produce the unimaginable mass/energy of the entire universe.  But as it turns out, cosmologists now believe the universe has a grand sum of zero energy (thanks to "negative energy", like gravity).  I used to feel certain that consciousness was entirely subjective and abstract.  But observation explicitly factors into quantum theory.  And certain phenomena, like quantum entanglement, reveal that data is inherent to subatomic particles.  That seems a bit strange for a universe that existed for billions of years without intelligence of any kind (if you assume God does not exist).  And, of course, there's the favorite argument of Intelligent Design: our universe, fine-tuned to life on Earth.

I know that there's arguments for and against all these strange things.  The point is that, although we have theories that attempt to explain everything, they are only working models that fit observations.  They aren't the actual reality or "truth".  There were many scientific paradigms preceding modern ones and there will be many more to come.  Are there really 11 dimensions?  Is life limited to 3 dimensions plus time?  What if life existed in higher dimensions?  According to the math, if an entity existed in the highest dimension (the 11th?) he would have god-like powers, such as omnipresence.

I know that's a bunch of wild speculation.  The point is that there is too much we don't know.  So much, in fact, that certainty is an unjustified pretense.  The ineffable mystery of existence may never be solved.  I reject any certainty where the big questions are concerned.

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Comment by John Camilli on July 19, 2011 at 11:18pm

My comment ran too long, so i'll repost the last chunk, starting with the last paragraph...



It's easy to think that we must be getting close to being correct because we don't seem to discover things a lot anymore. We think we've pretty much seen most of what there is to see, and that while there may be a few outlier phenomenon yet to be observed, we mostly just need to finish fitting our clusters together. A task we often think is nearly complete, just as the Newtonian era saw a decline in scientific enthusiasm because it was assumed that Newton had pretty much encapsulated the paramters of existence, and that all that was needed thereafter was to fill that picture in by coloring within the lines he ahd laid out. But how wrong were they? There has been more new scientific information added to our repertoir since Newton than in all the time before him.


To me, this all indicates that there is no way yet to measure the relative correctness of an idea. We have no absolutes to which any ideas can be compared, so even if they seem incredibly intricate and well-fitted (like some of the geo-centric models of the universe, which made remarkably accurate predictions) that does not make them more likely to be correct. And furthermore, if the universe is indeed causal, and everything is at least causally related to everything else, then it would not make sense to say we had any knowledge until we had all knowledge. If I were to define, say... this couch I'm sitting on, I would literally have to describe everything in existence in order to define the couch because the couch effects everything in existence. We probably all believe in the idea of gravity here (let me know if you don't and I'll make a new example), so we probably agree that this couch affects everything else in existence gravitationally, just as everything else affects the couch. Remove the couch and all of existence is changed. Fail to describe its effect on all of existence and you have failed to define the couch. It all has to fit together perfectly before we can say whether or not a particular aspect is correct or incorrect. And that means, to me, that there is no sliding scale of correctness. It's just one or the other: correct or incorrect. And since we have not accurately defined all of reality, we have not actually defined any of it.


Am I making any sense to you guys?

Comment by John Camilli on July 19, 2011 at 11:13pm

Hmmm, you both have an idea that seems quite common around here: that a notion can be nearly correct. I cannot claim to understand that concept, myself, because of the concept of infinity - I'll explain. When one looks at several numbers, say 1, 2 and 57, which would you say are closer to each other? The 1 and 2? But aren't there infinitely many numbers in between 1 and 2, just as there are between 2 and 57? How then can one be considered closer?


But some people don't do well with numeric abstractions, so let me think of a more tangible example. Actually, I'll borrow from an anology I heard while reading about "justified true belief" although I can't remember where I read it now. An example was given of a situation in which a man is sitting at the park when he sees what he thinks is a dog trotting around a bush. The dog is actually a proto-type robot, designed to look and behave just like a real dog, but the man is not privy to this. He sees the robot dog and his mind formulates the idea that 'a dog is over there.' Unbeknownst to him, there is also a real dog just behind the bush, which actually makes correct his belief that 'a dog is over there.'


Now, in epistemology, a belief can be called knowledge when 1) it is believed, 2) it is true, and 3) the believer has good reason to think it is true. However, the robot dog problem satisfies these three criterion, while still providing an obvious example of an untrue idea. This is known as a Gettier problem and it illustrates how easily ideas can be misled. Let me give a different example, in case that one didn't work.


Let's say we are all sitting around doing a puzzle. What's the first thing we would probably do? I usually find the border pieces first, since they are usually the most easily recognizable, and because they provide a frame of reference, no pun intended. However, since this example is really about human knowledge, we cannot do the border pieces first because they are indistinguishable from the other pieces. The universe does not provide us with parameters in which to fit our ideas, so ideas must be handled relative to each other, not to a known standard. For example, if I were asked whether I thought an object was big, I would be making that assessment based on the sizes of other objects I have seen or heard about, not on some absolute knowledge of a largest and smallest thing in the universe. If I knew a largest and smallest thing, I would have a frame of reference by which to judge absolutely, but as it is, I have no border pieces for that puzzle. So then, what do we do with our puzzle? Well, we look around for similar pieces and we start grouping them into clusters.


But lets say the edges of these puzzle pieces are kind of sloppy (representing the inaccuracy measurements) such that some pieces can be fitted together even if they don't really go that way. We may create whole clusters of pieces that we think are fitted correctly, but which are actually from completely different areas of the puzzle. Hell, that's easy enough to do with an actual jigsaw puzzle, which has far fewer pieces of information than what we have discovered in this universe. Are you beginning to see the parallels here to how we acquire knowledge? How many times have humans been absolutely sure of an idea, only to find out they had gotten it all wrong? How long did people think heavy things fell faster, and that the sun went around the earth? And how many ideas do we have today that, intricate though they may be, are only messy patchwork estimates of what the real universe is like? None of us can say.


It's easy to think that we must be getting close to being correct because we don't seem to discover things a lot anymore. We think we've pretty much seen most of what there is to see, and that while there may be a few outlier phenome

Comment by Frankie Dapper on July 19, 2011 at 11:01pm


My comment regarding determinism is for John and relates to prior exchanges. In part I think he fails to use his skepticism to cast doubt on determinism. Further this idea of determinism fosters notions of helplessness in a cosmic play.

 I read recently that the bleeding you refer to occurs in cells. Whether the quantum world is in part acausal I could not say. I think it prudent to remain undecided on the issue of strict determinism. Your questions and stance are sensible. Although there are those who will quibble with the word predestined.

Comment by Atheist Exile on July 19, 2011 at 10:22pm

@Glen Rosenberg,

I think there's a possibility that the quantum realm (which I believe is truly random and indeterminate) "bleeds" into the classical, macro, realm ever so slightly and that this might be enough, over the cosmological expanses of time and space to call destiny into question.  For instance, the mass of atoms (which comprise macro objects) comes mostly from quantum fluctuations and this might, over time, have an unpredictable effect on the future state of the macro realm.

However, that's just a possibility that occurs to me, not something I base any ideas on except where hard (absolute) determinism is concerned.  I'm not a fan of hard determinism but concede that, in an inanimate universe, the only way cause and effect would NOT lead to a "clock work" causality is via influence from the chaotic quantum realm.

To me, an absolute determinist is a fatalist who sees futures events as predestined.  I can see no reason to adopt such a stance when we are not even certain how absolute causality really is or how self-aware, future-aware, causality-aware, intelligent beings affect causality locally.

And finally, I find that philosophy is better at questioning than answering.  The hard questions are just as hard as they ever were.  I'm influenced by the philosophy I've picked up over my life but I wouldn't base my life on any one philosophy.

Comment by Atheist Exile on July 19, 2011 at 9:07pm

Hi John Camili,

I don't know . . . you seem to have given the subject MORE thought than I.  If I had ever heard of Pyrrho, I've since forgotten about him.  However, I just checked it out and have a better idea of Pyrrhonic philosophy.  Wikipedia had an interesting note, comparing Pyrrhonism with Fallibilism:


Fallibilism is a modern, fundamental perspective of the scientific method, as put forth by Karl Popper and Charles Sanders Peirce, that all knowledge is, at best, an approximation, and that any scientist must always stipulate this in his research and findings. It is, in effect, a modernized extension of Pyrrhonism.[3] Indeed, historic Pyrrhonists are sometimes described by modern authors as fallibilists. Modern fallibilists also are sometimes described as pyrrhonists.

I would have to say I'm not quite a Pyrrhonist.  I do make judgments based on degree of confidence.  For instance, I do claim God does not exist and only explain that I'm 99.999% certain (and why) only when asked or challenged.  It would be too difficult for me to remain unopinionated or wishy-washy :-)

Comment by Frankie Dapper on July 19, 2011 at 2:15pm

Exile and John,

I agree philosophically that certainty is folly. Further, I dont think humans have any sense of reality. Perhaps there is no reality as we understand that term.

On the other hand I believe it is self-defeating to live a life guided by ideas of strict determinism and pyrhhonic skepticism.

The claim that god(s) exist can be dismissed with reasonable near certainty. By analogy we wont waste time pondering the veracity of a fantasmagorical delusion of grandeur posited by a delusional psych patient. What an incidence of coincidence if either is accurate.

On the other hand we can say that religion produces evil. It is historically demonstrable. It continues to be true wherever religion has power.

Comment by John Camilli on July 19, 2011 at 10:51am

Most excellent. You are truly an ignorant human, and I mean that as the utmost of compliments, although it must sound otherwise to those who do not understand that they do not understand. But it sounds as if you have been wrapped up in studying the same things that I have been wrapped in myself, so I will trust you to take my compliment as intended.


I used to think of myself as a smart person when I was younger. Tests said I was smart, and people said I was smart, and perhaps that praise and recognition feuled my desire to study as much as I have in life. But my studies have not, in turn, confirmed for me my own smartness. I have not found that I knew anything at all, nor that I could learn it. Rather, my studies have left me adrift in space, staring around at a vast, unknown darkness, and only spotting a few twinklings of inklings here and there. All in all, I now consider myself to be decidedly lacking in genius, and what's more, I consider that adjective to be wholely inappropriate for describing any human, past or present. We are all such fools that I can only laugh at those of us who have been fooled into thinking we are not.


I was musing the other day, while reading the latest conjectures on dark energy, about how ironic it may end up being that Einstein called the cosmological constant his 'greatest blunder.' It has been looking more and more like he guessed right after all, not that it should be considered to his credit, as he made the guess only out of a desperation to make theory fit observation. But such is the ignorance of man, that even our "greatest" minds cannot see when they have blundered onto a truth of reality. If it had been a snake...


I have found myself wondering at times, quite seriously, whether mankind has made any actual progress in understanding reality at all. Do we know anything more than our apeling ancestors knew? Do we know anything at all? Certainly we have accumulated more procedural (or dispositional) knowledge; the knowledge of how. But have we any knowledge of what? I cannot say we do not, because that would be taking a position that brings with it a burden of proof. But I also cannot say that we do, as I cannot elucidate a single definitive idea that does not rely on other indefinite ideas for its definition. I cannot prove either way, that I know or do not know anything at all. I only have guesses and beliefs. I am a Pyrrhonist, and it sounds like you are too. Perhaps you have heard of Pyrrho? If not, I very much recommend a gander. He was the original skeptic, if history is to be believed, but was not the same ilk as later, academic skeptics. Pyrrhonic skepticism makes no claims of truth, even negative ones like the idea that knowledge is impossible (the famously self-defeating premise of later skeptics). Technically, that means I'm not really an athiest (shhhh, don't tell anyone here. They'll crucify me) because atheism is a negative truth claim: the claim that god does not exist. I cannot prove that god does not exist, so I do not make that claim, and that is the nature of Pyrrhonism. Look into it if you haven't already. You may find it as similar to your own thinking as I did to mine, and it's a strange feeling to think that one's thoughts have arrived, through all one's ardent research, over two thousand years in the past, where thoughts had arrived before the advent of all our marvelous technology. And it makes it hard to think of all that advancement as any kind of "advancement" at all. Digging, digging, digging, we have been, but wider, not deeper.


Glad you wrote this post. Feel free to drop me a line for some mutual musing whenever. Ataraxia be with you, brother.



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