The Other I

December 22, 2010

Degrees of certainty

Filed under: Just Stuff,Questions beyond Science — theotheri @ 4:43 pm

Readers of this blog probably haven’t missed the fact that I spend a lot of energy questioning a lot of things other people take for granted.

It started in childhood.  We sat around the dinner table more often than not anguishing about The Great Moral and Existential Questions of Life.   And I was not yet out of single digits in the years I possessed when I remember Dad saying “You aren’t right just because you want to be right.  Even saints are sometimes wrong.”

So at any early age, I learned to question almost everything.

But now I’m asking about our certainties.  There are no absolute certainties.  That I am convinced of from philosophers.  And there are no absolute facts.  That I know from science.

But there are different levels of certainties, and different kinds of certainties, and those are what interest me.

There are the certainties that come from science and mathematics.  I’m pretty sure the earth is round and that it revolves around the sun.  There seems to be an overwhelming amount of convincing evidence to support this.  But science has sometimes come up with the most revolutionary ideas.  Gravity isn’t exactly what Newton said it was;  time slows down when we go faster, particles on the quantum level seem to go in and out of existence.

So it is not beyond the realm of possibility that even these simple facts about our solar system might one day be called into question.  In the meantime, I’m willing to live my life on the assumption that they are certainties I can rely on.

Then there are certainties based on my memories of things I have personally experienced.  I know we have a blue car because I have seen it.  I know I have four sisters and five brothers because I lived with them.  I know my telephone number and what I had for dinner.  Nobody’s memory, though, is totally infallible.  Sometimes we mix memories up, sometimes we remember things that didn’t actually happen, sometimes we remember dreams but think they are real.

I trust what I remember most of the time, but don’t trust its certainty quite as much as I trust my certainty that the earth is round.  When Peter and I have incompatible memories of the same event, I’m rarely sure that I am right and he is wrong.

The real conundrums over certainty for me, though, are in relation to things I would say I “believe.”  Why and how am I so certain that my husband loves me?  or that Beethoven and Mozart are great musicians, or Shakespeare a literary giant and Picasso a great artist?  Why am I so certain that the holocaust was wrong, or that truth and falsehood are not equally acceptable?

The decisions that I have made and continue to make in my life are much more influenced by certainties like these than is my certainty that the earth goes around the sun.  And so why I believe them seems important to me.

Initially, of course, I was taught a lot of these things.  But not all of them, and many of the things I was taught I no longer believe.  So there is some deeper foundation to my certainties like these than merely what other people say.

Somehow it’s related to my direct experience.  I listen to Mozart and I know.  I read Shakespeare, I see Picasso’s work and I know.  I know the choices my husband has made in relation to me, and I know.

But I’m still not sure how I know.  And although I might stake my life on some of these beliefs, I could still be wrong.

I’m sure philosophers have thought about this on a deeper level than I can.  But I’m not a philosopher.  I feel as if I can ask the questions philosophers ask.  I just can’t answer them.

But then, of course, I think the risk of uncertainty in the rightness of the decisions we make and conclusions we reach is inescapable.  There is absolutely no way around the risk of possibly being wrong.

So if a philosopher did come up with some answer that made anything absolutely certain, I’d be absolutely certain he was wrong.


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