One of the hardest things for any individual to do in a society is abstract truth from the world around them. An amalgamation of filters stand between the individual and reality. From the media we get our news and information from, to the filter of our perceptions, any “ultimate truth” or reality is muddy by the time it reaches our minds.
This feeling of uncertainty is one any skeptic must face when deciding to seek out a good model of our world. But as I strongly believe, and as many philosophers have stated in one way or another: Those who are sure of themselves are fools, and the only intelligent individuals seem to be those who are in constant doubt. I intend to defend this notion and show how knowledge, as it is commonly known, may very well be a meaningless notion. What remains are justified or unjustified beliefs, and the processes of foundational logic and science are good tools for informing said beliefs.
So we now have three things (at least) that need to be defined here: “Truth”, “belief” and “knowledge”. The way in which I use the term, “truth” is to point out anything in the world that is the case. I must concede that by definition we may not be able to have access to truth due to our very nature. “Truth” may well be a meaningless term in a similar way as “knowledge”.
A belief is intertwined with truth in that it is what people think is, or is likely to be the case.
“Knowledge” brings the trifecta together, because knowledge, as I understand it, occurs when our beliefs are confirmed to be true.
Now let’s contextualize these related terms. As I said, based on these definitions, I am not sure anyone can have access to truth or knowledge. When one meditates on what knowledge or truth they have access to, would they buy into the idea that they are capable of having absolute demonstrable knowledge of anything? Can anyone say with honest confidence that some current knowledge they have is unalterable?
Much like the conclusion reached by Descartes (“Je pens, donc je suis”), if one is to be intellectually honest, is there anything they can claim is the case beyond reasonable doubt (aside from something within their own mind)? I cannot say this for myself at the very least. To know anything seems just as absurd as knowing everything. So what can we do about this? To answer that, we need only to defer to some rudimentary logical rules.
So we can’t necessarily say we know something to be true, let alone know anything at all. However, this may not be the case if one speaks of themselves rather than something external. This is one exception I may be willing to let slip by: The notion that we can know what our own beliefs are. The point here is that there is a picture regarding belief being implied by the relationship of the definitions I laid out above. For human intents and purposes the most tangible of the three aforementioned terms is “belief”.
The logic regarding belief we have to acknowledge now is that there are four kinds of belief. There are either justified or unjustified beliefs, and under both of those categories there are true or false beliefs. To briefly explain, you can have a justified or valid belief, but it may be false. Likewise, you can have a belief that has not been justified but just so happens to be true.
A familiar example of an unjustified-true belief could be as follows: The claim of the existence of a god may very well be true, but in the world we live in, there seems to be no justification or validity for that claim. One crucial factor about belief that implies the forms I just described, is that one’s beliefs are not a choice. We in fact believe things because we are convinced through good or bad reasons (valid or invalid).
Science and Logic Are All We Have
My position is that epistemically, belief seems to be the very best we can do. If you spend any time dabbling in the foundations of logic, you will see that we can discern validity and justify our points-of-view all day, but when we try to answer the question of truth, we face a tremendous blockade of subjectivity. This is unsettling to people upon first realization, but there is an upside which resides in the process of science.
Science does not make truth claims about the world. Not because scientists wouldn’t like to, but because to do so would be empirically dishonest. What science does set out to do is provide a description of the phenomena around us through justified speculation. Science seeks to predict occurrences by way of empirical testing, alongside statistical likelihood. But let’s be honest, the everyday person does not navigate the world with such empirical accuracy. We usually just trust in professionals to do the dirty work. So our beliefs can rarely even be considered justified.
To consolidate this month’s word-salad, we may not be able to have knowledge of anything outside ourselves and our subjective filters, but we can have more or less accurate justified beliefs. Even then, I’d wager that we tend to fall short on justifying these beliefs ourselves and just piggy-back off of the findings in science. If this is unsatisfying to you the reader, then I would love to hear any proposed comprehensive system for certainty.