Intelligent Design

Is nothing certain? A response to KeithS

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Two years ago, KeithS, who surely needs no introduction here, mounted a skeptical argument in a thread on Uncommon Descent. The argument purported to show that we should never claim absolute certainty for any thought – a very strong conclusion. It was not until today that this argument came to my attention, when I read a comment by KeithS in a post by Colin over at TSZ, on self-evident truths.

In this post, I will not be arguing that there are any self-evident truths. My aim is a more modest one: to show that the strong version of skepticism defended by KeithS does not follow from the premises in his argument.

KeithS’s skeptical argument

To give credit where credit is due, I have to say that the argument put forward by KeithS was carefully crafted. (Readers with a philosophical background will recognize it as a refinement of Descartes’ “deceiving God” argument, coupled with his “evil demon” argument. Unlike Descartes, KeithS does not think that there are any indubitable truths.) Unfortunately, however, KeithS is not a philosopher, and there are a couple of important distinctions relating to modal logic which he has overlooked.

Without further ado, let us examine here is the argument advanced by KeithS:

In the hopes of making some progress in this thread, let me lay out my argument systematically, with numbered statements, so that it will be easier for people to specify exactly what they disagree with and why.

1. It’s possible that God exists. (or Satan, or demons, etc.)

2. If God (or Satan, etc.) exists, then it is possible that he has the power to deceive us.

3. If he has the power to deceive us, then he might be exercising that power at any particular time.

4. Being human, we cannot reliably determine when he is deceiving us and when he isn’t.

5. Any particular thought we have might coincide with a time when God/Satan/the demon is deceiving us.

6. Thus, any particular thought might be mistaken.

7. If we claim to be absolutely certain of something that isn’t true, we have erred.

8. Therefore we should never claim absolute certainty for a thought that might be mistaken.

9. Since any particular thought might be mistaken (by #6), we should never claim absolute certainty for any thought.

Note that this argument can also be made simply by appealing to the imperfection of human cognition, but it’s more fun this way.

Also note that the argument applies to atheists and theists equally. Atheists don’t think there is a God, of course, but it is still possible that there is a God, and possibility is all that is necessary for the argument to work.

One point which I would like to make at the outset is that KeithS’s argument could still work even for atheists who don’t admit the possibility of God, Satan or demons. Atheists who deny the possibility of supernatural entities would surely acknowledge that there may well be intelligent corporeal beings (e.g. aliens) with technologies that are far more advanced than our own, who have the power to deceive us by manipulating our thought processes, and that these beings might be exercising this power at any given time. I should also remind readers of physicist Paul Davies’ argument that if the multiverse is real, then the universe we are living in is probably a Matrix-style simulation.

I would also like to point out, in passing, that certain Biblical texts which have been quoted by skeptics (including KeithS) in support of their claim that God Himself (assuming that He exists) has the power to deceive us, in reality show no such thing. The matter has been addressed in some detail by the Christian apologist Glenn Miller in his article, How can God not lie and still Deceive the Wicked? Miller concludes:

God permits deceptive forces to enter someone’s life if they are COMMITTED to deception already, and if they have demonstrated a culpable history of that destructive dishonesty (and so deserving censure–hopefully corrective… cf. 2 Tim 2.25-26). But even with that permission, God often sends a counter-balancing message of truth–alerting the recipient of the danger of deception.

I should add that Hebrews 6:18 states that “it is impossible for God to lie” and Titus 1:2 additionally declares that God “does not lie,” as does 1 Samuel 15:29, when it says: “He who is the Glory of Israel does not lie or change his mind; for he is not a human being, that he should change his mind.”

In short: if the skeptics wish to argue that God is capable of deceiving us, then they would had better appeal to reason, rather than Scripture, as the Bible does not support their case.

Some preliminary remarks about indubitable truths

When KeithS originally put forward the argument, some commenters at Uncommon Descent pointed out to him that not even an Arch-Deceiver could deceive me into believing that I exist. For in order for anyone to deceive me, there must be an “I” which is capable of being deceived. This is an old argument which goes back to St. Augustine (354-430), and which was revived much later in a modified form by the French philosopher, Rene Descartes (1596-1650). Countering the skeptics of his day, St. Augustine argued in his City of God, Book XI, chapter 26, that even if I am mistaken about almost everything, one indubitable truth will remain: the fact of my own existence. “For it is certain that I am if I am deceived.” The point that St. Augustine was making here appears to have been that being deceived logically presupposes the existence of a “self” who is capable of holding false beliefs. And even if we replace the term “deceived” – which assumes the existence of an agent who deceiving me – with the more neutral term, “mistaken,” St. Augustine’s point remains: the notion of a mistake logically presupposes the existence of an individual who is making it.

Descartes’ own Cogito, ergo sum argument (“I think, therefore I am”) is, in my opinion, less successful than St. Augustine’s, for it doesn’t even get us this far. In a recent article in The Philosophers’ Magazine titled, A New and Improved Cogito Argument, Professor Stephen Mumford highlights the key flaw in Descartes’ argument: “To be brief, for these issues are well known, if one asserts I think, therefore I am, then the premise assumes the very thing – the I – which the conclusion purports to prove. The argument cannot, therefore, demonstrate the existence of the individual subject, on pain of circularity.” St. Augustine’s argument is not guilty of the same circularity, in my view. For while one might dispute whether the notion of thought presupposes the notion of a thinker, there can be no gainsaying the fact that the notion of a mistake, or error, logically presupposes the notion of a person who is making it.

However, the chief problem I have with St. Augustine’s argument is that it tells me nothing about myself. Knowing that I am is utterly uninformative, unless I also know what I am, and the argument doesn’t tell me that. Indeed, as Descartes himself pointed out much later, an argument of this sort fails to even establish that I am an embodied being, let alone a human being. For all I know, I might be real, but my body might be an illusion. Nor does the argument tell me anything about the existence of other minds, or of an external world. In the seventeenth century, Descartes attempted to circumvent these difficulties by reasoning his way up to the existence of a Perfect Being Who would not allow him to be systematically deceived about the world at large. However, Descartes’ ontological argument has few defenders today, even among theists: its chief defect, as David Banach has pointed out in a 1982 essay, is that it fails to demonstrate that the notion of God reresents something which is ontologically possible. Without such a demonstration, the argument cannot get off the ground. (Godel’s ontological argument constitutes a major improvement in this regard.)

But perhaps we have been starting at the wrong place, by reasoning purely on the basis of introspection, and ignoring the other individuals around us. Maybe our interactions with these individuals can tell us something about ourselves and about the world at large. In his article, A New and Improved Cogito Argument, Professor Mumford build a case for the reality of other minds and of causation, with the help of some crucial insights from the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein about the relation between thought, language and society. Mumford argues as follows:

If there is cognition, there is language. If there is language, there is a society. And if there is a society, then there is causation. The argument then goes through: cogito ergo causalitas. From thinking, I know that causation is real. It is. It exists. And even though I have reasoned to causation from the existence of my own thought, and before that from the existence of society, the conclusion is not that causation in any way depends on these things. It is the opposite. Real, mind-independent and society-independent causation is a pre-condition of there being any thought and of there being any society. Thinking, language and society depend on there being causation. And given that these evidently do exist, then so too does causation.

Mumford’s first premise, that if there is cognition then there is language, follows if we grant that at least some of our cognition is conceptual. As Mumford puts it: “There are many things I can think only because I have the concepts or words for them, for example, when I wonder what suit I will wear to my meeting on Thursday morning.” The second premise, that if there is language then there is a society, rests upon a key Wittgensteinian insight about the impossibility of there being a purely private language: “A solitary individual could not be a language user because they could not know whether they were using a word correctly or not. Other language users are required to enforce the norms of the language.” The final step in the argument, that if there is a society, then there is causation, follows from the fact that the members of a society continually interact with one another:

A society, as I understand it, is more than just a plurality. What turns this into a society is that it’s an interacting plurality. And the notion of interaction is, again, an obviously causal notion. The individual members of a society affect, and are affected by, each other. How can they do so unless causation is real?

One apparent weakness of Professor Mumford’s argument is that while it establishes the reality of causation, it fails to establish the reality of material objects, and of physical causation. However, Mumford could respond by arguing that words referring to material objects get their sense from the fact that these objects are publicly shareable, within the community of language users: we can all see, hear and feel them, and we can talk about their physical properties. Thus it is the linguistic community to which I belong that decides whether I am using words correctly when I speak of material objects, and how I and other people in my community can relate to those objects.

Nevertheless, a really hard-headed skeptic might object that firstly, it is possible that the linguistic community within which I grew up has been subjected to mass deception (e.g. by demons or advanced aliens) about the nature of reality, and that the world they perceive around them is actually an illusion, like that of The Matrix; and secondly, it is possible that I have been deceived about the very existence of the linguistic community with whom I have been conversing all my life. Perhaps the “people” I have been talking to are fictional characters created by cunning aliens, who cleverly devised computer programs incorporating these fabricated characters, in order to teach me the meaning of the words in my language (which they created for me). One could even go further, and suppose that the aliens who created my illusions are themselves fictional characters inside a super-program created by “meta-aliens,” who exist in a plane of reality which is two (or more) levels up from my own. On this account, then, I can be absolutely certain of that I exist (as someone capable of following the rules of spoken discourse), that some other agents exist (on either my own level of reality, or some higher level), and that these agents are capable of causally interacting with me – but not necessarily in a physical manner. But there is more. Deception cannot go “all the way up.” There must be some ultimate level of intelligent beings who do not exist within a simulation, and whose perception of reality is veridical.

This is a significant result. However, it is a fairly modest one. I can still entertain doubts about what I am, or what the “someone else” who interacts with me is, or how many levels of reality there are. And what I can be certain of is something which is still too meager to be expressed in the symbolism of propositional logic.

I haven’t said anything so far about the truths of logic or mathematics. Very briefly: the best candidates for absolutely certain logical truths are the law of identity (A = A) and the law of non-contradiction (not[A and not-A]). A skeptic might respond that (a) while they are certain, these statements are merely definitions which define the meaning of “equals” and “not” respectively; (b) in any case, these laws are meta-propositions rather than propositions. Regarding the truths of mathematics, it should be pointed out that “analytic” does not imply “absolutely certain,” as any conclusion obtained via a chain of reasoning depends on the reliability of our memories. Hence the number of mathematical truths which are indubitably certain will be very small.

But these skeptical doubts should not worry us, on a practical level. Knowledge is not the same thing as certainty, and in everyday life, we commonly claim to know many things which are not absolutely certain. The reason why such claims are justified is that the things we claim to know are certain beyond reasonable doubt. A skeptic might wonder whether he is living inside a simulation, but the mere possibility that he is right does not make his doubt reasonable. A prudent and sensible person would adopt the maxim of assuming, on a day-to-day basis, that the world around us is real, and that we do not exist inside a simulation.

KeithS might happily adopt this maxim, but he could also point out that his argument does not claim that we don’t know anything. Rather, what he claims is that we cannot be certain of anything. Indeed, he is very clear about this distinction in a recent comment of his, where he writes: ” if God lies it doesn’t mean that you can’t know anything — it simply means that you can’t be absolutely certain of anything.” But we saw in the previous section that there are solid grounds for saying that there are some facts whose falsehood is inconceivable. These facts we may hold as absolutely certain. But we have yet to address the argument put forward by KeithS. This I shall now do.

So, what’s wrong with KeithS’s argument?

Before I proceed, I would like to make a brief observation about the fuzzy terminology used in KeithS’s argument. KeithS attempts to demonstrate that any of our thoughts might be mistaken. Logicians don’t usually talk in that way. The term “thought” is too vague: it may be a mental image, a word, a question, the answer to a problem, a meaningful sentence, or more specifically, a proposition which can be expressed in logical symbolism. Logicians are more accustomed to using terms such as “belief” and “proposition.” A belief may indeed turn out to be “mistaken,” but if we are talking about propositions, then we normally describe them as being either true or false.

Having made that clarification, let us go on. It seems to me that KeithS’s argument suffers from several defects:

1. The argument presupposes the notion of causation. It attempts to show that we should hold nothing certain because at any given time, we may be being deceived by some being (God or Satan) who is capable of making us believe statements which are false. But such an act by the Arch-Deceiver (whoever he may be) would constitute a form of causation: to make me believe something false is to cause me to believe something false. Hence even if I am being deceived, causation is still real. It seems, then, that I cannot be mistaken about that.

At this point, KeithS’s best tactic would be to concede that we cannot be wrong about the fact that causation is real, but to deny that this statement is a proposition, since it cannot be expressed in the symbolism of propositional logic. KeithS could then attempt to defend the more restricted claim that any proposition which we believe might turn out to be mistaken.

2. KeithS’s argument fails to distinguish between epistemic possibility and ontological possibility – that is, between what might be true for all we know and what is possible in the real world. Premise 1 of the argument refers to epistemic possibility, while premise 2 mixes the two kinds of possibility, when it declares that it’s possible (for all we know) that there exists some being (God or Satan) who has the power to deceive us. Having a power is an example of real or ontological possibility. From these two premises, then, I cannot conclude that there is a real possibility that I am being deceived right now; at most, all I can say is that I cannot (on the basis of what I know) exclude the possibility that someone is deceiving me now.

3. In order to show that there is indeed a real possibility that I am being deceived right now, one might attempt to argue that either (i) God exists, and He has the power to deceive us, or some of His creatures (e.g. demons) possess this power, or (ii) the multiverse exists, and therefore there exist (in some universe) technologically advanced intelligent beings who have the power to deceive us. But this won’t do. If God exists, it does not follow that He has the power to deceive us; that might be contrary to His nature. Nor does it follow that any of His creatures possesses this power, for He is under no compulsion to create angels or super-human aliens. On the other side, if God does not exist, then it does not automatically follow that the multiverse is real. And even if it is real, and even if there is some universe out there which contains technologically advanced intelligent beings who possess the power to create simulated universes, it does not follow that these beings have the power to deceive us. That would only be the case if we lived inside one of their simulations – which is precisely the point at issue. (Of course, one could argue that the number of simulated universes is likely to exceed the number of real ones, but that’s an epistemic argument, which says nothing about real possibility.)

4. In the course of his argument, KeithS makes some claims which sound perfectly fine in ordinary discourse, but which are nonsensical when expressed in modal logic. For instance, in premise 6, he argues that any particular thought that we have might be mistaken, since any particular thought that we have might happen to coincide with a time when we are being deceived (e.g. by God or Satan). Oddly enough, you can’t say that in modal logic. You can say that every thought we have might be mistaken, and (if you use an existential quantifier instead of a universal quantifier) you can say that some thoughts we have might be mistaken, but you can’t say that any thought we have might be mistaken.

Here’s what KeithS wants to say, where Eipt means “individual i is in error in believing proposition p at time t”:

(i)(p)(t)◇(Eipt)
(For all individuals i, for all propositions p, and for all times t, possibly i is in error in believing p at time t, where ◇ represents the possibility operator.)

However, the problem is that the possibility operator ◇ can only go in front of a well-formed formula, and Eipt isn’t one, since i, p and t are variables, each of which need to be bound by a quantifier: either the existential quantifier (“there exists some x”) or the universal quantifier (“for all x”).

So perhaps we might amend the above formula to read:

◇(i)(p)(t)(Eipt)
(It is possibly the case that for all individuals i, for all propositions p, and for all times t, i is in error in believing p at time t.)

This formula is certainly a well-formed formula, but it’s very strong: it claims that possibly all of our thoughts are mistaken. That’s very different from the claim that any of our thoughts might be mistaken. As we saw above, the latter claim cannot be expressed in modal logic: it simply “does not compute.”

Now, KeithS might attempt to defend the strong claim by arguing that God (if He exists) is capable of deceiving us about everything, if He wishes to do so, since He is omnipotent. But “omnipotence” is a tricky concept, as there are some things which even God cannot do, either because they are logically contradictory or logically incoherent. For instance, God cannot make 2+2=5, or make a stone so heavy that He cannot lift it, or make the past not to have been. And it might turn out to be the case that God is incapable of deceiving us about everything, simply because there are some privileged beliefs about which we cannot be mistaken. If the arguments adduced in the previous section are correct, then I cannot be mistaken about the reality of causation, the existence of other minds or my own existence.

5. In premise 3, KeithS argues that if some Arch-Deceiver (e.g. God or Satan) has the power to deceive us, then He might be exercising that power at any particular time. What KeithS overlooks here is that we need to quantify over propositions as well as times. It’s not enough to claim that for any given time t, the Arch-Deceiver may be deceiving any (or all) of us at that time. What KeithS needs to claim is that for any given time t and for any proposition p, the Arch-Deceiver may be deceiving any (or all) of us into believing p at time t. But if (as argued above) there is a small, privileged set of beliefs regarding which we cannot be deceived, then it simply does not follow that any of our beliefs might be mistaken – let alone all of them.

6. In premise 7, KeithS states that if we claim to be absolutely certain of something that isn’t true, we have erred. However, KeithS hasn’t shown that there are some beliefs that aren’t true; all he has attempted to show is that any particular belief we hold at a given time might not be true. So the question we need to address is: if I claim to be absolutely certain of proposition p, and it turns out that p might not be true (i.e. p is not necessarily true), have I erred? By no means. Any proposition p about the material world might not be true, in the sense that it would not be true if God had chosen not to create this world. This world is contingent upon God’s decision to create it; hence any proposition which describes things existing in this world is also contingent. However, it does not follow from this fact that I (who live in this world) cannot be certain of any proposition which describes this world. Given that God has decided to create this world, there may be many propositions describing this world, about which we can legitimately claim to be absolutely certain – depending on how God has wired our epistemic apparatus.

I conclude that KeithS’s argument is support of radical skepticism is flawed on several counts. It was a brave attempt, but unfortunately it failed.

However, I don’t claim to have established in this post that there are propositions that we can be absolutely certain about. It seems that one have a legitimate debate about whether sentences such as “Causation is real,” “Other minds exist” and “I exist” express propositions that can be expressed in symbolic notation or not. Certainly they are meaningful utterances; but whether they are best construed as propositional or not is another matter.

What do readers think?

42 Replies to “Is nothing certain? A response to KeithS

  1. 1
    ppolish says:

    Is nothing certain? I would argue nothing = nothing is certainly certain.

  2. 2
    bornagain77 says:

    So let me get this straight. keiths is trying to establish some level of certainty that he can’t be certain?

    So basically the better he succeeds in his argument the more he fails in his argument?

    🙂

  3. 3
    kairosfocus says:

    BA77, point, i.e. self-referential incoherence. KF

  4. 4
    kairosfocus says:

    VJT:

    A useful examination.

    KS et al plainly seek to set up logic with a swivel, on which what they favour is not to be questioned seriously but what they don’t is pounced on with a tellingly selective hyperskepticism.

    In reply then and now, I point to self-evident first truths such as indeed our own self-awareness (even though we may be in some error) and that error exists. This is undeniable as well as not in serious empirical doubt.

    This is a case of certainty that is undeniably true, confirms that senses and memory can be accurate and verified so to the point of absolute certainty, and more. Error exists is true, truth exists. Error exists is undeniably absolutely certainly true, absolute truth exists and is knowable in certain cases. Knowledge (even in strongest form in such cases) exists. Radical subjectivism, relativism and skepticism are falsified as systems of thought and are discredited as cultural agendas, being bankrupt.

    But when a bankrupt is too big to be allowed to fail, vested interests may prop it up.

    That is the real problem.

    KF

  5. 5
    Andre says:

    And to KeithS I also ask;

    How do you know that you don’t know?

  6. 6
    Mapou says:

    KeithS: “Nothing is certain.”
    Yoda: “So certain of this, you are.”

  7. 7

    I’ve never understood what Keiths point is in making this argument. So there is some technical chance that god or aliens or demons are deceiving us into believing false propositions. So what?

    What difference in day to day life would it make to keep reminding oneself that there is a technical possibility that they are in error about anything they think?

    People still have to act as if they are certain about all sorts of things. People still have to argue as they know some things are true. Keith is as operationally certain of the validity of his argument as anyone else is certain of anything else. That he admits to some technical possibility that he might be in error doesn’t change the certainty about which he makes his case.

    What interests me is that what amounts to nothing more, really, than some technical possibility that is utterly impractical in every-day life is so important to Keiths and others of his ilk. Their clamor against self-evident truths, the principles of logic and absolute certainty on any matter signifies something, but not a meaningful argument about how people actually must behave and think in the real world.

    What’s become clear to me is that these are expressions of something more fundamental to their psyche – what I call a “truth denialism”, which rests entirely on being convinced that a thing is possible. For example, regardless of the overwhelming appearance of design in biology, it is possible that chance and natural law could have generated the appearance of design. That possibility of “deception” or “error” about the appearance of a thing is enough for them to deny the overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

    Even though they employ their free will and use it as if it is autonomous, and even though their actions and arguments require the assumption that it exists; it is possible that it is simply the happenstance product of interacting molecules that determine thought and action.

    Even though every moment of their existence and word they use to argue screams otherwise – screams for libertarian free will, for objective morality, for the absolute validity of the principles of logic – they insist that the bare possibility that those things are not true or absolutely valid justifies their denialist perspective, even though such a perspective is ultimately self-defeating and self-referentially incoherent.

    Post-modernists have built entire philosophies and terminologies dedicated to the capacity to obfuscate, redefine and deny truth. KN called using classical logic to demonstrate the incoherent nature of “other forms of rationality” (such as, something being deemed rational because it simply conforms to a cultural norm) normative violence. IOW, it was oppressive (his word) to deny the validity of “other forms of rationality” because they were not rational according to logic.

    IMO, Keiths et al use “bare possibility” as a means to justify their intellectual aversion to truth, because truth inexorably leads to god. They wish to deny god, and so they must avoid truth; avoiding truth means clinging to possibilities, terminologies, interpretations and philosophies that deny truth or redefines it.

    What can logic prove to those who deny truth exists? What can logic prove to those who deny that logical principles are binding? What can logic prove to those who deny “I exist”, or “causation exists”, or “error exists” or “A=A” are necessarily true propositions?

    There’s simply no argument that can penetrate such a wall of denial based entirely on “possibility”. Nor should we be able to breach their self-imposed lunacy. Free will, among other things, is the capacity to deny anything, even to the point of insanity and evil. All we can do is recognize it and point it out; there is no “convincing” them otherwise. It’s their choice.

  8. 8
    Seversky says:

    bornagain77 @ 2

    So let me get this straight. keiths is trying to establish some level of certainty that he can’t be certain?

    So basically the better he succeeds in his argument the more he fails in his argument?

    Not quite. My argument would be that, since we are fallible beings with limited knowledge of the world around us, there is an irreducible level of uncertainty concerning that knowledge.

    I am as certain as I can be, in my own mind, that “I” exist. Yet, it is conceivable that I am some sort of Matrix-like simulation. Are you that certain that I exist? Couldn’t I be an AI bot that can pass the Turing test with ease? How do you know vjtorley exists? Couldn’t his posts be the product of a team of undergruaduate philosophy students who publish their collective works under that pen-name?

    I think it is better to think in terms of degrees of confidence. For example, I cannot be certain that the Sun will rise in the east tomorrow but I have much greater confidence that it will than that it won’t. I am reasonably confident that nothing I write will change the stout religious beliefs of anyone here. But I could be wrong.

    “I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible that you may be mistaken.”

  9. 9

    Seversky,

    Are you not absolutely certain that error exists?

  10. 10
  11. 11
    bornagain77 says:

    William J Murray at 7, very well stated.

    The mere possibility that their intuitive belief in God, and perceptions of Design, might be wrong, however remote, becomes the militant atheists absolute certainty. Empirical evidence, no matter how ‘certain’ the evidence is to the inference to Design, can, and indeed must, count for naught. Their religion, i.e. their resolute faith that their faith in God is futile, demands it.
    They simply have no alternative but to deny all rationality and reason since they have in fact denied the source of all rationality and reason in the first place and demanded that their idol of random chaos, the idol of anti-reason, be erected in the place of rationality and reason, i.e. in place of ‘Logos’, i.e. John 1:1.

    John1:1
    “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”

    of note: ‘the Word’ in John1:1 is translated from ‘Logos’ in Greek. Logos is also the root word from which we derive our modern word logic
    http://etymonline.com/?term=logic

    supplemental note:

    “It always bothers me that in spite of all this local business, what goes on in a tiny, no matter how tiny, region of space, and no matter how tiny a region of time, according to laws as we understand them today, it takes a computing machine an infinite number of logical operations to figure out. Now how can all that be going on in that tiny space? Why should it take an infinite amount of logic to figure out what one stinky tiny bit of space-time is going to do?”
    – Richard Feynman – one of the founding fathers of QED (Quantum Electrodynamics)
    Quote taken from the 6:45 minute mark of the following video:
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=obCjODeoLVw

    I don’t know about Feynman, but as for myself, being a Christian Theist, I find it rather comforting to know that it takes an ‘infinite amount of logic to figure out what one stinky tiny bit of space-time is going to do’:

  12. 12
    Seversky says:

    William J Murray @ 9

    Seversky,

    Are you not absolutely certain that error exists?

    It depends on what you mean by error but I’m pretty sure that what looks like error to me does exist.

    On the other hand I see Christians arguing that what looks like error – apparently needless tragedies that cost innocent people, including chidlren, their lives – is, in fact, God’s inscrutable plan unfolding. We just aren’t able to see it. From that perspective, perhaps error doesn’t exist.

  13. 13
    Seversky says:

    William J Murray @ 7

    What difference in day to day life would it make to keep reminding oneself that there is a technical possibility that they are in error about anything they think?

    It may make little difference in our day to day lives except to remind us of our own limitations and fallibility. On the other hand, it may be the only thing that stands between us and tyranny.

    As I’ve argued before, agnostics don’t fly planes into skyscrapers but believers do. Agnostics don’t kill millions of people in concentration camps, believers in the concept of a “master race” do. Agnostics don’t kill millions who don’t conform to the dictates of a particular political ideology but believers in that cause do.

    If you look at what the so-called atheist dictators of the twentieth century had in common with religious zealots of preceding centuries one thing was a certainty that they had uncovered some Absolute Truth, be it theology or political ideology. In their minds, that certainty warranted and even necessitated the atrocities they committed.

    What I see in the writings of the likes of kf, BA and BA77 is the same craving for certainty – some impregnable bedrock Truth – on which their lives and beliefs can be founded. Let me say that I don’t believe for one moment that anyone here would knowingly do anyone any harm in the name of their beliefs. But the siren-song of that need for certainty is what can and has lured people to follow courses of action they they and others have later come to regret. I can’t speak for others at TSZ but I, as an a/mat v2.0, believe that a constant awareness the limitations and fallibility of all of us should entail a humility which is currently unfashionable but is our best defense against the sort of horrors which human beings have unleashed on one another in the past.

  14. 14
    Mung says:

    Is nothing certain?

    Can we be certain that from nothing, nothing comes?

    Can we be certain that “nothing from nothing leaves nothing” is pure nonsense?

  15. 15
    Mung says:

    Seversky:

    What I see in the writings of the likes of kf, BA and BA77 is the same craving for certainty – some impregnable bedrock Truth – on which their lives and beliefs can be founded.

    You’re mistaken. It’s not about some craving, it’s an acknowledgment of the way the world actually is, and it’s something we all share

    Seversky:

    What I see in the writings of the likes of kf, BA and BA77 is the same craving for certainty – some impregnable bedrock Truth – on which their lives and beliefs can be founded.

    What I see in the writings of the likes of keiths and others is a profound craving to be right. Odd, that.

  16. 16
    vjtorley says:

    Hi Mung,

    You ask: “Can we be certain that from nothing, nothing comes?”

    I have addressed this question in a 2013 post, titled, Is God a good theory? A response to Sean Carroll (Part One), in which I distinguish no less than six levels of certainty. (I think only the first two levels would equate to what KeithS calls “absolute certainty.”) I discuss the question of whether something can come from nothing in the section on the Kalam cosmological argument, which I claim belongs to the sixth level of certainty. It is based on the rationality norm that it is legitimate to demand an explanation for those properties of a thing (including that fact that it originated at time t0) which are not part-and-parcel of its nature. I haven’t seen a better argument for the Principle of Sufficient Reason than that. Attempts to show that denial of the Principle is somehow self-refuting fail, in my opinion. The Principle is not that certain.

  17. 17
    EvilSnack says:

    A shorter version of WJM’s response in #7:

    If you don’t believe that your cognitive capacity is fundamentally sound, why don’t you shut up? Shutting up is the only logical response to the idea that the world of our experience is not real.

    The War on Certainty has never been a war on all certainty, only a war on other people’s certainty.

  18. 18
    StephenB says:

    For those like KeithS who say that we cannot be certain that God did not fool us, I would say this: The answer to that question does not really tell us anything about the existence or non-existence of self-evident truths.

    Here is a question that does: Is it possible that God could fool us and not fools us at the same time? I submit that it is self-evidently true that this is not possible.

  19. 19
    StephenB says:

    VJT

    I discuss the question of whether something can come from nothing in the section on the Kalam cosmological argument, which I claim belongs to the sixth level of certainty. It is based on the rationality norm that it is legitimate to demand an explanation for those properties of a thing (including that fact that it originated at time t0) which are not part-and-parcel of its nature. I haven’t seen a better argument for the Principle of Sufficient Reason than that. Attempts to show that denial of the Principle is somehow self-refuting fail, in my opinion. The Principle is not that certain.

    VJ, if you have time, I have a question: Where is there any room for doubt about the proposition that something cannot come from nothing?

  20. 20
    StephenB says:

    On something from nothing:

    VJ @16, rather than play Socrates, I will just make the point:

    If a thing comes into existence from nothing, then it is, by definition, an uncaused event. If it is an uncaused event, then it doesn’t depend on anything else for its existence. If it doesn’t depend on anything else for its existence, then it brought itself into existence. If it brought itself into existence, then it had to exist before it existed. This is absurd. So, the conclusion is obvious: It did not bring itself into existence; something or someone else had to do it. Hence, It could not have come into existence from nothing. I hold that we can be infallibly certain about this unless someone else can show a reasonable doubt.

  21. 21
    vjtorley says:

    Hi StephenB,

    The fallacy in your argument above lies in the third sentence: “If it doesn’t depend on anything else for its existence, then it brought itself into existence.” Not so. If it is an uncaused event, then nothing brought it into existence – or more precisely, there was not anything that brought it into existence. There is no logical contradiction here.

  22. 22
    bornagain77 says:

    nothing, by definition, can have no causal power

  23. 23
    StephenB says:

    VJ

    The fallacy in your argument above lies in the third sentence: “If it doesn’t depend on anything else for its existence, then it brought itself into existence.” Not so. If it is an uncaused event, then nothing brought it into existence – or more precisely, there was not anything that brought it into existence. There is no logical contradiction here.

    So, you are really allowing for the possibility of an uncaused event? If so, for how many events will you allow that possibility? All of them? Some of them? Would that possibility include the uncaused arrival of the universe itself?

  24. 24
    Barry Arrington says:

    Nothing — defined as non-being — is causally null.

    That seems to settle the matter as to whether nothing can cause something.

  25. 25
    Seversky says:

    If nothing or non-being is “causally null” then something could not have come from it, agreed. However, the alternative is there must always have been something which opens the possibility of infinity or an infinite regress that seems to be equally unpalatable.

  26. 26
    kairosfocus says:

    Seversky, that the evidence points to a necessary being (thus eternal) root of reality is objectionable? Muy interesante. KF

  27. 27
    StephenB says:

    Barry

    Nothing — defined as non-being — is causally null.

    That seems to settle the matter as to whether nothing can cause something.

    Barry, one would think so, wouldn’t one. This recent development takes me back to a [conversation?) I once had wirh RDFish. After I pointed out that either someone caused the universe to be or else it caused itself to be, RD said that wasn’t the only two options: Perhaps the universe came to be without any cause (as if that was not the same thing as the universe causing itself to be)????????

  28. 28
    vjtorley says:

    Hi StephenB and Barry,

    It is indeed true that nothing – defined as non-being – is causally null. It has no active power to cause anything to be, or to come into being. But a skeptic who supposes that the universe “came from nothing” does not believe that it was caused by “nothing,” but that it was not caused by anything. It just came into being, with no cause. It’s a crazy idea, I know, but I can’t find any logical contradiction in it.

    Put it another way. Most religious believers would concede that while it’s intellectually unreasonable to suppose that the universe – which, even taken as a whole, is still totally contingent – could exist without a cause, it’s not logically contradictory to suppose so. What I’m saying is that the same applies to the supposition that the universe could come into existence without a cause. Once you adopt a four-dimensional view of time (“block time”), as most physicists do (Lee Smollin being a rare and noble exception) then the statement, “The universe came into existence without a cause 13.8 billion years ago” translates into the bland-looking statement, “The universe is an uncaused object with a temporal extension of 13.8 billion years.” On the “block time” view, the notion of the universe coming into existence without a cause is no more contradictory than the notion of the universe existing without a cause.

    It might be objected that this leads to a reductio ad absurdum: if it were the case that the universe can pop into existence without a cause, then by the same token, we shouldn’t look for a cause if we saw an elephant, say, suddenly popping into existence. But a scientist might reply that within the universe, certain laws or regularities apply, and that the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle limits energy fluctuations within the cosmos to being very small and very brief. An elephant popping into existence and not going away would constitute a violation of the laws of physics, but an entire cosmos popping into existence wouldn’t (if its totally energy equals zero).

    To be continued…

  29. 29
    vjtorley says:

    Many people would also reject the “block time” view as absurd, but for religious believers, it’s a very tricky issue: God, after all, is said to be outside time, on the classical conception, which seems to suggest that from His standpoint, time is not real. The question then arises as to whether one can coherently suppose that the flow of time, while real from the standpoint of sentient beings such as ourselves, is not real from a cosmic standpoint.

    I’ve pondered these issues for some time, and have yet to find a logical contradiction in the atheist’s standpoint. I would however emphasize that the atheist has no philosophical warrant for believing that the laws of the universe will continue to hold from one moment to the next, and that his confidence in the ongoing reliability of the scientific enterprise is misplaced. Confidence in the scientific enterprise presupposes the notion of a cosmic Lawgiver. Hence even though atheism is not logically contradictory, one can formulate a transcendental argument for God’s existence, as I argued in my 2013 post, Does scientific knowledge presuppose God? Hope that helps.

  30. 30
    StephenB says:

    Hi VJT,

    I would argue that X’s coming into existence without a cause is really no different than that X bringing itself into existence. Its just another way of saying the same thing. I believe that one flaw in your analysis is in treating these equivalent ideas as if one was different than the other.

    It seems that we cannot escape the point than no event will occur in the absence of a proportional cause. Indeed, many philosophers have referred to this concept as the “Law of causality,” and I don’t think that term is too strong. I find little merit in the idea that we can change all that by playing with time or any other variable. Indeed, causality, as you know, can be completely detached from time.

    But even if you don’t accept any of the above, and I can’t imagine why you would not, I will go one step further and say it is not necessary to find a logical contradiction in order to reject the notion of a causeless event as absurd. It comes under the category of self-evident. Is it not absurd to suggest that my conclusions could come to be in the absence of my reasoning process? Is it not absurd to suggest that a house could come to be in the absence of a builder?

    Indeed, not only must a cause be present to an event, it must be a proportional to the effect. Is it not absurd to suggest that I could move Mount Hood? Is it not absurd to suggest that a rubber ball on a string could be used to demolish a building? Yet these impossible scenarios are not as ridiculous as a causeless event because even a woefully inadequate cause is more efficacious than no cause at all. I hold that a cause cannot give to the effect something that it does not have to give-and let’s face it–“nothing” has nothing at all to give.

  31. 31
    Barry Arrington says:

    VJ,

    Nothing is causally inert, and the principle of sufficient reason precludes causeless effects. I understand that the principle of sufficient reason is not a rule of logic but a law of thought. But does that mean we can repeal it? I suppose we can if we are willing to pay the price. And that price is rationality itself.

    So, yes, I see your point. I cannot prove that the universe did not pop into existence a nano-second ago, complete with my memories of a life I did not in fact live. I could be in the grip of a Cartesian demon. I could be in the Matrix. I could be a Boltzmann brain. None of these things is, strictly speaking, logically impossible.

    But the price of ascribing to any of these things is the same. I would have no right to insist that the universe is coherent and can be investigated as if it were. These “explanations” can “explain” literally any non-logically contradictory state of affairs, and the opposite of that state of affairs just as easily. Therefore, they explain nothing.

    So the choice presented is to conduct our inquiries on the basis of the law of sufficient reason always applying or on the assumption that it never applies. Once the “uncaused effect” jinn is out of the bottle, it is arbitrary to try to put him back in.

    If the principle applies, we can’t get a universe from nothing; nor can the universe be caused by not anything.

    If the principle never applies it is impossible to explain anything, because the essence of an explanation is to connect causes and their effects. And therefore, science, among other things, goes down the drain.

    Of course, the atheist always tries to have his ontological cake and eat it too. I anticipate they will say “well, we can have the principle of sufficient reason as a working assumption without insisting on it absolutely, because it “works” as a working assumption.”

    UPDATE: SB and I essentially agree. He says the law of sufficient reason is self-evident. That is another way of saying the universe would be absurd and rationality would be impossible if it did not hold.

  32. 32
    vjtorley says:

    Hi Barry and StephenB,

    You both make a valid point, when you argue that either it is philosophically legitimate to ask for a sufficient (or proportional) causal explanation for each and every contingent being (including the universe-as-a-whole, which can be treated as a single object from a cosmologist’s standpoint) or it is illegitimate to ask for a causal explanation of any contingent being (which means that we can never explain anything, and the scientific enterprise is a vain quest). Phrased that way, I would certainly agree that the Principle of Sufficient Reason is indubitable on a pragmatic level, even if its denial does not lead to a logical contradiction.

  33. 33
    Barry Arrington says:

    I note that in his Kalam argument WLC sets up his first premise in much the same way — not as a logical necessity but as a properly basic metaphysical intuition and a “first principle” of scientific inquiry.

  34. 34
    kairosfocus says:

    BA, SB and VJT:

    I think PSR in a weak form expresses the point that on pain of reducing reality to inexplicability and confusion we confidently ask of ant thing A that is (or may be or may be impossible), why?

    Then, we proceed to investigate and come to rational frames on possible/impossible being, contingency and necessity.

    In this context, it seems self evident or at least overwhelmingly evident that reality is intelligible in material degree, on pain of the absurdity of a degree of confusion which is not compatible with our experience of a reliably orderly world.

    Order points to ordering principle.

    Thus, to rationality built in.

    Which is where the issues seem to lurk.

    And for sure, seeing self-evident things as true, necessarily so on pain of absurdity does not only mean logical contradiction.

    Frustration of rationality also seems absurd.

    KF

  35. 35

    Seversky said:

    It depends on what you mean by error but I’m pretty sure that what looks like error to me does exist.

    Unbelievable.

    It may make little difference in our day to day lives except to remind us of our own limitations and fallibility. On the other hand, it may be the only thing that stands between us and tyranny.

    Or it may be the very thing that enables tyranny. You seem to only be able to see one side of this coin. Surely you realize it may take certainty to stand up against evil and put at risk not only your own life, but the lives of family and friends.

    As I’ve argued before, agnostics don’t fly planes into skyscrapers but believers do. Agnostics don’t kill millions of people in concentration camps, believers in the concept of a “master race” do. Agnostics don’t kill millions who don’t conform to the dictates of a particular political ideology but believers in that cause do.

    And who is it that will put their own lives on the line to stop those believers? Agnostics? Would agnostics hide Jews in their attic and put at risk family and friends? Would agnostics stand up against Hitler in germany or against radical jihadists in Afganistan? If they consider morality defined by society, why would they? If they considered morality a strongly-felt personal, subjective feeling without any necessary consequences, why would they?

    It’s easy to be a religious and political agnostic sitting in the ivory tower of freedom protected by devout believers while snobbishly condemning the very certainty that drives them to protect your views, isn’t it?

    If you look at what the so-called atheist dictators of the twentieth century had in common with religious zealots of preceding centuries one thing was a certainty that they had uncovered some Absolute Truth, be it theology or political ideology [or evolutionary “survival of the fittest” and the subjectivity of morality – wjm]. In their minds, that certainty warranted and even necessitated the atrocities they committed.

    And it was certainty in contradicting truths on the side of those who opposed them that stopped and currently prevent such views from destroying the fortress of freedoms you currently enjoy.

    What I see in the writings of the likes of kf, BA and BA77 is the same craving for certainty – some impregnable bedrock Truth – on which their lives and beliefs can be founded. Let me say that I don’t believe for one moment that anyone here would knowingly do anyone any harm in the name of their beliefs. But the siren-song of that need for certainty is what can and has lured people to follow courses of action they they and others have later come to regret. I can’t speak for others at TSZ but I, as an a/mat v2.0, believe that a constant awareness the limitations and fallibility of all of us should entail a humility which is currently unfashionable but is our best defense against the sort of horrors which human beings have unleashed on one another in the past.

    It seems to me you are insisting on organizing your information in a very one-sided and convenient manner. Has “absolute certainty” inflicted great harm in the world? Yes. But what drove the world from ignorant barbarism and might-makes-right savagery – in a stumbling, error-prone manner, to be sure – towards erecting and empowering the concepts of individual rights and freedoms, and fighting to the death to establish and protect those freedoms?

    Agnosticism?

    ROFL!!!

    Here’s something to ponder, Serversky. It’s one thing to wallow in your own personal, self-absorbed, intellectual, elitist agnosticism while others who are motivated by religious and political certainty protect your capacity and freedom to write and promote such things; it’s another thing entirely to write and promote and argue for things that serve to undermine the spiritual and political resolve of those that stand between you and a complete loss of life and liberty.

    So do the rest of us in the tower a favor: until the world is entirely populated by the French and Canadians, shut up and enjoy the privilege of the ivory tower forged and defended by those you condemn.

  36. 36
    kairosfocus says:

    WJM (attn Seversky et al),

    notice the attempt to convert an argument on logic and facts to an emotional feeling that can be dismissed as a “craving”?

    That resort to dismissive motive mongering rhetoric inadvertently tells us Seversky has no answer so a bit of projection will do to dismiss.

    In reply, a lesson: no emotion is better or worse than the underlying perceptions, evaluations and judgements that trigger the felt response. So, to the merits, the merits, the merits of fact and logic we must go.

    (And a sense of duty to seek and respect evident truth is hardly a craving for certainty that is by insinuation always, inevitably ill-founded. And, where did such cynical certainty come from? Is it well founded to be certain that there is no certainty to be had?

    (Or, is that not yet another self-referential absurdity that guarantees just what it would dismiss: (1) certain truth exists on pain of absurdity on attempted denial, (2) the certainty that there is no certainty is certainly false by way of self-refutation?)

    Okay, to the first steps.

    Error exists, E. Try to deny it, ~E — it is an error to hold error exists, whoops.

    Undeniably and self evidently true.

    Truth, knowable truth to self evident certainty exists and serves as a yardstick or plumbline for worldviews which in general will be much broader than such SETs.

    For instance, once SETs exist, truth and knowledge that are objective, connected to realities of the world, exist. Worldviews that cannot handle truth, knowledge and knowledge of reality beyond our inner consciousness are all swept away en bloc. Their name is legion.

    But at the same time, yardstick SET no 1 is a warning, a warning on the possibility of error, so one who prizes truth and knowledge will prize the plumbline truths that will allow policing thought-life towards growth in truth and knowledge.

    And as truths include moral truths, we have a basis for moral government also: evil like Hitler’s holocaust or the like is abhorrent. But evil is the frustration, perversion, undue truncation or privation of the good, and we must then reflect on the root of goodness.

    Where that points via the IS-OUGHT challenge is profound and enlightening, at world root level.

    Exactly where so many are desperate not to go.

    KF

  37. 37
    kairosfocus says:

    F/N: It looks like we can term this one the error of dismissive, hyperskeptical certitude.

  38. 38
  39. 39
    Phinehas says:

    vjtorely:

    For while one might dispute whether the notion of thought presupposes the notion of a thinker, there can be no gainsaying the fact that the notion of a mistake, or error, logically presupposes the notion of a person who is making it.

    For me, if I’ve gone this far down the rabbit hole, I have no difficulty supposing that I could also be deceived into thinking something is logical that is not. For instance, I could be deceived into thinking that it is illogical and nonsensical to suppose that non-existent things can make mistakes, while in reality it may be perfectly logical and routine for non-existent things to make all sorts of choices and perform all manner of actions. Now, I imagine all sorts of logical alarm bells are ringing in your head, but that’s just because you’ve been deceived so spectacularly!

    But this is exactly why I don’t start my philosophy with fallible man. Rather, I start with a good, all-knowing, all-powerful God with the ability to Reveal Truth in a way that transcends and supervenes man’s fallibility. The result is much less ridiculous.

  40. 40
    Phinehas says:

    Sev:

    As I’ve argued before, agnostics don’t fly planes into skyscrapers but believers do. Agnostics don’t kill millions of people in concentration camps, believers in the concept of a “master race” do. Agnostics don’t kill millions who don’t conform to the dictates of a particular political ideology but believers in that cause do.

    Apathetic people don’t do any of those things either. Nor do they post to message boards as though they cared. Yay for apathy?

  41. 41
    Phinehas says:

    WJM:

    It’s easy to be a religious and political agnostic sitting in the ivory tower of freedom protected by devout believers while snobbishly condemning the very certainty that drives them to protect your views, isn’t it?

    Ouch. That’s the kind of truth that is razor sharp. Well said.

  42. 42
    Seversky says:

    William J Murray @ 35

    It may make little difference in our day to day lives except to remind us of our own limitations and fallibility. On the other hand, it may be the only thing that stands between us and tyranny.

    Or it may be the very thing that enables tyranny. You seem to only be able to see one side of this coin. Surely you realize it may take certainty to stand up against evil and put at risk not only your own life, but the lives of family and friends.

    Tyrannies are enabled when enough people buy into the certainties that they peddle, whether it be restoring national pride by reviving some mystical concept of Teutonic nationalism or “the dictatorship of the proletariat” or belief in the one true god, whichever god it happens to be at the time.

    I think it’s fair to say that resisting tyranny is strengthened by a firm conviction of the justice of one’s cause. But that’s different from the sort of certainty we’ve been discussing. Native peoples in both Africa and the Americas tried to resist the incursion of European colonists. Some came to believe – to be certain – that their religious beliefs made them immune to the White Man’s bullets. Except they didn’t. That certainty was ill-founded. How many others are as well?

    And who is it that will put their own lives on the line to stop those believers? Agnostics? Would agnostics hide Jews in their attic and put at risk family and friends? Would agnostics stand up against Hitler in germany or against radical jihadists in Afganistan? If they consider morality defined by society, why would they? If they considered morality a strongly-felt personal, subjective feeling without any necessary consequences, why would they?

    This is pathetic. Just a variant on the old “no atheists in foxholes” meme. What makes you think there were no atheists or agnostics involved in the resistance to the Nazis? Need I remind you that Pat Tillman, who gave up his career as a professional football player to join the Army and go fight jihadists in Afghanistan, was an atheist?

    It’s easy to be a religious and political agnostic sitting in the ivory tower of freedom protected by devout believers while snobbishly condemning the very certainty that drives them to protect your views, isn’t it?

    Here’s something to ponder, Serversky. It’s one thing to wallow in your own personal, self-absorbed, intellectual, elitist agnosticism while others who are motivated by religious and political certainty protect your capacity and freedom to write and promote such things; it’s another thing entirely to write and promote and argue for things that serve to undermine the spiritual and political resolve of those that stand between you and a complete loss of life and liberty.

    So do the rest of us in the tower a favor: until the world is entirely populated by the French and Canadians, shut up and enjoy the privilege of the ivory tower forged and defended by those you condemn

    You’re joking. One of the last things the Religious Right in this country would go out of their way to defend is the rights and views of atheists and agnostics. Some of them don’t even think atheists should be entitled to citizenship – not so long ago they’d have preferred to string them up – so spare us the impression of Jack Nicholson in “A Few Good Men” You are not the only people prepared to stand on the battlements and defend democracy. If anything, it’s the agnostics and atheists who are prepared to man the wall of separation between church and state – a wall that you and your kind would dearly love to tear down – that are protecting your right to hold your religious beliefs and thereby preventing the loss of life and liberty that would follow if one particular faith were ever to gain control of the state.

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