An Essay Featured In The Conflict of Mind by O.G. Rose
Its Definition and Rarity Compared to Confidence
What do we say when we say, “I’m certain that x?” As noted in “On Beauty” by O.G. Rose, if Wittgenstein is correct that “the limits of my world are the limits of my language,” then expressions of my language should be expressions of my world. Thus, if I can isolate a term into distinction, then I should identity a real phenomenon in the world — words that don’t refer to real things are nonsense or blur with other words indefinably.
If by “I’m certain that x” I mean merely “I know that x is true,” then there is no meaningful difference between the statements “x is true” and “I’m certain that x”: the words “certainty” and “truthfulness” are similes. If “certainty” is to have distinct meaning, it must mean something else.
I can be certain about something that is true, but it doesn’t follow that I am necessarily certain about only true things: if “certain” and “true” aren’t similes, it is possible for me to be certain about something that is false. Furthermore, it doesn’t follow that everything that is true is something I will be certain about, nor that what is false is that which I can’t be certain about. The true isn’t necessarily the certain, but it’s easy to conflate these categories as if they are, contributing to error. Perhaps we can help mitigate error by habituating ourselves to a new term altogether, one like “confidence.”
If the statements “I am certain that x” and “x is a fact” mean the same thing, there is no meaningful difference between “facts” and “certainties,” and yet distinctions seem necessary between the categories of “truths,” “facts” and “certainties.” If I feel sad, it is true that I am sad, and in a sense a fact, but the fact of my sadness seems different in kind from the fact “2 + 2 = 4.” Sadness is subjective — only I can know for a fact that I am sad — other people can see my tears and frowns and postulate that I am sad, but they can’t know for sure (it could all be an act). To me, “I’m sad” and “2 + 2 = 4” are equally true and factual, but to others “2 + 2 = 4” is a fact while my sadness is not. It might be true that I’m sad, and it is true that I look sad, but it’s not a fact to others (there’s more uncertainty).
What is a fact is also true, but is what’s true also a fact? “Facts/Worldviews” by O.G. Rose explores this question in different ways, arguing that facts “are always “facts” within a network of assumptions about what constitutes the truth,” but the point that needs to be stressed here is that “facts” and “truths” aren’t the same to us. Before gravity was discovered, gravity wasn’t a fact, though what we know is a fact about gravity now was always true. Though what we will discover in a hundred years is a fact about black holes is currently true, it’s not currently a fact (even though it will be).
The moment we discuss a fact, we discuss something that is true, and so it is natural to forget that “the fact of x” isn’t the same as the “the truth of x” (once the rivers merge, it is difficult to remember they are distinct). Before gravity was discovered, “the fact of why apples fell” was different from “the truth of why apples fell,” and yet if anyone in 1670 postulated this possibility, people may have laughed “Why can’t you just accept the facts?” And one day these two premises may prove different again: if what we know about gravity isn’t currently all there is to know, though “the fact of gravity” today is more “truth-like” than “the fact of gravity” in 1670, it is not “as true” as “the fact of gravity” in 2100. And there is always the possibility of a divide: to know that “the fact of x” is completely “the truth of x,” we would have to be omniscient and God-like. Thanks to Karl Popper and falsification though, we can reach a point where “we have no reason to believe that “the fact of x” isn’t practically identical with “the truth of x,” ” but even then, there is still reason to be intellectually humble.
Truths are what we aim to “factualize,” per se: truths are the territory; facts, the map.¹ There is always a possible divide between “facts” and “truths”; even if our “facts about x” completely entail “truths about x,” we cannot know for sure this is the case, and thus the possibility of the divide is ever-present.² Hence, we should always be epistemically humble about our facts, recognizing that though they are true, they may still be incomplete (and if our facts aren’t, we can’t know it). A fact is a(n) (in)complete truth, stuck in a kind of unstable state (causing existential tension), because even when a fact is “completely true” we cannot know such is the case, as we can’t know for sure a fact is “incompletely true”: we must settle with a “both-ness,” something unsatisfactory.
Yet, that all said, a fact is what we have realized is true with certainty, but if we can never say for sure that a truth is the complete truth, in what sense is it meaningful to “be certain?” Perhaps the phrase “I am certain x” is nonsense or unhelpful? Perhaps that is where our journey will ultimately take us.
If when I say, “I am certain about x” I mean merely “I am justified to believe x,” there would be no meaningful difference between “certainty” and “justification.” Indeed, certainty can be justified, and what is justified is that which I have to reason to be certain of, but while justification seems to be in regard to the how a premise is factualized, certainty seems to be in regard to how we relate to what is factualized. What has been justified is that which we perhaps should relate to with certainty, but it isn’t the case that “justification” and “certainty” are similes, though again, it is easy to make this mistake since what is justified is that which I am rational to be “toward” with certainty.
A fact is that which we have reason to be certain of while at the same time being that which we can’t be certain constitutes the complete truth. Certainty hence plays a significant role in defining “fact” from “truth,” and yet what is certainty? How can I be justified to be certain of my certainty (to think that “the fact of x” is part of “the truth of x,” for example)? This leads us into epistemological methods, the structures of arguments, reasoning, and so on: how I determine “x is a fact” plays a large role in determining how justified I am to believe “x is a truth of the truth.” On this point, Karl Popper’s falsification seems to be the best tool we have (see Kindly Inquisitors by Jonathan Rauch for more), and if a premise passes tests of falsification, we seem justified to assume that the premise “x is a fact” is likely part of “the truth of x.” Hence, the way I determine a fact seems to play a significant role in determining how justified I am to be certain about that fact and vulnerable “toward’ it (as will be discussed).
Justification is methodical and epistemological, while certainty is more relational and phenomenological. If I am to be rational, what I should be certain “toward” seems tied up with what is justified, and thus for the rational being, certainty should follow justification, but it doesn’t seem to be the case that justification should follow certainty. In fact, an irrational person seems to be precisely someone who feels justified in what they are certain about, while a rational person is certain about what is justified. Now, “right” and “rational” aren’t similes, so it is possible for rational people to be wrong about what they feel certain and vice-versa, but that said, what constitutes “being rational” seems tied up with one’s certainty following justification versus the other way around.
A fact is a justified premise: it is what I have reason to believe is (partially) true (because my arguments contain no internal contradictions, have withstood continual testing, etc.). If a premise is justified and/or a fact, I have reason to be certain “toward” it, and hence my certainty is rational. Since it is possible for me to be certain “toward” that which is unjustified, “irrational certainty” is possible, as is “rational certainty.” Considering this, “being rational” and “being certain” are not similes: if they are meaningful, they are distinct.
Justification seems objective, while certainty seems more subjectivity — more of a way a subject is toward objects. When we engage in justification, we seem to be submitting our subjectivity to the authority of a method (because we don’t trust our subjectivity, aware of confirmation bias, etc.); when we engage in certainty, we seem to be deciding how our subjectivity should be “toward” something. While justification is impersonal, certainty seems more personal.
If when I said, “I am certain that x is true” I merely meant “I feel that x is true,” “certain” and “feel” would be similes and lack distinct meaning. That said, certainty does seem to be emotional, or at least an intellectual position that gives rise to an emotional stability: it describes a way we “relate” to a thing — a relationship. In dealing with emotions, certainty also seems to deal with motivation: it has an impact on how I (feel I should) interact and engage with a thing.
Would facts exist without certainty? Perhaps, but it’s hard to imagine that we would have any motivation to define or realize them (not feeling anything to help us recognize that they are indeed facts). The line between “facts” and “unchanging things experienced” would be difficult to draw (meaningfully), but if it is indeed the case that we can never say a given truth is all there is of the truth, perhaps we shouldn’t be able to draw this line? Perhaps this line contributes to error more than help us overcome it?
The less “complex” the truth, the easier it is to be certain about it; the more complex, the more difficult certainty is to achieve. “2 + 2 = 4” is much easier to feel certain about than “the State shouldn’t regulate the financial system,” and yet both premises could be equally true. Everything that is true is in fact true, but what we can in fact be certain about radically varies (because of how we relate and comprehend different truths). The nature of how we relate to a truth changes how we feel toward it and hence what we are motivated to do regarding it. But in what ways?
To say “I am certain that x” is to say “I have judged my relation to x and determined it reliable”: certainty is a self-judgment. It can seem like it is external to us — something in the world as hard and concrete as a rock — but rather certainty is found in the space between people and phenomena. Facts are in the world (as themselves not as “facts”) but not certainty. However, it can seem like certainty is external because when we experience a fact, certainty can feel “part of it’; in fact, precisely what makes a fact “feel like” a fact is our sense of certainty about it. To discuss facts and not certainty seems to be to discuss nonsense, and yet though where there are (less complex) facts there is often certainty, the two are not the same: though the rivers merge, as has been discussed, “facticity’ and “certainty’ are distinct.
To be certain about x is to self-judge that I should relate to x in a manner that “relies” on “x being true” — that I should be “vulnerable” toward it (as will be discussed). Certainty implies a judgment that further investigation is unnecessary, no more than a doorknob that works needs to be studied (to allude to Heidegger): certainty makes things “invisible.” In other words, what I am certain about is that which I am motivated to stop “pressing into.” Certainty is what I feel I can stop thinking about, “toward” which the philosophical life can die — rationally and problematically — which is dangerous, and yet something like certainty is necessary.
In On Certainty, Wittgenstein notes that ‘it belongs to the logic of our scientific investigations that certain things are in deed not doubted.’³ ‘We just can’t investigate everything, and for that reason we are forced to rest content with assumption. If I want the door to turn, the hinges must stay put.’⁴ We simply assume and live as if the ground beneath us won’t melt away, like numbers do exist, like my spouse does love me, etc. — the moment I act, I must assume: assumption is necessarily embedded into practice; to live is to certainly act. Considering this, it seems possible to say that acting is certainty, and if being is action, being is certainty — but this is a possibility to which we will have to return.
If to feel certain is to be motivated to be “thoughtless” “toward” x — and to some degree we must be “thoughtless,” as argued by Wittgenstein — then certainty is a necessary risk. We require it, and yet it necessarily makes us uncritical thinkers, which is both the source of its use and danger. If in some way being itself is certainty, it would seem that the nature of being is to orientate us “toward” it as “thoughtless” — uncritical and unphilosophical — as we learn in the act of acting itself. Something like this seems to be the case, given that philosophical thought and orientation is so rare, and perhaps contributing to the majority being uncritical is the problematic concept of “certainty” itself.
If when I say, “I am certain that x” I mean “I am secure about x,” then the words “secure” and “certain” lack distinct meaning. And they indeed seem similar: what I am certain about is that which I feel secure in not thinking about and that I am motivated to assume. A fact, for example, is that which I can feel safe to rely on as a “truth of the truth,” and yet if I am “too secure,” I could be lulled into making the mistake of considering a “partial truth’ as a “whole truth,” of confusing “a truth” with “the truth.”
Certainty implies a security, and yet paradoxically also a vulnerability, in the same way as does love. To love someone entails feeling safe around them, and because we feel safe, we are willing to be vulnerable. If we are unwilling to be vulnerable, though we might actually be safe, we act as if we are not, and so in practice imply loved ones are more so threats than cherished. Love entails a vulnerability we accept because we feel that if we let our guard down, we won’t be hurt, stabbed, or deceived (on purpose, at least); in fact, for letting our guard down, we become able to engage in a way of life that we believe is far better than the life we would have lived with our defenses always up. The vulnerability of love is a risk that seems worth taking, and if humans require love, it is a necessary risk.
In love it is in vulnerability that I feel secure, and so it goes with certainty. When I relay on a fact like “2 + 2 = 4,” I leave myself vulnerable to the possibility that this is false and that the premise will let me down, and yet the reason I am willing to make myself so vulnerable is precisely because I trust that I won’t be disappointed. Certainty is a “secure vulnerability,” like love, and entails faith that it will be worth it. And if Wittgenstein is right that certainty, to some degree, is necessary, then it is also necessary and inevitable that some parts of my life entail (intellectual) “secure vulnerability.”
Certainty is a personal conviction that entails risk, and yet the word implies there is no risk (or so I would argue the average person takes it), and this is a reason why we are confused about certainty. Similar things could be said about love: we come to think of loved ones as those that wouldn’t hurt us, and yet because love necessarily entails vulnerability, hurt is an inescapable possibility (intentional or not). When pain comes in love, there can be overreactions; likewise, when what we’re certain about turns out to be false, we can overreact and become epistemic nihilists. Understanding that love entails vulnerability can help us cope with its disappointments and short-comings without abandoning it, and the same could be said about certainty. Certainty is fallible, yet necessary, as love seems necessary too. It will disappoint us, but we can grow from it.
If when I said, “I am certain x” I meant “I am right about x,” there would be no meaningful difference between “certainty” and “correctness.” Certainly, I can be both certain and correct about something, but though the two rivers often merge, they are still distinct. For years some people were certain that the earth was the center of the solar system, and though even some scholars told them they were correct, they turned out to be wrong about what they were certain. In fact, certainty, a sureness of seeing clearly, may have contributed to their blindness, as certainty may be contributing to blindness of people today regarding some ostensible “truth.” And yet something like certainty is necessary for functionality.
Certainty is the necessary precondition of vulnerability that makes both facts and truths (of truth) possible: if I was unwilling to “rely on” anything, then there would be no meaningful difference to me between “things I experience” and “facts”; I couldn’t jump from saying “this is something I have experienced” to saying “this is something constant regardless the experiencer” (rightly or wrongly). Again, to say “I’m certain that x is true” is to say, “I have reason to rely on x” (not so much that “x is true” or that “y is wrong”). Certainty is a self-judgment that could ultimately prove incorrect, which hints at why we may need to consider a new term altogether (as will be discussed).
To say “I am certain that x” is to suggest a vulnerable way I am “toward” that which I have reason to think I am justified to believe, regardless the rightness or wrongness of x. Considering this, it is helpful to separate in one’s mind “certainty” from “correctness” altogether. Certainty is walking; facts, the road; truth, the destination. If I go the wrong way, does it make sense to blame my capacity to walk? Certainly, I couldn’t have ended up in the wrong location if I couldn’t walk, but it also wouldn’t have been possible for me to head in the right direction: to blame walking would be for me to blame what makes possible travel in the first place. Without walking, I couldn’t end up in the wrong place, no, but discussing “ending up” at all would be to discuss nonsense — a waste of words that could only cause confusion. “Walking” seems to be exceptionally low on the list of what’s responsible for my error: a much more direct candidate would be my own ignorance about directions, my failure to bring a map, and so on. Knowing I need to walk can help inspire me to exercise and keep my strength up, but if I fail to do this, my capacity to walk isn’t to blame but laziness.
As walking makes possible going any which way at all, so certainty makes it possible for me to relate to the world as “solid,” as something I can “rely on” (necessary for me to live): correctness and accuracy aside, certainty is a kind of “giving solidness” to life to make living possible. And as it wouldn’t make sense to blame my capacity to walk for my ending up in the wrong location, it doesn’t make sense to blame certainty for my being wrong, no more than it would make sense to blame my capacity to experience itself for my experiencing sadness (I can only want to avoid sadness because I can experience, meaning I must assume what I want to deconstruct). And yet certainty still feels like it’s part of the problem — why? I think this brings us to discussing how there seems to be two kinds of certainty at play, one “certainty” of which seems to be “macro” and the other “micro.”
I am certain that I am experiencing this keyboard on which I am typing, and I am certain that I am arguing something useful (though I could be wrong), though I am not so certain that this paper is easy to understand. Are all these kinds of certainty the same? Perhaps, and indeed, they all have something to do with “relying on,” but the certainty that I am experiencing seems much more “given” then the other two, so much so that it feels more appropriate to use the word “certainty” when referring to “certainty that I am experiencing” than “certainty that my keyboard will work” and/or “certainty that my paper makes sense.” Alluding to the thought of Descartes, though I can’t be sure that my keyboard isn’t in fact about to break, though I can’t be certain that everything I’m experiencing isn’t in fact a dream, etc., I can be certain that I am in fact thinking and experiencing (and even if a machine is making me experience things that aren’t there — false experiences, per se — I am still experiencing them). Unlike Descartes, I’m not sure from the conclusion that “I must be thinking” that we can conclude “I am” (perhaps it’s more believable to say “I think/am”), but I do think we can be certain that we are in fact thinking and experiencing (though perhaps nothing else).
Considering this, it would seem that the word “certainty” best fits in statements like “I am certain that I am experiencing,” “I am certain that I am thinking,” “I am certain that I am feeling,” and so on — very “macro” and “contextual” statements. Certainty isn’t so much a thing in the world or something that applies to things in the world as it is something that applies to “the whole world” itself: it is more so an atmosphere than it is a thing; it is a context or background more so than it is a text or thing in the foreground. Certainty is a horizon, not a thing on the horizon. To be most meaningful and less confusing, the word “certainty” shouldn’t be applied to things but to ways things are taken in (feelings, experiences, thoughts, etc.).
It doesn’t make sense to judge my level of certainty, because I participate in certainty when I judge; it doesn’t make sense to be certain of what I am doing, because to act is to be certain. “Certainty” adds an unnecessary level of consideration, like thinking “I am experiencing the sight of a cup” versus “I see a cup.” What use is the addition “am experiencing the sight of?” Perhaps no problems arise, but where there is more complexity, there is more likelihood for error, and the more time that passes, the more likely that error will occur.
We have discussed certainty as “a thing in epistemology” for too long; in many ways, certainty is epistemology itself — the ground of its possibility — certainty is thinking, for embedded in thinking itself is certainty: to discuss certainty and thinking as if distinct is to discuss nonsense. Likewise, certainty is experiencing, feeling, and the like, and like certainty, thinking, feeling, and experiencing entail vulnerability and knowledge (of and “toward” what is considered, felt, and experienced). To walk is to take a risk — of getting lost, of something happening — and yet walking makes possible the gaining of the value of experiencing something new, of seeing new places, and so on — and so it goes with certainty. We cannot experience without extending certainty (“certainty” and “experiencing” almost seem to be similes). Certainty is a structuring more than a conviction, and since we must extend certainty toward everything to experience it, everything can potentially make us feel more certain than we should feel.
You can’t think of x without being (unconsciously) certain that you are thinking about x: to think of x is to be certain of x (to some degree), to at least be certain that you are experiencing x (even if wrong). The problems seem to start when we ask “Can we be certain about this thing in our certainty?” — of thinking the existence of “macro-certainty” is evidence of the possibility of “micro-certainty” and/or blurring them together (like confusing “being(s)” with “Being” according to Heidegger). It is more valid to say “I am certain that I am experiencing a cat-like thing” than it is to say “I am certain that thing is a cat”; we can be “completely certain” that we are experiencing a cat, only “(in)completely certain” that “that thing is a cat.” I can be certain that I am seeing a table-like thing, but not that the thing is in fact a table, not an illusion, etc. — our problems seem to have come from thinking we can be certain about things in experience, versus only about experience itself. We have failed to settle with being certain about the horizon and attempted to be certain about what falls along it.
To ask, “Can I be experiencing my experiencing?” is nonsense, as is asking “Can I be certain of my certainty?” It is like asking “Can I make a thing its background?” Even if I could, I couldn’t do so without changing the thing into something different, perhaps something only partially what it was originally (and thus not itself).⁵ To say “I am certain that I can “factualize’” truth into truths/facts,” “I am certain that I am thinking” — these are phrases where the word “certainty” meaningfully applies, but what are the situations in which these kinds of phrases are meaningful and useful? Very rare ones: classrooms, abstract discussions, and the like. Considering this, why do we talk about certainty or use words like “certainty” as often as we do? Understanding that only “partial certainty” is possible — which arguably isn’t certainty at all — perhaps it is time we cease using the word “certainty” as much as we do and instead habituate ourselves to a new word, one that better suggests our actual situation and being in the world.
I would now like to present the main argument of this paper: we should stop using the term “certainty” so much in favor of “confidence.” Something like “certainty” is needed, for we need to make judgments on to the degree we know things in the world, and yet considering what has been argued, I think it would be best to reserve “certainty” to refer to “backgrounds” and “contexts” like thinking and experiencing themselves, because in regard to “things in the world,” “certainty” implies the possibility of verification and far too little possibility of error (or at least now it does because of how we are habituated to using the word). Throughout this work, when words like “certainty” have been used, often the word “confidence” would have been better suited, but before making that transition, the argument of this paper had to be laid out. Forgive me, but I had to “go through certainty” to come out of it, as Heidegger engaged in metaphysics to escape it.
We need a word to refer to a sense that “something is solid” to us, but considering that ultimately we can be certain of nothing but the fact that we are experiencing itself, we need a word that implies less certainty than does “certainty.” Perhaps I am incorrect, but “confidence” strikes me as fitting the bill, especially if one’s “confidence” is grounded and justified by epistemological methods like falsification (as opposed to “verification” — an impossibility, as argued by Karl Popper, that I believe the word “certainty” implies isn’t outside human possibility). Furthermore, “confidence” implies probabilistic thinking, which is ultimately the best we can do to organize our world. I can never be 100% sure “it will rain today” (as the phrase “I’m certain it will rain today” implies), but I can make an estimate that there is a 60% chance, for example, and thus it’s 60% rational to bring an umbrella with me and 40% irrational.
When it comes to things in the world, we can be certain of nothing but confident about much. Yes, I can be certain that I am experiencing, but the usefulness of this certainty is very little indeed. For years, the fact we could be certain of nothing has led people to believe that there was no way for us to intellectually navigate ourselves through life, contributing to epistemological nihilism. With the work of Karl Popper in mind however, focused on confidence as opposed to certainty, though we can never be completely sure we are walking through life on the right road, we can reach a point where we have reason to think we aren’t. Though we may always be wrong, we can still be confident.
To believe is to risk: it is impossible to ascribe to a worldview and not put ourselves at risk of being wrong. “Confidence” implies this more so than does “certainty” (a word which can remind us to be intellectually humble); furthermore, to think of beliefs as things we can be “certain about” versus “confident in” can be problematic. For example, where there is certainty, it is easier to develop a control spirit, to develop intellectual arrogance, and to fall into emotionalism. “Certainty” implies the impossibility of being wrong (or strong improbability of it), inviting pride, extremism, partisanship, and the like, while “confidence” implies (subjective) conviction and intellectual examination but not (objective) infallibility. To think of one’s beliefs as matters of “confidence” versus “certainty,” I believe, will help habituate people to a healthy level of uncertainty that will also make them more comfortable with not knowing, making them less afraid of unknowns and existential anxieties. “Confidence” also entails more “checks and balances” against pride, extremism, etc., precisely because it refuses to grant people a sense of objectivism that justifies extremism, emotionalism, and the like.
For a long time, humans have acted like the only two epistemic options are “knowing nothing” and “being certain,” but there is a third way: “I am confident that x.” “Confidence” is humbler but not too “empty,” per se: saying “I know nothing” is humble too, but not true, for I know I am experiencing, and no one lives as if they know nothing (to allude to Wittgenstein). “Certainty” is also false except in very limited circumstances: saying “I am completely sure that x” can never be accurate, for there is always the possibility that someone is wrong (even say about math, though there may be no reason to think that one is wrong). The word “confidence” implies what is closer to reality: we have reason to believe much but can never escape the possibility of being wrong.
Where there is a sense of “confidence” but not “certainty,” there is epistemic humility and hesitancy before assertions of correctness. Judge Learned Hand once said that ‘[t]he spirit of liberty is the spirit which is not too sure that it is right,’ and if this is the case, where there is “confidence,” there will be more freedom than where there is “certainty.”⁶ Where there is certainty, there could be less of a sense that one is free to intellectually explore, to try new things, and the like, without ruffling someone’s ideological feathers. “Certainty” is too closed, but “confidence” isn’t too open.
“Confidence” implies a flight through air while “certainty” stands on solid ground (though there is no ground). To practically live best, we should act as if things are true but think about them in a way that keeps us epistemically humble, and I think the word “confidence” is more likely to help us strike that balance than “certainty.” No, I don’t think switching from “certainty” to “confidence” solves epistemological problems like those discussed in “The Conflict of Mind” by O.G. Rose, but I do think the switch can help us be more aware those problems exist. And the more people who are aware, the more likely it is someone finds answers — assuming answers exist.
Certainty is when we can stand back from a puzzle in which all the pieces fit together and see the image perfectly; confidence is when we can step back from a puzzle in which pieces are missing, but we can still make out the image. “Certainty” is a word that doesn’t refer (meaningfully) to a thing in the world, but to processes by which things in the world are taken in (or “put out”), and yet it is constantly used as if it refers to things, causing confusion. To help us grasp the world, we should only refer to things in the world with confidence versus certainty. The phrase “I am certain that x” should be deconstructed and rarely used — no more than a phrase like “I experience x” or “I am conscious of x” — because the (“philosophical classroom”-esq) contexts in which the phrase could be meaningful are so rare, and because the phrase implies a grasp on “complete truth” that is impossible, contributing to error, temptations to control, emotionalism, and so on.
Understanding that certainty is mostly impossible — but that confidence is more than possible — may seem to be a meaningless and picky distinction that lacks practical consequences, but I would argue that this is not a case. Some advantages:
1. Less prone to overconfidence.
2. Less likely to be ideological.
3. More likely to be open to new ideas and corrections.
4. Less likely to be moralize certainty and believe it’s a sign of weakness for a person to change their mind.
5. More likely to avoid cognitive biases.
6. Less likely to believe in something false — certainty, for example — and when certainty is ultimately shown to be false, we will be more prepared for that revelation without a poor reaction.
7. More willing to listen to people we disagree with, because we understand that they can’t be certain about what they think either, so everyone has a chance of being wrong.
8. More likely to go through life assuming we are more wrong than right, generating humility.
And so on. In conclusion, we should say “I am confident that x,” and when we say this, if meaningful, we say:
“I have reason to believe x (about y), that x is a fact that is at least part of the truth (of y) — a truth of the truth. This is because methodology and epistemology, x has been justified, and hence it is rational for me to believe in x, and hence to feel about x that I can stop thinking about it — that I can rely on the premise “x is true” and let myself be vulnerable “toward” it precisely because I feel safe — and yet at the same time I must always be aware of the possibility that “x is false” — a possibility implied by the word “confident” more so than “certain.” Without confidence, considering what Wittgenstein argued, I cannot function, and yet to function I must necessarily risk being “thoughtless” regarding what I should be philosophical. To live is to live in danger, but where there is danger, there can be life.”
¹In a sense, before facts, there is only “truth:” “truths” exist because of time, human finitude, and the process of factualization. Without consciousness, there would be only “what is the case” — truth. Being but not being(s), as Heidegger might say, and yet ironically considering his project, without being(s), “Being” would be something that couldn’t be meaningfully defined from “being(s)” (though true).
²Do note that “the fact of x” can be composed of countless “facts about x,” so when I say “it’s a fact that x is a cat,” I’m also saying “it’s a fact that cats have four legs, a tail, etc.” — hence, the plural term “facts” and the singular term “fact” can often blur together. As there are “truths of truth,” there are “facts of a fact,” but I don’t believe this point changes the overall meaning of this paper.
³Wittgenstein, Ludwig. On Certainty. New York: First Harper Torchbook Edition, 1972: 44e.
⁴Wittgenstein, Ludwig. On Certainty. New York: First Harper Torchbook Edition, 1972: 44e.
⁵In a way, “holistic certainty” can be translated into a “partial certainty” of a fact like “2 + 2 = 4,” but “holistic certainty” can never be so translated without losing its wholeness and thus itself, suggesting the need for an entirely different word.
⁶Considering the work of Philip Rieff and Eric Fromm, where there is too much freedom, people can be overwhelmed by existential anxiety, as discussed in Belonging Again by O.G. Rose. But if Pluralism is an unstoppable development, then if there is any hope for us not to be attracted to totalitarianism to “correct” existential anxiety, it will likely be thanks to a habituation with uncertainty that enables us to cope with our anxious situation.
1. There would be no problems of thought if there were no problems of certainty: if to consider x was always to consider “x as x” versus “x as x to us,” to think would be to be certain, and this distinction between “certain” and “confident” wouldn’t be necessary.
2. As argued in “Certainty Deterrence and Ideology Preservation” by O.G. Rose, certainty is mostly used to preserve ideology — further reason why the term should be put aside in favor of “confidence.”
3. When should I be vulnerable “toward” x and not y? When should I take this risk and not another? I can only guess based on justification: I may always be wrong. Hence, though I have reason to believe x, I hold it with an open hand; if it stays, I have all the more reason to believe it, knowing I don’t force it to remain; if it flies away, I’m glad it did: no one gains from holding a falsity.
4. At what point do I have reason to be confident of x? By what standard am I justified to believe “x art is good,” “y person is nice,” and the like? To allude to “The Conflict of Mind” by O.G. Rose, the fact that each person has a different standard relative to which such decisions are ultimately made suggests why it is the case that subjectivity is ultimately inescapable, even though subjectivity can be “toward” objectivity. Subjectivity isn’t merely a matter of human perception, but also human standards by which we decide something is “something more” than a mere idea, taste, or perception. In other words, the standard by which we decide something is “likely not merely a subjective view” is itself a subjectivity in need of self-transcendence.
5. Knowing should entail “no-ing”: when we claim to know this or that due to the lack of certainty, there is a kind of “no” that goes with each thought — a “no, we are confident of things, not certain” — except that is in regard to knowing itself (as Descartes argued, knowing of knowing isn’t no-ing).
6. While in principle it is true that some arguments are better than others, in practice (considering how often we make complex decisions emotionally without realizing it, considering all the confirmation biases we engage in, etc.) it’s not so clear how often this works out. On what grounds can we be confident that x is better than y, considering how talented we are of “practically” deceiving ourselves?
How confident we can be in our answer to a given argument, for example, depends on the kind of argument in question, whether it’s one dealing with high order or low order causality, arguments about how the universe came into existence or arguments about which situations its moral to withhold the truth, and so on (there are many kinds of arguments: it’s important not to be a monotheorist about argument type and structure). Practice will be helpful for determining if our answer to an argument about how we should implement humility is better than an alternative answer, while it won’t be so helpful in helping us determine if a theory about multiple dimensions of space and time is true or false. The role of practice, and to the degree it can ground confidence, is relative to the argument type in question.
Also, though we can be certain about little, we can be confident about a lot based on the results of repeated trials over time. No, we can’t have “much confidence” that our ideas about how to best interact with ENTPs is correct based on one or two interactions, but if after ten or fifteen they generate good results, though our ideas might not be “completely right,” we have reason to believe they are (to some relevant) degree reflections of the truth (even if we can never know for sure due to the influence of emotions, etc.).
7. Admittedly, it’s weird to suggest that we should be confident about what we can’t be certain about, but we practically do it all the time. We can never be certain that we won’t be in a car crash next time we drive our car, but we have to be confident that we won’t be in a crash every time we drive (because otherwise we wouldn’t do it). We can’t be certain the cup in our hand won’t explode when we drink out of it, but if we drink out of it, we are practically confident that it won’t. Though it will have to be expanded on elsewhere, this hints at the connection between “trust” and “confidence,” as outlined in “On Trust” by O.G. Rose.
8. If we cannot be certain, only confident, what are we doing when we claim to know something? We are making a (perhaps true) narrative. Narratives are powerful.
9. If certainty is impossible, so is total self-security: self-confidence is all we can achieve.
10. If we do not think, it is incredibly difficult not to be overconfident, because the nature of the brain is to make us feel that everything we think is right (for otherwise we wouldn’t think it). We do not experience our ideas as “maybe correct” but as “correct,” and this isn’t necessarily a bad thing: if we went through life only thinking that everything we did “might be right,” it would be extremely difficult if not impossible to function. Thus, overconfidence is natural, and this can only be corrected with unnatural and active thinking. And yet if we think too much, we could be paralyzed like a philosophical centipede.
11. Accepting the problem of certainty in favor of confidence, Lorenzo Barberis Canonico argues in “Is Investing the Best Model to Deal with Uncertainty?” that we should accept fallibilism and think of our beliefs like a portfolio. He asks ‘if you had to bet money on each aspect of your worldview, would your portfolio eventually go bust?’ Eventually, our portfolios likely always will, given paradigm shifts, black swans, and the like, but if we adjust our investments properly, “trade” at the right times (though keep in mind perfection is impossible), and so on, we can function at a high level. Lorenzo coins the phrase “financial epistemology,” and under it, our worldviews become a portfolio: ‘a collection of bets on what will be disproven and when in order to achieve some material advantage.’
12. Bryan Magee, in his book Ultimate Questions, writes something relevant and profound in chapter seven:
‘Since we cannot live without applying or presupposing standards and values, the best way to engage with those is not as faiths or ideologies but provisionally, as being open to criticism both from ourselves and from others, and open to revision in the light of experience as well as criticism […]’
13. I can be certain that I am experiencing, that I heard something, that I saw something, that I felt something, and so on, but I can only be confident that I am experiencing a table, that I heard a cat, that I saw a mouse, that I felt the wind, etc.
14. We are in the business of sufficient reason, not (abstract, objective, certain, etc.) reason.
15. Certainty can be a sign of dealing with simplicity, while uncertainty can be a sign of dealing with complexity. Paradoxically, depth and certainty can share an inverse relationship. Confidence, however, can be a sign of humility before complexities, and do note that the person who ceases to be humble will likely cease to explore deeper.
16. The problem with college is that we are sent out into the world believing we know something.
17. The fact we are uncertain of anything means nothing unless we believe certainty is necessary. Then, uncertainty of x is proof against x, and since we practically can’t be certain of anything, that means we have proof against everything.
18. A desire for perfectionism and idealism can be a desire for certainty in disguise, for with perfection and ideals come a certainty that “this is indeed best.” We want to know we live in “the best of all possible worlds,” not just have reason to think it. After all, people suffered for it.
19. If the intellectual goal of our lives is certainty (and worse yet, if certainty is moralized), then with a single doubt, we lose the goal. However, if the goal is confidence, we can have doubts and even many doubts, and not lose what we’re after. Additionally, if the goal is certainty, diversity of opinion, people, etc. are all threats, because difference creates reason to doubt, and if we must have certainty, we cannot have even a single doubt. But if the goal is confidence, encounters with difference are not threats; in fact, they can help us expand our views and test our confidence, perhaps strengthening our confidence in ways it should be strengthened and weakening it in ways it should be weakened.
The confident person wants to discover new things, while the certain person (at least subconsciously) prefers what has been discovered to be all there is to discover. No, the certain person probably wouldn’t say this directly, but certainty begets a nervous relationship to new ideas; after all, what are the chances the new ideas help and support the certain person’s worldview? Not that high, and even if they did, what would the value add be? Certainty is already achieved; at best, the new ideas just won’t ruin what’s already established. Thus, for the certain person, new ideas are at best neutral, while for the confident person, new ideas could help increase confidence, and even if the new ideas didn’t, the confidence already achieved won’t necessarily be lost. While people under certainty cannot doubt, the person under confidence can and even should doubt.
Under confidence, doubts are a means to refine what we think, and we will not feel a rigid need to maintain what we already believe, as we must if we believe in certainty. Additionally, it’s not even possible to meaningfully “test” certainty, only maintain it or destroy it. However, confidence can be meaningfully “tested,” for it can be strengthened or weakened. Something cannot be “tested” like certainty that must be all or nothing: it can only “be” or “not be.” Certainty does not allow for growth, only “in” or “out,” “correct” or “wrong.”
The confident person expects differences and diversity, while the certain person must view differences as irrational and wrong. The confident person is confident precisely because he or she is aware certainty is practically impossible, and so it only follows that there will be people with different views about the world. But the certain person believes it’s possible to be certain about life, and so if others think differently, it must be because they haven’t done the work, are ignorant, or don’t want to know the truth (to allude to Being Wrong by Kathryn Schulz). Not only is the certain person oriented to resist difference, but the certain person is also primed to view that difference as a sign of laziness, stupidity, or malice. And I think it’s fairly self-evident that if people view each other this way, democracy will suffer.
Also, since certainty is mostly impossible, to believe certainty is the standard ideas must meet to be considered true is to set oneself up for discouragement and to ultimately conclude truth doesn’t exist (and so fall into nihilism, as Lesslie Newbigin warns). To require certainty to believe is to require an impossibility, and if certainty is the only option, once the impossibility of the task is recognized, we are thus left with “uncertainty.” In a schema that believes certainty is the only valid standard, “uncertainty” is the same as “nothing.”
Paradoxically then, certainty ultimately finds itself unable to stop conspiratorial thinking, because if we can’t have certainty about anything and it is only with certainty that we can say something is true, then we also need certainty to say something is false (for sure). If we cannot do that, well, anything goes. Certainty takes away both our capacity to accept something as true (because nothing meets the standard) and to dismiss something as false (because nothing meets the standard).
That said, while we stay in our worldview and are certain of it, we are able by definition to define everything outside that worldview as false, but when the day comes — almost inevitably, especially if we don’t accept isolationism — when we realize certainty is impossible, if we nevertheless continue to think we are only justified to believe something we are certain about, we will begin to believe nothing — bad nihilism will appear. But since we can’t even be sure that nothing is true, we have to maintain a strange openness to all possibilities without any capacity to accept or deny any of them. They thus run through us long enough to be maintained, considered, and pursued, but never long enough for us to make a final decision. And so we find ourselves weak to stop conspiracies, and if there are some people who are “certain” about these conspiracies (as is probable), we thus can never make hard stands against the conspiracies, and so the evangelists of the conspiracies run uninhibited, gradually gaining more followers thanks to the power of their zeal. And in a world where certainty is the only valid standard of decision, once certainty is determined impossible, then emotion gradually becomes the dominant standard of judgment. It’s only rational: if the choice is between certainty or nothing, once certainty is gone, what else do we have but emotion? (Please note that this doesn’t mean emotion is bad, but that “emotional judgment” and “emotional intelligence” are not identical.)
Also, if it is believed that “a good argument” is one that gives us complete certainty, since certainty is impossible, no one will ever have to be convinced of anything or compelled to believe something different from what they already believe (a powerful tool of ideology preservation). It’s already hard enough to compel people out of their preexisting ideas, but in a schema of certainty, it’s practically impossible. In this situation, tribalism seems inevitable, for the people who agree with us are the only people who will ever have to agree with us, and so it makes sense to stick with — and only put our trust in — those people. Who knows why those people think like us — it doesn’t matter — but what matters, once they are discovered, is sticking with them. It’s hard to trust anyone, but once the trustable people are found, it’s like an episode of Walking Dead: sticking with them and trusting what they say is a matter of survival.
Emotion is a threat to certainty, for emotion arises from the world of subjectivity and change, while certainty is a thing of objectivity and “solidness.” At best, emotion can be neutral for certainty, in the same way difference can at best be neutral. But for confidence, emotion could be an avenue for new truth or refinement, just like “the other” in general can be. For the confident person, there is no need to be on guard against emotions, “others,” or doubts: all of these could be invitations for growth. The presence of emotions is not the presence of an enemy, and the confident person mustn’t choose between “rationality” and “emotions” like the certain person “practically” must to protect his or her certainty (which anything “unsolid” threatens). Thus, confident people are more likely to strike a balance between rationality and emotion, while the certain person will logically end up “all in” one and “all out” the other (or rather in a nervous and unstable mixture of the two).
In confidence, it is possible for action to inform the mind — for a dialectic to emerge between orthopraxy and orthodoxy, per se — and generally for there to be space for many kinds of epistemologies: for truth to come not just from the mental realm, but also lived experience, emotions, social interactions, and so on. But since for certainty change, diversity, and difference in general are threats, the only “safe” epistemological method is mental and abstract, for only ideas can maintain a kind of “transcendence” out of change and subjectivity (as understood by philosophers like Plato). Hence, though certainty doesn’t necessarily have to exclude other methods of knowing, it practically does and gradually emphasizes mental ascension over all others. Whereas confidence makes space for dialectics, certainty at best can only claim it does.
A confident person is someone who isn’t afraid of challenges or things that are not fully understood, whereas the certain person may look and act brave, but in truth the certain person is no braver than a king hidden away from the battle in a distant military base. Sure, perhaps the king might be brave on the battlefield, but then again, if the king is courageous, why is he not on the battlefield?
The bar of certainty is so high — a single doubt destroys it — that it naturally trains us to avoid risk, and diversity, others, and the like always entail risk. Please note that risk isn’t inherently bad, for without risk, value cannot be created, but for certainty that goal is certainty, and so risk cannot add any more value to the “value” certainty already possesses. Considering this, for the certain person, risk is always irrational.
Generally, the best “outside forces” can be for certainty is “neutral,” while for confidence they can be “positive” and/or “constructive.” Additionally, the confident person is braver than the certain person, and if 1 John 4:18 is correct that the one who fears cannot be made perfect in love, then the confident person is more a reflection of love.
Someone may counter that they are indeed certain, that I am wrong about its impossibility, but that person would be incorrect. We only “act certain” because we have no choice (as Wittgenstein writes). We’re actually “confident” and call it “certain,” and thus think it is certainty and fall victim to all the mistakes listed out in this work (“we’re confident we’re certain” and yet think “we’re certain we’re certain,” comically). Indeed, as discussed throughout The True Isn’t the Rational by O.G. Rose, we have to pick axioms for our worldviews and act like they are true even though we don’t know for sure, but we certainly can’t act like “we don’t know for sure” if we are to function. We have to “act certain” to act at all, but this is actually confidence, and awareness of this situation does not have to lead to epistemic nihilism when we realize that our axioms may in fact be true. Just because we cannot be certain of our axioms does not mean that they are thus false. Instead, regarding starting points, we are in the same boat as everyone else, no better or worse, and considering this, we all share a similar groundwork, thus inviting a sense of equality.
In closing, I’m aware of the counter that might be on the tip of a reader’s tongue: “How can we be certain that certainty is impossible?” The answer: I’m not, for certainty is only possible regarding the raw fact that “I am thinking” even if I can only be confident about what I’m thinking. But indeed, I do believe certainty is mostly impossible, but this is not something I’m certain about, only confident. But considering all the unintended consequences of certainty, it’s a confidence with which I’m more than comfortable. After all, there’s far more room to grow.
20. In academia today, many works focus on topics like “A Nietzschean perspective on modern politics,” “Foucault on Brexit,” and so on. These are not bad topics, but they will probably prove difficult to write about, considering that certainty is impossible. What I mean by this is that if we want to interpret politics today through the eyes of Nietzsche, we will need to read Nietzsche and perhaps all of Nietzsche closely, and even if we do, we can never be entirely sure that we understand Nietzsche well enough to speak on his behalf. But if speaking through the lens of a particular thinker is required for academic acknowledgement or publication, we will feel forced to attempt to be certain about something for which certainty is impossible, and this will likely cause anxiety and hurt our capacity to be productive. But perhaps it’s a good thing if we aren’t writing all the time: there’s already too many books in the world, right? Perhaps, but it is still interesting to me for people to spend a lot of time on trying to “think about x like y would think about x” as opposed to simply focusing on “how to think about x best (with help from y)” — the latter requires a much lower and more possible standard, and thus will likely not impede productivity as severely.
21. When people say they want the truth, usually what they mean is that they want certainty. Even better, people want confirmation that what they believe is true is in fact true, thus making it feel true/certain. Generally, people do not want the truth, for it demands them to change and shatters their ideas about what constitutes the truth. Truth can be terrifying, yet people constantly claim that truth is something they want — are they telling the truth? They feel/think they are at least, because the feeling of certainty is what people conflate with the feeling of truth, and thus believe “wanting certainty” and “wanting the truth” are one and the same. But having the truth doesn’t necessarily feel like anything at all, and it does not follow that a person who has the truth will necessarily feel like he or she has the truth. What we associate with “the feeling of truth” is certainty, and yet a feeling of certainty can in fact deceive us into thinking we know the truth when we do not. Feeling like we are right doesn’t mean we are, though it doesn’t mean we aren’t either.
The dream of modern philosophy, starting with Descartes, has been the achievement of certainty, a balm to existential anxiety, and yet certainty is impossible. Yes, we can have reason to establish confidence, but not certainty, and ironically philosophy can cause our uncertainty and existential anxiety to worsen, filling us with doubts and questions. What are we to do then? Abandon philosophy? But philosophy helps us determine the truth even if it doesn’t make us feel certain about it: should we abandon the quest for truth because the quest may make us feel like the destination will never be reached (even if and when we arrive)?
On this problem, David Hume may prove useful. According to Donald Livingston, Hume believed that ‘philosophical reflection itself [could be] a problem’ when ‘the necessity of participation in custom [wasn’t] recognized.’A, B For Hume, participation in the life of a particular custom and community, and understanding philosophy should be in service of that community (and help refine it but not deconstruct it), was the only way to keep philosophy from destroying itself, ultimately because philosophy can never be its own grounding (as argued in “The True Isn’t the Rational” and “The Problem of Internally Consistent Systems,” both by O.G. Rose). A worldview cannot be “philosophy all the way down,” and when philosophy tries, it only finds itself unable to justify its existence, and thus devour itself. Yes, rationality and philosophy are part of the quest for truth, but when they try to constitute the whole of it, they ultimately generate a nihilism and existential anxiety from which there is no exit.
“Common life” is with what we can ground and calm ourselves, and when we learn philosophically from Hume that philosophy must serve a common life, the problem of certainty begins to feel less unbearable. We become certain in the nature of our lives and our place in the world, and when we simultaneously understand that philosophy must necessarily lack grounding, it’s lack of a foundation will cease to keep us up at night. Philosophy will come to be used to defend and refine our lives, not deconstruct them, and the feelings of uncertainty will be lost behind the feeling of the dirt between our fingers. The feeling that we know we are holding dirt will balance the feeling that “dirt” might be the wrong word.
A.Livingston, Donald. Philosophical Melancholy and Delirium. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 1998: 19.
B.Livingston, Donald. Philosophical Melancholy and Delirium. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 1998: 27.