Monday, June 13, 2005

Conversations with Angie: Ontological and epistemological certainty


On second thought, maybe I'll sleep better if I answer this first.

>First, I'd like to point out a seeming contradiction in your email.

It's always a good idea to point out somebody else's contradiction, because contradiction is a sure sign of error. If I contradicted myself, then I was wrong in one situation or the other. Heaven forbid!

The contradiction you see is that on the one hand, I think that if Christianity is false, then we shouldn't believe it, and if it's true, then we SHOULD believe it, and everything else is irrelevent. But then on the other hand, I say it's not necessary to be absolutely certain that it's true.

I think you have probably misunderstood what I've meant by "certainty" and "absolute certainty." The reason I think that is because of what you said next. You said, "Truth implies a certainty. If truth exists, and if something is true, then it is one hundred percent true, whether I believe it or not." It may surprise you to know that I completely agree with you, 100%. However, you are obviously using "certainty" in a different sense than I am.

You seem to be using "certainty" in the ontological sense. Ontology has to do with being, reality, the way things are, etc. However things are, you are absolutely right to say that our beliefs don't matter. If Christianity is true, then it's true whether we believe it or not. Certainty, in that sense, just has to do with the ontology of truth.

Truth is correspondence with reality. For example, if I say, "There's milk in the refrigerator," and if, in reality, there actually is milk in the refrigerator, then the statement is absolutely true. If there is no milk in the refrigerator, then the statement is absolutely false. So regardless of what we believe, there either is or there isn't any milk in the refrigerator. The claim that there milk in there is either true or false, regardless of my beliefs.

We are talking ontology here--the actual contents of the refrigerator. Ontologically speaking, you're right that "truth implies certainty." It's certain in the sense that it is actually true. It is CERTAINLY true, you might say.

But that's not the sense in which I've been using the word "certainty" or "absolute certainty." I've been using those terms, not in the ontological sense, but in the epistemological sense. Epistemololgy has to do with knowledge, beliefs, justification, etc. Christianity may be absolutely true, but that says nothing at all about whether or not I'm aware that it's true. It may be true, and I think it's true. Or it could be true, and I think it's false. Or it could be true, and I just don't have an opinion one way or the other.

If I said, "Christianity is certaintly true," that would mean something completely different than if I said, "I'm certain that Christianity is true." Notice that the subject is different in each case. In the first statement, the subject is "Christianity." In the second, the subject is "I." In the first statement, "certainty" is used in the ontological sense. In the second, it's used in the epistemological sense. In the first, the certainty applies to the truth of Christianity. In the second, the certainty applies to the strength of my belief.

Do you see what I mean now? When I say that it's not necessary to be absolutely certain that Christianity is true, all I mean is that it's not necessary to know beyond all doubt that Christianity is true. There's very little at all we know beyond all doubt. All that's necessary is that you THINK Christianity is true with some degree of confidence. I BELIEVE that Christianity is true, but I don't KNOW beyond all doubt that Christianity is true. Do you see what I mean?

That is perfectly consistent with what I said before--that the only relevent factor to consider is whether or not Christianity is true. If I think it's true, then I'll be a Christian, and if I think it's not true, then I won't be a Christian. Hopefully that clears things up, and there's no more contradiction.

to be continued...

Conversations with Angie:  More on certainty and reasonableness


At 6/13/2005 11:57 PM , Blogger daleliop said...

Good post. ^)


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