Logical Gal – Are you sure?

22 Apr


“You can’t be sure about anything!”

Beyond death and taxes, a lot of people maintain that position.  But is it so?

What is certainty and are there different kinds?

First a definition – Generally speaking, in every day language, certainty is the quality of being absolutely true.  What is ‘certain’ can be a fact that corresponds to reality or an event that definitely has taken place or will take place without a doubt.

Going deeper, one can differentiate between types of certainty.  We have

  • mathematical certainty – no one doubts that 2+2 make 4

Then there is

  • logical certainty – the world of deductive reasoning, portrayed by the simple syllogism.  Here we can be certain that a conclusion is true if the premises are true and the way of reasoning follows the rules (thus qualifying as ‘valid’)

Premise 1 – All humans die

Premise 2 – Joe is a human

Conclusion – Joe will die

The other day, I heard someone talk about a 3rd kind of certainty, that of

  • moral certainty I was intrigued by how he explained this branch of certainty.  From a sermon on Biblical hope here is what John Piper wrote/delivered:

“There is a kind of legitimate certainty and confidence that does not come from mathematical calculations or merely logical laws. I call it “moral certainty.”

Rooted in Acts of Will

I call it moral because it is rooted in the commitment of the will of persons. And the will is the seat of morality. That is, we can only speak of moral right and wrong in relationship to acts of will. So whatever has to do with the will is an issue of morality. And moral certainty is a certainty that is based on acts of will.”

René Descartes, French philosopher and mathematician described moral certainty this way -“certainty which is sufficient to regulate our behavior”, Link to article quoting him

Intrigued by the concept of certainty, I checked to see if there were other types of certainty.   After nosing around different websites, I learned that in a court of criminal  law, to come to a conviction the jury must agree ‘beyond a shadow of a doubt’ that the accused is guilty.  That is probabilistic certainty – knowledge that is most likely to be true. . In fact, examining cumulative circumstantial evidence to arrive at a high probability of guilt can often solve murder cases that are ‘cold’.

Of course, there are less-than-credible claims to certainty.  People talk about psychological or ideological certainty – a WANTING to believe something to be so, despite the facts. There is also the danger that in the broad category of ‘mathematical certainty’ modeling future outcomes might have some hidden assumptions that are not necessarily true.

At the end of the day, we should approach the concept of certainty with HUMILITY.  I’m not advocating a posture of skepticism, but the acknowledgement that we, as finite human beings, might not be right about everything.


9 Responses to “Logical Gal – Are you sure?”

  1. Cody Libolt April 22, 2015 at 3:31 pm #

    I love this article. It’s helpful to understand the distinctions you’re making here. I learned some similar points about the meaning(s) of the idea of “certainty” from a book by Leonard Peikoff, called Objectivism: the Philosophy of Ayn Rand. While I disagree with some of the book’s ideas, I found the section about “the arbitrary” to be clarifying.

    • Maria April 22, 2015 at 4:32 pm #

      So how does he(or you) define the arbitrary? That’s a great term worth thinking about. Thanks for your encouragement Cody and I’m enjoying reading your posts, too!

      • Cody Libolt April 23, 2015 at 6:54 am #

        The concept of the arbitrary is key to understanding objectivity (by contrast). Here’s a great discussion of the arbitrary from Peikoff (http://aynrandlexicon.com/lexicon/arbitrary.html). “Arbitrary” means a claim put forth in the absence of evidence of any sort, perceptual or conceptual; its basis is neither direct observation nor any kind of theoretical argument. [An arbitrary idea is] a sheer assertion with no attempt to validate it or connect it to reality.

        If a man asserts such an idea, whether he does so by error or ignorance or corruption, his idea is thereby epistemologically invalidated. It has no relation to reality or to human cognition.

        Remember that man’s consciousness is not automatic, and not automatically correct. So if man is to be able to claim any proposition as true, or even as possible, he must follow definite epistemological rules, rules designed to guide his mental processes and keep his conclusions in correspondence to reality. In sum, if man is to achieve knowledge, he must adhere to objective validating methods—i.e., he must shun the arbitrary . . . .

        Since an arbitrary statement has no connection to man’s means of knowledge or his grasp of reality, cognitively speaking such a statement must be treated as though nothing had been said.

        Let me elaborate this point. An arbitrary claim has no cognitive status whatever. According to Objectivism, such a claim is not to be regarded as true or as false. If it is arbitrary, it is entitled to no epistemological assessment at all; it is simply to be dismissed as though it hadn’t come up . . . . The truth is established by reference to a body of evidence and within a context; the false is pronounced false because it contradicts the evidence. The arbitrary, however, has no relation to evidence, facts, or context. It is the human equivalent of [noises produced by] a parrot . . . sounds without any tie to reality, without content or significance.

        In a sense, therefore, the arbitrary is even worse than the false. The false at least has a relation (albeit a negative one) to reality; it has reached the field of human cognition, although it represents an error—but in that sense it is closer to reality than the brazenly arbitrary.

        I want to note here parenthetically that the words expressing an arbitrary claim may perhaps be judged as true or false in some other cognitive context (if and when they are no longer put forth as arbitrary), but this is irrelevant to the present issue, because it changes the epistemological situation. For instance, if a savage utters “Two plus two equals four” as a memorized lesson which he doesn’t understand or see any reason for, then in that context it is arbitrary and the savage did not utter truth or falsehood (it’s just like the parrot example). In this sort of situation, the utterance is only sounds; in a cognitive context, when the speaker does know the meaning and the reasons, the same sounds may be used to utter a true proposition. It is inexact to describe this situation by saying, “The same idea is arbitrary in one case and true in another.” The exact description would be: in the one case the verbiage does not express an idea at all, it is merely noise unconnected to reality; to the rational man, the words do express an idea: they are conceptual symbols denoting facts.

        It is not your responsibility to refute someone’s arbitrary assertion—to try to find or imagine arguments that will show that his assertion is false. It is a fundamental error on your part even to try to do this. The rational procedure in regard to an arbitrary assertion is to dismiss it out of hand, merely identifying it as arbitrary, and as such inadmissible and undiscussable.

  2. Maria April 23, 2015 at 3:41 pm #

    Cody – thank you SO much for writing all this. I read it carefully and made some notes to myself on a printed out copy. I’ve never thought about the concept of arbitrary in any depth. I appreciate this!

    • Cody Libolt April 23, 2015 at 3:49 pm #

      Glad to point you to this resource. At the Ayn Rand Lexicon online you can get a ton of free material. Rand and Peikoff are very opposed to Christianity, but as a Christian I still find a lot of value in their method. Their method is based on the distinction between the arbitrary and the objective. It follows Aristotle in focusing on the evidence of the senses. The rejection of arbitrary concepts would turn the world back right-side up.

  3. Maria April 23, 2015 at 3:54 pm #

    You should sell a bumper sticker or a Tshirt. And I admire you for being Berean-like in examining something to sift out the Truth!

    • Cody Libolt June 2, 2015 at 11:53 am #

      Hey Maria, I’m writing a round-up article to ask my favorite Christian bloggers one quick question:

      Why do you care so much about blogging?

      I would really love to include you. If you have a moment, could you tell me your own special passion that got you blogging?

      With much appreciation,
      Cody Libolt

  4. Maria June 2, 2015 at 12:30 pm #

    Cody – I see blogging as a platform for ministry. I have my blogs post automatically to Facebook and LinkedIn…so that if some of my contacts are not Christians, maybe something I write will pull them in.
    I also like the self-imposed deadline. Sunday afternoons is when I write my ‘feedonhim.wordpress.com’ blog and Thursday is my deadline for the following week’s logic blog. Knowing they are coming up each week keeps me reading, praying listening with intent. Thanks for asking.

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