Alex Richey

Software Engineer @ Amazon

Why I Could Be Wrong

An lotus flower

Some people believe that certainty is achievable. I do not. My position is that, for almost anything I currently believe, there’s a possibility that it could be false.

More specifically, and a bit more ponderously, my position is that, for any domain that one is a metaphysical realist about, one cannot be certain about the facts of that domain, from a first-person perspective. In the next few paragraphs, I’d like to clarify these terms and explain what I mean. I’d like to give an argument for my position and to discuss some of its implications, the main one being intellectual humility.

Realism

In order to setup my argument, I need to foreground a few concepts. The first concept I’d like to discuss is what philosophers call realism, which consists in the adoption of the following two claims:

Existence: For any realist domain D, the objects and relations of which it is composed exist.

Independence: For any realist domain D, it is independent of minds, languages, theories, concepts, etc.

Basically, when I say of some domain that it’s real, what I mean is that it is the way it is regardless of what I think about it or what language I use to express facts about it. For example, two plus two is four even if I mistakenly think it’s three. My thinking that the answer is three doesn’t make it the case that it is three; it just makes me wrong.

The language I choose to use can make a difference in the way I express facts, but it doesn’t change the underlying facts themselves. For example, in binary, one plus one is ten, and not two. But whether I express myself in binary or decimal does not affect the fact in question, namely that one plus one is two in decimal and ten in binary. Such facts are, in this way, mind and language independent.

Similar remarks apply to the claim that George Washington was the first president of the United States of America or that the speed of light is one hundred eighty-six thousand miles per second. These facts are as they are regardless of my mental attitude toward them, or whatever language, theory, or concept I use to express them.

Not all domains are real in this sense. My taste in beer, for example, isn’t independent of my own mind. In fact, it just is what I think about it or what I experience it to be. This is, in part, because I have direct epistemic access to my own mind, my own experiences and thoughts, or at least to some of them.

Realism implies that, for any domain that I’m a realist about, I could be wrong about it. The primary reason for this is independence. Unlike the facts about my taste in beer, the facts of any realist domain are independent of what I think about them. I don’t have direct access to these facts and so my beliefs about them may fail to reflect the truth. The reason for this is that, unlike the cases of my own experiences and thoughts, there are possibilities that I cannot rule out. For example, I could be misremembering; I may have made a simple mistake; there could be something affecting my perception, like a thorn in my eye obscuring my view; or, more remotely, I could be dreaming right now; I could be a brain in a vat.

The more remote of these possibilities do not personally trouble me. But the nearer possibilities do. I suspect that most everyone has had an experience of misremembering something, of making a mistake when doing a computation, of seeing one thing at a distance and discovering later, when up close, that it is another.

To sum up, if I accept both existence and independence about some domain of discourse D, then it follows that

(1) Any of my beliefs about D could be wrong.

This is because, as I have already stressed, I do not have direct access to D. The best I can do from an epistemological perspective is have some justification of my D-beliefs based on my experience, reflections, reasoning, whatever. I am barred in principle, however, from being infallible about domain D, since, as I have already said, I do not have direct access to D.

Certainty

The next concept I’d like to discuss is certainty. Rather than trying to define the word “certainty” or to give an account of the concept itself, I’d like to emphasize just one entailment of the common understanding of certainty that I think any plausible account of the concept would yield.

(2) If I am certain that p, then that p could not be false,

where the letter “p” stands for any complete sentence. (2) asserts that certainty is infallible. Not all accounts of certainty yield this entailment, but I intend to focus on only those accounts that do. My reason for this is that I think that (2) captures the way the word “certainty” is generally understood. I would like to make it clear, moreover, that I intend to focus on the common-sense understanding of certainty, that is, roughly speaking, the concept that ordinary people express when they use the word in certain contexts of everyday conversation.

Two points deserve emphasis and clarification. First is that I am interested in certainty from a first-person perspective, that is, from the point of view of any given agent or individual. I’m concerned with what is entailed when someone says, “I am certain.”

Second, (2) expresses what philosophers would call a modal aspect of the concept of certainty. This modal aspect can be interpreted in different ways. Here I will be interpreting this aspect epistemically. It will be instructive, however, to contrast this interpretation with a metaphysical one. Consider the following two sentences.

While the Jets lost the game last weekend, they could have won.
Mark must be in the room, since I hear him in there.

The first sentence expresses a metaphysical possibility. It is not making a claim about how the world actually is, for it is known that the Jets lost; it is making a claim about how the world could or could not have been. It is saying that the Jets could have won. In contrast, the second sentence is making a claim about how the world really is. It is saying that, since I hear Mark in the room, he must really be in the room. In other words, there is no other epistemic possibility relative to current information other than that Mark is in the room.

(2) above is to be interpreted in this second, epistemic, way. (2) is making a claim about how the world really is.

The Argument

Here’s the argument. The acceptance of (1) and (2) about the same domain D yields the following challenge.

(1) Any of my beliefs about D could be false.
(2) If I am certain that p, then that p could not be false.

Let us assume that

(3) p expresses a belief about D.

So, by (1),

(4) p could be false.

Therefore, by modus tollens against (2),

(5) I am not certain that p.

Since p can stand for any D-belief or D-proposition, I cannot be said to be certain about anything about D. Realism and certainty are, I think this argument shows, incompatible.

To clarify the upshot of my argument a bit further, it may be helpful to run through a concrete case. Let’s say, for example, that I’m certain that I’m in Seattle right now. By (2), it follows that it could not be false that I am in Seattle. But, since my belief that I’m in Seattle is about the domain of the external world, which is a realist domain, on my view, it also follows that I might not be in Seattle. I might in fact be in New York and am only dreaming or suffering from some momentary confusion that I’m in Seattle. So, there’s a coherent, if low probability, possibility that I’m in New York and not Seattle. So, by my own lights, it could not be the case that I’m certain that I’m in Seattle, since, clearly, it could be the case that I’m not in Seattle.

In ordinary life, few would be troubled by such a low probability possibility. For most intents and purposes, one need not concern oneself with such oblique possibilities in expressing certainty about some or other proposition. However, the fact that the probability that I'm wrong is low in this example is not relevant. What's relevant is that, in principle, I cannot rule out these recalcitrant possibilities to attain infallible certainty. Being a realist about the external world — or, for that matter, any other domain — necessarily imposes limits on what I can know about it.

To put the point in more philosophical terms, it will be helpful to distinguish the following two classes of question, based on the distinction drawn above.

Metaphysical questions: For any domain, how are things in that domain? What are the actual facts?

Epistemological questions: For any domain, how does one come to know about how things are in that domain? What are the methods for determining the facts? Can one come to know all the facts about this domain?

My argument shows that when one adopts a realist position in response to the metaphysical question about a given domain D, then one cannot admit that certainty is attainable in her answer to the epistemological question.

Degrees of Belief

In Tolstoy’s novel War and Peace, he writes,

All we can know is that we know nothing. And that’s the height of human wisdom.

The position I’ve just argued for sounds dangerously similar to this quip. It sounds as if I’m saying that I’m certain that I can’t be certain, which would be a contradiction. My position, correctly stated, however, is not that I’m certain that I can’t be certain of anything. It’s that I believe I can’t be certain of anything about any realist domain.

The meaning of the term “believe,” in this context, deserves a bit of clarification.

In a word, I judge various claims to be true or false and I hold some claims with more confidence than others. More specifically, for any claim that I’m competent enough to evaluate, I have some degree of confidence in it. I’m very confident in some statements, like one plus one is two, for example — such a claim is as close an approximation of certainty as one could hope for. But there are other statements, at the other end of the spectrum, that I believe to be true but which I’m not so confident about, such as the claim that there isn’t an afterlife. I come down, on that particular question, saying yes, but I’m not very confident that this belief is true. I don’t really know.

When I say that I believe I can’t be certain of anything, I am expressing a certain confidence in the proposition. I am expressing a positive epistemic attitude toward it, but I am not expressing full certainty in it.

Objections

There are two primary ways of pushing back against the argument I gave above. One is to revise what is meant by certainty in such a way that it does not entail infallibility, rejecting the second premise of my argument. Generally, I do not think that such suggestions are worth pursing because they violate my starting assumption — namely, that if I am certain that p, then that p can’t be false — which I take to capture the common-sense understanding of certainty, at least as I apprehend it. However, there is another version of this first objection that I think is worth considering. It is to say that (2) — the claim that p can’t be false — isn’t really part of the common understanding of certainty; in other words, I’ve gone too far. When one says that she is certain that p, she isn’t saying that p must be true (in the epistemic sense); she is merely saying that p is true. If this is the case, then certainty would seem to be achievable, even with respect to realist domains.

I would like to reiterate that I ultimately do not find accounts of certainty that do not yield (2) very plausible. Let me say something briefly to try and motivate this stance. First, accounts of certainty that do not require anything over and above the truth that p allow for accidental certainty, which does not fit with how the concept is intuitively understood. Consider a nieve account of certainty that requires nothing over and above the truth that p. It would follow, on such an account, that I'm certain of all kinds of things that I myself am plainly not certain of, since all that would be required for me to be certain that p would be the accident of my belief that p coupled with the truth that p. It would follow, for example, that I'm certain that there's life on Mars, whether or not I have any justification or whether I even have the attitude of being certain about this claim, if in fact there is life on Mars. This does not seem to reflect the ordinary way that the word "certainty" is used.

More plausible accounts of certainty require more than the mere truth that p. Many accounts of certainty require, in addition to the truth that p, that one have a justification for the claim that one is certain of. But, to my mind, what such justifications or other epistemic requirements do is rule out epistemic possibilities in which that p is false. That is, they end up entailing the strong version of (2), or something close enough to it that the argument given above would still obtain.

If one’s preferred account of certainty really does not yield (2), then I, for my part, would be willing to admit that the argument I gave above does not go through. I do not find this troubling, however, since my aim in this essay is to show that the adoption of realism about any domain entails that one is fallible about that domain, a conclusion that remains intact. If one's account of certainty is not infalliblist, then we are disagreeing about the meaning of words and, it seems to me, talking past each other.

The second main way of pushing back against my argument is to revise or reject realism, specifically, its claim of independence, in order to reject the second premise of my argument. Many philosophers do reject independence. Berkeley, for example, famously claims that all the world is in the mind. And other philosophers make the same assertion, which enables some of them to say that we have direct epistemic access to the world and so we can’t be wrong about it.

In response to this strategy, I’d like to first reiterate that I’m not a realist about all domains, and so there may be some cases, such as the case of self-knowledge, which I mentioned above, where rejecting realism as stated is plausible. This would imply that certainty about such a domain may be possible — or, more accurately, that it is at least not ruled out by my argument.

When it comes to domains that I am a realist about, however, such as the external world, history, physics, math, and so on, this objection does not trouble me. The main reason it doesn’t trouble me is that I find it wildly implausible for independence to be false. Rejecting independence, as far as I can tell, implies denying that there is anything outside my own thoughts and perceptions, or outside any abstraction used to model the world, at all. Some philosophers, of course, have defended this view, but, while I acknowledge that there is a debate worth having, this is not the venue to pursue such reflections. Here, I take independence as given. And so, my belief in premise two stands.

Humility

I would like to close with an observation about human psychology.

In recent years, I have been stunned to see so many people who seem to hold their opinions in such confidence that they believe there is no possibility whatever that they could be wrong. Such certainty in one’s beliefs frightens me. It frightens me because, in my view, confidence to this extreme is likely to lead to misery.

In considering any practical question about what to do, in order to know what to do — that is, in order to know what actions or which policies would produce the best outcome — one needs to know the truth about the matter in question, or, at least, to come close to the truth. But gross levels of confidence prevent one from getting close to the truth since they make one unwilling to revise one’s beliefs in the light of new evidence. They make one unwilling to admit new evidence into one’s deliberations because one thinks one already has all the answers. Indeed, in my experience, I have often found such confidence to be indicative of ignorance for this very reason.

The argument I have given above, if successful and if they would hear it, should induce sobriety among people with such confidence. I have argued that everyone is in principle fallible about any realist domain. What follows from this argument, if it is to be believed, is that certainty about any realist domain is impossible. What can be achieved is confidence in one’s beliefs.

I want to caution that these reflections do not entail that one should abandon the pursuit of knowledge on the grounds that it is futile. Despite the fact that certainty may not be realizable, human knowledge advances. What these reflections do entail is that one should bring a degree of humility to her epistemic considerations. There is a degree of humility that respects the epistemological situation one finds herself in but which does not prevent due confidence in one’s beliefs.

I am urging one to give up on the fiction of certainty, but not on independent truth. In one’s epistemic considerations, even if certainty in it may always elude one’s grasp, truth is the only thing worth striving for.

Thanks to Said Saillant for comments on an earlier draft.