Can We Be Certain of Anything?
Animals: Tradition - Philosophy - Religion Article from


Stephen Kaufman, M.D., Christian Vegetarian Association (CVA)

Can We Be Certain of Anything?

I agree that deep reflection is needed, but we should remain skeptical of what that deep reflection might find. Does it illuminate the truth, or does it reflect more the many deep seated, unconscious hopes and fears that color our beliefs and our interpretations of experiences? Not knowing for sure, we need to do reality checks against the real world, and others’ views and scientific data can help.

Since we don’t have an objective frame-of-reference – a God’s eye view that is uncolored by bias – I don’t see how we can distinguish between “true facts” and statements that we are convinced are true but might be false (such as the Medieval conviction that the sun goes around the earth). The only way a person can know that any statement (e.g., “God and His son are identical”) is true is for that person to have such a God’s eye view, which I don’t think any of us have. Ultimately, their claim to truth rests implicitly on their actually having such a God’s eye view. For example, a person might say, “God and His Son are identical.” Reply: How do you know? “Because it’s says so in the Bible.” Reply: How do you know that the Bible is true? “Because the Bible itself says it is true.” Reply: Well, that argument is circular. Any book can claim that it is true, but that doesn’t make it true. “The Bible also is perfectly consistent and has predicted future events.” Reply: Are that those just opinions and not facts? Indeed, others have read the Bible and concluded that the Bible is often inconsistent and has frequently failed to predict future events accurately. “It is clear that the Bible is true.” Reply: That’s your opinion, and you might be right, but how can you know that you are right and that other honest, intelligent people who disagree are wrong? As best I can tell, the only answer to this question (other than avoiding the question, e.g., by repeating one’s position) is that the person must have a God’s eye view. To have such a God’s eye view, that person must be omniscient, because if that person could possibly be wrong in anything, it is possible that the person is wrong when making any of the statements that underlie the statement that God and His son are identical.

To further illustrate this point, I see an analogous logical problem with the claim of papal infallibility. The claim of papal infallibility must rest on reasons for making such a claim (e.g., God has empowered the Pope to be infallible at certain times). If the Pope can be possibly be fallible about anything, then the Pope might be mistaken was presenting the reasons for claiming infallibility (e.g., the Pope’s sense that God has spoken to him might be mistaken). The existence of this possibility means that there can’t be certainty, which is another way of saying there can’t be infallibility. It is possible that the Pope could claim that that the Pope is being infallible when providing these reason(s) for the claim of infallibility, but again there must be reason(s) for the new claim, and those reasons might be mistaken notions that relate to the Pope’s fallibility. There is an limitless regression, with each claim resting on the evidence for prior claims upon which a given claim is based. [How do we address this regression in everyday life? I think we ultimately ground our convictions on such factors as experiences, what we’ve heard from people we trust, what we’ve read or heard from sources we regard as reliable. We end up with convictions that, regardless of how convinced we might be of their veracity, might be mistaken.] Consequently, a Pope who acknowledges the possibility of fallibility about anything cannot claim infallibility about anything. There is no way to know whether the limitless regression of reasons for claiming infallibility don’t involve anything about which the Pope might be incorrect, and therefore any claim of fallibility is suspect. If a claim is suspect, it is no longer infallible. It might still be true, but there is no way to know with certainty that it is true. A Pope could avoid this conundrum by claiming that he is infallible on all things, in other words that the Pope is omniscient, has a God’s eye view, and is never fallible. People might believe this claim if they found it credible, and that would (or at least should) depend on evidence that the Pope might bring to bear on the question.

As an aside, I don’t want people to think I’m selectively taking issue with Catholicism. The concerns I raise also relate to Protestants and Christians of other stripes who claim certainty. 

Go on to: Job and the Theodicy Problem, part 1
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