On Certainty

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On Certainty

In his essay “An Argument for Skepticism”, Peter Unger makes the case for the “universal form of the skeptical thesis”. He is arguing for the position that any type of knowledge is impossible for any person. His argument seems to be a simple one, derived from two very clear hypotheses, but that is not the case. This paper is an attempt to show that while philosophically interesting, Unger’s attack on knowledge is not nearly so damaging as he contends.

I will argue that Unger mischaracterizes the nature of certainty as it is ordinarily used (something he says is important to his argument), and also that he has mischaracterized one of the sources he used to defend this definition. I will then present W.V.O. Quine’s psychologically based epistemology as presented in “Epistemology Naturalized” and “Two Dogmas of Empiricism”, and argue that this theory provides a more adequate account of the way knowledge and certainty are understood. I will also attempt to address the objections to Quine’s theory raised by Jaegwon Kim.

So, how does one begin an attack on all knowledge? The answer, as it turns out, is quite simply. Unger’s argument consists of only two premises. The first of these states that “If someone knows something to be so, then it is all right for the person to be absolutely certain that it is so (238).” To this is added the second premise, that “It is never all right for anyone to be absolutely certain that anything is so (238).” Clearly, the conclusion “Nobody ever knows that anything is so”(238) follows.

Unger next alters these premises slightly, adding the idea of overriding considerations. The first premise is the same except with the words “…providing only that no overriding consideration (or considerations) make it not all right (241).” Likewise, the second premise becomes

It is not the case that it is all right for someone to be absolutely certain that something is so providing only that no overriding (consideration or) considerations make it all right. (242).

I am perfectly willing to grant Unger the first premise. I think that there is no problem with allowing him this, in and of itself. Even the second premise is allowable in a certain, philosophically interesting sense, and in this sense, Unger’s argument is very strong. The philosophical ideal of absolute certainty is something that I think should be given up as a vain pursuit, and I think that Unger shows this nicely.

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