Is absolute certainty necessary for knowledge?

Many times when I am sitting at Ask an Atheist the idea that we need absolute certainty in order to have knowledge is brought up. It comes up whenever we are asked “how can you know God doesn’t exist?” Most of the time the answer that I hear given is that we don’t claim to know God doesn’t exist since most of us are agnostic atheists.  While this is technically correct I think it gives a little too much to the theist. If we except that knowledge does not require absolute certainty (which I’ll argue soon that we should) then I think we can claim that we do know that God doesn’t exist.

So why should we accept that knowledge does not require absolute certainty?  There are two arguments against both types of knowledge that we can have. The two types of knowledge being:

  • a priori
    • knowledge gathered prior to experience e.g. mathematical truths, laws of logic,
  • A posteriori
    • knowledge gathered through experience e.g. scientific knowledge, knowledge of the world around us

Both the arguments I will discuss come from René Descartes.  René Descartes position on what it requires to have knowledge is like most peoples prior to taking any philosophy classes infalliblism.  Infalliblism claims that we can only have knowledge of things of which we cannot doubt, this is another way of saying that we require absolute certainty in order to have knowledge.

The first argument from Decartes is what is known in philosophy as the dream argument.  The argument goes something like this: it is possible that we are in the dream that our entire life has been a dream (think of the matrix) and since there is no way to disapprove this prosperity e.g. we might be mistaken that it is actually the truth we have reason to doubt sense experience. This argument is then obviously an argument against a posteriori knowledge but Decartes reasoned that even within dreams your reasoning is the same in the dream state and the conscious state.  So this means that the dream argument cannot used against a prioi knowledge.

Does this mean that we can have certainty for a priori knowledge? Not quite to show why we must turn to Decartes other argument. This argument is called in philosophy the evil demon argument. This argument says that even ones reason could be fooled by a demon that wants to deceive you into believing false things. Since it is impossible to show that this demon does not exist we can doubt this type of knowledge. (By the way Decartes later goes on to use this as an argument for the existence of God by saying that well if we suppose that God exists and he is benevolent he would never allow us to be so deceived and so we can rely on reason because God exists).

I hope I have shown in this post that absolute certainty is basically impossible. And that if knowledge requires absolute certainty one is led into universal skepticism which means that we know nothing.

Preview for upcoming blog post series

In a upcoming blog post series i am planning to write i will be discussing some common questions we get at ask an atheist and common responses to those that i hear. Also i will provide what might be a better response if i have one

Should atheists use terms like good and evil?

The follow is a post from a moral philosopher named Alonzo Fyfe arguing that yes we should. I wanted to post it because I have heard a lot of atheists (I used to say it myself) who won’t use moral terms when discussing morality. His blog is located here.

“Finishing up this week’s theme on how nice atheists should be I would like to note a continuing deficiency among atheist writers – the degree to which they shun genuine moral language – terms like virtue and evil.

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Interesting ISU Class

Spring semester is about to begin in a mere few days!  Most of you probably already have your class schedules solidified – but if anyone has an open spot, there is a class that I’m taking that still has some open seats that I thought would be of interest to other AAS members.  It is Religion 324X – Christianity & Science.  The catalog description: Prereq: 205 or 210; Biol 101 or 173 (or higher). Examines major questions and challenges to Christianity’s understanding of creation posed by the sciences with attention to the relations of Christianity and science, and to Christianity’s earth-conscious and ecological responsibility. Nonmajor graduate credit.

I was hoping other group members would take this class so that we can make sure dissenting voices are heard!


Arguments for keeping the chapel at Iowa State

I have been listening to the debate on whether or not the chapel at Iowa State should have the class in it removed and I wanted to discuss all the different arguments that I have heard. I love analyzing arguments for any flaws in them and I am the discussion chair for the club.

I do have a huge problem with the way GSB is going about this whole issue. They are only caring about how many people all against keeping the cross there it shouldn’t be about that  because that is and argument ad populum logical fallacy.  They should look at the arguments for and against keeping it to see who has the stronger argument. of course asking GSB to actually be reasonable might be asking too much

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Protest against proposition 8/ Rally for gay rights

Tori and I are on the left

Tori and I are on the left

On a bitterly cold November 15th,  OneIowa put on a protest against proposition 8 and a rally for homosexual rights this Protests/rally was not only organized by OneIowa but was a nationwide string of protests, all on the same day.   At the protest/rally we heard from: the director of OneIowa (which bills itself as “the state’s largest LGBT advocacy organization” to quote from their website), State Sen. Matt McCoy Iowa’s only openly gay state legislator,   the director of PFLAG in Iowa I think, the UU pastor that married Iowa’s only legally married same- sex couple, that couple, and Ben Stone the director of the Iowa ACLU.  the press estimated there to be approximately 100 people at the event, however I felt there was closer to 200 people.