(Feel free to read only the bold portions for the TL;DR version – as this post got a little lengthy).
Rene Descartes first penned the words “[I think, therefore I am]” in 1637 (granted, it was in French ^_^).
I had heard this phrase long before I understood what it meant or it’s context. It’s one of those quotes that’s more popular than the originator.
The essential context is this: It is clear that my senses sometimes deceive me. If they deceive me sometimes, they could be deceiving me all of the time. If my senses deceive me all the time, then I can’t be certain of anything’s existence outside of myself. I can know that I exist, because I am clearly able to doubt the existence of other things. If I doubt, then I can I think. If I can think, then I exist.
So that’s it. I can be certain that I exist. Going any further than that gets a little murky – even defining “I” can lead to doubts on several levels.
Anything and everything outside of myself, could be an illusion.
Another related concept is the Brain in a Vat, or the now more popular “The Matrix” example. I can’t be sure I’m not just some brain sitting in a vat or I’m just one of the countless people thinking that that matrix around me is the most “real” reality.
So why does this matter and why is a foundational to me in my thinking?
As absurd as these examples may sound, I cannot refute them. This begins my journey to being comfortable with uncertainty.
Granted, I am more than 99.9% certain that if I step in front of a semi-truck on the nearest interstate, I am going to be grossly injured. Thus, I’m not going to do that. Despite not being certain, I’m still operating on a binary of sorts: I’m going to live my life as if walking in from of a semi is going to grossly injure me.
We pragmatically operate on binary beliefs- we’re forced to make yes/no choices thousands if not millions of times a day. It doesn’t matter if we “know” or are certain – we have to make best guesses and essentially “I believe x, therefore I will do y.”
So if the small, pragmatic questions are addressed in this way, it makes sense that we are to deal with the big, foundational questions in this way as well – it just gets messier and more complex the bigger the questions is.
So for example, when discussing the complex question “Does a monotheistic god exist?”, there are many smaller yes/no beliefs (addressing conscious questions and unquestioned assumptions) that directs a person to and from a yes or no (ex. Can what I observe exist eternally? Can more than one god figure exist? Can everything be god?). All of these binary beliefs also have a confidence level associated with them at least in the background.
I think the result of all those variables can lead me to having one of several mutually exclusive beliefs (ex. Montheism, Polytheism, Pantheism, and Anti-theism), even though the final level of certainty is relatively low. So, I don’t need to be 51% certain that Monotheism is true to hold that belief, I simply need a higher confidence interval in that belief than in any of the competing beliefs (ex. I would hold to Monotheism if my split was the following: Monotheism 40%, Polytheism 2%, Pantheism 30%, and Anti-theism 28%).
At this point, I can understand the idea of “withholding judgement” – which is to say that one neither affirms or denies a binary question. However, we don’t actually do this in practice, even if we hold mentally do withhold judgment. We always act as though we accept either a yes or no to each question.
Since we don’t do this pragmatically, I don’t believe it makes sense to do this even on a mental level. As such, I cannot adopt withholding judgment, because I cannot do that with small pragmatic questions. I always need to act in such a way that one of So, with regards to the question “Does God exist?”, I cannot hold an Atheistic position (“I have no belief in god[s]”) because it is not pragmatic. I think it makes more sense to adopt one of the mutually exclusive views, rather than reject all of them, even if each of those views do not cross a 50% confidence interval.
Hopefully this tracks well as you read it. It may have been a little convoluted, but hopefully the following was clear: I don’t have be certain to hold position – I only need to have a stronger confidence interval in the position than any competing mutually exclusive claim.
If I’m not clear on something, please ask about it. Additionally, if I’ve presented something foolish, please point that out for discussion. The purpose of this is to develop and hone my belief structure and shed the chaff. I’m hoping that interacting with people on this can at least shift my confidence one way or the other ^_^. Regardless of whether you read the entire thing or skimmed the bold statements, thanks for the reading!