These days it is widely held that achieving certainty with respect to our conclusions is impossible. This is not surprising considering the predominant cultural context of philosophical assumptions. On the premise of rejecting reality as an objective absolute, knowable to the mind by the epistemology of reason, certainty is indeed impossible. However, if you recognise the fundamentals that reality is real and the mind is competent to know reality, you can be as certain of complex conceptual knowledge as you can of the self-evident. The essence of what follows is taken from the objectivist epistemology and I draw from the work of Leonard Peikoff in expanding Ayn Rand’s idea of certainty as contextual within the hierarchy of knowledge.
First of all let’s note that certainty pertains only to some of the more complex conceptual ideas that we evaluate; and most specifically, those for which evidence is accumulated gradually, as the conceptual picture builds piece by piece. In contrast, when you are dealing with the self-evident, or with a situation where all the information is available instantly, certainty is not relevant. For example, when you are driving a car, the certainty of which direction to turn the wheel in order to follow the road is available instantly, it requires no assessment of accumulating evidence. Also the validity of the self-evident is not philosophically questioned. But if you are trying to determine the cause of illness, the configuration of the solar system, or the achievement of political freedom, a vast amount of conceptual evidence must be inferred from observation, and assessed within an existing contextual framework of knowledge. This is where the concept of certainty properly applies, along with the distinctions designated by the concepts of possible and probable.
Let’s also remind ourselves that epistemology is the science that studies the concept of human knowledge and its acquisition. It should therefore necessarily recognise the specific nature of a human consciousness. Accordingly, we must first recognise the fundamental validity of the self-evident, and then that our primary contact with reality is through sense perception, and so all our knowledge must be traceable back to the self-evident—or grounded in reality—which constitutes the base of our hierarchy of knowledge. We must also bear in mind that we gather information and learn about our world sequentially, but not in any specific order, yet we must appropriately integrate this knowledge into the logical hierarchy of our sum of knowledge. This means knowing where to correctly position an idea in our hierarchy (of knowledge), or rather, being aware of the premises on which our convictions rest—right down to the fundamentals. In other words, you must be aware of the assumptions and presuppositions on which your convictions rest.
Certainty is an assessment made in a specific context—the context of everything else we know. We are not starting from zero in an epistemological vacuum, or like a new born baby with zero knowledge. What we know is limited, but it’s always our legitimate starting point. In the normal process of acquiring knowledge this means that your capacity for certainty grows with your expanding context of knowledge. But with respect to truth seeking we have to bear in mind that a world view built up from years of following the mainstream media will include many false conclusions about remote and abstract ideas such as health, terrorism, climate and other topics affecting or potentially affecting social and political structures. These false conclusions (propaganda) will themselves form part of the (old) context in which any new information is assessed, and will distort that assessment. You must be aware of this when investigating those ideas that affect social and political structures from an ‘old’ context. It is those (as yet) unquestioned and unexamined false conclusions that keep people locked into their old world view, and keep them clinging to what they think is knowledge, but in fact is not true. Any such unquestioned conclusions remain the frame of reference in which the truth or falsity of new claims heard in the mainstream media are judged. It is the necessary process of questioning the assumptions within stories already assumed true, that up-dates one’s world view to a new context.
What all this means is that while a new idea clashes with unquestioned false ideas in the rest of your world view (context), you are not yet in a position to be able to evaluate its truth, much less achieve certainty in your understanding. Those new to questioning what they are told in the news must get to that critical point where they grasp that they have been lied to, and where they begin to question the entire mainstream narrative. It can be helpful to remember that when you are certain that just one idea championed in the mainstream is false, the finger of suspicion falls upon those authoritative institutions that continue to advocate its truth. You don’t have to question absolutely everything, as sometimes people say. But you do have to question the more abstract ideas pertaining to health, climate, terrorism, etc. Ideas about contagion, atmospheric CO2 concentrations, and acts of terrorism, are necessarily complex conceptual ideas far removed from the immediately perceivable concretes of daily life, and these are the politically useful ideas used to bring about the social and political changes that suit the collectivist political agenda. So before truth seekers can achieve certainty with respect to a new world view, they must first have covered some ground in questioning the key claims made in the mainstream news media pertaining to the politically useful ideas mentioned above, or by some other means grasp that they have been lied to on many issues for a long time.
First, identify the false
It is far easier to achieve certainty in identifying what is false than what is true. To be certain of the truth of a claim, on the other hand, takes more time and more mental work. And the point is that you don’t have to identify an alternative explanation to know with certainty that the one offered is false. Whether you are questioning an idea presented in the mainstream media, or one widely accepted across western culture, you only need to identify one contradiction to disprove it with certainty. For example, if Gill tells you that Bob is playing tennis on Saturday, but you know that he broke his arm yesterday because you spoke to him in hospital this morning, you can be certain of the falseness of Gill’s claim. On a more serious note, consider the official story of the London bombings of July 5th 2007, in which it was claimed that four terrorists set off bombs in three tube trains and one bus. The official story states that the 4 terrorists caught a train from Luton that morning, at a critical time within the timeline of the story. This is contradicted, however, by the fact that the train they allegedly caught was cancelled and never actually ran (undisputed fact). The whole official story collapses into impossibility on the basis of this one contradiction alone. This is the disproving of a positive by pointing out a contradiction. Certainty that such a claim is false is relatively easy to achieve, even if you (personally) need to identify more than one contradiction before you are convinced.
Once you have uncovered a number of untruths within the mainstream narrative, you will inevitably get to the point where you start to question everything about the mainstream world view. This is the point where people usually reject the mainstream narrative as a whole, and begin the process of completely rebuilding their world view, and their understanding of the political reality into which they were born. This represents a very significant change of cognitive context. In the old context, everything you had ever heard on the news or from other people, was part of your ‘knowledge’ and therefore part of your context of validation—even if many of the conclusions in it were false. However, as you move into the new context, realising the deception, your whole frame of reference shifts dramatically. Your cognitive context shifts towards an understanding of the actual political reality in which propaganda and misinformation are the norm, and the need to treat official sources with suspicion is recognised. This can be likened to feeling the need to empty your head of everything you thought you once knew, and then to pick up your conclusions one by one, having thoroughly reassessed them. The transition from a mainstream (assumption-based) context to an independent (fact-based) context is necessarily an uncomfortable period of uncertainty, and ultimately it takes a deliberate choice, an effort of will, to move from the old context to the new.
The rebuilding of a worldview—changing one’s cognitive context—takes time. You have to do the work of reassessing many of the assumptions that you have been making. You might have to go back to check the facts behind claims you held as true for many years. You will also have to acquire new knowledge; of history, of political agendas, of central banking, etc. Once you are established in this task, you can focus solely on the facts pertaining to a particular idea you are considering, without these facts being contradicted by false claims and assumptions from your old world view. Certainty now becomes possible within the new context. When you have detached from the mainstream and no longer accept ideas on an assumption of truth, but by assessing facts, you can now achieve certainty with respect to the proving of a positive.
Its important to recognise that assessing an idea with reference to a specific body of evidence is both necessary and sufficient to establish its truth. I want to emphasise the word evidence here. Referring to a specific body of evidence is not the same as referring to a body of ideas accepted as claimed on the assumption of truth. It is the action of integrating an idea within a specified framework of evidence, and connecting it logically into the hierarchy of what you already know—without contradiction—that affords certainty, and results in genuine knowledge. In other words, you are now being vigilant about each piece of evidence that comprises the context. Your context must become one of validated facts, not assumptions.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines evidence as ‘facts or testimony that tend to prove or disprove a particular claim’. Here we can immediately see that a metaphysical appreciation for facts is an essential prerequisite to discussing truth and certainty. You must explicitly stand on the premise that reality is an objective absolute, that A is A. You must respect facts, otherwise truth is meaningless, knowledge is impossible, and certainty is irrelevant. But this also means that you need an awareness of what would constitute proof. More on this in a moment.
Context and hierarchy
Many people reject the concept of certainty on the grounds that a truth will one day be overturned by the discovery of new knowledge, and then conclude that knowledge is impossible. But this is to misunderstand the process of validation, and the crucial role played by observing both full context and the hierarchical structure of knowledge. Certainty is the result of logically connecting a conceptual idea with every other idea you have so far validated as true, and anchoring the whole structure into reality by connecting all of your concepts and principles back to the self-evident at the perceptual level. The fear that new knowledge will contradict the old, results from NOT taking into account the crucial role of context and the hierarchical structure of knowledge.
Lets return to the digital image analogy, and consider one consisting of thousands of pixels that is slowly revealed by adding pixels at random. Suppose you begin with a few dozen pixels. These alone could not present any meaningful image. It is only by adding in more pixels, that a coherent picture would begin to emerge. But here’s the point. If the image in question actually portrays a cat, then the addition of new pixels—analogous to new knowledge—will only add definition and clarity to the emerging picture of a cat, they cannot contradict the image. Suppose the emerging image looks as if it represents a black cat. But there are still some significant blank areas in the image. It would be premature to conclude that the image represented a black cat, since additional pixels may reveal different colours, a patch of white perhaps. Logic dictates that you cannot yet see the whole picture, the context is limited, and so any conclusion drawn should be qualified accordingly. At some point you will become certain that the image represents a cat, but you might not be certain of its uniform colour until many more pixels are added. What this all amounts to is that to avoid later contradiction, conclusions must be precisely formulated taking into account the precise context. This principle holds true for all claims of truth. If you specify the precise context of a conclusion by expressing (and qualifying) your claims with precise language, then the further discovery of any aspects of reality cannot contradict that carefully formulated claim of truth.
If it is reasonable to suspect that there are many factors that have a bearing on the truth of an idea, and that not all of them are currently known, then this must be acknowledged. This would amount to saying that “In the context of the evidence so far examined, this is the only conclusion to draw, but I remain open to further evidence.” As the context changes, then you must be prepared to refine your conclusions accordingly. If we do this, we will not find that knowledge we have already arrived at, is contradicted by new discoveries, but that a more detailed understanding is achieved.
As we have seen, everything you already ‘know’ has a bearing on your assessment of certainty as well as each new piece of evidence you find. This doesn’t mean that you need to know everything to be certain, but it does mean that everything you know must be brought to bear. It means that you must continuously work to integrate all of your knowledge into a non-contradictory sum, and be able to trace your understanding of complex ideas and concepts all the way back down your hierarchy of knowledge to the self-evident facts that support them. This is part of the process of holding full context. The other part is taking responsibility to extend your knowledge where appropriate, to broaden your context. For example, if you are questioning the climate emergency narrative and the reason CO2 is causing runaway climate change is because it is a greenhouse gas, then you must necessarily learn about greenhouse gases, about historical atmospheric levels of CO2 and of temperature, etc.. This isn’t that hard, there is plenty of information available and the raw data is rarely contested.
The process of achieving certainty is one of moving from ignorance (with respect to a particular idea) to knowledge. A given idea moves from a status of ‘unknown’ to ‘validated’ step by logical step, as more and more evidence accumulates. The cognitive status of that idea then moves from unknown, through possible, and probable, towards certainty, when it has been fully validated, and can be considered knowledge.
As an idea is being assessed, the first part of the continuum of its cognitive status is covered by the concept of ‘possible’. To be considered possible, an idea must fulfill two criteria. First, there must be no facts that contradict it. (in this respect it is vital to distinguish between facts, and claims.) However, an absence of contradictions on its own, is not sufficient for an idea to be taken seriously. Second, it must have at least some evidence in support of its truth. This distinguishes it from the arbitrary—an idea with no supporting evidence.
Since evidence is ‘facts or testimony tending to prove or disprove an idea’ you need to identify precisely what would constitute proof. There is no way to tell if you getting closer to, or further from, a destination that is unspecified. In the same way, we must specify which facts, that if shown to be true, would tend to prove or disprove the claim under consideration. This is where great care must be taken to think logically. In areas of medical claims, for example, you must not cite epidemiological studies as evidence of causation. If you were trying to prove the causation of a particular disease by a particular pathogen, producing a purified sample of the alleged pathogen would be the necessary starting point, followed by proof of causation of the disease. [notably neither of these has ever been done] Certainty is a measure of the evidence for or against a particular claim or idea, or proposition. As the evidence mounts up, the case for, or against, a particular claim may weaken or strengthen.
The next range on the continuum of cognitive status is covered by the concept of ‘probable’. A claim can be considered probable when there is a substantial body of evidence in support of its truth, but there are still grounds for doubt; the evidence is not yet conclusive because other explanations remain possible.
Just like possibility, a probability is asserted in a specific context. If a number of specific facts are known to be true, then they can be said to point towards a particular conclusion. We know ‘all of this’, therefore ‘that’ is probable. And at some critical point, as the evidence accumulates, The requirements of proof are reached and a conclusion becomes certain. The verdict of certainty stands or falls with the evidence. At this point the claim can be considered true, or false, as appropriate. This is when sufficient known facts come together in a logical relationship to demonstrate that there are no reasonable grounds for any other conclusion. In this context reasonable means that there must be objective reasons for doubt, as opposed to an endless string of maybe’s unsupported by any facts. The conclusion drawn about the claim can now be considered knowledge, and used as a base for further inference. Certainty beyond a reasonable doubt has been achieved.
It’s worth bearing in mind that, in your quest for truth, you must be investigator, prosecution, defence, judge and jury, all in one single mind. The upshot of this is that you must resist the temptation to stop your process of inquiry just because you ‘kinda think your conclusion is true’. You must be able to prove your case, or (to continue the metaphor) be in a position to bring your case to court. In other words, it can be tempting to gather just enough evidence to think something is probably true, and then treat it as if it were true, without having proven it so, without being certain.
The balance of probability
Certainty is not always achievable if there is difficulty in accessing evidence. When this happens, the degree of probability should be noted and judged against the probability of the opposite conclusion, in the light of whatever evidence is available. It is important to be clear about how much doubt remains.
As I mentioned above, the process of discerning truth necessarily starts by identifying contradictions and thereby knowing what is false, and grasping that which is impossible, so it can be removed from consideration. The harder part of gaining knowledge is constructing a hypothesis of how an event may have actually happened, and this is where certainty may not be possible. But it must be remembered that you don’t need any alternative explanation in order to achieve certainty that an alleged cause (or reason) is false. You only need to know that the alleged cause or reason is contradicted by other known facts of reality. This logical fallacy keeps many thinkers stuck in the Matrix. In the absence of a satisfactory alternative explanation, they feel unjustified in rejecting the official one, even though it may be riddled with contradictions. Again, it is important to stress that disproving a claim with certainty is far easier than proving a positive claim. And as you consider many of the stories in the mainstream news narrative of western culture across the decades, your primary task in seeking to understand the world is first to dismantle your false understanding, by identifying the many false claims. In this respect you must bear in mind that knowing with certainty a claim is false is immensely powerful evidence in itself. For example, when you know with certainty that a particular source of information has lied to you, you are in a position to doubt and re-evaluate all of their claims.
The problem of error
Skeptics will often say that certainty is impossible on the grounds that human thinking is inherently fallible. However, the fact that human thinking has the capacity to be wrong by its nature, does not offer sufficient grounds to hypothesise that error has been made in any particular case. Again, evidence needs to be produced in support of a claim for it not to be considered arbitrary. Can the skeptic find any flaw in the logical reasoning? Is there any error of fact that can be identified? Has any term been incorrectly defined? Can anything be pointed to, in order to support the suggestion of an error being made? If not, then there are no reasonable grounds to continue to doubt. if it is regarded rationally, and is not clung to without justification, doubt is a necessary but transient component of the process of validation. Doubt is held only until sufficient evidence proves conclusive.
The uncertainty principle
In this context I must mention Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, but only because in the predominant philosophical context so many people mistakenly believe that it is relevant. It is not. The uncertainty principle pertains to quantum mechanics, and specifically to mathematical predictions of speed and position of subatomic particles. It does not pertain to reality, but to a small subset of physics that is theoretical and arguably has nothing to do with the real world. It certainly has nothing to do with discerning the truth of claims and narratives in the mainstream media or the establishment view. If you do still give this theory some credibility, remember that mathematics exists in reality, reality does not exist in mathematics. Mathematics is a means to describe reality but it cannot be claimed that it governs reality. It is easy enough to demonstrate mathematical contradictions, but this does not prove that contradictions exist in reality, it proves that contradictions can exist in mathematics. In short, don’t be persuaded that certainty is impossible by anyone citing Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle. It may be relevant in calculations within theoretical physics but it is irrelevant in the context of evaluating the truth or falsity of particular ideas, claims or statements pertaining to the observable facts of objective reality.
Uncertainty in any given individual, and a ‘lack of trusting one’s own judgement’, can become common place when that individual is not in the habit of always determining to think rationally and make a rational judgement. Usually this is due to considering their emotions as valid tools of cognition and forming the habit of judging by feeling—even if unconsciously—rather than by rational thought. The extent to which one knows that one is intellectually lazy—even if unconsciously and implicitly—or is relying on one’s emotions instead of rational thought, is the extent to which they will feel uncertain, even if they have thought something through logically on any one particular occasion. Intellectual certainty, in this respect, must be earned. It is not a given.
Certainty that an idea is false can be achieved by the identification of only one confirmed contradictory fact. Certainty is a measure of the evidence in support of, or against, a particular claim. Examining a claim within a specified context of knowledge (evidence) is both necessary and sufficient to establish its truth or falsity. Your conclusions of truth can be considered absolute in a specifically defined context of evidence.
By adopting these epistemological principles achieving certainty to the standard of ‘beyond a reasonable doubt’ is entirely possible, and sufficient for all practical purposes.