Monday February 5, 2007
A couple of days ago I received through the post my latest copy of The Philosophers’ Magazine. I’ve not had a chance to read much of it yet, but I was taken by the cover of the magazine, which announced, “Certainty & Doubt: Is there too much of both?”
This, it seemed to me, was an interesting question. Certainly the Western philosophical tradition has hovered uneasily between the two, with on the one side the facile claim that we can never known anything at all, full stop, and on the other hand the obsessive drive for absolutely certain knowledge. A little knowledge, we are told by our elders and betters, is a dangerous thing. Both tendencies, however, seem to me to be unhelpful. I’ve never been convinced by the certainties so easily trotted out by true believers – whether Buddhist, Kantian, Christian, Islamic, Nihilist, or what have you. But at the same time, I’m not entirely convinced by the various forms of radical and systematic doubt that it is possible to encounter, often in the form of the self-defeating claim that it is impossible to know anything for certain.
Between these views, however, there is much room to manoeuvre. We do not need to sign up either to a commitment to certain knowledge or to a commitment to radical doubt. Michel Serres puts it well in his book Genesis:
We always assume that we don’t know, or else that we know everything, yea or nay. Whereas commonly we know a bit, a meagre amount, enough, quite a bit…
A little knowledge is a dangerous thing? Only, I think, when we assume that this is all that there is to know; because from our births to our deaths, this, it seems, is what we have to get by on: a little knowledge, a bit, a meagre amount, quite a bit, enough…
Comments are turned off for this article.
Today's Most Popular
Darwin Day: Thursday February 12, 2009
Darwin’s 200th birthday – time to don your false beard and get partying.
Hurrah for Materialism! (Part 1): Friday August 5, 2005
Can a Buddhist be a materialist?
Who Knows?: Friday February 3, 2006
Another post from thinkBuddha… But who is doing the posting? And who is doing the reading?
The Demon, Impermanence: Thursday August 10, 2006
Computer failure at thinkBuddha.org
Self Evident Experience?: Friday February 23, 2007
What’s going on… and what we think is going on…
Peace: Monday November 7, 2005
Is it true that non-violence cannot deal with the crises in the present-day world?
Informed Ignorance, Spinoza and Science: Sunday September 2, 2007
Spionza, ignorance, understanding – all that, and I’m still two hundred miles from the nearest decent cappuccino.
The Machineries of Anxiety: Monday November 28, 2005
Does our 24-hour news society merely fuel anxiety? But don’t we also have a responsibility to know what is happening in the world to which we are so intimately connected?
The Buddha and the Sahibs: Review: Monday August 1, 2005
Charles Allen goes in pursuit of the British orientalists
What Attention Lays Bare: Sunday May 27, 2007
Husserl, meditation and the quest for certainty.
Zen, Brains and Making Friends With Your Own Head: 10 Nov, 2008
It’s a complicated business having a brain.
Lies in Which not Everything is False: 10 Sep, 2008
Stories – they are nothing but a pack of lies.
The Sutras of Abu Ghraib: 30 Oct, 2007
Aidan Delgado on Buddhism, ethics and the war in Iraq.
Baboon: 06 Jun, 2006
Feeling like a grumpy old baboon?
Meditation as Unphenomenology: 07 Feb, 2008
Meditation, cartography and the territory of the mind.