by Medi Chaithanya.
Why are we so certain about some knowledge claims in our everyday life? How do we understand “certainty” in general and in what way does this understanding help us to do things in our day to day life?
I was watching a Telugu movie on TV when Amma screamed for the detergent powder. Not wanting to miss any scenes in the film, I rushed to the kitchen where she usually stores the surf-powder. I grabbed a plastic Dabba with white powder in it and hurled it into Amma’s lap.
“Don’t you know the difference between surf powder and sugar powder, you idiot?”, said Amma starting her daily dose of ashirvad.
“Why do you keep them in the same place? Any sane person would have placed them in different places because they look similar in color”. Her irritable squeaky voice made me lose my cool.
“This boy doesn’t know the difference between sugar and surf, and he is doing MA Philosophy. No wonder people say ‘Philosophy is a useless subject’”, Amma mocked me with her favorite insult.
I told her that I had had enough of this. So, I decided to teach Amma a lesson. I grabbed the dabba with sugar powder from her and went to the kitchen again. But this time I came back with two dabbas. I told her to pick out the surf dabba out of the two identical bottles in my hand.
She looked at both of them for a moment and slowly placed her hand on the dabba in my right hand. I was perplexed for a moment. Clearly she has been acquainted with these dabbas for so long, which is why she could pick out the right one, I said.
“Can’t you see those shiny tiny blue things, my dear?”, she said mockingly.
It was then that I decided to use my ‘logical’ skills to beat her. I devised a genius test to check her certainty. I told her to close her eyes and asked her to guess which is the sugar and which the surf without looking at or tasting it.
There was no way Amma would be able to figure out which was which, I thought. I could live happily forever. But to my surprise, she took out a pinch of powder in her palm and placed it in a bucket of water. With a smile on her face, she said the other one was surf.
“I have been washing our family’s clothes for over 30 years, and when you put surf in the water, it burns your hand, my son,” she said with a winning look.
She had hurt my fragile ego so much so that I was forced to resort to Descartes’ dream argument.
I said “Amma, what if you’re dreaming? What if you are in a dream and you’re just thinking that you’re feeling the burning sensation whereas, in reality, you’re sleeping?”
“If you question everything like this in the world, who will wash these clothes? Will your father come and wash?” she dismissed my claim and went on to with her usual routine.
However, her final words seem to echo a different thought in my mind. What happens if we question every knowledge claim/belief? Can we go on questioning endlessly?
Nyaya philosophy came to my help in this regard. They have grappled with two significant questions regarding the validity or invalidity of knowledge. They are: How is the validity or invalidity of knowledge constituted? And, how is its validity or invalidity known by us? Roughly speaking they’ve dealt with questions of the origin of the knowledge as well as the justification. And these conditions in a way are related to the notion of certainty in general.
Nyaya philosophy argues that both validity and invalidity of any knowledge is justified externally. According to them, knowledge is valid only if it leads to successful activity (pravrttisamathya) and if it results in the desired volitional experience of the expected event (arthakriyakhyaphalajnana). So, for example, if someone sees a mirage in a desert and thinks that there is water in that place. Then, to know whether our knowledge is valid or not, Naiyayikas would argue that one should go and touch or dip in the water so that one can verify the claim. And they would say that if it is real water, then they should quench their thirst also. These conditions are nothing but volitional experiences. If the substance satisfies these conditions, then Naiyayikas argue that there is water in that place and our knowledge claim about it is valid.
But, what if someone were to ask how do we know that the volitional experience is valid? Does it not require any other justification? If it requires any other justification, then the earlier reason needs another justification, and this process will go on, and it results in an infinite regress.
In reply to this criticism, one might argue that the experience of expected objects (phalajnana) doesn’t ordinarily require any test for its validity because there is no doubt about it because there is the fulfillment of our purpose in it or they are so self-evident that we don’t doubt their truth-value. In other words, the beliefs/propositions about the expected objects are so certain that we don’t even doubt them. They are indubitable beliefs altogether. In a sense, these phalajnanas don’t require any justifications whatsoever.
The above line of argument is the stand that a philosopher like Wittgenstein would take. For him, all belief claims don’t require justifications. In his classic response to Moore’s “common-sense argument,” Wittgenstein argued that there are some beliefs that are in no need of justification. They are so certain that one can consider them like axioms in a mathematical system.
However, Naiyayikas being staunch realists, can’t offer a solution like Wittgenstein’s. So, accepting a claim like ‘there are some indubitable’ propositions/beliefs will not be consistent with the Nyaya position at all.
That being said, let us think about what we mean when we say that some propositions are indubitable? Does it mean that no one can ever doubt their truth-value? If it is, then what stops one from doubting them? Does doubting require purely “an act” on the part of the doubter or is there something to be said about the general relationship that exists between the doubter and the thing being doubted? Why is it that the relationship will not obtain in the cases of indubitable propositions? Is it something because of the nature of the proposition itself that the relation doesn’t exemplify? Is the property of ‘Indubitability‘, grounded purely on the proposition, or is it also grounded in the fact that such a relationship doesn’t exemplify?
One of the most-cited examples of self-evident propositions is laws of thought i.e. law of identity, the law of non-contradiction, and the law of excluded middle. One interesting question to ask is, ‘can God contravene these propositions?’ Medieval philosophers have disagreements about this issue. Some people would argue that God, being the highest being, can contradict them. Then there are people like Aquinas who would argue that even God can’t contradict these laws. In that case, what is it about these laws that even the highest-category of being can’t doubt/contravene them? If we can explain that property, then we can successfully explain the notion of certainty as a whole, independent of all the other epistemic categories.
But, how do we explain these propositions/beliefs which are certain?
Like Descartes, one can take an epistemological path and say that universal assent makes them certain, and underlying this universal assent there is this sense of self-evidence, which in turn connects with the notion of indubitability. In a sense, his notion of certainty, self-evidence, and indubitability are so interconnected that one would think they are interdependent and inter-definable concepts.
Or else, one could take an epistemic relativization route and argue that the truth of these propositions is certainly true given the other epistemic conditions are being satisfied. For example, a ball being dropped can’t fly away (go-up) given the other natural laws of motions are maintained. So, the truth-value of the proposition “The ball can’t fly away” in this context is certain, and it is relative to natural laws.
In addition to the above two, one could argue that these indubitable beliefs are necessarily true, i.e., they are true in all possible worlds. But, in this case, we are seemingly attributing a kind of “metaphysical baggage” to those propositions/beliefs as such, and Naiyayikas wouldn’t want to do that at all.
On the act of doubting, a grammarian like Sri-Harsha would grant the wish of questioning endlessly because he wasn’t a staunch realist like the Naiyayikas. Naiyayikas would finally say that for all practical purposes one can’t entertain the act of doubting eternally because it leads to Anavastha (infinite regress). So, one must accept some beliefs/propositions as certain/self-evident/indubitable if they are don’t contradict other beliefs and get on with life because someone needs to wash the clothes. So, I called Amma and said “you’re a true Nyaya philosopher,” and she said emphatically “you better come home and learn philosophy from me.”