Consider the metaphysical question of whether God exists (just as an example). There are, and have been throughout history, billions of atheists, billions of Christians, and billions of people with many other beliefs. Consider the top million most educated/intelligent/logical among each group. A million people, in spite of their knowledge, intelligence, and education, are wrong on the issue of whether or not God exists (i.e. either the million atheists are wrong, and God exists, or the million Christians are wrong, and he doesn't). Admittedly, maybe we should only take the top from the past few decades, who would have heard all of the arguments made by the others over the millennia, but the idea still holds.

What about the person of average education/intelligence who wants to know the truth? What makes this one person's opinion any better than the million on either side? Shouldn't he just abstain from even considering one option to be more likely? He, who is of average intelligence, and hasn't heard all the arguments, and has thought about this question only occasionally, presumably misunderstands the arguments or positions of the greater minds that came before him.

And even if he thinks he's heard all the arguments, and is perfectly well thought out, his confidence in a position doesn't, in any way, increase the likelihood of this position actually being correct. What's much more likely is that the person fell into whatever trap that the million wrong people fell into, and that even though he is very confident in his opinion, he has been "pushed" by his biases or other limitations. He has no more reason to be confident in his opinion than the million people that are confident in their opinion, but are in fact incorrect.

I am unsure why I should be confident in any opinion I formulate, because I feel I am no more intelligent and unbiased than the millions of people who felt the same way, and were still wrong.

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    My favorite bumper sticker: "Don't believe everything you think." There's wisdom in that. We have to strive to get beyond our own beliefs and opinions if we want to know what's true. – user4894 Aug 7 '14 at 3:51
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    @user4894 but then, what do you believe? You have to believe something, if only to get by in life – That Guy Aug 7 '14 at 3:54
  • @Matt "You need a busload of faith to get by." -- Lou Reed. Check out the lyrics, they're directly on point. youtube.com/watch?v=wBIlehYpdwk – user4894 Aug 7 '14 at 4:09
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    @Matt I did not give an answer. I made a comment. My remark isn't intended to be comprehensive. But there's truth in it. Reason's not nearly enough. I just read a study that we judge someone's trustworthiness within about one second of meeting them. We rely tremendously on instinct and judgment. If all we had was reason we'd be doomed; because reason requires axioms; and axioms, if you are to take them as true, require faith. That is: Semantics is a matter of faith. What things mean goes far beyond logic. – user4894 Aug 7 '14 at 4:38
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    @Timkinsella What makes a scientist the most qualified opinion on the issue of God's existence? The only scientific issue that is directly relevant may be the age of the earth, but let's for now focus on the million intelligent Christian thinkers who agree with the scientists about the age of the earth. – Sherz Aug 7 '14 at 16:59

14 Answers 14


You're absolutely right--given your premises you shouldn't presume that you can come up with the correct answer to the question of what God there is. You have marshalled impressive evidence that this is not possible for a typical person (that many average people have mutually contradictory beliefs), and postulated that you are average. Thus, the honest position to take is weak agnosticism: someone might be able to know, but I don't.

The only way out, if there is one at all, is to become atypical in some way. You needn't necessarily become an expert in all relevant areas (theology, philosophy, science, maybe others?), but you at least need some strategy that is not generally followed but which, upon reflection, seems highly reliable.

Keep in mind that the problem of knowledge is a hard one; there is no widespread consensus among philosophers about what knowledge is or how to acquire it. SEP has a lengthy summary if you're interested. So being completely assured in your knowledge seems an unlikely endpoint unless you fool yourself.

One could just give up and adopt a pragmatic approach: act as though you believe that which is most convenient for other reasons (social, emotional, etc.). Or one could try to find experts who are demonstrably very accurate in certain conclusions (e.g. about the age of the earth) and see if there is a good argument about why that reliability ought to extend to conclusions where the accuracy is hard to directly check (e.g. they are not Buddhists because...um...???). Or one could seek to understand why different people disagree and thereby detect the traps into which people fall, and also become enough of an expert to not rely wholly on the opinions of those who have fallen into traps--and then, despite the odds, you might actually have a decent shot at being correct or at least less egregiously wrong.

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    So weak agnosticism originally sounded somewhat appealing, but then I realized the same argument could be applied to it: We have a million religious people, and a million weak agnostics, etc... etc... Unfortunately, it seems the conclusion of "So don't take a position" is itself a position. But your unique approach idea is, in theory, very appealing. The issue, of course, is figuring out what that approach is. And your suggestions seem part of the solution, if not the whole of it. – Sherz Aug 13 '14 at 0:11
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    @Sherz - Weak agnosticism is not like religion (or any other definitive view) because finding people who believe different things supports that it is the "correct" position. If you look at weak agnosticism and religion and think, Gosh, how can I tell them apart? I dunno. then you are a weak agnostic. Strong agnosticism--saying that people cannot know--is very different, and that is subject to the same kind of undermining that any other non-"I dunno" belief is. – Rex Kerr Aug 13 '14 at 5:29
  • I'll be clearer. If you flip a coin behind me, I'm very unsure what it landed on (in fact, I can hardly be more unsure), but I am confident that being unsure is the correct response. I am confident than I analyzed the situation correctly. Similarly, one could say "I analyzed the evidence, and I don't think it's convincing evidence either way, so I'll be agnostic". But here, since many people are wrong, I'm greatly unconfident in any conclusion, because I think I analyzed it incorrectly. I'm not just unconfident in the conclusion- I'm unconfident in the analysis which led to the conclusion. – Sherz Aug 14 '14 at 17:23
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    But as you say, the weak agnosticism will still be a position I'm unconfident in. I'm OK if the conclusion is that I'm confident that this knowledge is currently beyond me. Then I would be a confident weak agnostic. But that's not this- this is saying I don't know (or can't know) how to analyze the issue in the first place. I'm an unconfident weak agnostic. I may as well just flip a coin to decide whether God exists, and then I'll be an unconfident theist, or unconfident atheist, or whatever. I want to be a confident "something". – Sherz Aug 15 '14 at 3:24
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    @Sherz - You can confidently know that you haven't done enough work to know what's going on. So you can be a confident weak atheist: you are quite sure that you can't, right now, know what the right answer is except by dumb luck; anyone who has done as much work as you, only, also should be a weak atheist or their beliefs are insufficiently justified. To get out--to believe something less nebulous than "I can't justify any belief"--there are the "become an expert in all areas" and "figure out where the traps are and avoid them" strategies I included in my answer. – Rex Kerr Aug 15 '14 at 18:30

While this won't solve any real form of epistemological doubt, what you can do practically is a sort of reverse Pascal's Wager.

Let's take your example, but expand it not only to whether God exists, but to the corollary question of what exactly is the nature/definition of this 'God', and would He have anything to do with morality or communicate with humanity, etc. Now, some of these conceptions of God are quite elaborate, such as depicting Him as repaying human adherence to complex rituals with eternal bliss. Let's also assume that instead of making your own decision on this questoin, you decide to leave it up to the 'experts', the brilliant theologians and philosophers who have debated and thought about this issue, but - to your great chagrin - you have found that there seems to be either equal 'epistemological weight' (likelihood of being correct, disregarding actual arguments), or, more likely, you're unable to determine which side is more correct.

So... do you just flip a coin? Well, let's imagine that these many hundreds of theologies are equally plausible (or, practically equally plausible since you don't have any way of evaluating their relative correctness), but you need to do something about this question and so you spin your Wheel of Theology. If it hits 1, then you'll be living life as if there were no god. If 2, then you'll be living as a Catholic, requiring prayer and a few sacraments. If 3: Islam, which instead of scattered sacraments would require significantly more prayers, and more ritual laws, etc...

Basically, some of these metaphysical beliefs will demand more from you. If you see the choices are truly being equal, than you might has well spin the wheel. But if you're resorting to spinning the wheel, stop, and think about the consequences/demands each theology would make on your life. Just as Pascal thought that the religious life provides 'nothing to lose and everything to gain', similarly, you would have 'gained' the same likelihood of being correct from any one of the options, but would have to 'lose' whatever lifestyle sacrifices that would have to be made in order to accommodate said theology. Thus, the least demanding would be the most practical.

As I said, though, this doesn't resolve the actual doubt, just give a practical 'way out'.

  • Wouldn't someone unsure about whether/which would also be in doubt about whether death is the end of everything and would therefore want to take into account potential costs/benefits after death rather than just effort pre-death? – AndrewC Aug 7 '14 at 22:56
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    @AndrewC Very true, which is the whole point of Pascal's Wager, of course. I guess if you aren't sure about an afterlife, but you are sure about the current life, it seems more pragmatic to take care of that one. On the other hand, the afterlife might be eternal... it's a good point – That Guy Aug 7 '14 at 23:15

Two points I'd like to make:

Dealing with Uncertainty

Anytime you start saying something about certainty of beliefs, it seems useful to think in terms of Bayesian approaches. In Bayesian methods, rather than throwing together all knowledge together, we separate out preconceived notions (priors) and new knowledge acquired. As you say, certainty need not correlate with correctness. But, if you look at things this way, you can see that strong arguments either way need not "convince" a rational person with strong priors - it merely shifts the posterior confidence one way or another.

You can then break the problem down into two: (1) how should arguments for/against God change the posterior confidence, and (2) what is an appropriate prior. There are many many research-level papers on the theory on picking an appropriate prior that you can find quickly by a Google search. I'm not aware of any that address your question in particular, but it seems like a good framework for dealing with practical uncertainty in the fact of conflicting evidence.

Should we average people make a claim

Second, one can look to Plato (as recounted in the Protagoras) about whether an "average" person should try to answer the question for himself (or herself):

And this is the reason, Socrates, why the Athenians and mankind in general, when the question relates to carpentering or any other mechanical art, allow but a few to share in their deliberations; and when any one else interferes, then, as you say, they object, if he be not of the favoured few; which, as I reply, is very natural. But when they meet to deliberate about political virtue, which proceeds only by way of justice and wisdom, they are patient enough of any man who speaks of them, as is also natural, because they think that every man ought to share in this sort of virtue, and that states could not exist if this were otherwise.

Wisdom and Justice, according to the dialog, are not something belonging to the narrow purview of a few. Questions that affect how one defines Wisdom and Justice (and your example, the existence of a God, seems to be one of them!) are then also not to be answered by the few elite. If, after all, justice says something (in part) about how you and your neighbor interact, then you and your neighbor must have some idea of justice (assuming you and your neighbor manage to get along ok).

  • Thanks for understanding/appreciating the question! As you point out, justice has actual relevance, so it seems prudent that we come up with some way of determining the truth. Thus, the main objective of this question (at least from my standpoint, though I'm not the OP) is to find a way of evaluating the conflicting claims of other people. See philosophy.stackexchange.com/questions/15132/… where I'm trying to find any discussion of quantifying the plausibility of other people's claims (my more direct question) – That Guy Aug 11 '14 at 23:38
  • I don't think I fully understand. Are you saying we should use Bayes's theorum to figure out "The chance that my conclusion about God is correct"? If so, then we're back to the original question- how can I be confident in my conclusion, when so many are wrong (albeit that I reached my conclusion via a Bayesian approach. But there's enough subjectivity involved that I can mess it up). Or are you saying that we should weigh into the question of "Does God exist" the fact that so many argue? If so, is there any way to determine the "weight" of that? – Sherz Aug 12 '14 at 23:29
  • Well, I don't think you should actually do arithmetic. Bayes Theorem describes how a rational but uncertain agent updates beliefs given new evidence - you should use that general process. You should separate out initial bias and how you update your beliefs. Beyond that, specific instructions about how to weight certain arguments, which arguments are believable, and what are the good arguments is the entirety of philosophy and is therefore a very broad subject. – James Kingsbery Aug 13 '14 at 13:43
  • Mhm, so I would say in theory, a Bayesian approach would be appropriate, and enough to rely on (in that, if nothing else, the mathematics follows from basic axioms, and the general ideas follows from the math). But in practice, the difficulty would be the assigning of the weights. And it would be there that my question would return. – Sherz Aug 14 '14 at 17:42

Don't feel that you have to make up your mind on every issue. Even the geniuses among us have only a limited knowledge to work with. "I don't know" is certainly a legitimate position. So, for that matter, is "I don't care."

  • But let's say I don't know and care :) – Sherz Aug 12 '14 at 23:30
  • Don't beat yourself up because you don't have all the answers. Nobody does. But that doesn't mean you give up looking for answers. – Dan Christensen Aug 13 '14 at 4:31

Your question relies heavily on how to choose the "correct" answer. But your argument suggests that there is insufficient proof to unquestionably determine which answer is undeniably correct.

Using the same example you provided (God), there is insufficient physical evidence to prove or disprove his existence with absolute certainty. Therefore, you have both proponents, and opponents to his existence. Both sides can formulate convincing arguments relying either on current facts or the unexplainable/untestable, but neither can provide definitive, indisputable proof, otherwise there would be no argument.

Consider this extremely menial analogy; you need milk for your cereal (for this example we're only considering cows milk), do you buy Dairyland, Parmalat, Lucern, or some other brand of milk? Which is the correct answer? You could investigate all of the arguments, weigh all the pros and cons for each brand of milk, research the pasteurization techniques each brand uses, audit each company's treatment of their animals, review their sanitation policies, etc, etc... In the end you would be far more educated on each brand of milk, and in a much better position to make an educated decision, but in the end doesn't it all come down to a simple matter of choice? Science says the molecular structure of each brand of milk is virtually identical, you still get milk for your cereal no matter which brand you choose, so there's technically no wrong answer, only a choice.

Back to the example of God, where many say there is a wrong answer and very serious, eternal consequences for choosing wrong. How can you be certain you are making the correct choice when there is no chance of certainty based off of the facts? Can you rely on data and your reasoning alone? The answer is no, you cannot, and according to some sects of Christianity there will never be sufficient evidence to prove His existence, as it would defeat His purposes. You have to make a choice, and that choice can't be made by reason of thought in the head, but only by feelings in the heart, what brings you peace?

Some choices are exactly that, a choice, there is no right or wrong to some decisions, and in every situation where a plurality insists that there is a wrong answer, it is because that plurality's decisions are influenced by an ideology, such as religion, or veganism, capitalism, etc. In either case, you need to choose what you think feels right.

If you feel good about your decision, and there are no negative consequences to making that decision, chances are you can trust it's the right decision for you.

  • My religious disclaimer: This is my secular answer. Keep in mind that choosing wrong in religion has eternal consequences. If in doubt, you can still live a happy and fulfilling life by taking Pascal's Wager, but if you want to eradicate all fear and doubt, you can obtain a witness of the Spirit to the truthfulness of the good news of God simply by asking with a sincere heart. (James 1:5, Moroni 10:3-7) – ShemSeger Aug 15 '14 at 18:17

It must be that someone is right. But the correct answer (to the question about the existence of god) can still be independent of what people believe. If I hold a pencil behind my back and ask ten people which hand it's in, and some people get it right, does it mean they knew the answer, or just that they had the "right opinion"?

On the other hand, your question suggests that there is no basis in other people's beliefs for deriving an opinion worth believing in. But it also supposes there is a benefit to asking the question (as to why should I believe my opinions). If other people's replies give you no basis for believing them, then what is that benefit?


Your question has a number of problems. You ask about being confident in positions and whether you should believe in them. What matters is whether your positions are right or wrong. Your feelings about them are irrelevant. Indeed, whether you believe an idea is irrelevant. You use lots of knowledge that is never instantiated in your brain, such as knowledge instantiated in computer programs. You may have books. The point of having a book is so that you don't have to remember ideas. You don't have to believe them. So your question as you asked it is far too narrow. It leaves out loads of potential errors in favour of focusing on something irrelevant: your feelings.

You seem to be labouring under the false impression that knowledge is created by induction, but it is not. Induction is impossible. No knowledge has even been created by induction. Nor will any knowledge ever be created by induction. Explanations do not follow from observations in any sense. Nor do observations prove any idea. Nor can any observation make any idea one jot more probable. Inductivism is just another variety of justificationism: the idea that it is possible and desirable to prove ideas true or probably true. Justificationism is wrong. In reality, you can't prove any position or show it is probable. Any argument requires premises and rules of inference and it doesn't prove (or make probable) those premises or rules of inference. If you're going to say they're self evident then you are acting in a dogmatic manner that will prevent you from spotting some mistakes. If you don't say they are self evident then you would have to prove those premises and rules of inference by another argument that would bring up a similar problem with respect to its premises and rules of inference.

In reality all knowledge is created by conjecture and criticism. You notice a problem with your current ideas, propose solutions, criticise the solutions until only one is left and then find a new problem. Experiments are useful only as criticism. Ideas can't be derived from experiment any more than from any other set of premises. Rather, the idea is that you work out how the consequences of one theory differ from those of another. Then you conjecture ideas about experimental setups that would enable you to see the relevant consequences and criticise them. Once you have a setup that works about as well as you can make it work you use it to do the test. If the results are compatible with one theory and not the others then you may have successfully refuted some false ideas. Sometimes a purported successful experimental test will be successfully criticised because a test is a conjecture about something that happened and that conjecture may be wrong, so experiments don't prove anything.

Your knowledge is all guesswork and the only way of sorting those guesses is by criticism. Experiencing something directly is not a prerequisite for criticising stuff other people say about it and improving on it. You can look at their stuff and ask whether it solves the problem it sets out to solve, whether it is consistent, whether it is explains with experimental results, whether it clashes with other ideas and lots of other issues I haven't included. If you haven't looked into an issue the appropriate position is to have no position because there is a criticism of the idea that you should adopt a position: you haven't considered any of the relevant arguments. If you have considered an issue you should advocate whatever position you have when it is relevant. If you're wrong and other people have arguments against your position then you might learn a better position. If you're right, then there's no problem. Either way if you are interested in the issue you're better off having a position than not having it.

  • I do like the question though. The problem isn't really about induction etc. despite the title. It's about the very reasonable position of recognizing ones own limitations and therefore following experts, taken to its logical (?) conclusion: on questions of metaphysics, brilliant experts have disagreed, so it seems best to abstain, for my own conviction is no better than flipping a coin – That Guy Aug 7 '14 at 11:57
  • I have removed the reference to your comment since I don't want to misrepresent the OP's position. – alanf Aug 7 '14 at 12:59
  • First, thanks for thought-out the answer. I have a few issues with it, though. 1) You say no knowledge has ever been created by induction, but you call induction a form of justification. According to the basic JTB definition of knowledge, why wouldn't induction be an ingredient of knowledge? 2) More importantly, many people think that they have come to a conclusion rigorously, that they have examined, conjectured and hypothesizes, and that they're conclusion is justified (though you can't really experiment to see if God exists). So apparently doing so can still lead you wrong. – Sherz Aug 7 '14 at 13:28
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    @alanf What do you mean by "No idea is justified"? Is it not justified to believe that walking on a highway blindfolded is dangerous? Or that if I flap my hands, I cannot fly? I would have called those justified beliefs. – Sherz Aug 7 '14 at 13:45
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    @alaf I think you and Sherz are using 'justification' in two different ways. The problem with just picking an idea at random and arguing about it is that you can go a whole lifetime and not even come remotely close to the truth. Just because an idea seems to have 'won the argument' today, does that really mean that it's more likely to be true? Can you be justified (in any sense of the word) calling that a 'win', when there's no reason that it's more likely to be true than the previous idea, since it can just as easily be debated and rejected tomorrow? – That Guy Aug 7 '14 at 14:20

Regarding the metaphysical questions: Carnap said that all metaphysical questions are no questions at all, since they operate with words that have no meaning. Words have only a meaning according to Carnap (and others) when related to the real world. Metaphysical expressions like "God" create the false impression that they can be filled with sense and that questions involving those words could be answered. Carnap thought of metaphysics as a matter of belief.

Regarding ethical questions: I think debates about ethical values is always dependent on the culture they take place in, and cannot be solved once and for all. In fact, that is a very important characteristic of ethics - that ethical judgements are fallible. The only way for moral questions to be definite is to be related to something other than our moral reasoning (i.e. ethical arguments must rely on at least one descriptive premise, whose truth-value can be evaluated definitely). This means, that morality would rely on nature or science for that matter, and precisely this would make it not moral anymore.

It all comes down to one thing: What criteria should a proposition fulfill in order for a person to believe this proposition? Or put differently: When is a proposition plausible? Many philosophers have asked this questions and - as always - there is no definite answer. So should we obtain from believing anything because we don't know when a proposition really is plausible? That's the wrong question to ask, because we sure do know in many cases things to be plausible! Take for example the sentence: "raping children is morally wrong". We would all agree. So even though that's an ethical statement (which by definition can not be proved), there is no doubt that it is plausible to assume this is right. Just because we don't have a concept of plausibility that indicates for all propositions whether it's plausible or not, does not mean there are no clear cases of plausible propositions.

There are many cases in which we are not sure whether our believes are justified. But this does not entail that there are no cases! There are many cases where we rightly assume our believes to be well justified. And, yes, they can alway be criticized and scrutinized. But the mere property of a proposition to be challenged does in no way make it less plausible.

  • That sounds fair enough, but it means as a practical issue, if we don't know by what criteria a proposition is plausible, then the logical thing to do would be to abstain from answering the question of whether a given proposition is plausible or not. – Sherz Aug 7 '14 at 14:03
  • not quite, only if you assume that there is one single set of criteria which defines plausibility. But there isn't, just as with almost anything. Take chair, for example: 4 legs? There are chairs with 3 or only one leg... you see, logically you can just demand what is possible. "Plausibility" is a concept with fuzzy edges, but it still works! – Frederike Aug 7 '14 at 14:13
  • So then let's get specific- in the case of God, where millions of people are on both sides, what would be a plausible reason to believe one side, and not assume that one is making the same mistake as the millions of wrong people? – Sherz Aug 7 '14 at 14:17
  • I don't think this is a very good example. As far as I know, the existence of God is no matter of philosophy anymore (the last philosophical proof for God's existence was from Gödel beginning of 20th century), but its a question of belief. Other proposals? :) – Frederike Aug 7 '14 at 18:20
  • Maybe I'm being fluid with the definition of "philosophical" here, but the question of the existence of God shouldn't be qualitatively different than the question of the existence of any other thing. I mean, I "believe" in the existence of books, and I feel that that is a plausible belief. So what would make the "belief" in God plausible or implausible? Is that not a philosophical question? – Sherz Aug 7 '14 at 18:30

it's something like the pmi http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pessimistic_induction which is a strong argument.

however, you have to be careful in your skepticism, at risk of absurdity, unintuitive thinking, uninteresting arguments, and frank confusion. this is what the objection of "psychological implausibility" means. SURELY no-one really believes in nihilism, etc.

what you seem to be saying is that you are a global skeptic, that we cannot know anything, on the grounds that lots of knowledge has been wrong. but aside from that fact that it does seem that lots of knowledge is not wrong [if we knew nothing, then how did we get to the moon?], it would be somewhat absurd to jettison all knowledge for the failure of some.

a caricature of that would read like: this parrot is dead; therefore all parrots are dead.

moreover, while global skepticism IS internally consistent, if you claim to know that this skepticism is true, then you know that you know, or at least [it seems] you know why global skepticism is true. and so you know that induction in valid, in which case we can surely infer a lot of things, or at least know that those inferences are valid.

descartes famously argued that we all know we exist, too.

finally, induction is weaker than deduction so apriori facts cannot disproven that way.

  • Despite the title (perhaps that should be changed), I don't think the OP really doubts 'everything', merely anything that has been contested by people who we'd take seriously or anything that can be actually proven deductively. Nobody (who I would take seriously) denies the heliocentric model of the solar system, but there are many other things that are disputed by people who know more about the topic than I'd be able to evaluate. – That Guy Aug 10 '14 at 21:51
  • Ya, I apologize for the imprecision of "Anything". Matt's more narrow focus seems about correct. – Sherz Aug 14 '14 at 17:43
  • I'm not sure that true global scepticism is logically consistent: If you are sceptic of everything, you must also be sceptic of your own application of logical rules (and actually in the rules themselves). But then, it's exactly those you used to convince yourself that you should be sceptic of everything. So how can you be sure that you can't be sure? – celtschk Aug 16 '14 at 8:25
  • i mean the conclusion isn't self refuting, there's a current discussion on whether radical doubt is psychologically possible actually – user6917 Aug 16 '14 at 12:04

I suppose that this question does not concerns scientific issues, on which it is possible to reach a consensus among specialists, but deep metaphysical problems which cannot (yet) be settled empirically.

One first remark is that arguably, there is a continuum between purely empirical questions and purely metaphysical questions, with conceptual issues in fundamental science lying somewhere in the middle. Such conceptual issues are not settled by direct empirical evidence, but rather by their fruitfulness in driving scientific research. Take reductionnism for example: the idea that everything reduces more fundamental constituents. This is a metaphysical question but it happened to be very successful as a methodological principle driving the elaboration of empirical hypothesis (e.g. in thermodynamics in 19th century), and in a sense, its fruitfulness justifies its validity. Maybe reductionnism is strictly false, or cannot be setteled, but at least we can now agree that there is some kind of truth in it. There are other, more scientific principles, for example the principle of inertia, which are never tested directly but happen to be successful in the elaboration of scientific theories.

Anyway, I suppose your question does not concern scientific issues but rather deep philosophical questions which are not necessarily connected to science and empirical evidence, on which there is generally no consensus even among the specialists of the field. I understand your skepticism. However I think that in general, the more one dwells into this type of metphysical questions, the more one will become interested in drawing the conceptual landscape of the possible answers and corresponding implications rather than defend a particular position. When it comes to metaphysics, you realise at one point that all is a matter of intuitions pulling in different directions. Different people are more or less compelled by different kinds of intuitions, or different criteria (having a parsimonious theory, or doing justice to common sense, etc.). Merely analysing these intuitions and the arguments we can get from them is already of interest. The interesting part is not to defend one position or the other but to clarify the issue, to eliminate inconsistent positions and let everyone see what is at stake in each camp, so that further inquiry can be performed, in hope that some day the domain will be more directly connected to empirical evidence. At least it's how I view things.


All knowledge is circular within time, space, and causation. Knowledge is pigeonholing a new impression with old ones. When we try to pigeonhole our perception of the universe we cannot do it, as we have no prior associations to compare it (the universe) to in our minds. So with God. All that we can perceive of God is only a part (and we all perceive God differently), just as we can perceive only a part of the universe, all the rest is beyond human recognition. There is much more to this universe than can be perceived by human senses and human consciousness. That is why we see God as imperfect, and do not understand Him. The only way to understand Him is to go beyond reason, beyond consciousness.

We can make as many, and perhaps more, logical reasons and arguments for atheism as for any type of theism. We can even say that atheists are even more honest than theists as they admit that they cannot see a God in this universe. Real religion lies not in belief but in being and becoming. If atheists are right and there is no God, what is the use of doing anything of any moral value in this world, or of doing anything that does not fulfill my own selfish animal desires immediately? If there is a God, what is the use of doing anything in this world but trying to experience Him (or It) now? God is beyond the sensual world; control the mind, cut off the senses. The answer lies beyond the sensual world and cannot be answered by argumentation in it.


Well, your very question has the same dilemma...Billions of people think they can know things, many others think they cannot. Many in both camps are very smart, well educated, etc. If your premise is correct, that smart people on both sides of an issue means the average person cannot have confidence in a position, then it must apply just as well to your question.

Therefore, if your premise is correct, then you cannot know whether your premise is correct. On the other hand, if your premise is incorrect, then you can know it is incorrect. So, no answer here in the affirmative can be correct, as it would be self refuting.

Now, if we say the only two possible answers are yes or no, then by disjunction elimination the conclusion must be that you can indeed know things. This is a sound/valid deductive argument.


Reasons to be confident in opinions you formulate:

1) It is one way to create something from nothing; see this relevant critique of a book by Lawrence M. Krauss by professor of philosophy David Albert.

2) It increases your chance of an interesting chat with Socrates.

3) It increases your chance of actually doing some work; see Feynman's joke on philosophers.

  • I don't understand your first point (or your second point either, but I'm assuming that it's a joke) – That Guy Aug 17 '14 at 22:15
  • @Matt, Krauss has written a book explaining how something (our universe) comes from nothing, which Dawkins compared to "on the origin of species" with regards to its significance as a blow to the belief in God; however, David Albert explains quite simply and straight forwardly, why in his opinion they don't know what they are talking about. All of this is very relevant to the original argument and to the ongoing discussion; for example to the proposal of RexKerr "...to find experts who are demonstrably very accurate in certain conclusions...". – nir Aug 18 '14 at 6:59
  • @Matt, Socrates used to have conversations with people who were confident in their opinion about something; I wonder how many lovers of wisdom would set the destination dial of a time machine to his time for an opportunity of having such a chat, as their first choice. – nir Aug 18 '14 at 7:12
  • I actually read Krauss' book and found it very philosophically relevant but not in the way that he himself does. But either way, conflicting opinions of intelligent people is a reason to not have an opinion, not the opposite (though personally I wouldn't consider Krauss an expert in theology). And I don't have a time machine nor would I ever want to travel to a past without electricity or modern plumbing – That Guy Aug 18 '14 at 13:55
  • @Matt, conflicting opinions of intelligent people is not a reason to not have an opinion, any more than mortality is a reason to not live. If presumably highly intelligent people can claim utter nonsense, surely we have something to contribute to the discussion; at least this is how I feel about it. – nir Aug 18 '14 at 18:44

Your beliefs and conclusions are conjectures, until you come up with proof for a conjecture. The proof that prove your conjecture should be based on already existing proofs for other more primitive conjectures, the proofs of these primitive conjectures are based on more primitive proofs and so on. This is what we call "standing on the shoulders of giant".

Obviously if the most primitive proofs are wrong themselves then all the proofs build on top of that will be wrong too and we will be back to zero - no knowledge.

If you want to gain any knowledge you will have to start with some conjecture that you believe in "partially" (as you don't have any proof of it). There will be many conjectures for which there is no proof yet but all the experimental evidence and intuition lead us to believe in those conjectures.

You may say that you don't believe in all the existing knowledge or some particular knowledge in that you have a conjecture - "current knowledge of A is incorrect". This is just a conjecture and you will need to come up with a proof to support it i.e you need a proof to show that "the proof of knowledge A is invalid itself hence knowledge A is invalid".

This is the game of "intelligence" that we humans have been playing throughout the history.

You need to believe (conjecture) in at least something (weather in support of it or against it) to move forward.

  • "You need to believe (conjecture) in at least something" - yes, but what? you say you need proof that 'proof of A is invalid', but why should my own understanding and assessment of 'proof of A' determine whether or not it's valid? Whether or not I believe in it doesn't increase or decrease its likelihood of being true – That Guy Aug 7 '14 at 4:49
  • In certain questions, you may be able to break it down as a step by step, proposition by proposition, logical proof. But I've found that in many real world questions, including theological ones, they're "messier" than that. Nobody, to the best of my knowledge, has ever rigorously proven or disproven God's existence simply via proofs built off of proofs. – Sherz Aug 7 '14 at 4:54
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    @Matt: You start believing based on your observations. Without observation i.e without any senses to observe you can't have beliefs. – Ankur Aug 7 '14 at 5:10
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    @Ankur but what of metaphysics, or things that I 'know' about merely from hearing others talk about it, like faraway wars, ancient kings, microscopic organisms and far-off galaxies? That's what the question is looking for – That Guy Aug 7 '14 at 5:12
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    @Matt Lets say a person told you about ancient war, for you this new knowledge is a conjecture as you don't have a proof of it. You may ask the person about the proof about this ancient war, he may give you a proof or he may say "oh this is still a conjecture for me as I don't have proof". – Ankur Aug 7 '14 at 5:19

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