What René Descartes Contributed to our Doubt-O-Meter – Absolute Certainty is a Myth

On a recent trip home to see family and friends, I got into interesting conversations with two gentlemen who are self-described agnostics. I realized something as I thought about these conversations. My interlocutors seemed to believe they could not know the religious stuff I was talking about with any certainty, so why bother with it at all. As we talked it hit me: Their objection to Christianity is rooted in epistemology! They probably wouldn’t even know the word, but there is it nonetheless.

I ended my previous post with a little teaser about 17th Century French philosopher René Descartes. Although relatively educated Americans may have heard the name, few know the effect his philosophy has had on how they likely view the world, and specifically how they come to know things. The study of knowing and knowledge is called epistemology. We might be tempted to think a word with six syllables esoteric and irrelevant for how we live our lives. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Decartes argued that if we are to “know” something we must be absolutely certain about it. He was the first thinker in Western thought to equate knowledge with absolute certainty. According to R.C. Sproul, Descartes set up four rules that needed to be followed in the quest for truth. The first of which stated: “never accept as true anything that is not known to be true without absolute certainty.” Later in his life Descartes expanded those rules to twenty-one, including this: “Direct your inquiries, not to what others have thought, nor to your own conjecture, but to what you can behold with clarity and deduce with certainty.”

I have a question. Can we know anything with absolute certainty? Before you answer that too quickly, it would behoove you to contemplate the question for a while. Certainly you know you exist, right? But how do you know this life you inhabit isn’t a version of The Matrix? You really don’t, with absolute certainty.

The problem with this line of thinking is the assumption that knowledge is not possible without absolute certainty. Of course, nobody lives their daily life with anything approaching absolute certainty, but when it comes to spiritual things we’re told by our secular culture if you can’t know with such things with certainty, you really can’t know them at all. To put not too fine a spin on it, that’s rubbish.

To think we need to have absolute certainty to know anything ignores a simple fact of human existence: we are finite, and finite creatures can never have absolute anything. Daniel Taylor gets at harm insisting on certainty does in his aptly titled book, The Myth of Certainty:

Ironically, the insistence on certainty destroys its very possibility. The demand for certainty inevitably creates its opposite—doubt. Doubt derives its greatest strength from those who fear it most. Unwisely glorified as the primary way to truth by many secularists, it is equally unwisely feared by many in Christendom as truth’s mortal enemy.

As I argued in my first post in this series, faith is trust based on adequate evidence. God has given us an astounding amount of evidence that allows us to trust him, and the knowledge he has revealed to us in creation and Scripture. As Christians we, and our kids, don’t have to default to the doubt side of the Doubt-O-Meter. A healthy certainty will always include some doubt, but as the Apostle Peter says, God’s “divine power has given us everything we need for a godly life through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness.”

And always remember something I wish I’d said that evening to my friend who was a class A Major Doubter of pretty much everything: doubts are find, but you might want to try doubting your doubts sometime.