Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Things to know with certainty

I'm compiling a list of things we can know with certainty.  The list will grow as I think of more examples.

1. "I think therefore I am."  Cliché?  Maybe, but it's undoubtedly true.  In order to doubt my own existence, I would first have to exist in order to doubt it.

2. The laws of logic, in the form of propositions, are necessary truths.  Any denial of the law of non-contradiction, the law of identity, or the law of excluded middle results in a literal absurdity.

3. No potentiality can actualize itself.  This is one of the few causal premises that is not just highly plausible, but can be known with certainty.  In order for a potentiality to actualize itself, it would have to be self-caused, and therefore exist and not-exist simultaneously, which is contradictory.

4. Order is more fundamental to reality than chaos.  Chaos is intelligible, and since intelligibility presupposes order, it follows that even what is perceived as chaotic must have a level of order behind it.  One could not even recognize "chaos" if it were utterly devoid of order.  Moreover, chaos does not violate any of the laws of logic.

5. If I experience pain or pleasure, then that experience must be genuine.  For even supposing that my brain is being manipulated by a mad scientist so that the sensations of pain or pleasure are illusory, it's still the case that I experience pain or pleasure.  Likewise, "I am being appeared to redly" must be true, even if the object in question is actually not red at all.  In both cases, it is the experience that is certain, which is independent of the reality (which may or may not correspond to one another).


  1. Is there anything in the meaning of 'potentiality' which is more than the meaning of 'possibility'?

    1. Doug: you say " one difference between potentiality and possibility is that the former is restricted to the actual world or to some particular possible world. Possibility, on the other hand, is much broader: it addresses the potentialities in all possible worlds."

      OK: let us consider just those possibilities which are still possible for this world, given its history up to the present.

      Are "potentialities" (as you use the term) identical to just and only these "present possibilities"?

      Or is there anything more in you use of the term "potentialities"?

    2. Ian, maybe an example would help. It's possible for an acorn to turn into a giraffe. At least there's no contradiction is such a scenario. Yet, that possibility wouldn't entail a potentiality, since the acorn is not the type of thing that could develop into a giraffe. It could develop into an oak tree given the right conditions, for example, but certainly not a giraffe. I suppose one could talk about a hypothetical situation in which the nature of the acorn is scientifically altered so that it could develop into a giraffe, but that's a bit far-fetched.

      I think of a potentiality as what is natural to a thing's essence, whereas a possibility is something much broader. As long as something isn't contradictory, then it's a possibility. So all potentialities are possibilities, but not vice-versa.

    3. You are saying, then, that "a potentiality is a possibility that is natural to a thing's essence". That looks good.

      My next question, is whether 'potentiality' has in it any idea of the *power* to realize that possibility? Or does any active power come entirely from the essence, and none from the potentiality?

    4. First, let's take the acorn example. The acorn has no idea (since it's not an intellectual substance) that it may become an oak tree. Leaving that trivial point aside, a potentiality isn't a thing per se. It's what an actual thing could be by its very essence. The only way for a thing's potentiality to be actualized is for some actuality to actualize it. In the case of an acorn, water, soil, and sunlight serve as sustaining causes (actualizers) of the acorn's development. So, any active power must come from some actuality, whether that actuality is internal or external.

    5. So you say, 'active powers' come from actuality, not from potentiality. That is your original claim.
      But we have to acknowledge that common use of the word 'potentiality' or 'potential' refers to active powers, not to actuality. This make your claim #3 to be ambiguous, unless this is clarified first. The claim does not have a specific meaning otherwise.

    6. Ian, I'm afraid I'm unfamiliar with the use of "potentiality" to refer to active powers. A potentiality is something that could exist, but does not yet exist. An active power, presumably, is a power possessed by some existing thing, e.g. an actuality.

    7. From http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/potentiality :
      1: a quality that can be developed to make someone or something better
      2: a chance or possibility that something will happen or exist in the future
      3: the ability to develop or come into existence

      Here, only definition #2 refers to 'possibility'. Definition #1 maybe does too.
      But definition #3 is definitely referring to a present ability of something. You would call this an actuality, perhaps, but you have to realize that many readers will misunderstand your use of 'potentiality'.
      Until that is sorted out, you certainly cannot say we 'know with certainty' the meaning of a sentence that includes the word 'potentiality'.

      http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/potentiality has:
      1. latent or inherent capacity or ability for growth, fulfilment, etc
      2. a person or thing that possesses such a capacity

      Neither of *these* meanings agree with your usage as 'possibility' !
      Do you see the problem?

  2. Dear Doug,

    It may seem utterly obvious, but here is another thing known with certainty: "Something exists."

    Also, I would add that "Something thinks" is certain as well (and the reason that I say "something" thinks rather than "I" think, is because it is at least logically possible that my thoughts are not my own but are being given to me by some other, more powerful being; thus, while "something thinks" is certain, "I think" is not).

    Finally, to add a bit of controversy to the discussion, I would also say that the following is certain: "It is always and everywhere wrong for a human being to torture an infant for his own pleasure, and, at the same time, any human that sees such a thing occur always and everywhere has a duty to do whatever he can to stop such an incident from occurring." In essence, what I am saying is that it is certain that at least one absolute moral rule and duty exists.

    Take care,

    RD Miksa

  3. In order to "know with certainty" these things, we have to know what the terms in them refer to. That requires discussion.

  4. Thanks for the comments, guys. Steven, I'm glad this short (but growing list) was helpful. :)

    Ian, one difference between potentiality and possibility is that the former is restricted to the actual world or to some particular possible world. Possibility, on the other hand, is much broader: it addresses the potentialities in all possible worlds.

    RD, I agree that "something exists" is also known with certainty. In your reservation about the certainty of "I think therefore I am," another thinking entity could not give these thoughts to you unless you actually existed. So, in a round about way, we can still remain certain that "I" exist.

    Also, I do agree with you about the certainty of certain moral obligations. In fact, I think there are additional synthetic propositions that can be known with certainty:

    Something cannot come from nothing (metaphysics).

    It is wrong to torture children for fun (ethics).

    "Hey Jude" is a better song than "Pants on the Ground" (aesthetics)

    However, the list I'm compiling is more related to things that can be known with certainty through demonstration.

  5. Dear Doug,

    I agree that "I exist" is certain, my only point was that the "I think" portion of Descartes' famous slogan is not certain. At best, "something thinks" is certain. But this also, it seems to me, leads to the fact that "mind (a thinking thing) exists" is certain as well.

    Take care,

    RD Miksa