BITE-SIZE PHILOSOPHY (057) – How can one be sure?

Rev José Mario O Mandía

We have seen that truth is based on what exists, on what is real. When we are confronted with reality, because of our freedom, we can respond to it [that reality] in at least three ways, we can hold three possible attitudes to it: certainty, opinion or doubt. Note well that while truth refers to “state of affairs” (the way things are), these three attitudes refer to different “states of mind” (what I think about them).

The bridge between states of affairs and states of mind is evidence. Our state of mind depends on how much evidence we have of the state of affairs. Saint Thomas (S Th I q2 a1) teaches us that certain things are evident or  obvious by themselves: per se nota. Things that we observe directly are an example of these truths. But other things are not directly evident to us. Aquinas says they are per aliud nota (S Th I-IIae q57 a2) — we get to know them through others (see “Bite-Size Philosophy” no 3).

CERTAINTY. When I say that I am certain or sure about something, it means that my mind adheres firmly to a judgment with no fear that the opposite might be true. For example, when I am sure or certain that the weather is freezing cold, I exclude any possibility that it could be warm or torrid.

As we have seen above, certainty (or certitude) is a state of mind. This means that even if I am sure about something (state of mind), this certainty does not necessarily mean that my belief is true (a state of affairs). For example, I may be sure that my friend Bob is 70 years old. However, it may turn out that he is actually just 40. This does not mean that we can never get to the truth. What it does mean is that we should always keep an open mind. Nonetheless, we should also remember GK Chesterton’s advice: “Do not be so open-minded that your brains fall out.”

OPINION. When I hold an opinion about something, it means that I am inclined to accept a certain judgment as true, but without discounting the fact that it could be false. For instance, I may think that a colleague doesn’t come to work because he is sick, but I know there may be a different reason for his absence. I am not sure about the reason, I only have an opinion about it.

As we have seen above, opinion (like certainty) is also a state of mind. A state of mind does not necessarily reflect the state of affairs. Yet how many times we impose our opinion as if it were absolute truth!

DOUBT. When one is in doubt, it means that he vacillates between two (or more) possibilities. He has not made any judgment. A doubt can arise either because one does not have enough evidence to be able to make any judgment, or because there are equally strong proofs for both sides of the argument. The first is called negative doubt (not enough proofs) while the second is called positive doubt (equally convincing proofs on both sides).

In daily life, there are times when we have to act even if we are not completely sure of the situation (that’s because we are not all-knowing). However, for important matters, it is important to resolve a doubt before acting, so that at least we can come up with an opinion which favors one way of acting. Everyday, we have to walk the path between slowness and haste, between cowardice and rashness, between indecision and recklessness.

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