Philosophical level



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“When Gregor Samsa woke up one morning from unsettling dreams, he found himself changed in his bed into a monstrous vermin”, (probably a roach), (The Metamorphosis, 3). Imagine living your life day by day, not knowing when you might be the next Gregor Samsa. Is it possible that you might awake one normal day to the realization that nothing is as it seemed? To the realization that all you’ve ever known does not exist anymore?! To the realization that everything you were certain of, has now become tormenting doubt? Although the question being raised in “The Metamorphosis” is the question of identity, here the question is that of certainty. Is anything certain in this world? And if certainty truly exists, by what means can it be attained? How uncertain is certainty?

We live our lives with one aim in mind, to advance from what is unknown to us, to what is known, “from ignorance to knowledge”, whether on a scientific level or simply to advance in our knowledge of life (on a philosophical level). However the unknown is commonly confused with the unknowable; and there lies “a fundamental difference between the words “we do not know” and “we cannot know”.

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The concept of “It is certain” bases itself on the fact that “Science sets out from the basic notion that the objective of the world exists and can be known to us.”1 However, many disagree with this notion, conveyed through the skepticism of Hume, and the subjective idealism of Berkeley and the sophists who argue, “We cannot be certain of anything, I cannot know anything about the world. If I can know something, I cannot understand it. If I can understand it, I cannot express it”1, hence certainty does not exist. Heisenberg’s principle of uncertainty also ties in closely with this, “There are no general guidelines to which we can cling, we have to decide for ourselves, and cannot tell in advance if we are doing right or wrong.”1 By “general guidelines”, it is understood that there are no certainties that can be followed, hence rightfulness in any matter or aspect of life cannot be achieved.

Hence it follows, if we are to assume that Heisenberg’s principle that nothing in life is certain, we can relate this to Hume’s argument of the “uniformity of nature”. Science, which is considered to many irrefutable and the supreme form of knowledge, assumes that nature is uniform. Since the sun rises from the east and sets in the west, so it will be till the end of eternity. Since nature’s cycle consists of four seasons that follow in a specific order it, so it will be till the end of eternity, fall will never come after winter, winter will always be before spring. However, there is no assurance that nature will continue uniformly. Samsa never expected to wake up one morning to find himself changed into a cockroach, and we never expect to wake up one morning and find that the sun has not risen. Hence, if nature ceases to be uniform, then science is not uniform and has no assurance, and if science, “the supreme form of knowledge” and certainty is itself uncertain, then certainty has become a mere probability.

Karl Popper also agrees with what has just been mentioned above (Hume’s argument). Popper believes in the uncertainty of science, and argues that all scientific claims are hypothetical and merely an approximation of the truth, and can be refuted anytime evidence of their falsehood is provided. There are several examples that prove the views of Popper and Hume in which scientific claims proved to be false. The oldest of these is the once-held belief that the earth is flat, not round. The belief that the earth was flat was once believed to be a true scientific fact, however he who discovered it was round could not prove it because his reasons were inadequate and his belief was unjustified at the time. However, when new evidence is presented, the old is refuted, and there is no telling what astounding future forecasts might withhold.

The scientific field of medicine was once most proud of its latest invention of Vioxx, the only medicament that could cure inflammatory diseases in its time. It was immediately spread worldwide for its believed immediate and effective cure. However, it was soon discovered that it lead to myocardial infections that were fatal and was banned. This is yet another example, where medicine, one of the most advanced and iable fields of science fails the test of certainty.

Ignaz Phillip Semmelweis, a physician in the 1800’s was able to discover the cause of puerperal fever that was causing the deaths of women in Vienna hospital. He claimed that the reason for the deaths was that professional doctors were not cleansing their hands thoroughly with a solution of chloride of lime after being in contact with dead bodies, and then operating on women. They refused to believe him because they were too self-involved with their own scientifically proven methods and professional experience in their field to consider the opinion of someone “less knowledgeable”. It was not until after his death that he was recognized as the pioneer in antiseptic treatment (deaths decreased from 18% o 2,45%). This is an example of how one’s personal beliefs can empower the true, consented, applied knowledge and prove it faulty, science and reason are not the only ways to knowledge, but belief as well.

The tying knot of this whole maze of certainty entangled with uncertainty is: What is the clear-cut relation between knowledge by means of belief (conviction) and knowledge through reason (science)? Both are tightly linked to each other, and cannot exist independently of one another. They complete each other in order to form the most complete and rounded form of knowledge a person can have. “Faith stirs up reason and is its convincing advocate, although it is not based on it. Reason needs to be re-enforced by faith in order to discover horizons it can’t reach on its own. (Encyclical, Ibid 56). Without the integration of reason and faith together, man cannot advance in his seek towards attaining knowledge and truth.

“When Gregor Samsa woke up one morning from unsettling dreams, he found himself changed in his bed into a monstrous vermin”, (The Metamorphosis, 3). Samsa’s perception of himself when he woke up that morning was that he has turned into a cockroach. His perception of himself as a cockroach was the cause of his reason (his viewing himself in the mirror told him that what he was seeing was a roach), and his emotion (he no longer felt like a human). Can we live in a world where at any point we might find ourselves turned into cockroaches? Can we live in a world dominated by uncertainty? Is passionate conviction sufficient to justify knowledge and hence certainty?

Traveling through this maze, I am quite certain of the following: There is no absolute certainty in the world. Knowledge cannot be obtained through one source alone but through a number of different sources. As an independent thinker entitled to an individual opinion, passionate conviction can justify knowledge and is itself, i.e. it needs no justification. However, this holds true only when it is knowledge on a personal level.

We cannot apply or enforce our beliefs on the majority and expect them to believe in them as well. In the case where passionate conviction can justify knowledge, it becomes certainty relative to the individual himself only, even though reason, logic, and science might contradict it. The maze connecting certainty vs. uncertainty is never ending. It is intricately and complexly laced in a web-like structure. It will take you your whole life to get past a quarter of it, to be certain of a quarter of your wonders and questions. You will never reach the end, (certainty), because that would mean you have uncovered the secret to the mystery of life and the universe, which is impossible to reach, and if miraculously reached, you have lost the meaning and worth of living.

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