The Search for Certainty

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The Quest for Certainty: A Study of the Relation of Knowledge and Action

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Then the personal difference of callings is hypostatised and made into an intrinsic difference between knowledge and practice. If one looks at the history of knowledge, it is plain that at the beginning men tried to know because they had to do so in order to live. In the absence of that organic guidance given by their structure to other animals, man had to find out what he was about, and he could find out only by studying the environment which constituted the means, obstacles and result of his behaviour.

The desire for intellectual or cognitive understanding had no meaning except as a means of obtaining greater security as to the issues of action.


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Moreover, even when after the coming of leisure some men were enabled to adopt knowing as their special calling or profession, merely theoretical uncertainty continues to have no meaning. This statement will arouse protest. But the reaction against the statement will turn out when examined to be due to the fact that it is so difficult to find a case of purely intellectual uncertainty, that is one upon which nothing hangs.

Perhaps as near to it as we can come is in the familiar story of the Oriental potentate who declined to attend a horse race on the ground that it was already well known to him that one horse could run faster than another. His uncertainty as to which of several horses could out-speed the others may be said to have been purely intellectual. But also in the story nothing depended from it; no curiosity was aroused; no effort was put forth to satisfy the uncertainty.

In other words, he did not care; it made no difference. And it is a strict truism that no one would care about any exclusively theoretical uncertainty or certainty. For by definition in being exclusively theoretical it is one which makes no difference anywhere.

Revulsion against this proposition is a tribute to the fact that actually the intellectual and the practical are so closely bound together. Hence when we imagine we are thinking of an exclusively theoretical doubt, we smuggle in unconsciously some consequence which hangs upon it. We think of uncertainty arising in the course of an inquiry; in this case, uncertainty until it is resolved blocks the progress of the inquiry - a distinctly practical affair, since it involves conclusions and the of producing them.

If we had no desires and no purposes, then, as sheer truism, one state of things would be as good as any other. Those who have set such store by the demonstration that Absolute Being already contains in eternal safety within itself all values, have had as their interest the fact that while the demonstration would make no difference in the concrete existence of these values - unless perhaps to weaken effort to generate and sustain them - it would make no difference in their own personal attitudes - in a feeling of comfort or of release from responsibility, the consciousness of a "moral holiday" in which some philosophers have found the distinction between morals and religion.

Such considerations point to the conclusion that the ultimate ground of the quest for cognitive certainty is the need for security in the results of action.

Men readily persuade themselves that they are devoted to intellectual certainty for its own sake. Actually they want it because of its bearing on safeguarding what they desire and esteem. The need for protection and prosperity in action created the need for warranting the validity of intellectual beliefs. After a distinctively intellectual class had arisen, a class having leisure and in a large degree protected against the more serious perils which afflict the mass of humanity, its members proceeded to glorify their own office.

Since no amount of pains and care in action can ensure complete certainty, certainty in knowledge was worshipped as a substitute. In minor matters, those that are relatively technical, professional, "utilitarian," men continued to resort to improving their methods of operation in order to be surer of results. But in affairs of momentous value the requisite knowledge is hard to come by and the bettering of methods is a slow process to be realised only by the cooperative endeavour of many persons.

The arts to be formed and developed are social arts; an individual by himself can do little to regulate the conditions which will render important values more secure, though with shrewdness and special knowledge he can do much to further his own peculiar aims - given a fair share of luck. So because of impatience and because, as Aristotle was given to pointing out, an individual is self-sufficient in that kind of thinking which involves no action, the ideal of a cognitive certainty and truth having no connection with practice, and prized because of its lack of connection, developed.

The doctrine worked out practically so as to strengthen dependence upon authority and dogma in the things of highest value, while increase of specialised knowledge was relied upon in everyday, especially economic, affairs. Just as belief that a magical ceremony will regulate the growth of seeds to full harvest stifles the tendency to investigate natural causes and their workings, so acceptance of dogmatic rules as bases of conduct in education, morals and social matters, lessens the impetus to find out about the conditions which are involved in forming intelligent plans.

It is more or less of a commonplace to speak of the crisis which has been caused by the progress of the natural sciences in the last few centuries. The crisis is due, it is asserted, to the incompatibility between the conclusions of natural science about the world in which we live and the realm of higher values, of ideal and spiritual qualities, which get no support from natural science.

The new science, it is said, has stripped the world of the qualities which made it beautiful and congenial to men; has deprived nature of all aspiration towards ends, all preference for accomplishing the good, and presented nature to us as a scene of indifferent physical particles acting according to mathematical and mechanical laws. This effect of modern science has, it is notorious, set the main problems for modern philosophy. How is science to be accepted and yet the realm of values to be conserved?


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This question forms the philosophic version of the popular conflict of science and religion. Instead of being troubled about the inconsistency of astronomy with the older religious beliefs about heaven and the ascension of Christ, or the differences between the geological record and the account of creation in Genesis, philosophers have been troubled by the gap in kind which exists between the fundamental principles of the natural world and the reality of the values according to which mankind is to regulate its life. Philosophers, therefore, set to work to mediate, to find some harmony behind the apparent discord.

Everybody knows that the trend of modern philosophy has been to arrive at theories regarding the nature of the universe by means of theories regarding the nature of knowledge-a procedure which reverses the apparently more judicious method of the ancients in basing their conclusions about knowledge on the nature of the universe in which knowledge occurs.

The Quest for Certainty in Early Modern Europe: From Inquisition to Inquiry, 1550–1700

The "crisis" of which we have just been speaking accounts for the reversal. Since science has made the trouble, the cure ought to -be found in an examination of the nature of knowledge, of the conditions which make science possible. If the conditions of the possibility of knowledge can be shown to be of an ideal and rational character, then, so it has been thought, the loss of an idealistic cosmology in physics can be readily borne. The physical world can be surrendered to matter and mechanism, since we are assured that matter and mechanism have their foundation in immaterial mind.

Such has been the characteristic course of modern spiritualistic philosophies since the time of Kant; indeed, since that of Descartes, who first felt the poignancy of the problem involved in reconciling the conclusions of science with traditional religious and moral beliefs. Why should any increase of knowledge seem like a threat to what we prize, admire and approve? Why should we not proceed to employ our gains in science to improve our judgments about values, and to regulate our actions so as to make values more secure and more widely shared in existence?


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If men had associated their ideas about values with practical activity instead of with cognition of antecedent Being, they would not have been troubled by the findings of science. They would have welcomed the latter. For anything ascertained about the structure of actually existing conditions would be a definite aid in making judgments about things to be prized and striven for more adequate, and would instruct us as to the means to be employed in realising them.

But according to the religious and philosophic tradition of Europe, the valid status of all the highest values, the good, true and beautiful, was bound up with their being properties of ultimate and supreme Being, namely, God. All went well as long as what passed for natural science gave no offence to this conception.

Nel Noddings

Trouble began when science ceased to disclose in the objects of knowledge the possession of any such properties. Then some roundabout method had to be devised for substantiating them. The point of the seemingly crass question which was asked is thus to elicit the radical difference made when the problem of values is seen to be connected with the problem of intelligent action. If the validity of beliefs and judgments about values is dependent upon the consequences of action undertaken in their behalf, if the assumed association of values with knowledge capable of being demonstrated apart from activity, is abandoned, then the problem of the intrinsic relation of science to value is wholly artificial.

It is replaced by a group of practical problems: How shall we employ what we know to direct the formation of our beliefs about value and how shall we direct our practical behaviour so as to test these beliefs and make possible better ones? The question is seen to be just what it has always been empirically: What shall we do to make objects having value more secure in existence?

And we approach the answer to the problem with all the advantages given us by increase of knowledge of the conditions and relations under which this doing must proceed. But for over two thousand years the weight of the most influential and authoritatively orthodox tradition of thought has been thrown into the opposite scale.

Robert : The search for certainty: a critical assessment

It has been devoted to the problem of a purely cognitive certification perhaps by revelation, perhaps by intuition, perhaps by reason of the antecedent immutable reality of truth, beauty and goodness. As against such a doctrine, the conclusions of natural science constitute the materials of a serious problem. The appeal has been made to the Court of Knowledge and the verdict has been adverse. There are two rival systems that must have their respective claims adjusted.

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The crisis in contemporary culture, the confusions and conflicts in it, arise from a division of authority. Scientific inquiry seems to tell one thing, and traditional beliefs about ends and ideals that have authority over conduct tell us something quite different. The problem of reconciliation arises and persists for one reason only. As long as the notions persist that knowledge is a disclosure of reality, of reality prior to and independent of knowing, and that knowing is independent of a purpose to control the quality of experienced objects, the failure of natural science to disclose significant values in its objects will come as a shock.

Those seriously concerned with the validity and authority of value will have a problem on their hands. As long as the notion persists that values are authentic and valid only on condition that they are properties of Being independent of human action, as long as it is supposed that their right to regulate action is dependent upon their being independent of action, so long there will be needed schemes to prove that values are, in spite of the findings of science, genuine and known qualifications of reality in itself.

For men will not easily surrender all regulative guidance in action.

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