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Certainty, Indubitability And Incorrigibility

  The passengers were certain, in the sense of feeling sure, that the plane would crash. But it did not. So certainty, in the sense of feeling sure, does not entail truth and, therefore, does not guarantee knowledge. The passengers felt sure that the plane would crash, but it wasn\'t true that the plane would crash and (since knowledge requires truth) the passengers did not know that it would. Philosophers often use the word ‘certain’ not in the sense of feeling sure, but in the sense of being indubitable, or in the sense of being incorrigible.

It is, for me, indubitable that I exist. I cannot doubt that I exist. (Similarly, it is, for you, indubitable that you exist.) So I am certain that I exist, not merely in the sense of feeling sure, but also in the sense that I cannot doubt that I exist. My evidence for the supposition that I exist—that I feel hot, or am trying to doubt that I exist—excludes the possibility that I do not exist. So I cannot doubt that I exist. The passengers in the plane felt sure that it would crash, but their evidence—the sudden lurching and the strange noise from one of the engines—did not exclude the possibility that it would crash. And, indeed, it did not. The passengers could doubt that the plane would crash and so, in this stronger sense, they were not certain that it would.

Another sense of the word ‘certain’ is being incorrigible. A statement is incorrigible just if it is such that, if someone believes it, then it is impossible for their belief to be false. Consider the statement ‘I exist’. If someone believes that they exist, then they exist: it is impossible for someone falsely to believe that they exist.

We have already seen that certainty, in the sense of feeling sure, is insufficient for does not guarantee knowledge. Certainty, in each of the senses of indubitability and incorrigibility, does suffice for knowledge. If I cannot doubt that one of my beliefs is true, then my belief counts as knowledge. If a statement is incorrigible, and I believe it, then I know it. Some have supposed that certainty in one or other of these senses is also necessary for knowledge that a belief cannot count as knowledge unless it is indubitably true and incorrigible. Given that so little is indubitable or incorrigible, this claim has the sceptical consequence that we know almost nothing. AJ

See also belief; epistemology; knowledge; scepticism.Further reading B. Williams, Descartes.



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