Uncertainty and beyond

Uncertainty and beyond

I read a series of short items to the Norwood Writers’ group a couple of years ago. I was hoping they would serve as an introduction to philosophy for those who had not delved into the subject before. At the same time I wanted to clarify some of my own arguments which I have published in more academic contexts. My readings to the group follow in order here.



René Descartes in the 17th Century framed his First Meditation in terms of a search for certainty. He was determined to hold back assent from opinions which are not completely certain and indubitable, admitting there is not one of my former beliefs about which a doubt may not properly be raised. There was only one fact of which he became certain, his own existence as a thinking being.

Cogito, ergo sumI think, therefore I am.

This was challenged in the following century by Christoph Lichtenberg. Descartes, he showed, went too far too soon. The only certainty is that there is thought. Doubting is thinking so thought exists, but thoughts can be misleading. We cannot be certain of anything, even our own being. Descartes had started off on  the wrong track.

For me as a teacher this raised serious and worrying questions. If what I taught to children and older students was uncertain, what right could I have to insist that they learned it? I wanted them to know some elementary mathematics, some geographical and historical facts, some of the findings and methods of science. Other teachers were requiring them to know languages and rules of grammar, even to know God. They were expected to know how to read and write and in the handicraft department know how to handle tools.

Could it be that the whole of our school system was, and is, based on a colossal trick, persuading people to believe what is taught, when there are no certainties? I asked myself what it meant to claim that I possessed knowledge. What can it mean to say, I know something? If I really don’t know anything for certain, how can I continue to be a teacher?

A very common, and for a long time generally accepted short definition of knowledge is that it is justified true belief. To know something is true is to be justified in believing it. This, as it stands, does not help. An infuriating man called Edmund Gettier in 1963 showed that if we accept this neat definition, too much depends on accidents.[1] You look at the clock and it says five past eight so you claim to know the time. You have a justified true belief.  But that clock got stuck at 8.05 yesterday. By sheer coincidence when you looked today it actually was 8.05. Your justified true belief was not knowledge because you arrived at the truth by sheer luck. The justification was an illusion, you did not actually know the time. There are many other examples of the Gettier type of argument. We cannot be certain even when we have justified true beliefs.

Everything seems to depend on justification, a matter of checking and testing. If knowing the time was really important, you would not accept a quick glance at one clock. You would cross check against other clocks, use a phone or a computer to get a time signal and so on. But testing, even multiple and long continued testing, does not lead to certainty. All clocks and time signals could be wrong, they probably always are to some extent. How can you achieve certainty of the true time? By looking at more clocks? By asking a policeman?

To justify something implies a doubt at the very beginning of the process. If you are totally certain of some truth, you would never test it. For example, if someone is certain of the existence of God, it is pointless for them to test this belief. Trying to justify implies, from the very beginning, admission of the possibility of failure. For the certain believer there is no such possibility; the very notion of failure is inappropriate. If we suppose knowledge to be justified true belief, no one can know the existence of God. Knowledge isn’t that kind of thing. We might call it faith,might believe it with all our heart and mind, but it isn’t knowledge.

If we say knowledge requires the justification of beliefs we must include our beliefs in the methods of testing that we habitually use. We teach children to read clocks and they are justified in saying they know the time if they also know that the clocks are accurate and also how to test the accuracy of clocks… and so on and so on. Beliefs justified as true by testing remain uncertain no matter how often we have tested. We can never be sure that the justification process is finished. The satisfactory outcome of one, or any number, of tests of a belief, does not suddenly render it forever beyond doubt. Indeed, our anxiety to justify and test again reveals our underlying uncertainty. The tested and believed truth may always turn out to be false when tested again.

Maybe that is what we should teach; to test as severely and strictly as possible what we justifiably believe to be true, and go on testing in the expectation that it will eventually be found false.



In a previous note I argued that nothing is certain except that there is thinking. To doubt is to think, so there is thought when all else is doubtful. The pessimistic conclusion was that although we may justifiably believe some truth we cannot be sure of it. To attempt to justify is to test and the act of testing demonstrates underlying uncertainty. Today’s truth, however much we rely on it, however often it has been tested and proved, may be falsified tomorrow by further test. This uncertainty applies to everything (including all that follows here).

Yet there is thought, doubting is thinking. Although it is fallible we depend on thinking. We cannot leave the matter here.

In what follows I have been much influenced by the late Peter Strawson, an English philosopher, one of whose books, Individuals[1] was first published in 1959. This begins with the following:

We think of the world as containing particular things some of which are independent of ourselves; we think of the world’s history as made up of particular episodes in which we may or may not have a part; and we think of these particular things and events as included in the topics of our common discourse, as things about which we can talk to each other.

Humans habitually talk and many of those we arrogantly call the higher animals use language although we do not easily understand them. We probably underestimate the thinking abilities of countless other species who are even less comprehensible to us.

I want to consider what may be called pre-discursive concept formation, ways of thinking that are developed before language is available. The obvious difficulty is that what I am trying to do requires the discursive process, that is, language. I could not write what I do or say what I am saying, otherwise. The best I can do is to undertake a kind of backward-looking exploration. We can, metaphorically, look over our shoulders to see how we chatterers arrived where we are.

Strawson asked: Could a being whose experience was purely auditory, have a conceptual scheme which provided for objective particulars?

By objective particulars he meant things and events.

Suppose there was only one sense. Strawson showed that some fundamental thought takes place even if only the sense of hearing is available.

Again, caution is necessary. It is not entirely legitimate at this stage to speak of separate human senses. There is one sensory apparatus; that of touch, with specialised forms. The external skin and its internal counterparts respond to contacts and pressures. The skin is also sensitive to electro magnetic radiation; light and heat. The special skin of the nose and mouth register the touch of particles. The eardrum is a skin sensitive to the touch of vibrations of the air. The retina of the eye is a skin at the back of the eyeball, sensitive to the touch of radiation, i.e., photons. Our senses are all part of one system. In all cases, nerve endings are triggered by various impacts, what may be called nerve hits.

We need a convenient example. Strawson did not mention foetuses but it may help to grasp the wider argument if we begin here. The foetus has a functional sense apparatus. It is already easy to slip into error. It would be going too far too soon to suppose that the foetal human thinks of itself as an individual enclosed in a warm and more or less comfortable space, identifying sense impacts coming from outside. There is no conceptual scheme yet. In our backward–looking view it nevertheless seems that human thinking does begin in the womb. It is demonstrable that before birth, babies become aware of vibrations, some of which we would call sounds. The behaviour of very young infants reveals some pre-birth familiarity with music that their mother heard during late stages of pregnancy.

Strawson’s supposed auditor becomes aware of noise. Perhaps there is at first only what William James called a blooming, buzzing confusion. It may, even so, be possible to discern changes of pitch and volume. Recognising such changes is an act of discrimination, a sorting out of the chaos. Suppose, in the morass of sound, what we would call a musical note is discerned. The listener identifies this as an individual, an event, separating it from the rest of the clamour.

There was a discrete sound. The note was absent, then it was heard, then it was absent. Here is a concept of sequence, start, duration, cessation.

Suppose the note occurs again. Perhaps there are two identical individuals: two separate identifiable sounds. There was one, now gone. There is another, and that too, has gone. Here develops a concept of plurality, one, two and counting!

But hold on! We must not go too fast. The auditor may suppose the note was one thing identified twice. it did not cease. It existed, came into hearing, remained for a little, then went away but still exists beyond hearing and was later encountered again. Not two separate events but only one perceived on separate occasions. Here is a concept of objecive continuity in the absence of sensation.

Already, there are fundamental uncertainties; two identical events have been identified but were there two entities, identical things coming into being and dying, or was it one object perceived twice? The general confusion of noise goes on, but because confusion is intolerable, a system is imposed.  The thinker begins to identify and re-identify particular objects, picking them out of the background, fitting them into the scheme. No certainty here; nothing is final, but a conceptual system is being constructed and it works!

The only contact that the thinker has with the sensory apparatus is a stream of digital impulses. Each nerve hit is equivalent to a tiny dot. There is a stream of many billions of dots separated by voids. The voids vary in length, but every hit is the same as every other. That is all there is to think with. The thinking being establishes ways of identifying events, beginnings and endings and sequences. An event may be identified as coming after, and another  before. Things can be regarded as moving into and out of sense. Objects may be born and die.

The thinking being makes sense.

I used the phrase make sense deliberately. Objects and events that we habitually identify and re-identify, are not given on a plate to be consumed. The formation of conceptual schemes making experience possible, is a constructive exercise. Experience is made from a vast stream of dots and voids. That is how thought begins.

And we make mistakes. We could be wrong!

[1] Methuen. Strawson died in 2006

[1] Gettier, E L, Is Justified True Belief Knowledge. Analysis, 1963


Joining the Dots

I ended the previous short paper with the point that our understanding is the result of a fundamental constructive effort, the making of sense from the enormous streams of nerve hits, that is, dots, that pour into our brains from our sense apparatus. I noted that we make mistakes. Is it possible that in constructing our commonplace experience out of the myriad dots and spaces that stream in, we get everything totally wrong?

Before Socrates there was an enigmatic Greek poet called Parmenides who asserted, in hexameter verse, that human experience is altogether false. This was revealed during an interview with a Goddess. Ordinary humans, she said: wander, knowing nothing, perplexity steering their intelligence astray. They are carried along deaf, blind, amazed, uncritical. The only reality, she told him, is a unitary whole, eternal, unchanging, motionless with no beginnings and no endings, a universal realm in which there are no events. It is pertinent to ask if the poet’s experience of the interview was an illusion, or was it an event in the realm where there are no events?

Parmenides had followers, one of whom, Zeno, argued in a series of logical paradoxes that Achilles would not overtake a tortoise, arrows cannot fly, we can never walk across the oval. The logic was impeccable.

Many philosophers took Parmenides seriously, Plato first among them. His distrust of poets is well known but he declared that the world of everyday experience is illusory. Many have followed this lead. The true reality, they say, is not in this world but in another realm. If so, our daily experience must be part of the illusion and we don’t really hear or read what these thinkers have said. They put themselves too in a paradoxical position. If they are consistent, their own experiences are false. If they suppose they are speaking and writing truths, they are deluded like the rest of us.

One effect of this is to demonstrate the severe limitations of logic. Logic alone does not teach us anything. It becomes useful only when the main premises of our thought have been presupposed.

It is nevertheless possible that we construct our experience wrongly, or, more precisely, that there may be other ways of proceeding which would produce an entirely different world. An analogy may help. Suppose we took a copy of the published score of a great musical symphony. The notes are a lot of dots. The composer set them down in certain sequences, marked the pitch, volume and duration of each, the key, the time, the intervals and so on to make the music. To create for us the experience of the symphony, he used a conventional musical system of notation. Suppose we ignore the conventions and simply copy the dots onto a huge blank sheet. Then we can draw in, at some angle, a new set of staves, put in different signatures, alter the length of bars, and so on. In other words, we could re-orient the score. We do not change a single dot, we only alter the conventions of reading. We would probably swear this was not even music but that is only because we arrange the dots in the way we conventionally do. Another kind of being might very possibly make a different symphony from the same sensory input. Such a being would declare our experience was false and our music awful.

Can we escape from this by insisting that at least the sequence of the dots and intervals, one after the other (time) and higher or lower in pitch (space), is determined independently of the listener? This is in effect an assertion that our orientation of the staves is correct.

Immanuel Kant tried to work out the various fundamental ways of thinking that we employ. Partly influenced by Aristotle, who tried to do the same kind of thing, he wrote of categories. First in the Kantian categorical scheme were space and time, which he described as primary intuitions of the mind. A kind of reference system is adopted by which we locate things and events securely.

We would be wrong to insist on the truth of the Kantian intuitions. We are now aware that space and time are no more than aspects of the same thing, the continuum of a four dimensional spacetime. We are accustomed to the idea of movements plotted on two dimensional charts. We know that if we shorten or lengthen the axes or turn them to some different angle, or even warp the whole sheet, the result looks very different. If we add a third dimension we can plot a movement through space and again, if the axes are changed there is another result. Now if we think of four dimensions, the fourth being time, changing the orientation produces something else again.

The entire system could be turned any way, twisted and distorted, and experience would alter. The dots of the sensory music could be plotted with the time dimension another way round if we adopted this orientation. There is and can be no guarantee that our chart is correct. If it is any comfort, no other being could claim any greater certainty than we have.

We make sense the way we do because, given the sense apparatus that we have, no other way seems available to us. What we construct is apparently the only reality to which we have access. If we are altogether wrong, at least we are not alone. We can be fairly confident that animals which have, as far as we can tell, senses like our own, also put things and events together very much as we do. We are justified in believing they think like us, though not that they think the same as we do.[1] Anyone who has seen a cat or dog playing or hunting, sees sense being made in the same way we make it. Even smaller creatures, insects for example, behave in ways that we recognise; they identify and re-identify things and events, react to physical danger, communicate with one another and often have complex social organizations.

It remains possible that other beings with entirely different apparatus, could, and maybe do, construct a reality entirely different from ours. Some keen gardeners believe that plants, for instance, understand their talk and affection. At least trees do live here with us in the world we know. More plausibly, there may be entirely alien beings further away, whose ways of thought are entirely different. All we can safely assert is that the scheme we have adopted works for us. A useful word to introduce at this point is pragmatism. We do what we can with what we have. If there are other ways, we have not found them.

[1] Remember that justification implies doubt prior to testing.


Learning to talk

At the end of a previous note I mentioned pragmatism. I suggested that we make workable experience from the sense data that we have. As Peter Strawson said, we think of the world as containing particular objects and events about which we can talk to each other.

Continue our backward looking analysis.

High on the list of priorities after a child is born, is learning to talk. Very small children are often heard experimenting with different noises. Sometimes for minutes at a time, or longer, they try out the lungs, the lips and the mouth, blowing raspberries, clicking and of course wailing. What is it like to be in their situation?

Is it rather like this? Most adults have sometimes heard groans or shouts, without realising that they came from their own mouth. There are occasions of this sort when waking from an induced sleep after surgery, or perhaps starting up from a dream. It is only on reflection that we admit that the sound came from us. This realisation enables us to start again making experience from chaos. We begin again to think of ourselves as beings in space-time with some degree of control of ourselves. Beyond is the external world. This is so familiar that we have no memory of ever learning it, but learn it we must have done.

The child learns to divide noisy events into those over which they have some control, and all the rest. The distinction of self from other becomes part of the constructive effort involved in making experience, normally started in the cradle or earlier, in the womb. To conceive that here, within, is a thinking thing, is a step taken in the making of a possible world.

At the start, I wrote that Descartes started out on the wrong track. We have arrived now at the place where he began; I think therefore I am. Thinking comes first. Thinking constructs from the buzzing confusion, a world of events in space and time. Among these events we are able to recognise ourselves as things that think.

Things, as we see them, sometimes go terribly wrong. Some children, apparently with brains and sense apparatus like our own, never learn to separate themselves from the external, and so never learn to make common experience as we do. We call them severely autistic and struggle to bring them into the world as we have made it. Perhaps they construct experience (joining the streaming dots) so differently from ours that we cannot comprehend it, nor they us. Some, as we say, are less severely afflicted and come, or can be brought, some of the way towards our world, but not all the way. Could Parmenides, with his vision of the Goddess, have been one such? If we cannot see what he saw, are we autistic?

From the everyday experience of a world of self, things and events, very soon, comes naming.

Because of the anatomy of the mouth, lips and lungs one of the sounds the learning child will frequently make a noise very similar to mum or mam. Probably by mere accident, this sound is often accompanied by events like being fed, cuddled, nursed or in some way comforted. When, by coincidence, mum mum mum is first uttered in the presence of the mother, the occasion is marked with expressions of delight. A behaviorist psychologist would describe this as positive reinforcement. An association is established between the word and the pleasing rewards. The infant’s word for mother is similar across many cultures.

Adults notice a difference when the infant begins to cry for mum, as distinct from just crying. Psychologists long ago carried out experiments to discover when a very young child develops the concept (for it is no more than an idea), that objects continue to exist even when not immediately perceived. One of the experiments is so simple that anyone can do it. Play the game of hiding a toy under the blanket and then bringing it out again. Where is it? Gone, the thing no longer exists. The baby is baffled, does not understand. Bring the toy out again: Ah, here it is! But is this the same object or another one just like it? Remember, in the womb, two identical notes were heard. Was that the same note that went away and came back, or were there really two identical but distinct, individual, unique sounds on the different occasions? Now, give the toy a name, Teddy. Where’s Teddy? Ah, here he is! Mum leaves the room, so vanishing. Early in the learning process, baby supposes she no longer exists. But now: Here I am darling, here’s Mummy! We are teaching the child that some objects outside immediate experience continue to exist, and may be re-identified by name. The concept of objective continuity is learned and enables us to associate things with the noises we make with our mouths. In the womb, in the early stages of utter doubt and bewilderment, the concept of objective continuity was no more than a possible way of making sense. Now it is the only way we use and it allows us to issue names for objects.

Because we have made sense this way does not demonstrate that it is the only possible way.

Once started, the process of naming objects and events continues and is elaborated rapidly. A growing vocabularly is often accompanied by praises and all round signals of delight from those other, external, mobile objects of experience that come and go. Let’s name them: grown ups. We learn speech from other people who teach us, quite deliberately, to use the language they use. Like English:

Ah’ve a canny ill fard dunsh, the bairns’ card, marra, fretish like, und wor lass’s moongin she’s fallen wrang. Ah reet, man, tha mun gang doon the lang steers, strairt alang the rooard und inter bakkers entry.

It takes some time and more learning for the idea to arise, that in addition to self, there are some other thinking beings in the external world, as well as a great multitude of the inanimate. Does the teddy bear think and have experience as we are learning to do? Does Teddy, who never speaks, though he may groan when we press his tummy, behave and misbehave? ‘Teddy wet the bed!’ my daughter once said. The hard table leg on which we stubbed our toe, did it deliberately to hurt us! We swear at it. Are we certain it was not being deliberately malevolent? We are still learning.

Immense power is entailed in these processes. Objects are identified and re-identified and are named. Every time some object re-appears, we assure ourselves that this is the same individual. It existed continuously between the sighting events. Once learned, humans carry this notion for life and, sometimes, project it beyond. The ragged teddy bear we can no longer find and play with, still exists somewhere. So does grandma who died last month; last year; twenty years ago.

There are other objects that we learn to identify and re-identify, and much stress is laid upon learning them. These do not ever go out of existence.

These, for example:

Ain, tain, tethera, fethera, fimp, sethera, letera, hovera, dovera, dick.

These are names given in some places to a series of utterly perfect entities. You will never actually see, touch or experience any of them through the senses. But surely, since they have names and we learn them, they must exist? One, two. Remember how, in the womb, the concept of plurality dawned, when all there was to go on was a musical sound that was heard twice… or one sound that came and went… or a single sound that was heard more than once…. If ain, tain tethera do not exist here, perhaps there is another realm where they do, a realm beyond mundane experience? Can there be a realm where there are other perfect objects of the same sort like truth and justice, equality, honesty and good? Plato was certain of it.

Are we, perhaps, going wildly wrong again? After all, there are some languages that do not get beyond tain.


Ghoulies and Ghosties and Long Leggetty Beasties and things that go Bump in the Night


I was woken by a bump in the night. I struggled out of bed and went outside to see if there was something wrong. All was calm. Had there really been an event? Had I dreamt it? I slept again. On rousing later I met sufficient witnesses to convince me that there had been an earth tremor. Everyone was talking about it, except for a few who had slept through. Subsequent publications developed the discussion. My experience was quickly tied into the general theories of geophysics.


Why, in an uncertain world, should we believe a lot of words?


Previous discussion has possibly made us aware how much we assumed and learned before and soon after birth. We went on to consider talking. When we learn language we learn the ways of experience that prevail among those from whom we learn. What the child picks up is not merely a lot of words and grammatical ways of stringing them together. The language is inseparable from ways of thinking and behaving.


Language use is universal among humans, maybe animals too. Essential to the Azande tribes of the Sudan is a fundamental belief and reliance upon witchcraft and rituals such as the poison oracle. They experience and talk about things and events in these terms.[1] Can we ever understand their language? Can there be accurate translation?


I will mention only one of many philosophers and linguists who have attempted to deal with such questions. W.V.O. Quine’s position is radical. He argues forcefully that there can never, under any circumstances, be accurate translations.


Quine describes a (fictional) scholar who visits a completely strange community and resolves to learn their language by living with them.[2] He shares their experiences, or believes he is doing so, and writes in a notebook the name of every thing and every event the native speakers appear to recognise and for which they have words and sentences. On a quiet excursion, the visitor sees a rabbit run across the path. A helpful native says gavagai. The word is duly recorded and alongside it is noted rabbit. Yet the visitor does not know what precisely it was that called forth gavagai. The scholar’s only contact with the other’s experience is through the word. Gavagai might mean there goes our dinner, or it may have been an exclamation of surprise, better translated as Wow! The speaker may have remarked that the animal was running, or that it was white, or that it had long ears. Even if on numerous other occasions the word gavagai is always accompanied by seeing a rabbit, the translator may still misunderstand. Both persons might agree to describe the creature in words as a long leggety beastie but that could have entirely different significance in their different ways of constructing experience. The native might experience it as a ghoulie or a ghostie, such as a reincarnated ancestor.


Even living every day in the community and using the same language, does not demonstrate that there is understanding. General agreement that the words are correct, does not resolve the issue. Experience as the tribe has constructed it remains inaccessible to the visitor. We hear what is said, but we have no direct access to the other people’s world. No translation is possible.


Quine takes a further step. Imagine a stately manor house with an avenue leading to the entrance. The owner has employed a topiarist to clip, over a number of years, a long row of bushes to look like elephants. The work completed, every elephant looks the same. There are no errors; every visible leaf is in place. However, inside each bush there is a very different interweaving of branches, twigs and shoots.


Let the external shape of the bushes represents the language spoken and used with fluency and understanding by English speakers. The internal mesh, the constructed experience that has grown within each individual, is different. Hence no translation, even from one English user to another, can be correct. We converse but we do not understand.


Further, the bushes are still growing and developing. Experience itself is constantly changing. The topiarist, with clippers called standards of correct English usage, keeps the bushes all looking the same from outside. The shape of the language, grammar, vocabulary, continues although the internal construction it is describing, the mesh of branches, alters and differs from individual to individual.


Never mind all the different elephants. Apply Quine’s argument to just one elephant bush as it is today. There will be further internal growth. Tomorrow it will be impossible to translate what is said now into what will be said then, even though identical words and sentences may be used. The same applies even more to what was said yesterday, last month, last year, twenty years ago.


Turn this argument against its originator. Did what Quine said in Adelaide in 1959, mean the same to him as his words printed in 1960? Did those words mean the same in the five reprints of his book? The words being identical, was any edition, by his own standards, an accurate translation of the first?


Does what I say now mean what I intended when I typed these words a few days ago? Can there be a reliable and accurate translation from hour to hour, minute to minute, of anything?


If Quine’s argument is accepted, language can never be properly understood at all. This would apply not only to what is said here, but to everything anyone has ever said anywhere. If this might be so, why do we persist in our use of language?


Like Martin Luther, we can do no other. To communicate, even if we talk, that is think, to ourselves, depends on the assumption that there is at least enough in common between one experience and another, for us to accept words and sentences as representing events and things that are observed. With this presupposition we can talk and write. Without it we must be silent.


Yet something did go bump in the night.


I have used here a form often described as a transcendental argument. I prefer the word I have used above, presupposition. A presuppositional argument can be directed against anyone who seems to be attacking or attempting to destroy the fundamental ground upon which they themselves stand. The ground we all stand on here is language. Imagine a tree surgeon who sits out on the branch he is cutting. When he succeeds in his effort, he falls with the branch. Quine’s argument about the impossibility of translation, if accepted, brings him down with the rest of us. Yet he continued to talk and write and expected to be understood.

Which brings me to Wittgensteins’ most famous and most often quoted remark, the sentence with which he ended his first book:

Wovon man nicht sprechen kann, darüber muss man schweigen

(Of unspeakable things, one must be silent.)

[1] The tribes have survived the recent disastrous conflicts and retain most of their beliefs, though not without desperate problems.

[2] Quine, Willard Van Orman, was a Harvard Professor. As a visiting professor he gave six lectures in Adelaide in June 1959. His major work, Word and Object, was published in the following year.





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