The Pursuit of Certainty: From Descartes to Kierkegaard

Kierkegaard evidently read Descartes, because he objected to the latter’s famous argument, “I think, therefore I am”, and the notion that doubt is derived from knowledge. It might appear that the two of them belong to different camps, but I have reason to believe that Descartes influenced/inspired Kierkegaard in his conception of “subjective certainty”.

It was Descartes who first brought “subjective certainty” to the forefront of philosophical thought, although he didn’t use the term explicitly. His seminal treatise “Meditations on First Philosophy” is, among other things, a demonstration of the pursuit of subjective certainty.

Descartes is certain of three things:
1. his own existence
2. his knowledge of geometry
3. the existence of God

The first, his own existence, is evident to his conscious mind. No logical proof necessary. It is, nevertheless, subjective and existential, not objective.

The second, knowledge of geometry, is objective truth, independent of his existence or awareness. However, Descartes can appropriate the knowledge as his own, and thereby attain to a type of subjective certainty. To do that, he cannot simply memorize the conclusions of geometrical deductions, like children parroting adult speech, but he must be able to make those deductions himself, by fully understanding the inner intricacies of geometry. Once he does that, he has taken full ownership of the knowledge, and can build upon it further. The whole body of mathematical knowledge would resemble an organic growth with each mathematician contributing his part.

Up to this point, there are no objections to Descartes’ certainties from either atheists or scientists. All men possess certainty of the first kind, and Descartes addresses them in a language of the common people, French; some elite possess certainty of the second kind, Descartes addresses them in Latin, the language of the learned. He then proceeds to proclaim, in Latin, and prove in the manner of geometrical deduction, that the existence of God is as “clear and distinct” to him as his own existence and his knowledge of geometry. In other words, he is as certain, if not more so, of the existence of God, as his own existence and his knowledge of geometry. The reaction? People either stopped paying attention, or raised objections of all sorts.

It dawned on me, as I was mulling over this, that Descartes was getting at the true nature of certainty. What exactly is certainty? What do we really mean when we say that we are “certain” of something?

Certainty is the feeling or manifestation of a firm relation.

Certainty does not lie in the senses or the corporeal world, because they’re in a state of constant flux. It is impossible to be certain of something that is constantly in flux, just as it is impossible to build a solid foundation in sand.

All of us are certain of our own existence, because we are necessarily always related to ourselves; Some scientists are certain of scientific truth, as they have grasped the knowledge firmly; Some are certain of the existence of God, being firmly related to Him, or in the words of Kierkegaard, “grounded in God”.

Doubt is the feeling or manifestation of an unstable relation.

Descartes’ method of doubt is not the doubt of the skeptics, who suspend all their judgments, but a method of elimination like that of Socrates. He eliminates false opinions by proving their incompatibility with knowledge that are certain.

Being in doubt, in the manner of true skeptics, is being in suspense, and to doubt all things is to be always in suspense, and never enter into a firm relation with anything, not even oneself. It is a very unstable state and very difficult, if not impossible, to maintain. Eventually, a stable relation must be established, and one becomes either grounded in truth or entrenched in falsehood.

When our relation to ourselves is out of balance, we experience self-doubt, and despair is the entrenched state, as Kierkegaard wrote in The Sickness Unto Death; When our relation with God is non-existent or unstable, doubt is the symptom. This doubt does not originate from God, who is everlasting and immutable, but from ourselves, the fickleness of our nature and our free will. It can be and must be resolved into one of two states, either faith or unbelief. When the heart becomes hardened and the neck stiffened, one is entrenched in unbelief. This is why Kierkegaard insists that doubt and unbelief are the result, not of knowledge, but of choice.

I tend to think that the increasing sense of uncertainty and the breakdown in human relationships also result from the fickleness of human nature. Divorce is forbidden, precisely because fickleness and restlessness are the opposite of the Divine Nature, but it was permitted, because of the hardness of our hearts.

For a Christian, the pursuit of certainty is none other than the pursuit of God. In the words of St. Paul, “that I may lay hold of that for which Christ Jesus has also laid hold of me.”

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20 thoughts on “The Pursuit of Certainty: From Descartes to Kierkegaard

  1. This is a great post, Nemo.

    I wonder though, there are millions of people all over the world who are subjectively certain about a number of things, and often those things contradict one another. I am specifically thinking of the differences among religions. Again, how can we be sure that we are, indeed, headed toward the Truth in our beliefs?

    Also, not having read Descartes, I am struggling to understand the nuance between doubt from knowledge and doubt from choice. If I understand correctly, D’s doubt was simply a suspension of belief until the doubts were proved false in some way and K’s doubt was only resolved by choice, choosing to believe or not, based on…what? Our own desires or circumstances? I guess my inquiry here is wondering why you say a stable relation MUST be estabshed, either to belief or unbelief?

    1. Good questions again. 🙂

      Descarte was a rationalist and searching for a foundation for science. His doubt was not to suspend belief or consent as the skeptics do, but to examine everything in the light of reason and certain knowledge. He will not accept anything that doesn’t meet the criteria; On the other hand, all scientific knowledge are based on axioms that cannot be proven or disproven. At the bottom of it all, you have to believe something that is not based on anything else. That’s where Kierkegaard’s choice comes in.

      There is no way to have absolute objective certainty. That’s part of Kierkegaard’s arguments. To prove (in the absolute sense) the existence of God, one would have to be God. But then, God doesn’t need to prove Himself to anyone.

      To be sure you’re heading towards the Truth, you must know the Truth already. It’s just like going on a journey, how can you know you’re moving towards a destination, if you have no idea where or what the destination is?

      5 Thomas said to Him, “Lord, we do not know where You are going, and how can we know the way?”
      6 Jesus said to him, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me.”
      John 14:5-6 (NKJV)

      Jesus has come that we may have a Divine Guide, Who shall guide us into all truth.

      I’m not familiar with other religions — I’m only scratching the surface of Christianity. But I think the important difference between Christianity and the rest is the Divinity of Jesus. without Whom there is no true Hope nor Joy for Man.

      1. “Descarte was a rationalist and searching for a foundation for science. His doubt was not to suspend belief or consent as the skeptics do, but to examine everything in the light of reason and certain knowledge. He will not accept anything that doesn’t meet the criteria; On the other hand, all scientific knowledge are based on axioms that cannot be proven or disproven. At the bottom of it all, you have to believe something that is not based on anything else. That’s where Kierkegaard’s choice comes in.”

        Thank you! I think I understand now. 🙂

        “To be sure you’re heading towards the Truth, you must know the Truth already. It’s just like going on a journey, how can you know you’re moving towards a destination, if you have no idea where or what the destination is?”

        The problem with this is that the millions of people mentioned above who have contradictory beliefs all think they know the Truth already and are headed towards it or already attained it, no? You wre right in saying that the Divinity of Jesus is the major disambiguation ffrom all other religions. It is either the Truth or not the Truth. Some believe it is, some believe it is not. In both cases, they believe they “know” the Truth but they cannot both be right.

        I actually believe it is the Truth, just to clarify. But I am always searching to, as Peter says, “supplement my faith with knowledge”. (2 Pet. 1:5)

      2. Having been raised in an atheistic and scientific environment, I used to think that all religions were superstitions, and that atheism was the Truth. So I can understand where you’re coming from. 🙂

        You wrote, “I actually believe it is the Truth, just to clarify. But I am always searching to, as Peter says, “supplement my faith with knowledge”. (2 Pet. 1:5)”

        I think the “knowledge” that Peter is referring to is not independent of faith, but rather, knowledge is built upon the foundation of faith, for knowledge is in Christ, who is the Teacher, and the Author and Finisher of faith.

  2. “Having been raised in an atheistic and scientific environment, I used to think that all religions were superstitions, and that atheism was the Truth. So I can understand where you’re coming from. :)”

    That’s interesting, Nemo. Do you mind if I ask how you became a Christian?

    “I think the “knowledge” that Peter is referring to is not independent of faith, but rather, knowledge is built upon the foundation of faith, for knowledge is in Christ, who is the Teacher, and the Author and Finisher of faith.”

    I agree with that. I was twisting it around to suit my purposes. Speaking of problematic thinking….:-)
    I just feel that my faith is not worth much if it cannot stand up to rigorous questioning…

    1. If I were put on trial for being a Christian, I would be acquitted easily for lack of evidence. So I don’t think I’m worthy of the name “Christian”. But to answer your question and make a long story short, I tested Christianity in as many ways as I could think of: I questioned all the Christians who tried to evangelize me, speaking of rigorous questioning; I prayed to the unknown God, for I figured I had nothing to lose but much to gain (Pascal’s Wager); I read the whole Bible in two weeks…and the next thing I knew, I was no longer an atheist. 🙂

  3. I meant nothing interesting by it, lol. My story is fairly hackneyed. I grew up in an extremely legalistic, Christian home. From eight years old, I desparately tried to please God but never felt I succeeded. So in college, I decided I was an atheist. Not really because I no longer believed in Him, but because it was extremely convenient for me if He did not exist. After a few years of that, I was tired of that life. It led to nothing but misery for me. One night after reading about the First and Second Laws of Thermodynamics (of all random things), I suddenly realized the Truth of the existence of the God who created all laws. A bit more research about the historical Jesus and the reliability of the gospels and that was it for me. 🙂 The Bible continues to stand against the most difficult questions I can think of.

    1. I’m curious, how did the Laws of Thermodynamics lead you to realize the existence of God? How do you deal with the apparent contradictions in the gospels?

      1. Lol, right? I know very little about science and I honestly think it had more to do with God just showing me in that moment than having to do with the Laws themselves, but anyway, basically the laws talk about how energy can only flow from a higher source to a lower source and I just suddenly knew that creation had to have had some grest source of energy to start and I jumped from there to that great source of energy being God. Probably a bit like Paley’s teleological argument, though I have recently been assured by Alvin Plantinga (in one of his books) that that is not the strongewt argument to stand on. Lol It’s ok. I have many more reasons now.

        It depends. Which contradictions are you referring to? 🙂
        Generally speaking, I pray a lot, read the passages alot, and research diffeerent points of view and interpretations. How do YOU deal with them? 🙂

      2. Thanks for sharing the energy source argument, it’s a good one.

        You commented on contradictions in the Bible in the GR group discussion and refused to give any specific examples, remember? I thought you had something specific in mind.

  4. Ok. I just scrolled through some 300 posts to remind myself what I was in disagreement on with you. Lol I remembered the occurence, and that it was during Phaedo, but could not remember the specifics of our conversation at the time. And I found it!

    You refeerred to Holmes. “A variation of Socrates argument is made by Sherlock Holmes, “When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.” ”

    And I wondered if there were several possibilities left that were contradictory, how could they all be the truth?

    I think my comment earlier in these posts can serve for this purpose. Some people believe Jesus is divine and others do not. Whether I believe he is, and you believe he is not, (From the Tolstoy post we discussed briefly, I am curious if you do?) neither position is IMPOSSIBLE, right? But the two positions sre contradictory. They cannot both be the truth, right?

    1. It depends on how you define “impossible”. For example, if we don’t have any knowledge of astronomy, it might seem possible to us that the sun goes around the earth, and vice versa. Neither position is impossible in appearance, but in fact, the former is impossible.

      Here is the discussion we had regarding the contradictions in the Bible: my post and your response

      1. I think I mean logically impossible. :p Although, in your example, is the former position impossible simply because we have found that it is not so? Is it actually possible that it be physically true, though we could not imagine it since we have no first hand experience of that situation? I hope that makes sense.

        So in the Jesus case, how would Holmes statement apply? I am not letting you off. :p

        And thanks for the links. I remember now. I was not actually referring to contradictions in the gospels, I think I was thinking of different denominations interpretatons of scriotues. Here’s an example:Acts 2:38 Peter said to them, “Repent, and each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.”

        The Church of Christ denomination will say that this means you have to be baptized in order to be “saved”, emphasis on baptism. The Baptist church will say that this is taking one verse out of the whole new testament and pitting it against numerous verses that say belief in Jesus is the way of salvation, emphasis on belief. A question of semantics only? The two conclusions are contradictory and cannot both be true, although I suppose it is POSSIBLE for either to be true, no?

      2. There are two types of impossibility that I can think of: one determined by the laws of logic and the other by the laws of nature. The geocentric model belongs to the latter. Holmes’ statement applies to both. Of course, to determine whether something is impossible, one must have sufficient knowledge of the laws of nature and logic. Otherwise, there are only empty speculations.

        As I said earlier, we don’t have sufficient knowledge to prove or disprove, in the absolute sense, the existence of God or the Divinity of Jesus. One must choose to believe or disbelieve; OTOH, many philosophers, such as Plato and Descartes, have proven that the existence of God is not contrary to the laws of logic and the laws of nature as we know them. In fact, if one accepts certain premisses as true, the existence of God is the logical conclusion. The same applies for the Divinity of Jesus.

        I’m not a Bible scholar, but it seems to me Acts 2:38 doesn’t say one *must* be baptized to be saved, only that if they repent and be baptized, they will be saved. IOW, repentance and baptism is not a necessary, but a sufficient, condition for salvation.

  5. Ps-we are a bit off topic here. Is it ok to continue discussing this on this page? 🙂 and also, I realized after re-reading the posts that you never said you were a Christian, only that you were not an atheist. I am so sorry. 🙂 you should have corrected me! 🙂

      1. Lol!! Ok, Nemo, that could mean several things. I will “let” you have your ambiguity, though I will cry a tiny, “not fair”. :p

  6. “There are two types of impossibility that I can think of: one determined by the laws of logic and the other by the laws of nature. The geocentric model belongs to the latter. Holmes’ statement applies to both. Of course, to determine whether something is impossible, one must have sufficient knowledge of the laws of nature and logic. Otherwise, there are only empty speculations.

    As I said earlier, we don’t have sufficient knowledge to prove or disprove, in the absolute sense, the existence of God or the Divinity of Jesus. One must choose to believe or disbelieve; OTOH, many philosophers, such as Plato and Descartes, have proven that the existence of God is not contrary to the laws of logic and the laws of nature as we know them. In fact, if one accepts certain premisses as true, the existence of God is the logical conclusion. The same applies for the Divinity of Jesus.”

    Great answer. I’ve got nothing. 🙂 And I like your conclusion. Plantinga came to the exact same end in the book I just read. For me, my doubts resolved into belief.

    “I’m not a Bible scholar, but it seems to me Acts 2:38 doesn’t say one *must* be baptized to be saved, only that if they repent and be baptized, they will be saved. IOW, repentance and baptism is not a necessary, but a sufficient, condition for salvation.”

    I actually agree with your conclusion, but there are Bible scholars that believe both the latter and former conclusions.

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