Monday, 20 June 2016

The necessity for Firm Perswasion

I asked: 'does a firm perswasion that a thing is so, make it so?' 
He replied: 'All poets believe that it does, & in ages of imagination this firm perswasion removed mountains; but many are not capable of a firm perswasion of any thing. 

From The Marriage of Heaven and Hell by William Blake

One way to conceptualise the modern problem is that 'many are not capable of firm perswasion'. And without it - nothing is possible except mere subsistence and a condition of existential angst and always-pressing nihilism.

To be firmly persuaded of the truth and reality of anything, requires that:

1. There can be such as thing as real and true knowledge.

2. This is accessible to us.

3. We will know when we have it.

4. We cannot be put off it - cannot be confused, or have our confidence falsely eroded; cannot have our knowledge destroyed or distorted...

All this is indeed possible - so long as we are prepared to examine and modify our fundamental metaphysical assumptions.

But against this is the spirit of the age which labels Firm Perswasion as certainty - and says many negative things about certainty, including:

1. Certainty is impossible - knowledge is only relative, approximate, labile, perspectival, contingent etc. etc.

2. The is no 'us' with which to be certain - because consciousness is an illusion, the 'I' is an artifact, it does nothing, is a fake etc. etc.

3. The public will always disagree about everything, and people cannot be convinced by anything etc. etc.

4. Certainty is anyway irrelevant - what matters is what we feel/ think/ do. (Or something.)

5. Certainty is bad - a source of infinite evil: Certain people have been responsible for most of the world's horrors - it is better to be un-certain, continually to treat one's views with skepticism, to doubt etc. etc.

6. Certainty is boring.

7. Certainty is death: the end of vitality. 

So - on the one hand - Firm Perswasion is necessary and we can have it if we want it.

On the other hand, we don't really want it.


  1. But objection #1 is true, at least with regard to most propositions. Contingent facts can be known by imperfect beings only contingently and imperfectly. (#3 is true, too, but is irrelevant. The others are false.)

    Your prescription is to change one's metaphysical assumptions, but it's not clear how that can create legitimate certainty. I decided some years ago to assume that God exists and that we have free will. But those assumptions are just that -- assumptions, working hypotheses. I haven't the slightest idea whether God really exists or whether we really have free will. My metaphysical assumptions, so far from giving me certainty, have underlined my lack of it -- since to assume something implies recognizing the possibility that it is not true.

  2. Metaphysical assumptions are not just assumptions - that is only the beginning. It is what happens afterwards that matters. How these assumptions affect subsequent experience. Certainty is partly psychological, and is also about true reality. But it cannot mean fully exact and complete knowledge, which is the only final truth. Therefore certainty must be contextual, and susceptible of improvement. Usually certainty presents itself in dichotomies - we can be certain which of two opposite options is true, but beyond that is inexact - and we move forward from there...