Acquaintance and practice

The pronoun implemented at the beginning of each of these ‘certainty phrases’, subtly – but simultaneously dramatically – alters its global perception. ‘It’ is a global pronoun – used and applied on a large scale to reassure many of its followers. ‘I’ is miniscule in comparison; it’s all about me – or you – and no one else. One of the main differences between ‘I am certain’ and ‘it is certain’ can be seen through the ways in which these statements can be justified. ‘I am certain’ is ‘personal’ knowledge – someone’s opinion. It may be justified by knowledge, but will usually be based upon conviction- due to culture, faith, and introspection – such as empathy and conscience, as well as acquaintance and practice.

Emotion is the biggest justification for ‘I am certain’, as this can be sufficiently powerful to overcome logic. Conversely, it could be argued that in some cases, personal experience is the only certainty, thus taking on the appearance of ‘it is certain’. When we personally experience something – even though its meaning can be misinterpreted – that experience is real, and so personal conviction and certainty is created. The difficulty comes however, when we take one personal experience and try to generalise from it. Inductive logic based on partial data leads to prejudice.

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‘It is certain’ is impersonal propositional knowledge, and can be based only upon knowledge by description – such as through logic, empirical evidence, authority or memory. Science cannot be based upon certainty, as the only way a theory can be ultimately proved, is by disproving it. This is inductive logic, upon which science is based. Popper’s falsification method [‘Ways of Knowing’, Michael Woolman, 2000] meets this problem – science only proves something false, never true. Any experiment that concludes in favour of a hypothesis does not prove it to be ultimately true; scientists can never know whether or not there is an anomaly to the theory that will prove everything current science is based upon falsehood.

Take the periodic table. All elements have been placed in groups depending upon their chemical properties. However, recently, scientists discovered ‘superatoms’, which adopt the properties of other group metals when they are grouped together [‘Clusters of Aluminium Atoms Found to have Properties of Other Elements Reveal a New form of Chemistry.’ January 2005]. This discovery will change the shape of the periodic table and will disprove a long-held scientific belief.

Interestingly, in some areas of knowledge, ‘It is certain’ cannot exist, as justification cannot be based upon proof, merely informed opinion. Proof is evidence that makes something an apparent fact – for example results from a photosynthesis experiment showing that light is needed for photosynthesis to occur. Despite the presumption that ‘I am certain’ can exist in every way of knowing – the individual is always able to have their own opinion – there is little possibility that a personal certainty can exist in mathematics, due to the way in which its foundations have been created. Mathematics has been created from humans, and as the creations are ‘rules’, such as the Law of Trigonometry, there is only a true or false answer.

Incorrect use of the sine rule will give an invalid answer – yet we cannot be personally certain of its validity, as there is no evidence backing it up. The only available evidence is from the law itself, which is universally certain, but only self-referential. The field of mathematics has been developed away from the influences and alterations of everyday life, and so what begins as being certain, will remain this way. Einstein said:’As far as the laws of mathematics refer to reality, they are not certain; and as far as they are certain, they do not refer to reality.’ [Einstein]

Thus, you could say that ‘I am certain’ is dependent on the changing ideas of reality and is related to real life, whereas universal third person certainty doesn’t change by this. Ethics is reliant on and based upon the problems and differences between the two statements. Within ethics, ‘It is certain’ does not exist, as ethics are the study of morals, which are based upon a psychological sense of right and wrong – not a proved one.

With capital punishment, it cannot be pronounced that ‘it is certain’ that someone guilty of murder should be put to death, as there is a lack of actual proof that this is morally right – no empirical knowledge or universal logic can be placed upon this statement to make it certain, although it could, in theory, be shown that capital punishment acted as a deterrent and so, on utilitarian grounds, saved more lives than it took. In courts, the jury are asked to prove ‘beyond reasonable doubt’ that the accused is guilty.

Thus, even if each member of the jury is personally certain that the defendant is guilty, they do not need to prove that it is certain – just beyond reasonable doubt, which is a hazy line of precision. Yet, the very implementation of laws that condemn criminals is placing a field of universal certainty around such ethical topics. In the Netherlands, assisted suicide has been legalised, yet in England such practices remain illegal. This presents the dilemma of varying universal certainty. British law is pronouncing a certainty of the immorality of assisted euthanasia – certain to all British citizens through law, yet in the Netherlands the certainty created by a law is that assisted euthanasia is not wrong. Society has attempted to create an impersonal certainty in a region of personal conviction.

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