Pessin’s Paradox of the Preface

Sometimes I hear people in the blogosphere complain about philosophers and what we do.  This often comes from someone who is largely unfamiliar with philosophy, and you can see this because these people commonly express explicit philosophical positions while they are complaining about philosophy.  This suggests they just don’t get what philosophy is.  Sometimes I get annoyed at this and try to point out the mistake, but most of the time I let it slide recognizing that the person in question is just naive.  Sometimes, though, I read something from a philosopher, and I understand these people’s frustration.  After all, this is likely what they had in mind when they voiced their complaint.  Now is one of those times. 

Andrew Pessin, Chair of Philosophy at Connecticut College and author of The God Question, wrote an article for the Huffington Post a couple of days ago entitled “How to Be Certain Your Religion Is True and Still Get Along with Others.”  So, what’s Pessin’s big idea? 

Choose some important, life-governing, very controversial thing you happen to believe in with great fervor: the existence of God (or perhaps atheism), the truth of Christianity (or Islam or Hinduism, etc.), absolute morality (or relativism), etc. Focusing on religion as our example, you can now say, first, that you believe, with certainty, on the basis of reason and evidence and testimony, in the truth of, say, the various individual tenets of your version of Christianity, and thus believe, with equal certainty, in all the things entailed by that belief: that, say, all other competing religions and doctrines are simply false.

But then you can say, second, something else: that you may be wrong.

Yes, Pessin thinks the resolution to the world’s religious conflicts is to say you are certain about something, but then say you’re not certain at all.  He calls this the “Paradox of the Preface.” 

What’s this about?  Pessin thinks that someone can say that she is certain about something while simultaneously saying that, as a fallible human being, she is also certain she made a mistake somewhere in their reasoning.  Sounds like a contradiction, huh?  Pessin agrees.  He writes,

Well, there is the implicit, apparent contradiction. To believe of each and every sentence that it is true is to believe, in effect, that not one of the sentences is false; but to believe that there is at least one error in the work is to believe that at least one of the sentences is false, and thus to contradict the first belief.

Even so, he says we can recognize the contradiction while still being certain about both things.

Man, there is so much sloppiness here that I want to bite something.  First, in philosophy “certainty” has a specific meaning, and it means that there is no doubt.  If that’s not what Pessin has in mind, he should define the term.  The point there is that, even if I recognize that I am fallible and capable of mistakes, I likely am not certain that I have made some mistake in my reasoning.  Were that the case, I would be going over that reasoning carefully to find the error.  Rather, I just see that it is possible that I made a mistake, but that is nothing like having certainty about it.  So, even if Pessin means “certainty” as having no doubt when he talks about believing that one’s religious faith is fully correct and all others are wrong, he can’t mean certainty in the same way when talking about the fallibility of one’s reasoning.  But which use of the word does he have in mind when he talks about ‘certainty’?  There does not seem to be any way to tell.  Regardless, there is a big problem here.

Next, I just do not buy the idea that someone can be certain about something, like that God exists, while saying that he might be wrong.  That just means you are not certain!  In that case acknowledging some contradiction does not seem to be some brave honesty.  On the contrary, it seems wholly dishonest.  If you are certain, you would not think you had made an error.  If you are worried you made an error, and surely if you are certain of such, then you would not be certain of the assertion you are making in the first place.  The idea that you can be certain about both things really is a contradiction, and when you have contradictions that means at least one of the propositions in question is false.  It is as simple as that.  You do not get to brutely assert both as true and not look like either a liar or a fool.

There is a larger point to this whole nonsense, though.  Pessin is suggesting that affirming the paradox is supposed to somehow make people get along with each other, but he gives no indication of how this is supposed to work.  Indeed, there are lots of things about which I am not certain but which seem reasonable, so those are things upon which I act.  Even in those cases, lacking certainty, acknowledging the possibility that I am wrong does not prevent me from acting, and that seems to be the kind of thing for which Pessin is pushing.  He seems to think that if people admit to…well, not doubt, but being both certain and not-certain at the same time, that this will alter their actions in such a way that people of different religions can get along.  But why would he think this?  There are any number of people who admit to times when they question their religious beliefs, but that hasn’t stopped religious conflict yet.  Seriously, does Pessin think he is so smart that no one ever realized that there might be room for not-certainty in their beliefs before he wrote this?  Surely not.  And yet, here he is suggesting that such an admission will result in some kind of large-scale harmony between members of different faiths.  But, certainly, this has not happened yet, even though people recognize that they can make mistakes. 

Dude, what a dumbass.

Accepting contradictions is not a way to accomplish anything except confusion.  Being sloppy in your definitions only spreads confusion.  Confusion is not peace.  In fact, confusion is often the origin of conflict.  Pessin is the kind of philosopher who gives the rest of us a bad name.

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20 Responses to “Pessin’s Paradox of the Preface”

  1. James Gray Says:

    My suggestion is to just admit that we are fallible and uncertain. In that case we will be less excited about getting other people killed and we will end up a little more modest and careful in our decisions. Sounds like a good way to get along better.

  2. Pessin’s Paradox of the Preface | rssblogstory.com Says:

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  3. Jason Brophy Says:

    Hello Jim and Liza. 🙂 I think the title of your blog is more revealing than you may realize. I wrote an article on proof God exists that you might find interesting. Here’s the link:

    http://jasonbrophy.wordpress.com/2010/05/25/proof-god-exists/

    • James Gray Says:

      God proves Himself to every person beyond a shadow of a doubt, but He does it in such a way that they are not forced to believe what they know. You could say that God proves Himself beyond a shadow of a doubt, but still allows people to doubt.

      God proves Himself spiritually.

      I disagree. Most people in the world never even knew who Jesus was until fairly recently. A group of Christians who went to China early on were very unsuccessful.

      Many Muslims also say that everyone is born a Muslim and the truth of Islam is known in the heart of everyone. What makes you think you have a better claim to some mysterious spiritual truth than that?

      Even if there was a mysterious psychological tendency to think God exists, that could be deluded. It could be based on genetics, or even a demonic entity. We need to be able to explain why our beliefs make sense. I don’t see how this mysterious spiritual “knowledge” makes any sense. It reminds me of Descartes innate ideas and his Ontological proof of God, which is basically plagiarized from Plato, who argued that our ideas of perfection must have come from perfection itself (the forms/the good)

      Philosophers are not convinced by the ontological argument for God:

      http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/ontological-arguments/

      Philosophers have been discussing the plausibility of God’s existence for thousands of years and you should know what philosophers have to say. They know a lot more about this stuff than others because they can know the entire history of the debate.

      I recently wrote about an argument against God that I think explains a great deal of how reasoning works when we want to argue for or against God’s existence: http://ethicalrealism.wordpress.com/2010/05/26/an-argument-against-god-a-teapot-and-garveys-objections/

      • Jim Says:

        James, sorry your post didn’t show up until now. It got stuck requiring moderation. I have no idea why. I plan on checking out Garvey’s article over the weekend. Looks interesting.

    • Jim Says:

      First, what about our blog’s title do you think we are unaware? What is it that you think we don’t realize?
      Second, what does your post have to do with this post?
      Third, presuppositionalism has been criticized within theology and philosophy. I think you’d be very hard pressed to find any significant number of epistemologists assenting to the plausibility of such a system. And I won’t even get into the various problems of granting God dominion in the Calvinist sense like all the guys you quote do while attempting to maintain a free will which you explicitly assert. That horse has been beaten since Augustine, so I see no need to repeat the old arguments here.

  4. Joey Frantz Says:

    The odd thing is that religious believers have actually told me that they essentially do what Pessin is suggesting. It’s totally incoherent, but they seem to follow it: “I believe in God, but I admit that I could be wrong”.

    It’s like Walt Whitman’s self-description: “I am vast, I contain multitudes”. If only these people were as awesome as Walt Whitman.

    • James Gray Says:

      It’ not a paradox to believe something and admit that you could be wrong. That’s just uncertainty. If they say they know god exists without any possibility of being wrong, but they think they might be wrong, then they are indeed being incoherent.

      • Joey Frantz Says:

        It depends on the degree of uncertainty denoted by the word “belief”.

        • James Gray Says:

          A very large degree of uncertainty can be involved with the word. People believe the wrong thing quite often. That’s why “belief” is different from “know.” If they say that they know God exists, but they might be wrong, that would sound a bit more strange.

  5. Ophelia Benson Says:

    “First, in philosophy “certainty” has a specific meaning, and it means that there is no doubt. If that’s not what Pessin has in mind, he should define the term.”

    Thank you – I’ve been arguing that for two days, first at Jerry Coyne’s blog and then at mine. So have other people, but there is one philosopher who disagrees and defends Pessin.

    Here’s mine:

    http://www.butterfliesandwheels.org/2010/c-and-not-c/

  6. In philosophy ‘certainty’ has a specific meaning - Butterflies and Wheels Says:

    […] at Apple Eaters sees Pessin’s ‘paradox’ the way I do. Man, there is so much sloppiness here that I want to bite something. First, in philosophy […]

  7. Alex H Says:

    It is possible to be certain that p, and yet believe that one could be wrong about the truth of p.

    Example: I am certain that the sun will rise tomorrow. I do not doubt it — I do not take into account the contingency that the sun not rise tomorrow in making my plans for tomorrow, I do not seek evidence re: whether or not the sun will rise tomorrow, etc.

    But I could be wrong… evil demons and whatnot.

    • Jim Says:

      You’ve missed the point of the reference to Descartes that you make. The possibility of and evil demon is supposed to show why there is doubt. That’s the whole point. I suggest you reread his Meditations.

      • Alex H Says:

        Rather, I (like many) disagree with Descartes.

        • Jim Says:

          Then it probably isn’t wise to reference his explicit thought experiments in your comments, especially when you don’t bother to make it clear that, even though you’re relying on his example, you don’t agree with him. Worse, you make no effort to explain where you think he went wrong, nor do you name any of these others, meaning no one can check to see where they think Descartes went wrong, either. Basically, all you’ve said is “Uh-huh!” That’s hardly a thoughtful response.

  8. Alex H Says:

    I should expand a bit: the possibility of being wrong re: p is insufficient for rational doubt. Moreover, as a matter of psychological fact, believing that one could be wrong re: p is insufficient for doubting p.

    • Jim Says:

      I have no idea what you mean by ‘doubt’, then. Get it? You haven’t defined your terms, and that’s the problem I made explicit in my post. Worse, Pessin clearly equivocates when he uses the word ‘certainty’, making it impossible to determine what his meaning might be. To quote myself:

      The point there is that, even if I recognize that I am fallible and capable of mistakes, I likely am not certain that I have made some mistake in my reasoning. Were that the case, I would be going over that reasoning carefully to find the error. Rather, I just see that it is possible that I made a mistake, but that is nothing like having certainty about it. So, even if Pessin means “certainty” as having no doubt when he talks about believing that one’s religious faith is fully correct and all others are wrong, he can’t mean certainty in the same way when talking about the fallibility of one’s reasoning. But which use of the word does he have in mind when he talks about ‘certainty’? There does not seem to be any way to tell.

      Regardless of how you use the word ‘certainty’, I don’t see how you can say you are certain you are right in any meaningful way while saying you are also certain you are wrong, that you have made a mistake, and that’s exactly what Pessin claims. That’s the point of my post. So, please, explain how that works. I’d love to hear it.

      • James Gray Says:

        I’ve noticed a lot of people mean “feel like I must be right” by “I’m certain.” Of course, this still doesn’t help me know how someone can feel they are certain despite saying they “might be wrong.” I guess it might be an issue between emotion and reason. You can feel like you have to be right and rationally know you might not be.


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