Is it Possible to Know Anything for Certain?
Bob: “How are you getting to the football game tomorrow?” Dan: “Pete said he could pick me up at 6:00.” Bob: “Do you know for sure he’s giving you a ride?” Dan: “Yes, he said he would.” Bob: “But do you know 100% for certain that he will take you?” Dan: “Well, I can’t say I know for sure, but I certainly think so.”
In this example of a typical conversation, Dan initially states that he knows something for sure, but then later admits that in reality, he’s not 100% certain. He may be very confident and very hopeful, but he cannot claim to know absolutely for sure that Pete will give him a ride to the game. After all, Pete might forget or he might get sick and have to cancel. He might be delayed because of an accident. He may change his mind and decide not to go to the game at all or he might tell someone else to fill in for him. Any number of scenarios are possible, so there's just no way of knowing for sure.
What’s the point with all of this? It leads us to ask, is there ANYTHING we know for certain? Is it even possible to know anything with absolute certainty?
Most people (including skeptics and atheists) when pressed will admit there’s nothing they know for sure. Fairly often, however, it may take some time before they realize this. For instance, you may ask them if there’s anything they know for sure… anything they are absolutely certain about and they may say, “Yes, I am absolutely sure that I am standing here right now.” You could ask, “How do you know you are not just dreaming it?” “Because, I can pinch myself and feel the pain,” they might respond. “But how do you know that you aren’t just dreaming that you pinched yourself and dreaming that is hurts?” They might say, “Because I can use my brain to logically figure out the difference.” “How do you know you can trust your thoughts? How do you use your logic to verify that your logic is accurate?”
You could also approach this another way. You could ask, “What percentage of all knowledge do you think you possess? Do you think you know 10% of everything there is to know? How about 1%? Maybe just 0.0001%?” They will most likely convey that their personal knowledge represents a very, very small percentage of the total amount of knowledge in the entire universe. You could then ask, “Is it possible that something within the realm of knowledge outside of what you think you know might actually show that what you think you know is wrong?” If they say “No”, you could ask them to give you an example of something they know for certain could not possibly be wrong. Logically, they won’t be able to defend any example they might give. Most likely they will concede that it is possible that things unknown to them would indicate they are wrong about what they believe. Therefore, they would have to admit that it is possible everything they believe is wrong. It’s at least a possibility. You could then say, “So you admit that you can’t know anything with absolute certainty.” They may respond by emphatically saying, “Yes, I admit that, but you can’t know anything for certain either!” You could then ask, “Are you absolutely certain about that?” They just admitted that they can’t know anything for certain, so logically they can’t possibly know for sure that you can’t know anything for sure. In fact, they can’t even know for certain that they can’t know anything for certain! (You may have heard some claim that there is no such thing as “absolute truth”! You could ask them, “Are you absolutely sure?”) These kinds of conversations can easily become kind of crazy (and even frustrating) but the logic is sound and we need to be aware of this when discussing our faith with those around us.
If your head isn’t spinning just a bit, then maybe you weren’t reading this close enough. So where does this leave us? As of right now, it looks like we’re no better off than an atheist, because we’ve just concluded that neither of us can know anything with absolute certainty. This is what many have concluded and subsequently decided that we shouldn’t be making a big deal out of our beliefs, because ultimately no one can truly know anything. Therefore, Christians shouldn’t be sharing their faith, because they’re in no better position than anyone else. End of story!
Fortunately for Christians, the story does not end here and here’s why. The only way that it would even be logically possible to have absolute knowledge about something is if there was an all-knowing God who conveyed absolute truth to us in a way that we could know for certain. If this God is all-knowing and all-powerful, this would not be a problem with Him whatsoever. This is exactly what Christianity teaches, that not only does this all-powerful, all-knowing God exist, but He has also chosen to communicate absolute truth to us through the Bible. God Himself is abstract (i.e. non-physical), unchanging and universal (i.e. the same everywhere). He created laws of logic for us to use that themselves are abstract, unchanging and universal (reflecting His character). So while atheists and Christians alike use logic in defending their beliefs, only Christians can account for the existence of such laws. In an atheistic world, there are no mechanisms to account for the existence of such laws. Physical matter and energy are incapable of creating such non-physical entities, yet everyone believes they exist (and uses them everyday). So where did they come from? It only makes sense in a theistic worldview.
Wrapping this up (before I lose too many more readers), people who believe in God are the only one’s who have a rational basis for claiming the ability to know anything for certain. All others must admit they could be wrong about everything they believe.
I fully realize that this type of discussion leads to numerous other questions and in essence opens up a proverbial “can of worms”, but I can only address this initial question briefly in this type of an article. I am planning on addressing related issues in future articles.
If you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to contact us!
Author: Jay Seegert (Co-Founder & Principal Lecturer, Creation Education Center)