The Epistemic Trilemma

This is something I struggled with for a long time, and epistemologists I believe are still very divided on the subject.

Let’s say you have a statement that you believe is true. How about “God is real. ” Now, in order to say that it is true you must show why you believe it is true. So, you list out all these arguments. But then you must prove that those statements are true. And then you must justify your proof of your arguments. And so on, ad infinitum. So, there are now three options left to you to find certain knowledge.

  1. We keep presenting arguments forever, the regressive argument. This is impossible at the moment, and I don’t see how it ever could be possible.
  2. Use circular reasoning, or use terms that wrap (the Bible is true because the Bible says it is true), the circular argument. This is not logically valid.
  3. Stop the process at self-evident or common sense notions, the axiomatic argument. This defeats the whole purpose, since we are assuming something that could be false.

So basically what this is saying is that we can never know anything for certain. This destroyed my mind for a little while. I tried to escape many times, but never succeeded. I doubted many things in that time, including God, scientific conclusions, and political conclusions. This was also around the 2012 election, so there was a lot of opposing propaganda going on at the time. My doubting of science is definitely still present and my political views are not as dogmatic as they once were, so I guess it could have been good. Anyways, what did I do about it?

Well. To start let me say that this trilemma is almost self-defeating. If you say that it is impossible to know anything, then you are contradicting yourself. You say, “I am certain that it is impossible to be certain”. It took me a long time to realize this, I’m not sure why. I had to read it before I realized it myself. But even though it is self-defeating it is still very powerful, because it is logically sound. That is, it is true as long as you assume some basic rules of logic. So it would be more correct to say the statement, “I’m pretty sure it is impossible to be certain.” So it really isn’t self-defeating, only almost.

Now let us think about one more thing before we get to my response. I was on omegle talking about this with some guy and he brought up this interesting idea. If we cannot be certain about anything, then someone is just as justified to believe one thing as another. This perhaps is the origin of the huge tolerance emphasis we have at the moment. However, this has some serious flaws. For one, a statement can definitely be more likely without being certain. I cannot prove to you that the physical world exists, but it is much more reasonable to believe so than to believe it doesn’t exist. Also, some beliefs can lead to evil (for example, Nazism). And I think that the idea that morality exists should be an axiom to life.

Finally to what I think. I have a meager understanding of Kant, but I used him a little bit in my solution. First, logic and math is true because our soul is created to think in those terms. Our minds simply cannot conceive differently. Second, the two types of revelation that God gives us. The Bible is one, and our conscience and common sense is another. We can stop arguing at those points unless something is brought up.

So, to wrap it up. We want to be certain about something. Instead of circular reasoning or infinite regression, start with axioms. Then use rules of logic that cannot be false in our minds to expand on those axioms. If the axioms seem to be true and the conclusions make common and emotional sense, then you are almost definitely right.

But still only almost! Well, who cares. You can be certain until you discover some reason your axioms were wrong or you discover your common sense is wrong, which could happen. But if it does, simply start over.

Man. That turned into a system of knowledge instead just a discussion of the trilemma. But I guess that is what the trilemma was discussing. Hmm.

2 thoughts on “The Epistemic Trilemma

  1. “First, logic and math is true because our soul is created to think in those terms. Our minds simply cannot conceive differently.”

    I think you are correct that logic is true because we cannot conceive differently. Every argument we ever conceive of is based on logic – pretty much one of two arguments:

    A implies B
    therefore B

    A implies B
    not B
    therefore, not A

    Two sides of the same “implies” coin:

    A B A=>B
    T T T
    T F F
    F T T
    F F T

    Math is simply a derivative of logic – using observations from the real world to determine A’s and B’s.

    Furthermore, you have realised that the statement “I am certain that I cannot be certain about anything” cannot be true. Why do you still say then that you are pretty sure you can’t know anything? You have just shown that something can in fact be known:

    A = it is not true that a statement can be known absolutely to be true.
    A implies not A

    using that truth table, one can see that the only conclusion is that ~A is true and A is false.

    Therefore, it is true that a statement can be known absolutely to be true.

    What sort of statement can be known absolutely to be sure, it’s is hard to say. But we can prove that something out there can in fact be known with absolute certainty.


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