Withdrawing from Ultimate Tests

Dear Philosophical Friend,

I thought my claim about the impossibility of ultimate tests was too rushed and unclear. Let me try again here.

Let P be an Ultimate Test for some question Q. Let question Q be, e.g.: ‘Is Smith trulyultimately trustworthy?’

There are three ways that P can go awry:

1.) P can be so overly demanding that no human being could possibly pass P. (Overdemandingness Problem)

2.) P could test something other than Q. (Wrong Test Problem)

3.) Smith could pass P, yet P may still prove not to be ultimate. (The Ultimacy Problem)

The Overdemandingness Problem reveals that this is not a test for humans but for superhumans. That is, it is logically impossible for any human could to pass the test. This suggests that so long as one believes in an Ultimate Test one is bound to be overly ambitious. Striving to get beyond the bounds of human understanding, the striver will have to come up short.

The Wrong Test Problem reveals a certain sense of arbitrariness. ‘I set P in order for Smith to provide me with final evidence that he is trustworthy, but now I doubt the test’s ability to test this.’ And the speaker may be at a loss to say what test could prove satisfactory to determine Smith’s ultimate trustworthy.

Today, I drew our attention to the Ultimacy Problem, which occasions infinite regress. Even when Smith passes P, I keep setting more tests for Smith because I am still in doubt, still suspicious of Smith, and so each test in turn proves not to be ultimate.


I believe the source of the error lies farther back. No human test can get us the ‘truly,’ ‘ultimately,’ ‘finally.’ This question as well as questions such as this one, therefore, we need to let go of. ‘Is Jones truly courageous?’ We cannot possibly say. We can only say that Jones exhibited courage on occasions X, Y, and Z. If we observe him acting courageously often enough, then we would be warranted in saying that Jones is courageous. But ‘being courageous’ is a disposition: a tendency to be such-and-such or to do such-and-such over a range of cases and over a long enough period of time. It doesn’t hold for all cases or for all time, and it certainly cannot tell us anything definitive about Jones’s future actions.

What is already taken on board, then, are two fatal assumptions:

1.) That error itself (mistake, foible, guffaw, misunderstanding, etc.) is to be gotten rid of from the start;

2.) That absolute certainty in human affairs (e.g., that Smith is ever-trustworthy and could not be otherwise) is not only desirable but also achievable.

We need to withdraw from the idea of the Ultimate Test in order to return to our experienceable, very human scenarios: person A is interacting with B, and both of them need to figure something out about the world and about themselves. Their understanding of themselves and the world will be provisional, will be better or worse, yet it will never be final.

In friendship,