If you think about it, you might come to the conclusion that a large part of our lives can be summed up in one task: knowing how to manage our doubts. We are unable to know everything around us completely , or even ourselves, but we still get frustrated by it, even though it cannot be avoided. This leads us to feel obliged to position ourselves before these unanswered questions: which of the possible options will we opt for?
Voltaire, the great French philosopher of the Age of Enlightenment, decided to tackle precisely this theme. Given that there are many things we cannot be sure of, what criteria should we follow in order to trust certain beliefs more and others less? We will now see what this theory of Voltaire consisted of and how it can be applied to our daily lives .
Who was Voltaire?
The word Voltaire is actually a pseudonym used by the French philosopher and writer François Marie Arouet , born in 1694 in Paris into a middle-class family. Although he studied law at university, from a very young age he was particularly noted for his writing skills, and as a teenager he had already written a tragedy in the name of Amulius and Numitor .
In 1713, François managed to get a job at the French embassy in The Hague, and although he was soon expelled from it because of a scandal involving a French refugee, he began to gain fame as a writer and playwright, although his popularity also brought him problems. In fact, he was imprisoned more than once for insulting the nobility, and ended up being banished from France. By then, he had adopted the pseudonym Voltaire ; he did so during one of his exiles to a French rural town.
Thus, Voltaire was expelled from France in 1726, and went to England , where he was imbued with the philosophy and epistemology of the place. When he returned to France in 1729, he published writings defending the line of thought of materialistic philosophers such as John Locke and Newton’s science areas of knowledge that Voltaire considered not yet to have reached a dogmatic and irrational France.
In the meantime, Voltaire began to enrich himself through speculation and his writings, although many were banned due, among other things, to his criticism of the religious fanaticism with Christian roots that abounded in the country. He died in 1778 in Paris.
Voltaire’s theory of knowledge
The main characteristics of Voltaire’s work are the following.
1. Certainty is absurd
Voltaire’s philosophical starting point may seem pessimistic, but in reality, in the context of his time, he was a revolutionary. In Europe, until the age of the Enlightenment, the task of philosophy and much of science had been to rationalize explanations of how the existence of the Christian god was revealed through what could be investigated. Basically, the word of the Church was accepted on any subject, so that knowledge was built on a structure of dogmas that, as such, could not be questioned.
Voltaire’s epistemological theory starts from a total rejection of dogmatism and a proactive search for valid knowledge obtained through empirical contrasting.
2. Rejection of innatism
Voltaire totally broke with the rationalist tradition that had taken root in France so strongly since René Descartes published his works. This implies, among other things, that for Voltaire we are not born with innate concepts in our brains , but we learn totally through experience.
3. Doubt is the reasonable thing
As we depend only on experience to learn, and as this is always incomplete and mediated by senses that often betray us, Voltaire concludes that it is impossible to get to know in a faithful way all the truth about what is real and what is not. This can be discouraging, but any other conclusion cannot be logical.
4. We can manage the doubt
Whether or not we can get to know the exact reflection of what exists, Voltaire believes that what is important is what we do with the doubts we have, and the way in which we learn to discriminate between reasonable and unreasonable possibilities . How do we achieve this?
5. Reject dogmas
This point is derived from the previous ones. If doubt is the reasonable thing to do and innate knowledge does not exist, there is no reason to take certain ideas for granted simply because they are widely accepted or certain institutions defend them with great vehemence.
6. The importance of education and science
Absolute certainties may be dead, but that, in turn, gives us the possibility to create a more genuine, much better constructed knowledge. Thanks to freedom of expression, critical thinking nourished by education and the testing of hypotheses through science, it is possible to bring our ideas closer to the truth.
Thus, what is necessary to manage doubts is, according to Voltaire’s theory, an attitude that leads us to doubt everything, the ability to develop ways of seeing how our beliefs fit with reality, and science, which for this philosopher would not be just another institution, but a new, culturally perfected way of obtaining much more reliable information than we were used to.
Of course, not all of us have scientific measuring devices or data analysis knowledge and tools, but these philosophical principles help us to understand something important. To know something, you have to make an effort, analyze it critically, and go to evidence-based sources of information.