Musings on skepticism…

In Philosophy on Friday, 7 September 2012 at 19:56


The skeptical position argues that we do not have any knowledge, nor do we know (and by know, this is understood in the case of the skeptic, to mean without a doubt and to the greatest degree of certainty) most of the things upon which we make knowledge claims.  The skeptics do accept appearances, but not positive beliefs.  They actively refuse to draw conclusions.  They feel that intellect is no more trustworthy than the senses, which are viewed as somewhat unreliable and fallible.  Descartes 1641 work titled Meditations on First Philosophy brought to light the following:  “All that up to the present time I have accepted as most true and certain I have learned either from the senses or through the senses; but it is sometimes proved to me that these senses are deceptive, and it is wiser not to trust entirely to any thing by which we may have been deceived.”[1]  Hume also regards the senses and sense perceptions as problematic when attributing an objects’ continued existence upon sense alone.  “To begin with the SENSES, ‘tis evident these faculties are incapable of giving rise to do the notion of the continu’d existence of their objects, after they no longer appeal to the senses.  For that is a contradiction in terms, and supposes that the senses continue to operate, even after they have ceas’d all manner of operation.”[2]

Both Descartes and Hume view the senses in a fallibilistic manner.  Descartes questions how one can trust something (the senses) implicitly when it has been shown to be misleading at times and thus, an unreliable source.  His position is that one can never truly know if a true perception is present, or if that perception is due to some sort of “faulty” sense, for instance a delusion or hallucination.  Hume brings into account the issue that, even if we attribute existence to an object based on our sense perception, does the object continue to exist even when we are no longer “sensing” it?  He questions how something can continue to exist, as well as continue to operate, when the operation of said object is reliant upon having a “sense” of it.  So, it would follow that the idea is that we can have sensory impressions, but to base our beliefs and knowledge claims on such would prove fallible.  Hume also felt that any beliefs or ideas that we hold are the result of both external and internal impressions.  Our experiences dictate our beliefs, and there is no way to evaluate whether our impressions regarding anything are realistic.

Consider the plight of the schizophrenic, who in some cases, can create an entire existence based upon what we label as hallucinations and delusions, which are then labeled as “untrue”.  He is able to justify that these things exist, as well truly holds the belief that these things labeled as hallucinations and delusions are true.  He may even experience physiological responses to these things that do not exist.  He will most likely base his knowledge claims on these perceptions.  If the majority conclude that the delusions and hallucinations, which cause him make certain knowledge claims are not true, they must then conclude that the senses are certainly fallible and apt to “trick” the perceiver.  In the case of the schizophrenic, his “untrue” perceptions, as well as the conclusions he comes to, are at times compromising to what one would consider the ability to live a “normal” life.   These impressions may be detrimental to the schizophrenic or make him unable to adapt to the world as we see it, and thus, he may be labeled mentally ill.  Granted, but can anyone say with absolute certainty that the sense impressions they experience are to be trusted implicitly?  Especially in seeing the veracity with which the schizophrenic holds certain things to be true.

I would tend to side with Descartes and Hume in taking the position that we can not base knowledge claims on something that has been shown to deceive prior.  Pojman goes on to state,  “We do not have a criterion to distinguish illusory experience from veridical perception.  The argument may be formulated in this way:

(1)  In order to have knowledge we need to be able to tell the difference between a hallucination (deception) and a perception.

(2)  It is impossible to distinguish between a hallucination (or deception) and a normal perception.

(3)  Therefore, we do not know whether any of our perceptual beliefs are true.

If this is so, then we do not have any knowledge of the external world.  All our experience could be illusory.”[3]  This at the very least should lead one to question the knowledge they hold to as well as the way they came upon that knowledge.  Can one ever be truly certain that they are not hallucinating, or dreaming something that they believe to be true?

Unger offers the following analysis: “For any sentential value of p (at time t) a man knows that p if and only if (at t) it is not at all accidental that the man is right about its being the case that p.”[4]  This would return to the notion that the ways in which we come to make knowledge claims can be faulty, or accidental.  These senses, perceptions, or impressions can lead us to make knowledge claims that are not rooted in certainty.  One cannot be certain that these claims are not derived from a false perception.  Descrtes offers the “dream argument” in which he assumes the position that as a necessary condition for knowing anything, one must first rule out the possibility that one is dreaming what one claims to know (Cartesian requirement for knowledge).  “Dreaming” can also be generalized to hallucinating, experiencing a delusion, etc.

Hume does concede to the notion that there are certain mathematical and logical truths that we can hold.  This is a less stringent view than that of the radical skeptics who would state that we can hold no knowledge claims, and by the same token, that we can not even make the statement that we can make no knowledge claims because that in itself is a knowledge claim we can not justify.  Hume does question our knowledge of the external world.  How can we know that those things, which we claim to be true regarding the external world, are in fact, as we claim them to be?  Pojman sums up Hume’s argument with the following: “The force of the argument is not that we don’t have justified beliefs, or even true justified beliefs.  We’re doing the best that we can, and perhaps that’s enough to give us truth.  But it’s not enough, claims the skeptic, to give us knowledge or justified certainty about the truth of our experiences.  We could be wrong about any of our appearances.  So we don’t have knowledge.”[5]

Following the question of the skeptics and the external world, Ludwig posits the following: ”Skepticism about the external world can be seen as resting on two fundamental assumptions about the nature of the mind-world relation:

(1)The content of the mind as a whole is logically independent of the nature and existence of the external world.

(2)The contents of the mind are all our evidence for the nature and existence of a world around us.

(1) alone is not sufficient for skepticism.  (2) adds to (1) the claim that all our evidence for the character of the world is in the mind, that we don’t, so to speak, start out knowing anything about the world around us.  (1) assures us that there is no logical connection between the mind and the world, and we could not show that our beliefs are justified by appeal to a contingent connection between the mind and the world because establishing such a connection would require us to have already established something about the world, which (2) assures us we have not.  Thus, if (2) is correct, and to be justified in believing anything about the external world we must at least be in a position to show that our experiences provide a ground for our beliefs, which can be justified in believing something about the external world only if there is some necessary connection between the character of our experiences and our environment.  Assumptions (1) and (2) are sufficient for skepticism, provided that knowledge requires minimally that one have more reason than not to believe that p in order to know that p, and that one be in a position to see that that is so.”[6]  A question to this would be, how we can come to know something in the mind without experiencing it in the external world (as in the first assumption).  It then follows to ask the opposite.  How can we know something from experiencing it in the external world only?  Shouldn’t the mind and the external world be considered in connection with each other, at least to some extent?  Ludwig would say that this is not the case and that no logical connection between the mind and the world can be justified.

A criticism of skepticism is that it is too rigid in its requirements that certainty, which is defined in terms of absolute certainty, be present, and that the certainty is defined as absolute.  The question to the skeptic could be, “Why does certainty need to be a requirement when making a knowledge claim?”  If being certain means that there is no doubt that it is not so, when is it then that we can come to this certainty?  Only when every other possible explanation and reason that this could not be the case is ruled out.  There seem to be very few, if any, things that this could apply to.  It would then lead that we cannot make many (or any) knowledge claims upon which we are completely certain.  That being said, one can still claim that things are the way they are, but not with a great degree of certainty.  One can assume that every day the sun will rise as it has every day before.  One can make that assumption and have some degree of assuredness attached to it.  But, can one truly say that they have absolute certainty that the sun will rise the following day?  Then, is the basis of this reasoning the idea that the sun has risen every day prior, so will do so again the next day?

Unger attempts to explain this.  “One tradition in philosophy holds that knowing requires being certain.  As a matter of logical necessity, a man knows something only if he is certain of the thing.  In this tradition, certainty is not taken lightly; rather, it is equated with absolute certainty.  Even that most famous contemporary defender of common sense, G. E. Moore, is willing to equate knowing the thing with absolute certainty.  I am rather inclined to hold with this traditional view is at least a fairly reasonable one.

To a philosopher like Moore, I would have nothing left to say in my defense of skepticism.  But recently some philosophers have contended that not certainty, but only belief, is required for knowing.  According to these thinkers, if a man’s belief meets certain conditions not connected with his being certain, that mere belief may properly be counted as an instance or a bit of knowledge.  And even more recently some philosophers have held that not even so much as belief is required for a man to know that something is so.  Thus, I must argue for the traditional view of knowing.  But then what has led philosophers to move further away from the traditional strong assertion that knowing something requires being certain of the thing?” [7]

Brought into point is the idea that philosophers have strayed from the notion that one must be absolutely certain in order to make a knowledge claim.  Unger writes, “That, in the case of every human being, there is hardly anything, if anything at all, of which he is certain.  That (as a matter of necessity), in the case of every human being, the person knows something to be so only if he is certain of it.”[8]  In the most strict, rigid requirements of the skeptics in regard to knowing something, I would agree that there is little to be certain of.  As for other philosophers moving from the traditional view, I think that is the only thing to do.  Once we have proven that at the very least, the skeptic argument needs serious consideration, the quest for knowledge is still sought.  Skepticism can lead to a sense of desperation in that if nothing can be known, what is the sense in trying?  In attempting to find other definitions, requirements, etc. to make knowledge claims, Unger concludes, “Whatever analysis of knowledge is adequate, if any such there be, it must allow that the thesis of skepticism be at least fairly plausible.”[9]  Though other epistemic philosophies and viewpoints on the constitution of knowledge are sought, and needed, the skeptical position should, at the very least, not be dismissed.  Moreover, it should be taken into account when what the requirements and constitutions of a knowledge claim should be.

It appears though, that in attempting to make knowledge claims without this certainty requirement, the argument always leads back to the senses.  More specifically, that the senses and our perceptions are what we use as a basis to make knowledge claims, and that they are not to be trusted implicitly.  “Suppose we abandon, or never reach, the idea or hope that our knowledge of the world around us is to be explained as being derived from some kind of knowledge or experience that is not itself knowledge of the world around us-something in us that is “prior to” or “underdetermines” the knowledge we are interested in.  What would we then need a philosophical “theory of knowledge” for?  It might seem that we would simply have liberated ourselves from an unrealistic restriction, and we could then go ahead and simply explain how our knowledge is possible.  But if we are free to explain it in terms of sense-perception that does amount to knowledge of the things around us, can we ever properly understand all our knowledge of the world-how any of it is possible at all?”[10]

This is not to say that the skeptics do realize the quagmire that they face.  The skeptics’ position can be one that is riddled with doubt and a difficult position to cling to.  Consider the following by Stroud, “When we manage to forget our philosophical reflections (or before we have been contaminated with philosophy), we keep a stock of beliefs that, at least provisionally, we do not call into question.  At the same time, in spite of how frustrating philosophical problems like this are, philosophy-and the confrontation with skepticism that it involves-seems to be a disease, which is very difficult to erase from the earth.  It is thus an oversimplification to say that the discussion leads to the unqualified acceptance of skepticism.  Rather, what we are led to accept are the irresolvable paradoxes philosophical refection brings with it.  Unfortunately, in the case of skepticism, if no philosophical theory is found to counter skepticism successfully, or if we cannot show its unintelligibility, the paradox may amount to living a schizophrenic life.  In this life the negative conclusion reached while philosophizing must coexist with the conviction, attained in non-philosophical enquiries, that the negative conclusion is wrong.”[11]

Hume proposes somewhat of a solution to living with the skeptics’ position, but not living as a skeptic.  He does not feel that we can trust our senses in making knowledge claims, being that they only convey a single perception, but cannot be guaranteed to exist in absentia of those perceiving, nor can they assume to be in continued existence.  He poses that we may not be able to have any knowledge of the metaphysical or external world.  He also sees the problems that holding a view such as this can present.  Therefore, he suggests that one does not live as a skeptic, but live as if we have knowledge of the metaphysical world, as well as the logical and mathematical truths he concedes to.  Hume does not feel we can gain or have empirical knowledge.  He does, however, feel that we can have beliefs that we are justified in holding to.

After becoming cognizant of the skeptical position, I would not feel comfortable in making claims, which I deem to be certain about.  That being said, I would also be uncomfortable in living as though that is the case.  The position of the skeptic must not be dismissed, but one must come to some sense of peace with it.  Being cognizant of the fact that our knowledge claims can be faulty is enough.  Applying that to everyday living would be disheartening.  I think we must be careful in making knowledge claims, especially those in which we state that we are certain, but to still go on as if.

[1] Rene Descartes, Meditations on First Philosophy, in Pojman, “The Theory of Knowledge”, 40

[2] David Hume, Treatise of Human Nature, in Pojman, “The theory of Knowledge”, 44

[3] Pojman, The Challenge of Skepticism, in “What Can We Know?  An Introduction to the Theory of Knowledge”, 41.

[4] Peter Unger, A Defense of Skepticism, 218.

[5] Louis Pojman, “What Can We Know?  An Introduction to the Theory of Knowledge”, 50

[6]  Kirk Ludwig, Skepticism and Interpretation, 318-319.

[7] Unger, 213-214.

[8] Unger, 216

[9] Unger, 219

[10] Barry Stroud, Skepticism and the Possibility of Knowledge, 550-551.

[11] Graceiela De Pierris, The significance of Philisophical Skepticism, 532-533.


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