Tuesday, May 17, 2011

An inquiry into philosophical skepticism

By Steve Rensberry

   British philosopher and social critic Bertrand Russell (1872-1970) suggested in a 1927 essay, Philosophic Doubts, that even among the hallowed halls of science the adoption of skepticism as a rational approach to the unknown, remains warranted for one basic reason: We human beings share a relentless, undying dependence on perception and inductive reasoning to acquire knowledge, even within the scope of the most rigorous of scientific inquiry.
   "Philosophy arises from an unusually obstinate attempt to arrive at real knowledge. What passes for knowledge in ordinary life suffers from three defects: it is cocksure, vague, and self-contradictory," Russell says.
   By cocksure Russell refers to the striking overconfidence and naivety which humans often display when it comes to accepting what they perceive as certain knowledge, when in reality what they really see are merely the effects of a cause rather than the actual cause itself--effects that are often dramatically altered by any number of factors.
   Editors John R. Burr and Milton Goldinger paraphrase Russell's view: "All sense perception is a matter of cause and effect. All causes differ from their effects because otherwise all causes would be identical with their effects. Whatever we perceive (colors, sounds, smells, and so on) is an effect. Therefore, we never perceive causes. All causes are postulates, entities inferred by inductive reasoning." (John R. Burr and Milton Goldinger, Ed., Philosophy and Contemporary Issues, Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc., New York, 1972, pg 317).
   Inductive arguments, in other words--as a method of generalizing from the part to the whole--always carry with them a certain level of uncertainty and the possibility that they could be in error, even if all of the premises for that specific argument are true. (ibid).
   "Induction raises perhaps the most difficult problem in the whole theory of knowledge. Every scientific law is established by its means, and yet it is difficult to see why we should believe it to be a valid process," Russell says. "Induction, in its bare essence, consists of the argument that, because A and B have been often found together and never found apart, therefore, when A is found again, B will probably also be found."
   It's an insightful essay and interesting in the way it reveals the all-to-common tendency for people to lay claim to absolutely certainty based simply on extrapolating from one small, relative sample to some overall principle or truth. But even Russell has his doubts. "I am convinced that induction must have validity of some kind in some degree, but the problem of showing how or why it can be valid remains unsolved," he says.
   From the perspective of those who believe that they are in possession of the ultimate key to absolute truth, as those who ascribe to theism or the objectivist school of thought traditionally do, skeptics are little less than sinful heathens and lost souls, too stubborn and too arrogant to recognize the nose on their own face and incredulous to a fault.
   But who, really, is more obstinate, more dogmatic? The one who insists on a sufficient answer for the things he or she believes, who leaves themselves open to the possibility that they could be wrong? Or the one who feels that they know, with a certainty that is absolute and beyond any shadow of a doubt, the final, ultimate and true meaning of all there is or ever will be, vowing even to themselves and to "God" to never so much as doubt the "truth" again?
   While skepticism as a concept has many branches, my interest here is in philosophical skepticism, noted by The Skeptic's Dictionary as being one of the very oldest. Theological skepticism is also of interest and is duly noted in the same article.
   What is philosophical skepticism? From my perspective it's defined as much by what it is as by what it isn't. First-and-foremost it stands in opposition to the idea of acquiring knowledge deemed to be absolutely certain. In contrast, philosophical skepticism advances the idea of an embedded, deep-rooted uncertainty that is extensive, pervasive and all but inseparable from reality itself. There are variations, but that's the general drift. Relative, limited knowledge isn't the issue. The issue is the near impossibility of acquiring knowledge on the level of absolute certainty given the limitations of the human mind and the inaccessibility of the objects in question. Can we really know something is true everywhere and everyplace in the universe, or that it will always be true at all times in the future, and in all places? This especially becomes an issue with hard or impossible to observe objects, such as those on the level of quantum physics or those involving supernatural and paranormal lines if inquiry.
   Philosophical skepticism has its roots in ancient Greek and was furthered by Pyrrho of Elis (360-270 B.C.), Gorgias (485-380 B.C.), Socrates (469-399 B.C.), Arcesilaus (316-241 B.C.), Sextus Empiricus (160-210 ), Michael de Montaigne (1533-1592), Francis Bacon (1561-1626), Blaise Pascal (1623-1662) and David Hume (1711-1776). For additional names, see: Encyclopedia Britannica.
   G.W.F. Hegel (1770-1831) is considered to have first formulated the ontologically monistic philosophy of absolute idealism. See also: Josia Royce (1855-1916) and F. H. Bradley (1846-1924). Objectivist theories of knowledge such as objective realism, foundationalism, objective idealism, representative realism, intuitionalism, ethical rationalism, moral absolutism and critical realism stand in opposition to most skeptical lines of thought. Here we have, among others: Thomas Reid (1710-1796), René Descartes (1596-1650), Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), Blanshard (1892-1987), St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), Aristotle (384-325 B.C.) and St. Augustine (354-430 A.D.) who have sought to bolster the position in some measure.
   Consider these definitions from The Skeptic's Dictionary:
   Philosophical skepticism: "Philosophical skepticism systematically questions the notion that absolutely certain knowledge is possible . . . (and) is opposed to philosophical dogmatism, which maintains that a certain set of positive statements are authoritative, absolutely certain, and true."
   Theological skepticism: "A theological skeptic raises doubts regarding the possibility of knowledge about God. A theological skeptic may be an atheist, but the two positions are distinct. A theological skeptic may be a theist or an agnostic. The theological skeptic maintains that we cannot know for certain whether God exists."
   Skeptical Society co-founder Michael Shermer warns in the Skeptical Manifesto against the extreme:
   "Skepticism is itself a positive assertion about knowledge, and thus turned on itself cannot be held. If you are skeptical about everything, you would have to be skeptical of your own skepticism. Like the decaying sub-atomic particle, pure skepticism uncoils and spins off the viewing screen of our intellectual cloud chamber."
   Shermer suggests modifying the word "skeptic" with "rational," then goes on to define a rational skeptic as "one who questions the validity of particular claims of knowledge by employing or calling for statements of fact to prove or disprove claims, as a tool for understanding causality."
   Shermer adds, "In other words, skeptics are from Missouri — the 'show me' state. When we hear a fantastic claim we say, 'that’s nice, prove it.'"
   The common concept of simply being skeptical and wise about what one believes is something which people seem to intuitively support. Practically everyone realizes the value of being open to new evidence and approaching new claims with a questioning mind. They realize the liability of being gullible. Where the agreement begins to fade is with the idea of "absolute certainty." Are those who criticize Pyrrhonian skepticism, absolute skepticism and other more "extreme" forms being fair? I'm not sure they are. Here's why:
   One of the most common criticisms of philosophical skepticism is that it is self-contradictory in the assertion that "there is nothing that can be known with certainty." If the statement is true, then it is false. And if it is false, then it just might be true.
   However, because a phrase or proposition appears self contradictory in its language structure does not necessarily make the converse true. In other words, saying that it is not possible to know if something is absolutely true or absolutely real does not suffice as evidence that whatever it is we're talking about is real. Stating that there are absolutely no cows anywhere which have two tails does not amount to proof that there are, in the same way the claim, "God does not exist," does not suffice as prove that he does in fact exist.
   To say that human beings absolutely cannot obtain absolute knowledge does not necessarily mean that they can, only that the way the statement is phrased appears to be logically contradictory. Then again, are not the statements "there is no certain knowledge," and "there are no absolutes" really just awkward ways of saying "there is no certain knowledge other than this" or "there are no absolutes except one--the one that rules out all other claims of being absolute?" And who is to say that such a singular absolute is not in fact true? Moreover, what is really being said, I think, is not that a person is absolutely certain that there is no absolute certainty, only that the likelihood appears to be nearly infinite--in the light of common sense, reason and existing evidence.
   A second major criticism of those who disavow the likelihood that anyone can know anything with certainty is that such people simply cannot live their lives without assuming to be true the very thing they claim to be false, without relating to things as though they were absolutely certain and absolutely real. But again, the criticism falls flat. Generally consistency is more than sufficient to provide people with enough predictability and order in which to live and enjoy their lives--without taking it to the level of an absolute. That, really, is what we human do anyway. They assess likelihoods and probabilities, weigh them against past experiences, and go with it. Living does not necessitate interacting with things as though they were absolutely certain. All that is required is a willingness to interact in a world that shows some measure of relative consistency.
   To be fair, there are three basic categories under which the term "knowing" or "knowledge" can fall, and that stand to confuse the issue. These are: 1) As a personal acquaintance, such as "I know Jim." 2) As a mastery of data, such as "I know English." And 3) As a truth-claim, which is the category of most concern to epistemology. (Ed Miller, Questions that Matter, 2nd Edition. McGraw Hill, 1987, pg 195).
   The person who says they know someone or something with total certainty may in fact believe they do, but knowing in the sense of ultimate truth and reality is whole different kind of claim in the philosophical sense.
   Now, one certainly may believe with every ounce of their being that certain things such as mathematical equations and one's overall existence on planet earth are irrefutable and absolute, but keep in mind the magnitude of the term "absolute." Do we live in a multi-verse or a universe? Is there one dimension or multiple dimensions? Do we know what the universe we identify with at the present time will be like 50 million years from now? A billion years from now? Do we really understand the nature of time? Laws of physics that scientists long took for granted appear to break down almost completely at the quantum level, or be altered considerably when light itself is surpassed in speed or trapped within a collapsing star

Fearfully and wonderfully broken
   Humans are fallible, finite creatures, subject to untold sicknesses both in body and in mind. They are imperfect in their judgments and prone to delusions. The human brain, while a work of wonder compared to less developed creatures, remains a source of intense mystery and ongoing discovery.
   The list of bizarre theories proposed throughout the ages on what goes on within our skulls is enormous. Variations in perception and interpretation are huge. For some people, that which is real consists only of what they can touch and feel. For others it consists only of what they sense inside, something which is invisible, emotional and intuitive. For others it is all about taking that grand leap of faith into the arms of "something."
   But as Werner Heisenberg wrote in Physics and Philosophy, "What we observe is not nature itself, but nature exposed to our method of questioning."
   Ask yourself, is it rational to trust the judgment of creatures with so many strange and divergent views, who have, time and time again, proven themselves to be so drastically wrong about things which they had once wholeheartedly believed to be absolutely true?

Incredible, undefinable and downright bizarre
   "From causes which appear similar, we experience similar effects. This is the sum total of all our experimental conclusions," wrote David Hume in An Inquiry Concerning Human Understanding.
   Life has this rather peculiar quality of losing definition the closer we try to examine it. Relativity, time, quantum physics, the vastness of the universe and the ongoing mystery of how consciousness arises all seem to suggest that we have only scratched the surface. Yes, it's claimed that there exists another world in addition to this one, a "supernatural" world no less. But by what criteria is it determined to be real?
   Is there certifiable proof beyond a series of hard-to-reconcile-with-known-reality stories--passed down, reinterpreted and rewritten hundreds of years ago? Has any human we know been to this other-worldly playground, where the fundamental laws of physics are totally upended and death is no more? Have they returned alive to speak about it? Is there sufficient evidence apart from subjective personal testimony and one's own feeling, apart from some "still small voice" that no one has yet been able to objectively differentiate from their own subjective consciousness?

Delusion, despair and the making of myth
   At one time there there were people who thought the world was flat. They thought the sun revolved around the earth and that a wide variety of gods and goddesses were constantly out and about intervening almost daily in human affairs.
   Some believed that the biological body was sustained by some kind of "vital force" and that you could instill life into a scorpion by placing it between bricks along with some basil and leaving it in the sunlight. People never dreamed that mankind would physically land an astronaut on the moon or break open the atom. Women, Jews, blacks and many others in minority positions have all suffered discrimination and criminal brutality at the hands of those who considered them of lesser worth than the dominant group, only to be proven wrong, and terribly so.
   People want certainty. They want to feel as though they know who they are and where they're going. The urge to latch on to something, anything, to give oneself a sense of permanence, seems almost irresistible. The problem is that despair can lead to delusion, and delusion to all sorts of wrong and even dangerous thinking.

In the final analysis, philosophical skepticism may be a hard pill to swallow in a world that cries out for permanence, but living a life of make-believe certainly isn't advised. Four final thoughts:
  • Every claim to absolutely truth must be made using some type of criteria. But every criteria, ad infinitum, must itself be subject to judging by some other criteria.
  • Belief without evidence is not only presumptuous but often dangerous.
  • Suspending one's faculties of critical thinking is never wise. Even when one is as certain as they can possibly be, they should continue to remain alert to contrary evidence. Continual testing, doubting and re-testing is vital when it comes to understanding the nature of the world we live in.
  • Moral values have been shown time and again to be relative both to the culture in which they arise and to certain physiological and genetic predispositions.
For further reading:

Carl Sagan on God, Faith and Religion