Philosophy and Scepticism

One fascinating fact regarding questions and answers, being a great motivation for much thought, talk and writing, is that both asking a question and answering it usually tend to confront one with new questions. Even apparently simple yes-or-no questions may pose this problem, for, it seems, we could, at least theoretically, continue to ask for justification indefinitely. In everyday situations, we seldom do so, of course, because we simply rely on our own as well as other people’s truthfulness unless we have, that is, good reasons to mistrust someone or even our own memory or sense organs. If you ask your friend John what he had for breakfast today, and he replies that he had cereals with milk, you seldom would continue to enquire him of why he ate cereals with milk instead of, say, toast and bacon, or how he ate his cereals, because in normal contexts this is simply irrelevant. If, on the other hand, John replied to you that he ate a pink elephant, and drank a glass of hydrochlorid acid, you would doubt, if not disbelieve, his contention, since first, elephants are not pink, second, a man cannot eat an entire elephant because of the size of his stomache, and third, one cannot consume hydrochlorid acid without taking severe damage. Yet even if he did not reply in this unusual manner, you could ask him questions in indefinitely many directions. ‘Where did you buy your cereals?’, ‘How much were they?’, ‘Do you always have cereals with milk for breakfast?’, ‘Do you always buy the same cereals?’, and so forth. Interestingly, the sort of question which leads to a soon halt are those concerning justification. If you ask John why he ate cereals with milk for breakfast today, he may reply that he wanted to eat something different from yesterdays’s breakfast. If you then continue to enquire why he had cereals with milk instead of toast and bacon, he may reply that while he likes cereals with milk, he cannot stand toast and bacon. If you ask him, in turn, why he likes cereals with milk, he may still reply that it tastes good to him. If you then go on to ask him why it tastes good to him, however, he probably faces a serious problem—either he finds himself unable to give an adequate response, his argumentation becomes circular, or dogmatic. Giving no answer would mean to leave his conjecture that cereals with milk taste good to him unjustified, whereas referring to a former reason would be circular, and stating that it taste good to him because it tastes good to him would be dogmatic.
This kind of result is the motivation for scepticism (of knowledge), and, indeed, as it appears to me, for philosophy in general, for in this sense all philosophy is (a form of) scepticism. To ask questions to which there, at least prima facie, appear to be no satisfying answers, is a motivation for creativity, that is to say, to try to come up with solutions by not simply looking for trivial truths but pondering problems, and analyse them to their very core.
According to Plato, Socrates is supposed to have said, ‘οἶδα οὐκ ειδῷν’, usually translated as ‘I know that I know nothing’ (I consider ‘I know that I am not knowing’ a better translation for the considerations to follow). As so oft, there are several possibilities of interpreting such a statement. Apart from the apparent contradiction—obviously, to state that one know nothing, implies to know this—, there is a positive interpretation, namely, that that one know nothing now does not entail that one cannot know anything whatsoever, or that one be not able to acquire knowledge at all. Even though it may be impossible to give a proper definition of knowledge (as yet), since knowledge may comprise several levels or layers, so that, perhaps, we shall for ever be unable to know everything there is to know, this does not hinder us from acquiring at least some knowledge. This train of thought remains to be continued.


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