There is not a hope in hell,
Since hell does not exist.
There is no place for gods to dwell,
Just smoke and mirrors, mist.
The blind seek shelter in the night,
In mysteries of old.
The unexplained is their delight,
Thus, sceptics they will scold.
But reason cannot be undone,
And truth shall yet prevail.
Religion will be dead and gone,
And science be our sail.
Someone might try to defend a coherence theory of truth without defending a coherence theory of knowledge, perhaps on the ground that the holder of a coherent set of beliefs might lack a reason to believe his beliefs coherent. This is not likely, but it may be that someone, though he has true beliefs, and good reasons for holding them, does not appreciate the relevance of reason to belief. Such a one may best be viewed as having knowledge he does not know he has: he thinks he is a skeptic. In a word, he is a philosopher.1
Parenthisizing the context of the coherence theory of truth and knowledge, with these words Donald Davidson neatly characterizes (all) philosophy as scepticism in a similar manner as I did in my ‘Philosophy and Scepticism’2. Thus, a philosopher is someone who will not believe something on mere purportion, but will instead investigate whatever may draw his attention to it.
There is, however, the question how far scepticism can sensibly reach. In other words, scepticism itself needs legitimate justification for its very own enterprise. As the title suggests, I shall concentrate on the legitimacy of global/universal scepticism (‘global scepticism’ hereafter) in this paper. For the purpose of eliciting the relations among the different aspects and standpoints, I decided not to subdivide the paper. Instead, I shall present one long discussion, and summarize its results in a short conclusion at the end of the paper.
The Legitimacy of Global (Universal) Scepticism
To be sure, nowadays most, especially radical, forms of scepticism, such as global scepticism, are usually only conceived theoretical positions whereto one tries to answer instead of holding such a standpoint oneself. Notice that trying to answer someone, and be he only an imagined adversary, entails admitting that he have a point deserving to be taken seriously, and therefore also deserving to be taken into consideration. To be doubtful is, in the first place, a virtue – given experience, of course, and this, quite obviously, may already pose a problem, for we, or our imagined sceptical adversary, may be unwilling to accept experience as a presupposable datum. Now, if we reject experience as a suitable origin of reliable information (in the broadest sense of the word), we are left with so-called a priori grounds. But to reject experience as good grounds for knowledge, requires an appropriate argument which actually refutes the assumption. It would be an illicit step to reject an assumption with prima facie plausibility in favour of another assumption lacking such plausibility. So how does the sceptic argue in order to justifiably reject (i.e. refute) experience as an appropriate source of knowledge?
A starting point is often made by querying sense perception. We already encountered this scepticism in Descartes’s reasoning whether one could ever distinguish dreaming from being awake. Descartes himself concluded that we never could, and thereby had to let go of experience relating to the external world (i.e. relative to the mind as the inner world) as an adequate source of knowledge.3 To me, this conclusion appears quite implausible, since people, including myself, are usually able to tell a dream, or an experience made in a dream, from experiences they make when they are awake. Dreams never have the same experiential quality as experiences made while being awake.
Notwithstanding this qualitative difference, the sceptic may argue, granted that we can tell such a difference, we nevertheless cannot justifiably say which is which, that is, we cannot find out whether what we call ‘being awake’ and ‘being asleep and dreaming’ really are what we presume them to be, or vice versa.
But wait, we are already engaging in a debate with the sceptic (regardless of whether it be the sceptic in ourselves, an imagined adversary, or a real person) as though we had accepted that he have a good point which deserves to be taken seriously. I am much in sympathy with George H. Smith, when he writes:
Universal skepticism is usually stated in one of two ways. In its positive form it consists of the doctrine that man can know nothing. This belief can be easily dismissed, because anyone who defends it finds himself immersed in hopeless absurdities. In asserting that there is no knowledge, the skeptic is asserting a knowledge claim—which according to his own theory is impossible. The universal skeptic wishes to claim truth for a theory that denies man’s ability to arrive at truth, and this puts the skeptic in the unenviable position of uttering nonsense. Indeed, he cannot even begin to argue for his position, because the “possibility of knowledge is presupposed in the very possibility of argument, in the very possibility of having recourse to reasons.”4
As I wrote elsewhere5, the sceptic cannot simply allow a proposition to be true, while not allowing other unjustified propositions to be true. Needless to say, if the proposition that man can know nothing except for his inability of gaining any knowledge above this one proposition were true, no further proposition could be true ex hypothesi. There is, however, no reason why we ought to accept this. If some proposition can be true, why should it exactly be the sceptic’s?
Smith, citing Francis Parker, points out that if there be any assertion in the first place, it be necessarily true that there be the possibility of knowledge.6
The second possibility, according to Smith, for the sceptic is to weaken his claim to demanding that man have to doubt every purported instance of knowledge. This claim, though, reduces to the purportion that man can never procure certainty, against which the immediate objection arises that if it were true, the sceptic’s claim itself would be necessarily open to doubt, with the result that there would be, again, no reason to accept it as true.7 To the question why we ought to doubt each knowledge claim the sceptic may well respond that man be capable of error. The very concept of error, however, presupposes the opposite concept of truth.8 Stated differently, in order to be able to determine that and when something be false, one needs to be able in advance, or at least at the same time, to determine that and when something be true, and vice versa. So merely stating that man be fallible – for this is whereto the sceptic’s claim reduces – does not suffice to infer that man can never gain certainty or truth. An infallible being, it goes without saying, would be in no need of any justifable grounds for its beliefs, and for this reason a science of knowledge, epistemology, would be useless to it. Yet since man is fallible, he needs a science of knowledge. ‘The skeptic’, writes Smith relating to the sceptic’s purportion, ‘thus turns epistemology on its head by using the foundation for a science of knowledge—human fallibility—as a weapon to argue, in effect, that a science of knowledge is impossible for man.’9 The fallacy the sceptic thus commits is to equate knowledge and certainty with infallibility.10 Therefore, both the strong and the weakened stance of global (universal) scepticism are untenable.
In the next section (‘III The Contextual Nature of Knowledge’), Smith further increases the pressure on the sceptic by quoting both Thomas Reid and J. L. Austin, each giving lively examples which render global scepticism irrational. The former compares the sceptic’s claim, which, in effect, assumes that reason can defeat itself, with a man who in terms of his own allegedly clear sight asserts that he himself and all other men be blind. The latter, then, calls to mind the inherent liability of machines to break down, which, all the same, does not preclude good machines from working reliably, that is to say, good machines seldom break down despite their inherent liability to do so.11
As I wrote myself in ‘Justification Under Scrutiny’12, and Smith, with reference to Reid, Austin, and D. W. Hamlyn, writes, too13, global doubt needs justification. Justification, in turn, however, is only obtainable within a contextual frame. The sceptic, then, wants to attack the possibility of knowledge from outside such a contextual frame, which is, unfortunately for him, an invalid move.
At this point, I skip some ensuing pages of Smith’s discussion because, first, it pertains, for its most part, to religion, which is not the current paper’s topic, and, second, because I want to return to our initial theme of scepticism as to sense perception. Smith dedicates an entire section to this issue in form of a dialogue between a sceptic and an antisceptic, again with much reference to religion, as the book’s main theme suggests. The details will not concern us here – this would be impossible in a short paper like the present one anyway –, so suffice it to summarize its results significant for the present investigation.
The main aspect of the section ‘V Skepticism and Sense Perception’14, then, is that the sceptic appeals to concrete instances of sense perception to refute the very same thing. The sceptic will, to illustrate, usually say something like ‘On occasion o1 something a1 will look F1 to you, whereas on occasions o2, o3, …on it may look quite differently to you, say, F7, F19, F53, …Fn. You may even, on some occasion on, mistake a1 for something completely different, say, a104. Therefore, you cannot rely upon your sense perceptions, and, as a corollary of this, your sense perceptions cannot yield knowledge.’ To put it more concretely, ‘Upon some occasion, an object may look red to you, whereas upon other occasions it may look quite differently to you, say, a darker shade of red, brown, black, and so on. You may even mistake it on some occasion for a totally different object, for example, you may mistake your friend Susanna for your cousin Nicole. Therefore, you cannot rely upon your sense perceptions, and, as a corollary of this, your sense perceptions cannot yield knowledge.’
So far so good. The reasoning in itself is logically consistent, as we can see from a somewhat simplified but not distorted formalization. For the sceptic’s argument is a simple modus ponens (where ‘P’ stands for ‘premise’, and ‘C’ stands for ‘conclusion’):
P1 ~p → ~q
Let ‘p’ represent the proposition ‘Sense perceptions are reliable’, and ‘q’ the proposition ‘Sense perceptions yield knowledge’, so that (Scmp) reads as follows. ‘If sense perceptions are not reliable, then, sense perceptions do not yield knowledge. Sense perceptions are not reliable. Therefore, sense perceptions do not yield knowledge.’
The sceptic’s argument is clearly formally valid. Given that if sense perceptions are not reliable, then, sense perceptions do not yield knowledge, and given that sense perceptions are indeed not reliable, it follows that sense perceptions do not yield knowledge. The flaw of this argument lies in the sceptic’s appeal to sense perception, of which he just asserted that it cannot yield knowledge, in order to justify a knowledge claim himself. But the sceptic must not employ sense perceptual experiences in order to refute sense perceptions, since sense perceptual experiences imply sense perceptions by definition. The scepctic’s claim is, once more, illicit.
The sceptic may, of course, try another, slightly different, move, as taken by the sceptic in Smith’s dialogue. Namely, he may purport that if one and the same object, a pencil in this case, when it is held in the air, for example, compared to when it is held under water, can look different to one, this gives rise to a contradiction. The same thing, says the sceptic, cannot be straight, as it looks when held in the air, and bent, as it looks when held under water.15
The antisceptic is, rightly, quick to point out that this does not violate the Law of Contradiction at all. He, the antisceptic, has acknowledged that the same pencil does look differently on different occasions but not that it actually be different. Furthermore, the Law of Contradiction says that one thing a cannot be F and not-F at the same time and in the same respect. The example of the pencil looking straight when held in the air, and looking bent when held under water, refers to different times and different respects, however, and thus does not prove sense perceptions to bring about contradictions.16 Smith’s antisceptic concisely formulates the point thus:
[…] In other words, it is through our senses that we gather the information with which to explain why the same object appears differently under different conditions. We solve the alleged instances of ‘sensory deception’ through a further appeal to sensory evidence—just as you [the scepctic] must presuppose the validity of the senses in the very attempt to disprove the validity of the senses.17
The debate continues for a while with further futile attempts by the sceptic to disprove the validity of sense perception. The conclusion is obvious: If the sceptic cannot disprove the validity of sense perceptions by a different approach than presuming the very same thing he sets out to disprove, then, he fails to show how global scepticism can be a legitimate, that is, valid, standpoint. Since it is impossible to prove sense perceptions principally invalid other than by implicit appeal to their validity, global scepticism of sense perceptions is untenable.
As we have seen, although global scepticism appears to have some plausibility on the face of it, it is in fact an untenable position. Neither such a scepticism concerning knowledge in general, be it in a strong or weakend form, nor a scepticism of this sort with regard to sense perception as a source of knowledge succeed in even getting off the ground, because they inadvertently must take as a precondition the very thing they set out to disprove. Thus, one mistake of global scepticism pertaining to knowledge in its strong form is that knowledge must be possible if a claim like the sceptic’s, namely, that knowledge be impossible for man, shall be able to be true, for then it is, as of necessity, a knowledge claim. The other mistake is the equation of knowledge and certainty with infallibility. The latter objection, of course, applies as well to the weaker claim that man can never be certain as to any proposition, and therefore must doubt each knowledge claim. For if man can never be certain with respect to any proposition whatsoever, then, the sceptic’s position must be open to doubt, too.
The mistake of global scepticism relating to sense perceptions, on the other hand, is, quite similarly, that it presupposes sense perceptions’ validity in order to disprove sense perceptions’ validity. Since there is no other possible approach, this kind of scepticism also fails.
Now, if neither global scepticism as to knowledge, be it in its strong or weaker form, nor as to sense perception, that is to say, at the very foundations of knowledge in the first place, succeed, global scepticism is untenable in principal. The refutation of global scepticism, of course, does not necessitate pure credulity. In fact, scepticism of a moderate sort can be – and indeed is – an important and effectual tool for attaining knowledge and distinguishing sense from nonsense. This remains a topic to pursue at another time and place.
1. Davidson, Donald: ‘A Coherence Theory of Truth and Knowledge’, p. 137 in Davidson, Donald: Subjective, Intersubjective, Objective; Oxford: Oxford University Press 2001, reprinted 2002.
2. Confer: ‘Philosophy and Scepticism’: http://wp.me/p1QVNW-od.
3. Confer: Descartes, René: Meditationes de prima philosophia, Lateinisch-Deutsch; Hamburg: Felix Meiner Verlag 1992; Meditatio I, 5, pp. 32–34 and my ‘Ancient and Cartesian Scepticism’: http://wp.me/p1QVNW-os, 2. Cartesian Scepticism, first section.
4. Smith, George H.: Atheism: The Case Against God; Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books 1989, p. 131. [All following citations and references are from/to this edition, Atheism, for short.]
5. Confer my ‘Justification Under Scrutiny’: http://wp.me/p1QVNW-oX, 3. Endless Justification of Justification?.
6. Confer: Atheism, p. 131.
7. Confer: Op. cit.
8. Confer: Op. cit., p. 132.
9. Confer: Op. cit., p. 133.
10. Confer: Op. cit., p. 134.
11. Confer: Op. cit., p. 135.
12. Confer: ‘Justification Under Scrutiny’: http://wp.me/p1QVNW-oX, 3. Endless Justification of Justification?
13. Confer: Atheism, p. 136.
14. Confer: Op. cit., pp. 147-162.
15. Confer: Op. cit., pp.151-153.
16. Confer: Op. cit., pp. 152-153.
17. Op. cit., p. 153.
In my last article I asserted that I believe in the possibility of knowledge. Against this very possibility, as is well-known, have been urged plenty arguments since antiquity. In the subsequent passages, I shall contemplate both ancient (1) and Cartesian scepticism (2), with a main focus on the latter. The reason for this procedure will only become clear in the course of my future articles wherein I shall continue the enterprise.
1. Ancient Scepticism and Agrippa’s Five Modes
So far as we are willing to maintain justification as a (necessary) criterion for something (a belief, a proposition) to qualify as knowledge, it seems, upon the face of it, the Agrippean Trilemma, comprising the three formal modes of the Five Modes1, applies:
(1) By justifying our beliefs we start an infinite regress because for each justification given, another justification can, in principle, be demanded.
(2) At a certain point, we refuse to continue to justify a certain belief by asserting that it justifiy itself, and thus become dogmatic.
(3) We argue in a circle.
From this, we can form a metadilemma:
(i) We drop justification as a (necessary) criterion for something to qualify as knowledge, so that, regrettably, we allow mere guessing to possibly result in knowledge.
(ii) The Aggripean Trilemma applies.
On this account, it appears as though there is—indeed, can be in principle—no (possibility of) knowledge. As if this were not enough, besides this scepticism dating back to (Greek) antiquity (AS, for short), there is another form of scepticism turning on the possibility of knowledge: Cartesian Scepticism (CS, for short).
2. Cartesian Scepticism
In his famous Meditationes de prima philosophia, René Descartes endeavours to find a steady foundation of belief upon which to build other beliefs, thus yielding knowledge. In order to achieve his aim, he applies methodical doubt to all of his everyday beliefs. Thus, for instance, he considers the difference between being awake and dreaming, concluding that it be, if not impossible in principle, doubtful whether he could be able to know the difference.2 He continues in this manner, doubting even the existence of his very own body, because, he argues, he can conceive of himself being without his body existing at all.3 With respect to the entire outer world’s existence, Descartes assumes, he cannot be certain, since there might, say, be an evil demon deceiving him. He finally reaches the belief that he exist. At this point, he judges that he cannot sensibly doubt his own existence, for his very doubt is a form of thought, and for there to be the possibility of him being thinking, it is a necessary condition that he exist. We can render this argument as follows (where ‘P’ stands for ‘Premise’, and ‘C’ stands for ‘Conclusion’):
P1 For me to be able to think, I must exist.
P2 If I think, I exist.
P3 I think.
C I exist.
It is mostly expressed in the notorious Latin phrase ‘cogito, ergo sum’ (‘I think, therefore I am’). Thus, even if the evil deceiver be misleading him (Descartes) about everything, he (the deceiver) cannot, per impossibile, deceive him (Descartes) about his very own existence, granted, of course, that he (Descartes) can entertain these thoughts. Thus he writes:
[…] Sed est deceptor nescio quis, summe potens, summe callidus, qui de industria me semper fallit; haud dubie igitur ego etiam sum, si me fallit, et fallat quantum potest, numquam tamen efficiet, ut nihil sim quamdiu me aliquid esse cogitabo. Adeo ut omnibus satis superque pensitatis denique statuendum sit hoc pronuntiatum: ego sum, ego existo, quoties a me profertur vel mente concipitur, necessario esse verum.4
[But there is an, I do not know which, almighty and most dishonest deceiver who always diligently misleads me; no doubt, if he mislead me, I (also) do exist, and he deceive me so much as he can, never will he bring it about that I be nothing, so long as I (shall) think that I am something. And so, having considered everything carefully, I come to the conclusion that the expression: I am, I exist, so oft as it be spoken by me, or uttered in mind, is necessarily true.]5
Regarding the outer world (as opposed to the inner, i.e. mental, world), Descartes appeals to his idea of a perfect being, which he identifies with God. Since he himself, so Descartes, is an imperfect being, his idea of a perfect being, God, could not possibly have originated in himself, but must have been instilled in him by God himself.6 If God exist, then, as a perfect being, omnibenevolence belongs to his properties. From this it follows that God would not deceive Descartes, which, in turn, justifies his belief in his senses through which the outer world becomes accessible in the first place. If his senses exist and do not deceive him, and if there, furthermore, be no evil deceiver, because God would neither allow for these scenarios nor would he deceive Descartes himself, then, the outer world must exist. With this reasoning, Descartes rests content, convinced of having established a steady foundation for beliefs upon which to build all other beliefs, thus yielding knowledge.
While many philosophers have endorsed Descartes’ methodical doubt, most have rejected his approach of rebuilding the justification for (true) belief in everything apart from one’s own existence. There are, indeed, many flaws in Descartes’s reasoning. First of all, Descartes presumes that he be one without argument. Even if there be of necessity something which thinks, it need not be only one thinking thing (res cogitans, instead of res cogitantes). Second, having an idea of something, whatsoever it be, does not guarantee the existence of anything apart from one’s own existence. Third, how does he know that his very existence, as a brute fact, be not intrinsically perfect, being thus able to conceive of whatsoever may be possible, perhaps even thereby bringing it about?7 Fourth, why should we acknowledge that being perfect entails being omnibenevolent? Would it not rather be more plausible to suppose that a perfect being would be disinterested, that is, neutral? Also, we might take it that a perfect being may be omnimalevolent instead of omnibenevolent. We can, by the way, define ‘being perfect’ also negatively, namely as ‘possessed of no flaws, never making mistakes, etc.’ This defnition, however, would not imply attributes usually ascribed to God (with a capital g), namely, omnipotence, omnipresence, omniscience, omnibenevolence. As is apparent from his Discours de la méthode, as well as from his ‘epistola’ [letter] to the ‘SAPIENTISSIMIS/Clarissimisque viris/SACRAE FACULTATIS/Theologia Pariensis Decano et Doctoribus’ [very wise and illustrious men, the dean and the teachers, of the sacred faculty of theology in Paris]3, Descartes presupposes both the existence of the Christian god and the attributes usually ascribed to him, thus presupposing what he sets out to prove in the second place; which in its turn he uses as the very foundation of justification for his belief in the external world, which cannot succeed if his foundation is flawed—which it is—, so that he, as to this part of his endeavour, fails to accomplish what he sets out to prove in the first place.
Interestingly, despite his intention of establishing a steady foundation for knowledge, which motivated the Meditationes in the first place, Descartes appears to have enforced scepticism of knowledge. The burden of proof always rests upon those who assert a proposition, not upon those who deny it. Recall, though, that thus far we have not concerned ourselves with the question of what, in fact, knowledge be, that is to say, we have not given an explicit definition. Both this aspect and my suggestion for a strategy against scepticism will be the concern of my next article.
1. Confer the entry in Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/skepticism-ancient/#AgrFivMod”.
2. Descartes, René: Meditationes de prima philosophia, Lateinisch-Deutsch; Hamburg: Felix Meiner Verlag, 1992; Meditatio I, 5, pp. 32-34 [All further citations and references are from/to this edition (Meditationes, for short).]
3. Meditationes, Meditatio II, 6, pp. 46-48.
4. Op. cit., Meditatio II, 3, pp. 42-44. (Emphases in the original.)
5. English translation by me; the translation follows the original Latin text so far as the different structures of both languages allow.
6. Meditationes, Meditatio III, 15-24, pp. 74-82.
7. To be fair, Descartes takes these possibilities into consideration in the process of Meditatio III, 15-24; yet, first, as the main text above says, he conspicuously presupposes the Christian god’s existence, and second, for the alleged inference, he appeals to the notion of causality (nothing can bring about something greater, in the sense of better or more accomplished, than itself) which is an empirical notion. For this reason, his argumentation concerning this part of the Meditationes is flawed.
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.