Historical Introduction to Philosophy/The Challenge of Skepticism

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"You can't handle the truth..."[edit]

From understanding what can be said about truth and about how we come to that truth, we can then begin to construct what those opposed the views on truth have to say: Enter, Skeptics.

No philosopher, or cognizant human being for that matter can escape the questions of skepticism. How do we know what we know is true? How can we justify what we claim to know? Can we really have knowledge of anything at all or are we simply being deceived by imperfect human attributes? These are all issues that everyone must be able to reckon with in order to hold his or her ground against the attacks on what we, as humans, claim to know. Whether we take sides with a skeptic school of thought or we offer a rebuttal, the questions of skepticism cannot simply be ignored as if they weren't there.

What is Skepticism?[edit]

The word "skeptic" comes from the Greek "skepsis" which means inquiry. Most skeptics believe that by continuously questioning our knowledge, the source thereof and what is held as "truth," we can greatly reduce the risk of being deceived and therefore left further from actual Truth than if we had not taken to a specific "truth." To adhere and completely agree with one of these "truths" is to assume a great deal about Truth and the criterion by which it is judged. To establish this criterion is to once again suppose and assume, without certainty; this eventually falls back to circular reasoning because to decide the criterion of Truth, there must be a criterion on establishing a criterion and Truth to that criterion ... a definition of a definition of a definition ... and so on. The questioning of knowledge have undoubtedly been present as long as man has laid claim to it. So-called "truths" about the world in which we live have been brought into question since they were asserted, which is why philosophy is very much alive today -- if everyone had already agreed on claimed "fundamental truths," there would no longer be a need for much of what makes up philosophy; we would already have the answers. This is a point that many skeptics lean on: if these "truths" were actually true, philosophers through the ages would not continue to disagree just by the very nature of what it means for something to be true.(((As asserted in the previous section--place link here))) Keeping in mind the presupposition that man has almost always questioned the knowledge he lays claim to, the first actual record of a formalized stance in skeptic thought came from the ancient Greeks.

Baklava with that?[edit]

A. Skeptical Foundations in Ancient Greece

We can infer that the basis of Greek skeptics came from the fact that Socrates was undeniably, if not sickeningly so, humble about his knowledge. It was Socrates who said all he could know was the knowledge of his own ignorance but to have skepticism hinge on one flighty remark from Socrates would be a bit of a stretch, so let's keep digging. Plato also had his opinion on Truth, claiming that the only true reality is that of the mind. Another important figure in philosophy making a bold statement about certainty and yet, the Skeptic movement still hasn't caught on in Athens, at least that we're aware of. Next came Gorgias (c.483 - c.376 B.C.E.), a Greek philosopher who we know very little about. Although Gorgias' work survives only in sparse fragments and citations, scholars have deduced that his claims about knowledge are as follows:

1. Nothing exists. 2. Even if things did exist, it could not be known. 3. Even if it could be known, it could not be communicated.

Despite the fact that Gorgias made record of these ideas before anyone else, it was really the Pyrrhonians whose school of thought is considered to be the primary building foundation on which all other skeptic thought has been forced to build. B. Pyrrhonian Skepticism Started by Pyrrho of Elis (c. 367 - c.275 B.C.E.), the Skeptic movement started concurrently with that of the Stoics, Epicureans and the "negative dogmatists," the Academic Skeptics during the decades following the collapse of Alexander the Great's empire. While all four of the schools of thought aimed to bring tranquility and happiness in a time of struggles, it was the Pyrrhonian Skeptics who took a very different path than that of the others.

C. "Why are these guys so special?" Skeptic relations to the Stoics

The Pyrrhonian Skeptics are obviously a different breed, but why did they think the way they did? To put this in perspective, the viewpoint of their most antithetical rival school, the Stoics must be at least partially understood. The Stoics believed that our knowledge comes from the acceptance of our perceptions as representatives of external facts. Certainty comes directly through cognitive impressions -- that which is generally accepted as commonplace knowledge. It is from these general claims that we can gain general conceptions to which we can reason about. Knowledge then becomes the culmination of all the rational conceptions we have made. These conceptions must then be inter-supportive and mutually dependent on one another, providing sound and stable knowledge. They believed that everything that wasn't knowledge was opinion. The criterion of Truth for the Stoics was essentially reasoned commonplace knowledge and relied heavily on both intuition and experiential evidence. Skepticism rejects that we can have certainty based on commonplace knowledge because it does not rule out deception by our senses or interactions as a factor. Just because hundreds of people believe the same thing, doesn't mean they're right -- take a look at Michael Bolton fans if you don't agree.

Pyrrho's philosophy reacted against the Stoics, who believed we can know nearly anything as long as the criterion by which we judge becomes commonly assented to because of the gaping flaw of mass deception, but the Pyrrhonians also reacted against the Academic Skeptics who said we can know absolutely nothing for certain --a contradiction within itself. So what kind of doctrine did they follow?

Pyrrhonian Skepticism states that in order to seek tranquility and a quietude of mind, we must disengage ourselves from things of which we cannot be sure. We must then suspend judgments on claims until they have been thoroughly scrutinized -- essentially any claim whatsoever except "that which is immediately evident," such that we exist or that we sit, stand and talk. While this method seems to make life stagnant, Pyrrhonians felt that suspending judgment would eliminate the mental anguish caused by any "knowledge" that could be doubted in the slightest. Where certainty is not, doubt is present and doubt is that which disquiets the mind. Applying this method to experiences, if a claim was brought into question, even if no visible flaw could be seen, a Pyrrhonian might simply say that the claim appears to be so, but alas, he cannot, with certainty, say either for or against the claim. i.e., If someone were to say that the sky was blue, a Pyrrhonian would probably say that it just appears to be blue, but he couldn't be sure.

Although we attribute this school of thought to Pyrrho, it was actually his student Timon and later follower Sextus Empiricus (c.175 - c.225 B.C.E.) who actually recorded these ideas; most notably in Sextus Empiricus' work, "The Outlines of Pyrrhonism."

Reading Assignment #1 Read the following excerpts from Sextus Empiricus' "Outlines of Pyrrhonism":

CHAPTER VI. -- OF THE PRINCIPLES OF SCEPTICISM The originating cause of Scepticism is, we say, the hope of attaining quietude. Men of talent, who were perturbed by the contradictions in things and in doubt as to which of the alternatives they ought to accept, were led on to inquire what is true in things and what false, hoping by the settlement of this question to attain quietude. The main basic principle of the Sceptic system is that of opposing to every proposition an equal proposition; for we believe that as a consequence of this we end by ceasing to dogmatize.

CHAPTER VII. -- DOES THE SCEPTIC DOGMATIZE? When we say that the Sceptic refrains from dogmatizing we do not use the term "dogma," as some do, in the broader sense of "approval of a thing" for the Sceptic gives assent to the feelings which are the necessary results of sense-impressions, and he would not, for example, say when feeling hot or cold "I believe that I am not hot or cold"); but we say that "he does not dogmatize" using "dogma" in the sense, which some give it, of "assent to one of the non-evident objects of scientific inquiry"; for the Pyrrhonean philosopher assents to nothing that is non-evident. Moreover, even in the act of enunciating the Sceptic formulae concerning things non-evident -- such as the formula "No more (one thing than another)," or the formula "I determine nothing," or any of the others which we shall presently mention he does not dogmatize. For whereas the dogmatizer posits the things about which he is said to be dogmatizing as really existent, the Sceptic does not posit these formulae in any absolute sense; for he conceives that, just as the formula "All things are false" asserts the falsity of itself as well as of everything else, as does the formula "Nothing is true," so also the formula "No more" asserts that itself, like all the rest, is "No more (this than that)," and thus cancels itself along with the rest. And of the other formulae we say the same. If then, while the dogmatizer posits the matter of his dogma as substantial truth, the Sceptic enunciates his formulae so that they are virtually cancelled by themselves, he should not be said to dogmatize in his enunciation of them. And, most important of all, in his enunciation of these formulae he states what appears to himself and announces his own impression in an undogmatic way, without making any positive assertion regarding the external realities.

Questions: 1. How does Sextus defend skepticism against those who would doubt its credibility? 2. How does following skeptic thought intend to help one attain "quietude"?

"We're moving in another direction, we'll be back in a few hundred years."[edit]

A. Skeptics Lay Low

After the ancient Greeks, skepticism stays as stable as skepticism can be for a couple hundred years until Saint Augustine (354 - 430 C.E.) throws another element into the equation of knowledge -- How does God fit in to all of this? With the addition of this new cog in the machine, the distinction between the types of skepticism becomes more important.

I. Types of Skepticism Partial skepticism is a school of doubt that is simply restricted to specific fields of belief and thus knowledge. Contrarily, total skepticism has no such limits. Expanding on this is moderate and total skepticism which states that there is no absolute certainty in the underlying beliefs present in subjects such as mathematics or logic, whereas radical and total skepticism states that there aren't even such things as justifiable beliefs that can exist. It is with this distinction in mind that we can begin to analyze the slight nods to skepticism that those following the Greeks make.

Now Where Was I? Oh yes, God.[edit]

A. Saint Augustine and Skepticism

Most would consider Augustine to be, at best, a partial skeptic in the sense that be believed neither revelation nor revelation alone could give us certain knowledge. His doubts of what we can be certain of is limited to those claims on which reason and revelation, or divinely inspired knowledge, coincide. Augustine believed that we use reason as a God-given tool to understand that which God has revealed to us via divine means, only then, by using both reason and revelation can we have certain knowledge. He wasn't saying that revelation or reason are insufficient in and of themselves, but that certainty is derived from utilizing both. Although Augustine is never consider a skeptic in the traditional sense, with his ties being loosely based, it is possible to see the influence of the ancient Greeks on his philosophy. Of course, despite these albeit weak ties, Augustine does bring a new element into accepting knowledge as certain. He links knowledge to a direct relation to God and implies that it is the concept "grace" which allows us, by faith, to accept what we believe God to have imparted to us. Where the Pyrrhonians stopped in suspending judgment, Augustine goes to fill this gap by agreeing that while he cannot be certain of a great many things, he can be certain in God and therefore bridges this metaphysical gap between uncertainty and certainty -- if nothing else, he can be sure of God who, he believes, is the wellspring of all things certain. Let's review: we cannot have knowledge of everything based on reason and same came be said of that based on revelation. What we can have certain knowledge of is of the claims to which both are applied and understood through God, in whom all things can be certain.

B. Another Christian Skeptic ... Well, Sort of.

800 years after Augustine, another Christian by the name of Thomas Aquinas (1225 - 1274 C.E.) came along to build on what Augustine had said. Aquinas agrees with many of the same principles that Augustine established but began to flesh out different types of knowledge into rational, revealed and a combination thereof. He does, however, suggest that the certainty we can come to through reason cannot be arrived at through strict revelation (even though both come from God). While not doubting the fact that we can have knowledge entirely, he does doubt where that knowledge comes from and the ways it can be reliable and certain. While both Augustine and Aquinas are, at the very best, partial skeptics, it is important to understand their viewpoints as they determine the direction of the next phase of skeptical philosophy -- the "modern age."

A Dream Within A Dream Within A Dream...[edit]

A. The Greatest Mind in Modern Skepticism

René Descartes (1596 - 1650 C.E.) was a jack-of-all-trades in the world of philosophy. The topics on which he wrote include law, mathematics, science, ethics, psychology, metaphysics, religion and epistemology among others. In his twenties, he began to travel Europe in search of knowledge that he felt could only be gained through introspection or through worldly interaction. He desired to experience everything.

His extensive travels allowed him to see many new and unique things, some of which cause him to doubt assumptions he had held since his childhood. These doubts eventually festered and multiplied until he felt that he ought to "demolish everything and start again, right from the foundations."

Reading Assignment #2

      Read Descartes' Meditations I found at [1]

Reading Questions

      1. What did Descartes assert in this argument?
      2. Why did he feel he was justified in these claims?
      3. Do you agree with Descartes? Why or why not?

what is this??

B. What Descartes Believed

From this point in his life onward, Descartes applied what can be called his "method of doubt" [2] to anything he could potentially hold as valuable. If he could, in any way, doubt the certainty of any claim, he would reject it; weighing heavily on the idea that since his senses had deceived him in the past, they should never again be trusted. Even what we consider obvious notions, like the warmth of a fire, he said, could not be considered true because there was no way to prove that the experience was not a dream. As outlandish as this might appear to most of us, this dream argument [3] proves to be extremely influential in modern philosophy-- especially with empiricists. In his work "Meditations," [4] Descartes to skepticism in the direction of Augustine by bringing in the certainty of God.

"If there is an omnipotent God, he could presumably cause me to go wrong every time I count two and three; if, on the other hand, there is no God, then I owe my origins not to a powerful and intelligent creator, but to some random series of imperfect cause, and in this case there is even less reason to suppose that my basic intuition about mathematics are reliable." Descartes as paraphrased by Dr. John Cottingham

Following this argument, Descartes brings an odd player into the game - an imaginary demon that could quite possibly be deceiving him at every turn so that he might falter. Descartes reasoned that although this demon may be able to deceive him in all other aspects of life, the fact that he was thinking about this fact was enough reason to consider his own existence as self-evident -- hence the famous statement: "Cogito ergo sum," or, "I think, therefore I am."

In spite of this initial heavy, almost extreme skeptic stance, Descartes proceeded to reconstruct the rest of "reality" based on the confirmation of his own existence. From the idea that "he is," Descartes surmised that the idea of a supremely perfect being is too great an idea to have originated from anywhere but that supremely perfect being -- God.

Reading Assignment #3

      Read Descartes' argument for God found here: [5]

Reading Questions

      1. What are the logical steps Descartes uses to arrive at the existence of God?
      2. Do you feel that this is an adequate argument? Why or why not?

After he believed he had logically proven the existence of God, Descartes gives an argument to the effect that the external world exists because God is a perfect being and would not intentionally deceive us because of His nature. He also acknowledges that since he can be sure of himself and he is aware enough to know that perceptions affect him without his willing them to, the external world must also exist, because if these perceptions were simply generated from himself, Descartes would be able to control them rather than be subjected to them.

Following the existence of the world, he comes up with a criterion for Truth that echoes back to Pyrrho. Descartes said that although we are imperfect beings, we have the ability to suspend judgment on that which is not "clear and distinct." In addition to this ability, rational intellect was a gift from God, a perfect being whose gift, although present in a broken, imperfect world, still has the ability to function with a degree of reliability (because we already know that God would not intentionally deceive us).

Despite the fact that Descartes' arguments rely on a Christian perspective, or at least in the existence of God, the logic and reasoning that got him to the point of "successfully" existing, as well as breaking himself (and the rest of the world for that matter,) down and rebuilding it with carefully constructed arguments, still holds bearing on skeptics and general epistemologists alike.

Wrap-Up Questions Thinking of what you've read, why is it that the skeptic question just can't be ignored? Why don't we just dismiss their arguments as shortsighted cop-outs? Use textual examples from the reading assignments or outside sources to back your response. Think critically and think of the big picture, not just whether or not you agree. Your response should be a minimum of two pages double-spaced in order to somewhat accurately respond. Compare your answer against the readings as well as arguments found on the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

What Now?[edit]

Where Descartes Left Us and Further Readings

Philosophers that follow from and build on the works of Descartes include John Locke, who brought up questions like "How does man know," David Hume who was the prominent remover of God in the realm of skepticism, Baruch Spinoza who took the mind/body debate that Descartes worked on a few steps further, and George Berkeley who argued that nothing exists unless it is perceived, amongst others. While Descartes and Augustine left some large shoes to fill, the problem that skepticism will not just simply disappear is a hurdle that every philosopher in the history of the world will have to deal with.

Some further readings on these subjects are as follows:

John Locke's "Essay Concerning Human Understanding" [6]

George Berkeley's "Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge" [7]

Baruch Spinoza's "Ethics"

David Hume's "Essays and Treatises" [8]

Works Referenced[edit]

Audi, Robert. "Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy" 2nd Edition, Cambridge University Press 1995, 99

Augustine. "Confessions" Translated by Garry Wills, Penguin 2001

Frost, S.E. Jr. "Basic Teachings of the Great Philosophers" Anchor 1989

Kolack, Daniel, Thomson, Garrett. "The Longman Standard of Philosophy" Pearson Education 2006

Standford Encyclopedia of Philosophy "http://plato.stanford.edu/"

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