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Skepticism: What do We Know? What Can We Know?

08/02/12

Permalink 11:41:00 pm, by Brandon Norgaard Email , 1149 words   English (US)
Categories: Building Knowledge

Skepticism: What do We Know? What Can We Know?

Skepticism is a very important concept in epistemology, and it comes in different forms. In general, skepticism refers to a questioning attitude and having doubt regarding ideas that are often taken for granted. There are countless areas of inquiry in which some people will try to assert knowledge and try to explain their reasons for believing this or that. One can apply a skeptical argument to cast doubt upon any such positive assertions. Skeptical argument help us to understand that life is not as certain as we would often like to think.

There are two main forms of skeptical arguments. On the one hand, there are skeptical arguments that give reasons why one should withhold judgment in certain circumstances. These arguments are often in the form of “It is difficult to see how, given those methods of observation and those assumptions, how one could reasonably come to that conclusion”. For example, if one person were asserting that they fully understand a certain historical figure's motivations for acting as they did, another person could ask how it is possible for anyone to know what thoughts might have been going on in someone's mind who is long since dead. How can anyone come to know the motivations for someone who lived long ago and nobody living today ever knew them alive? It is hard enough to do this for anyone living today, even if one has been acquainted with them for some time. Arguments of this form take after the Ancient Greek school of Pyrrhonian skepticism, which emphasized listening to all arguments and withholding judgment. I will refer to arguments of this form as “doubt-skepticism”.

On the other hand, there are assertions that knowledge is inherently limited in certain ways. These are arguments that certain types of knowledge are impossible. So rather than simply giving reasons why some knowledge might not be possible, these arguments positively assert that certain things are outside the range of possible knowledge. For example, in response to a similar argument from above, say that a history professor saying that he knows why Franklin Roosevelt ordered the atom bomb dropped on Japan, one could respond with a skeptical argument of this form by saying that it is not possible for anyone to ever know why someone who is no longer living acted as they did. One could even go further and say that it is impossible to understand the motivations of even living people. Saying something like “We can never know why people act as they do” is a skeptical argument of this form. Some commentators say that this form of argument was popularized by another school of Ancient Greece: the Academics. I will refer to arguments of this form as “constraint-skepticism” because they argue that out knowledge is constrained in certain ways.

I believe that doubt-skepticism is quite reasonable and arguments of this form often help us to realize that building solid knowledge is more difficult than we would like to think. Our minds seem to be lazy at times and we will often just accept claims or rush to judgment without giving a lot of though for why or why not we should believe these things. Doubt-skepticism is often quite reasonable for anyone who lives in a world where there is much uncertainty and where appearances can be misleading.

I have also come to see that constraint-skeptical arguments are used more often than is justified. David Hume famously argued that it is impossible for one to gain knowledge through inductive reasoning and that therefore it is impossible for one to know the factors that cause events to occur and by extension it is impossible to know the laws of nature. Hume rightly points out that we can only directly know states of affairs in our experience and that when we see several things happen that seem to be correlated, we think we know the cause. He argued that we think we know that it must be the case that the sun comes up every day because we know it has come up every day of our lives, so it must come up tomorrow and the next day and so on. Hume argues that we actually have no knowledge of the factors that caused the sun to come up before and hence we cannot know for certain what will happen in the future.

Hume's argument is absurd, however, because he is positively asserting something that he could only have known through inductive reasoning. He is making statements about how things work and what causes us to believe as we do. If it is truly impossible for one to know causes and laws of nature, as Hume insists, then it is not possible for him to know the very things he is saying. His arguments are thus self-defeating.

Immanuel Kant also advanced some constrain-skeptical arguments. He said that in our experience we must have certain ways of conceptualizing reality that innately involves time and space. So basically, he says that our minds create our conception of time and space and we can never know how accurate these conceptions are. He says that our experiences must be caused by things external to us, but that our raw sense data is interpreted by our minds and that the product of this is our experience of things being in space and events occurring successively through time. Are things really in space? Are there really events occurring in time? Kant argues that we can never know this because we only know our own experiences, which are determined by the innate nature of our minds. We cannot step outside of our minds and directly experience the “thing in itself” that is external to us.

Kant's argument is also absurd because he assumes that there is something external to us that causes our minds to react and from this to create these experiences that we have. If he can know that there is something external to us and know that it has some effect on our minds, then it seems that he must have some genuine knowledge of both space and time. If he cannot know anything beyond his own experience and he cannot know to what extent his conception of space and time accurately reflect the external world, then it seems he also would not be able to know that there is anything external to himself, including other people who have their own minds. It seems he would not be able to understand anything about how other minds work if he cannot know anything about the succession of events that occur external to him.

So in conclusion I will say that doubt-skepticism is reasonable and helpful to us while constraint-skepticism is unjustifiably pessimistic with regard to the possibility of knowledge. Both Hume and Kant made great advances in philosophy, but they both made assertions about the limits of knowledge that seem unreasonable.

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