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A Sceptical Tea Party
A short story by Peter Williams, perhaps?
There seemed to be a table set out under a tree in front of the house, and the March Hare and the Hatter were having tea at it: a Dormouse was sitting between them, fast asleep, and the other two were using it as a cushion, resting their elbows on it, and talking over its head.
The table appeared to be a large one, but the three were crowded together at one corner of it: “Possibly no room! There may be no room!” they cried out when they saw Alice coming.
“There’s plenty of room!” said Alice indignantly, and she sat down in a large arm-chair at one end of the table.
“Have some wine?” suggested the March Hare in a questioning tone. Alice looked all round the table, but there was nothing to drink on it but tea. “I don’t see any wine.” she remarked.
“There isn’t any to be had then,” said the Hare airily, “or perhaps we only think there isn’t any.”
“Then it wasn’t very civil of you to offer it” said Alice angrily.
“It wasn’t very civil of you to sit down without being invited” said the March Hare.
“I didn’t know it was your table,” said Alice, “it’s laid for a great many more than three.”
“You couldn’t have known” said the March Hare.
“Have some sceptical tea?” asked the Hatter in an attempt to dampen this somewhat heated exchange. Rather wearily Alice replied “Yes please, if there is any.” The Hatter picked up the sceptical tea-pot and poured Alice a cup, and then filled it with sceptical tea.
“I feel I must apologize for my friend the March Hare,” said the Hatter, quite forgetting that he had poured the tea for Alice and sipping it himself, “but these things can’t be helped; that’s the trouble with inductive reasoning, it’s all very well and good in itself, but it makes no guarantees…”
“It’s not my fault,” protested the Hare, “but just because there’s never seemed to be any wine here in the past doesn’t mean there might not seem to be some when one looks for it in the present.”
“Now they’re talking over my head,” thought Alice deciding to try and change the topic of conversation. “Why is the tea called sceptical tea?” she asked the Hatter, who had nearly finished the cup he had poured for her and was pondering whether or not to start on the saucer.
“Well my dear,” replied the Hatter, “this is a sceptical teaparty. The March Hare here is a through-going, nothing believing sceptic, while I only dabble in scepticism for Philosophical purposes. You know, Descartes’ method of doubt and all that. We are having this little tea party in an attempt to hammer out our differences.” With this the March Hare hammered at a chunk of toffee which was labelled ‘differential toffee’ with a toffee-hammer which he then picked up. “Needless to say,” continued the Hatter, “the more we hammer, the more confused things seem to get. We keep starting back at the beginning with a fresh batch of differential toffee because we do both agree that just because we’ve never sorted out our differences in the past is no good reason to believe that we won’t in the future. That’s inductive reasoning for you again.”
“So the point of this tea-party is to try and find out whether one can claim to know anything or not?” asked Alice just to make sure.
“Precisely.” said the Hatter.
“That’s what I seem to think.” said the March Hare.
“What exactly do you mean by ‘know’?” asked Alice.
“Well, knowledge is usually defined as being Justified True Belief.” replied the Hatter.
“The thing is,” interjected the March Hare, “that one simply cannot give any ultimate justification for any claim to know something.” The Hatter opened his eyes very wide on hearing this, but all he said was “Are you quite sure about that?” in a rather sceptical tone.
“But surely,” said Alice. “if you can’t justifiably claim to know anything, then you can’t justifiably claim to know that it’s impossible to justifiably claim to know anything. Did that make any sense?”
“Perfect sense my dear.” said the Mad Hatter. Here the Dormouse shook itself, and began speaking in its sleep “Perfect sense, perfect sense -” and went on so long that they had to pinch it to make it stop.
“That’s as may be,” said the Hare, “but you can’t prove that I’m wrong.” Alice felt dreadfully puzzled.
“Have some more tea,” said the Hatter to Alice, “while Hare goes over some of his arguments in favour of scepticism.”
“Have you ever been wrong about something when you were absolutely sure that you were right?” asked the March Hare.
“Why certainly,” replied Alice, remembering her lessons in the schoolroom, “quite often in fact.”
“Then you must agree,” continued the Hare, “that however sure you may be that you are right about something, you could still be wrong about it, and thus could never, in good conscience, claim to actually know anything.”
Alice did not quite know what to say to this; it seemed to make sense, and yet it felt all wrong.
“Quite right,” interjected the Hatter, “but not totally. It is true to say that if one does indeed know a thing, one cannot be wrong either in the assertion of what you know or in the assertion that you know what you are claiming to know. However,” he continued reproachfully, “just because one has occasionally been mistaken about knowledge-claims in the past does not mean that one must be mistaken in the present, or that one can never be correct in the assertion of a knowledge-claim!”
“But how do you know when you are correct?” asked the March Hare,
“There can be doubt so long as there is the possibility of error.”
“Come now,” said Alice, “if there is the possibility of error, there must be the possibility of certainty.”
“What about the subjects of immediate experience?” asked the Hatter, “It is surely undeniable that we experience the world as we experience it!”
“Oh, I wouldn’t bank on that.” replied the March Hare, pouring himself a glass of wine. “I mean, how do you know that you’re not experiencing the world as someone else experiences it? Can you be sure that you are who you think you are? Perhaps there are no ‘subjects of immediate experience’ beyond the experiences themselves.” Here the March Hare finished his glass of wine and attempted to procure another; this he failed to do as the bottle seemed to have mislaid itself, so he sampled some of the toffee instead before going on to ask Alice, “How do you know that you are not dreaming all of this?”
Alice did not quite know what to say to this: so she helped herself to some bread-and-butter while she thought about it. “I know,” she said at length, “because I don’t know enough to dream up the things we are talking about.”
“Perhaps,” said the Dormouse without opening its eyes, “your subconscious knows something you don’t.” Alice wasn’t at all sure about this suggestion, but as it seemed rather difficult to argue with a sleeping Dormouse she decided not to try. The Hatter was the first to break the silence, and as he brushed the pieces off the table-cloth he said, “All one is really asking is can we know if there is a difference between a raven and a writingdesk? And if so, how? This question,” he continued with dramatic emphasis, “which at first sight might not seem difficult, is really one of the most difficult that can be asked.”1
“Let me put it like this,” said the March Hare, “the thesis that experience is a reliable guide is not one for which reasons can be offered. It is itself a principle of reasoning2. The only reason to believe in the reliability of experience is given by experience, and that means that the argument is circular; it can’t prove anything.” He started on another fragment of differential toffee and went on, “We find the very self-same problem with all logic, all thought. Any argument you use in an attempt to prove that reason works, that it can provide you with knowledge, necessarily uses reason. You have to presume that reason is valid in order to try and show that reason is valid! It’s a clear case of begging the question, another circular argument, and it just won’t do. Furthermore, if the validity of every proof had to be proved in its turn, we should fall into an infinite regress and could never reach a conclusion!”3 The March Hare looked very pleased with himself and began preening his whiskers.
“I want a clean cup,” interrupted the Hatter: “let’s all move one place on.” He moved as he spoke, and the Dormouse followed him (he must have been walking in his sleep for he never opened his eyes and began to gently snore soon afterwards): the March Hare moved into the Dormouse’s place, and Alice took the place of the March Hare. The Hatter was the only one who got any advantage from the change: and Alice was a good deal worse off than before, as the March Hare had upset the milk-jug into his place when he moved. While she tried to calm the milk-jug down Alice asked the Hatter, “What happens when you come to the beginning? Do you do all of the washing-up and start again, or is that the end of tea?” She had heard of movable-feasts, but this party was even more far-fetched!
“Oh no my dear,” replied the Hatter,
“we wouldn’t bother to move if we thought we’d come back to the start again, but we do move, so of course we never reach the beginning.”
“Isn’t that a circular argument?” thought Alice, and she began to think that perhaps the whole sceptical tea-party was itself a circular argument.
“This is an infinite table,” continued the Hatter, “we keep moving round in order to keep track of time; that way it’s always tea-time. We are performing an infinite regress, and so we never progress. That way the food never runs out and the crockery is always clean by the time we get, or rather got, back to it.”
“You see,” added the March Hare, “we never reach the end of the table because we are always coming back to the beginning.”
“I think,” said the Hatter to the Hare, “going back to your points about the circularity of reason and experience, that you are rather trying to have your cake and eat it. I agree with your arguments, but in order to argue that since we cannot prove reason or experience to be valid routes to knowledge we should assume that we cannot attain knowledge you have to assume the validity of reason in order to argue in the first place. It is clearly self-contradictory to state that we cannot have any knowledge.”
“That is perfectly logical my dear Hatter,” replied the March Hare, gesturing for Alice to pass him the plum cake, “but you have to have cake before you can eat it! What’s wrong with contradiction? I grant you that it’s against the laws of logic, but you can’t prove that logic is trustworthy without begging the question. You can’t prove me wrong,” he declared triumphantly.
“But we can prove that your scepticism is illogical, while our belief in reason and experience is logical and reasonable.” said Alice.
“Scepticism,” said the Hatter, “can find no justification in experience.”3
“But neither can it find any falsification.” answered the March Hare. “Of course logic is logical and complete scepticism is illogical, to say that is simply to state two tautologies; but you cannot prove that to be rational is to be right and to be irrational is wrong with reference to rationality; for that you have to go beyond logic. What you decide then is a matter of faith.”
“If that’s so,” said Alice who had been trying her best to follow her mad hosts’ arguments, “then there can’t be any ultimate justification for beliefs, at least not purely rational justification anyway, so knowledge can’t be ‘justified true belief’.”
“No,” said the March Hare, “knowledge is true belief. A claim to know something is simply the statement of a belief, a very complex belief, but a belief all the same. It just so happens that I choose not to believe.”
“That’s it!” exclaimed the mad Hatter, “that’s why we can never hammer out our differences! We cannot even agree on how to go about the hammering itself!”
“Yet why is it,” wondered Alice, “that people naturally assume reason to be valid? Why is it common sense to presume that the universe is rational, that it can be questioned and understood and known?” Certainly, if anything did mean that knowledge was possible, or indeed impossible, then it must be something beyond experience and beyond the logical grasp of reason as Shakespeare is beyond ‘King Lear’, that is both within and without, for this thing, this reason, must be knowable at least in as much as one’s belief in knowledge or scepticism corresponded to the truth of the matter. “And it seems,” mused Alice, “that most people are naturally inclined towards belief in knowledge…”
“So,” said Alice, turning to her hosts, “the answer to the question ‘can we justifiably claim to know?’ is?”
“No,” said the March Hare, “providing we are right in assuming reason to be invalid and experience to be unreliable.”
“Yes,” said the Hatter, “providing that we are correct to assume the validity of reason and the generally reliable nature of the universe.”
“Where such a belief is necessarily a matter of faith ultimately beyond justification.” finished Alice.
“Well,” she said, pleased that the tea-party had reached a happy conclusion after all, “I really must be going now, I am to play croquet with the Queen of Hearts.” She bid her hosts goodbye and walked off in the direction of the forest. The last she saw them, the Hare and the Hatter were trying to put the Dormouse into the tea-pot…
The Dormouse shook itself awake as it started to rain. He scurried into his cosy house, and pondered his strange dream.
Although he hadn’t played a major role in his own dream, it had at least provided him with the answer to the question he had been musing upon before he had fallen asleep in the afternoon sunshine.
“So,” thought the Dormouse, “Wittgenstein was right when he wrote: ‘At the foundation of well-founded belief lies belief that is not founded4, or rather, is not founded in itself, but in some other.’ All that food he had dreamt of had made him quite hungry, so he scampered off to his kitchen before settling down to write the essay he had been given for homework:
“Scepticism, unless it is total scepticism thus able to accept its own paradox, is untenable. One may doubt the validity of this or that argument, or the truth of this or that claim to know something, but one simply cannot doubt that we can know, for that is to doubt the foundational principle of reason itself, and that is the most basic of all beliefs, a necessity beyond which lies only madness…”
© Peter S. Williams 1999
1. Bertrand Russell, The Problems of Philosophy. Oxford 1980. Chap.1.
2. Michael Durrant, lecture notes on knowledge & mind, Cardiff Univ.
3. A.J.Ayer, The Problem of Knowledge.
4. Ludwig Wittgenstein, ‘On certainty.’ from The Wittgenstein Reader. Ed. Anthony Kenny. Blackwells.
Alice in Wonderland. Lewis Carroll. Penguin Through the Looking Glass. Lewis Carroll. Penguin
“The validity of rational thought, accepted in an utterly non-naturalistic… supernatural sense, is the necessary presupposition of all other theorizing… By thinking at all we have claimed that our thoughts are more than mere natural events… even to think and act in the natural world we have to assume something beyond it and even assume that we partly belong to that something. In order to think we must claim for our own reasoning a validity which is not credible if our thought is merely a function of our brain, and our brains a byproduct of irrational physical processes. In order to act above the level of mere impulse, we must claim a similar validity for our judgements of good and evil… Experience by itself proves nothing. If a man doubts whether he is dreaming or waking, no experiment can solve his doubt, since every experiment may itself be part of the dream. Experience proves this, or that, or nothing, according to the preconceptions we bring to it.”
C.S.Lewis, ‘Miracles’ from God in the Dock
The Problems of Philosophy
“If we adopt the attitude of the complete sceptic, placing ourselves wholly outside all knowledge, and asking, from this outside position, to be compelled to return within the circle, we are demanding what is impossible, and our scepticism can never be refuted. For all refutation must begin with some piece of knowledge which the disputants share; from blank doubt, no argument can begin… Against this absolute scepticism, no logical argument can be advanced. But it is not difficult to see that scepticism of this kind is unreasonable…in regard to…knowledge, philosophical criticism does not require that we should abstain from belief…to reject the beliefs which do not appear open to any objections…is not reasonable, and is not what philosophy advocates.”
Bertrand Russell, The Problems of Philosophy