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Is Skepticism Ridiculous?

Michael Philips asks whether anyone can really believe skeptical arguments.

Many philosophers argue passionately about questions that no one could possibly take seriously in daily life. Is there a world independent of my consciousness? Will causal relations that have held in the past continue to hold in the future? Are other people conscious? Are people responsible for what they do? Is movement possible? Some conclude that we have no rational justification to believe these things. Yet they go on acting just as they did before. They treat objects as if they exist when unperceived, they treat other people as if they really do have feelings, they expect the future to resemble the past, they hold others responsible for what they do and so forth. In short, they don’t put their money where their mouth is. So they seem cowardly or dishonest. Either that or they live with contradictory beliefs and insist on having it both ways, a flagrant violation of the philosopher’s blood oath forswearing contradiction. Given this tawdry state of affairs, it is surprising that so few modern defenders of skepticism have anything interesting to say about how to live with or understand their skeptical conclusions. (Some Greek and Roman skeptics actually did try to live in conformity with their skeptical beliefs).

David Hume (1711-76), perhaps the greatest skeptic of them all, struggled valiantly with this conflict. According to Hume, we face a difficult dilemma. On the one hand, we must respect philosophical reasoning (or, as he calls it, “refin’d reflection”). It is our only defense against ignorance, superstition, and other beliefs governing daily life which, one and all, originate in ‘illusions of the imagination’. On the other hand, we can’t run our lives on the conclusions of refin’d reflection since

“…the understanding, when it acts alone, and according to its most general principles, entirely subverts itself, and leaves not the lowest degree of evidence in any proposition, either in philosophy or common life.” [This and the following Hume quotes are from A Treatise of Human Nature, Book I, Part IV, section VII].

Midway through his discussion, Hume asserts that there is no rational solution to this problem, but that we don’t need one. Although reason makes no headway here, ‘nature’ seems to solves the problem in favor of ‘common life.’ One can only entertain skeptical conclusions for so long before

“…[nature] cures me of this philosophical melancholy and delirium, either by relaxing this bent of mind, or by some avocation and lively impression of my senses, which obliterates all these chimeras. I dine, I play a game of back-gammon, and I am merry with my friends; and when after three or four hours’ amusement, I wou’d return to these speculations, they appear so cold, and strain’d, and ridiculous, that I cannot find it in my heart to enter into them any farther.”

At such times Hume finds himself “absolutely and necessarily determin’d to live, and talk, and act like other people in the common affairs of life.” Thus reduced to this “indolent belief in the general maxims of the world” he is ready to throw “all my books and papers into the fire, and resolve never more to renounce the pleasures of life for the sake of reasoning and philosophy.”

But this is more easily said than done. For as he tells us shortly thereafter, he is also constitutionally disposed to doing philosophy. When he is “tir’d with amusment and company and have indulg’d a reverie in my chamber or a solitary walk by a river-side” he is “naturally inclin’d to refin’d reflection.” And he’s not the only one. As he says, it is “almost impossible for the mind of man to rest, like those of beasts, in that narrow circle of objects, which are the subject of daily conversation and action.” Furthermore, without philosophy ignorance and superstition rule and philosophy is preferable to superstition “of every kind or denomination.”

So we are left with the conflict. On the one hand, we can’t take the skeptical conclusions of philosophy seriously in everyday life. On the other hand, we can’t help doing the kind of philosophy that generates those conclusions. Furthermore, philosophy is the voice of reason and, as such, our chief weapon against ignorance and superstition. So what is to be done?

For a start, it’s helpful to remember that philosophy is not the only discipline in which there are conflicts between what one says on the job and what one believes (how one acts) off the job. Some behavioral psychologists denied that human beings had feelings and emotions; others, more moderately, denied that subjective experience had any impact on our behavior (a view still widely held by contemporary psychologists who believe that all the causal action is in the brain). But I’m sure many of them explained surrendering to various temptations with sentences like “It felt so good. I just couldn’t resist” (without understanding such sentences tautologically). Twentieth century sociologists of many persuasions held that we are all simply products of our heredity and environment and that free choice is an illusion. But I doubt many of them adopted this attitude in relation to their children. I would expect they delivered the familiar parental admonitions like “Look, you don’t have to do it just because all the other kids do. You have a choice here. Just think for yourself.” Some contemporary literary theorists insist that texts (all texts) mean whatever their readers take them to mean. One doubts that they take this attitude during contract disputes with university officials (“I have a right to my sabbatical. It’s right here in the contract, in plain English.”). Again, the on-the-job, off-the-job disparity that characterizes philosophical skeptics is not unique to philosophy.

Interestingly, however, philosophers take the brunt of the ridicule for this. And that is not entirely the result of prejudice. It is also because people believe these other academic disciplines bake bread. That is, they take the on-the-job pronouncements of these academics to be elements of respectable (or once respectable) research programs. As long as these programs show promise, it makes sense for researchers to treat these elements’ assumptions as true. But this can be understood entirely as a job commitment and that commitment does not require off-the-job belief. Rather, one may regard these on-the-job commitments as operating assumptions, convenient simplifications or even as hypotheses currently supported by good evidence. Considering the history of the social sciences, literary theory and so on, chances are they will some day be rejected along with the research programs in which they are embedded. Researchers who understand this are not dishonest or self-contradictory for not living as if these hypotheses are true. (I have no idea how many of them do understand this. Some, like B.F. Skinner, believed they had the final truth).

Can something comparable be said in relation to philosophers who conclude we have no good reason to believe in an external world, other minds or unchanging causal relations? If these positions are elements a wider project or vision I think it can. In fact, most of the famous skeptical arguments started out this way. Descartes’ argues that we can’t know there is an external world (that we’re not dreaming) as a step in developing an elaborate metaphysical vision in which our right to believe in an external world is ultimately grounded in our belief in God. This vision included a physics that was quite influential until Newton’s time. His skeptical arguments were instrumental in developing this program. Hume introduces his skeptical arguments in the course of investigating the workings of the human understanding. Among other things, he is interested in determining the sources or origins of our beliefs, the powers of reason and the relation between reason and the passions. His skeptical arguments are instrumental to setting that up. In the case of Descartes, Hume and others of this ilk, then, skeptical arguments are neither ridiculous nor idle.

We can treat their skeptical conclusions in a corresponding manner (in the end, of course, Descartes rejects such conclusions). Like the social scientist and literary theorist, the philosophical skeptic of this kind is entitled to treat these conclusions as hypotheses (supported by argument) that help constitute a more general theory (e.g., Hume’s theory of the human understanding). Like the social scientist and literary theorist, one can (if one chooses) regard them as provisional hypotheses open to future revision. In this way one can escape the charge of being dishonest or self-contradictory for living as if these hypotheses are false. In his more ‘splenetic humours’, Hume might welcome this suggestion. In those moods, he confesses, he believes that ‘refin’d reflections’ provide no ‘tolerable prospect of arriving at…truth or certainty.’

Still, it’s not clear that Hume or any other philosophical skeptic his ilk would welcome this expedient. For it seems to resolve all conflicts between philosophical reason and common sense in favor of the latter. This does not solve Hume’s problem, it just takes a side. As we have seem, Hume himself rejects this side. To wall off philosophical reason from everyday life in this way surrenders the field to ignorance and superstition. But Hume and most other philosophers want philosophy to be capable of changing our ordinary patterns of thought. (It may be that some social scientists and literary theorists would reject the expedient for the same reason).

But we can defend skeptical arguments and conclusions in the spirit of this suggestion without surrendering this aspiration. These skeptical arguments at issue are not directed against common sense beliefs per se. Most common sense beliefs are artifacts of particular cultures at particular times and rise and fall as they do. These skeptical arguments, however, are directed at beliefs widely shared by people of every culture at every stage of their history. These beliefs do not change with time and circumstance. This is because it is impossible to have a culture in which it is widely accepted that there is no reason to believe that objects exist unperceived, that other people are conscious or that causal relations that held yesterday will hold today. For example, if one really thought one had no reason to believe that yesterday’s causal relations will hold today, one would have no reason feed oneself, water the crops, avoid rabid dogs, and so on. Let’s call beliefs that are independent of time and circumstance in this way ‘core beliefs’. My claim is that we shouldn’t reject core beliefs in the face of philosophical argument, but that other common sense beliefs are fair game. Core beliefs are compelling to people of all times and places, more compelling than any abstract philosophical argument could be. They are not expressions of ignorance and superstition. Only lunatics and a few philosophers are capable of sincerely doubting them (and it’s unclear that the latter really do, given how they live). Other common sense beliefs change with time and circumstances and may well be expressions of ignorance and superstition. They should be put to the philosopher’s test.

This, however, raises another question. If the conclusions of skeptical arguments are inconsistent with core beliefs, how could these arguments be fruitful, interesting or illuminating? And how could research programs grounded on the conclusions of these arguments make any real progress? Why shouldn’t we reject such a program out of hand?

Well, to begin with, successful skeptical arguments show us where the justifications of our beliefs currently bottom out. This is important information that needs to be incorporated into any theory of the fixation or justification of belief (personal or social). In Hume’s adroit hands, it helped generate a wider vision in which our fundamental beliefs were said to be grounded in ‘nature’ rather than reason, a vision firmly opposed to rationalism of all sorts (especially rationalism in the service of religion). Hume’s vision, of course, helped awaken Kant from his ‘dogmatic slumbers’. Kant’s Copernican Revolution in philosophy was in part an attempt to reconceptualize our situation as knowers such that skeptical problems do not arise. One can regard much of Wittgenstein’s later work as an attempt to develop an account of language that undermines the possibility of skeptical arguments. Again, skeptical arguments provide important data to the effect that we need to rethink something basic.

They can do this because they arise against a background of deeply-held assumptions. These assumptions become the targets of later philosophical investigation. In responding to Hume, Kant questioned the assumption that ‘knowledge conforms to objects’ (roughly, that the mind imposes no structures at all on the world it seeks to know). In responding to more recent versions of skepticism, Wittgenstein questioned the assumption that a language is a self-standing system of meanings (i.e., that utterances can be understood independently of the ‘forms of life’ in which they are embedded).

Zeno’s paradoxes provide an interesting example which we can discuss in more detail within the space constraints of this essay. In attempting to prove that motion is impossible, Zeno asks us to imagine an arrow in flight. If the arrow can move, he tells us, either it can move where it is or it can move where it isn’t. It can’t move where it isn’t because nothing can do anything where it isn’t. But it can’t move where it is either. Where it is – its position – is defined by its front-most point and its rear-most point. And in that space, there is no room for it to move. Another way to think about the paradox is this: if something is at a fixed position, it’s not moving. Since the arrow is always at some fixed position or other it doesn’t ever move.

This intriguing argument is sound only if we make an assumption that was apparently common in Zeno’s time (and in our own as well, given the difficulty students have with the argument). The assumption is that time is made up of instantaneous moments (that is, moments having no duration). If there are no such moments, no extentionless points in time, a flying arrow never is at a fixed point in space. Over any finite duration the arrow moves. The idea of a moment is an idealization. Other things being equal, the closer we approach it, the less the arrow moves. But there is no period of time in which there is no motion at all. If we give up the background assumption that there are moments in time, Zeno’s skeptical argument fails. (Many of his other arguments presuppose that space is made up of extentionless points). Zeno’s arguments are valuable partly because they alert us to the fact that something is wrong with the background assumption that there are moments in time. They also illustrate why it is reasonable to adopt a fallibilist attitude toward our skeptical conclusions. Later thinkers may come to reject the assumptions on which they rest.

Although the idea of a core belief requires further refinement, enough has been said to justify the following conclusions. First, skeptical arguments can play important roles in the development of wider philosophical programs. When they are employed in this way, they are neither idle nor foolish. Second, skeptical conclusions of apparently sound arguments that challenge core beliefs need not themselves be objects of belief. They might instead be treated as interesting aspects of a wider research program or as data that motivate us to look harder at certain basic structural features of our world view. Third, philosophers who make these arguments in this spirit are not guilty of dishonesty or inconsistency by failing to live according to these beliefs. And finally, these three conclusions are compatible with the use of philosophical argument to challenge other common sense beliefs.

Not all skeptics, of course, will be willing to understand their arguments in this way. Some conclude that we really do have no reason to believe that objects exist when unperceived, that other people are conscious, that causal relations that held in the past will hold in the future, and so on. They do not regard these propositions merely as hypotheses we should accept on the job. They regard them as just plain true. Or so they say. For if they really believed this they would act as if they had no more reason than not to drink to slake their thirst, no more reason than not to sympathize with their children’s pain or to refrain from inflicting pain on them, and so forth. I know of no philosophical skeptic who lives like that. So these skeptics either lack the courage of their convictions or willfully live with contradictory beliefs (thereby violating the aforementioned blood oath of their tribe).

© Michael Philips 2005

Michael Philips is a professor of philosophy at Portland State University in Portland, Oregon. In his spare time he is a photographer and performance artist.

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