Last time we reviewed the origins and a limited history of skepticism and ended on the destructive nature of its radical form. Some philosophers go further, arguing complete skepticism is, in fact, unintelligible, because it assumes or requires no difference between certainty and uncertainty at all. Others see it as devolving into near irrationality – propositions are denied to be statements in any meaningful sense, as if one is saying something like “middle C is soluble in water.”7
Be that as it may, to me, universal skepticism fails the common sense sniff test. If one denies proof of one’s existence, then why not jump off a cliff ? If the answer is the skeptic does not wish to jump off a cliff, then a belief in personal wants is affirmed. If the skeptic says he doesn’t know why he doesn’t jump off a cliff; ask why he eats and drinks? If the answer is he doesn’t know, than suggest he find out the truth by stopping. Refusal is proof that he does exist and wishes to continue to exist or his lack of desire to find truth. Even if he says he refuses to stop eating and drinking but does not know why, then he has proven he is a being that refuses to stop eating and drinking. At the end of the day, the circularity of radical skepticism appears even more severe than that of foundationalism, and so likewise fails.
I suspect it is some form of this reasoning that leads Hume to ‘mitigated skepticism.’ While he rejects absolute skepticism, he points out that no one believes all things are knowable, therefore the difference among people is one of degree. The crux then is really the criteria for knowledge. Hume thinks the only certainties are quantity and number or mathematics and relationships of ideas8 such as “all bachelors are unmarried.” In an effort to avoid the parsing of epistemology, I would suggest the simplest basic criteria are disciplined reason and consistent empirical evidence. The reader will have to decide for himself or herself whether these are sufficient and exactly how to define and utilize them.
Our next schedule topic is the intermediate theory of coherentism, but before that, in the next two posts, I will explore an essay brought to my attention by a reader that dovetails nicely with the last two blogs on skepticism.
1 Other cultures have skeptics – for example the Charvakas in ancient India and the Taoists in China.
2Of course Socrates can be seen as the first Greek skeptic. When told that the Oracle of Delphi had pronounced him the wisest of the Greeks, he interpreted this to mean that compared to other Greeks, at least he knew that he knew nothing.
3Hallie, Philip P. (editor), Sextus Empiricus. Hackett Publishing Company, Indianapolis/Cambridge,1985. ISBN 0-87220-006-X, p 10-13.
4Ibid., page 7
6 Ibid., page 27.
7Edwards, Paul (editor), The Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc. & The Free Press, 1972. Volume 2, page 68.
8Adler, Mortimer J, et. al., The Great Ideas – A Syntopicon of Great Books of the Western World, Volume II, Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc., Chicago, 1952. Page 884.