Last time I reviewed Dr. Robert Pasnau’s essay Snatching Hope from the Jaws of Epistemic Defeat where he discusses radical skepticism and offers his response -the hopeful affirmation of evidence-based credence – arguing the goal of finding truth and avoiding error is trumped by the importance of being able to live a full life within the bounds of uncertainty. I enjoyed reading his article and appreciate his solution to the problem of skepticism, but today I wish to offer an alternative to mere hope.

It seems to me the practical philosopher should not choose wholeheartedly to embrace propositions based on credibility alone. Rather I think we must choose courses of action within our uncertainty that offer the best outcome should we be wrong, that is, pragmatic conduct. I offer three examples of increasing uncertainty.

First, absolute evil – take for instance whether the blinding of innocent animals is good or evil. While this seems self-evident, the radical skeptic may derive an argument I cannot that this action is justifiable or desirable. Pragmatically however, I choose not to blind innocent animals as there is no apparent value to me as a person; the choice not to commit this apparent evil has no untoward consequences.

Second is the near certain proposition that i should try to make a good life for myself within the limit of not interfering with this goal for others. I may be wrong; in fact, making a good life for myself may be impossible, but by attempting I have only the possibility of making a good life for myself in which case my life is good, or failing in which case I am no worse off than if I thought I should not make a good life for myself. Pragmatism succeeds again (although hope might here as well).

My last example comes from the plot line of The Bhagavad Gita where Arjuna, the protagonist, must decide between his duty to his side in a battle where the opposing side includes his friends, teachers, and even family (alternatively you may consider choosing the union side in the American Civil War). It appears impossible to determine whether duty to some of our friends and family is ethically correct compared to avoiding harm to others of them– here we have almost no level of certainty. The pragmatic solution is to do both. While we have a duty to provide service to our side, we can choose service that does not entail harming others – we can choose to be medics, or unarmed messengers, staff personnel, or other non-combatants – many of which involve opportunities for the epitome of heroism and sacrifice.

The reason I took on the project to develop practical philosophy from the teaching of the great thinkers was to offer ethical balance in conduct within the framework of a life full of uncertainty. Hope is a valuable human emotion, but a meaningful life requires virtue, and that demands we factor in the uncertainties in reality. In that sense I would consider myself, following Pasnau’s lead, a pragmatic epistemic defeatist, although I dislike the term.

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 Snatching Hope from the Jaws of Epistemic Defeat1

“Hope is the only God common to all men; those who have nothing more, possess hope still.” – Thales of Miletus

At the suggestion of a subscriber, I read this 17 page essay by Professor Robert Pasnau (University of Colorado at Boulder) published in 2015 in the Journal of the American Philosophical Association. It can be accessed at He defines ‘epistemic defeatism’ as “the view that we have no good evidence for the truth of any proposition.”1 His goal is to untangle it from related views and establish its independence from questions of knowledge. He traces strict skepticism back to Pyrrhonism with its cardinal doctrine that for every good argument there is an equal opposing argument forcing the lover of truth to suspend judgment in all affirmations of knowledge. The Pyrrhonists offer at least seven challenges to formulations of certainty: illusion, perpetual variation, disagreement, cultural relativity, infinite regress of premises, circularity of arguments, and groundless assumptions.2

Pasnau divides skepticism into two branches: ‘weak’- which concedes beliefs are based on evidence that is insufficient for certainty (e.g. Descartes), and ‘strong’- which denies any belief is based on ultimately reliable evidence (e.g. Hume).  He thinks this latter case of epistemic defeatism, is more interesting philosophically. Strong skepticism is usually ignored or refuted a reductio, that is, since we obviously have knowledge, epistemic defeatism must be absurd, but he thinks other responses – reliabilism, default to truth, language game theory, changing context theory, consequence-based belief, and coherence – are better.2

While he maintains that knowledge need not be identical with certainty, he is intrigued by Hume’s arguments that our firmest beliefs lack even probability, contending that “…what could possibly be of greater philosophical significance than the thesis that, in the final analysis, we have no good evidence for the truth of any proposition?”3 He considers various approaches such as rational expectation, probability, antirealism (e.g. Berkeley), divine knowledge, and evidentialism,  but thinks none is ideal .2

He eventually comes to Augustine and Al-Ghazali who rely on divine inspiration or faith, but he finds problems with this position such as what happens when faith clashes with evidence, questions of degrees of knowledge to accept on faith, and the risk of epistemic chaos.

Instead he sees the crux of the claim to knowledge as the tension between our fear of being wrong and our hope of being right. Based on credence – one’s attitude regarding the chance of a proposition’s obtaining – one may choose to be optimistic and confident while abandoning the concern about being certain. He admits this ‘hopeful defeatism’ may not count as knowledge, but it does recognize “we care about many things other than truth and falsity- inasmuch as we want to live rich, engaged lives.”4 I am reminded of William James’ essay The Will to Believe.

However, I believe there is a stance more reasonable to the practical philosopher which is the subject of my next post.


1Journal of the American Philosophical Association/ Volumes 1 / Issue 2 / June 2015. Page 257.  Note: I refer to this as ‘radical skepticism’ in my last two blogs.

3As there is not room in this essay even to summarize these, I leave it to the interested reader to go to the source.

3Ibid., page 262.

4Ibid., page 274.

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