Skepticism about skepticism

by Dave Maier

If you ever meet a guy who tells you that he is a skeptic, most likely he means that he doesn’t believe in angels or fairies or anything “metaphysical”. Maybe he is a member of CSICOP (the Committee for Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal, publishers of Skeptical Inquirer magazine). We should, he will tell you, examine the evidence carefully before committing to anything, and be neither gullible nor dogmatic. But of course he himself believes plenty of things, and one person’s skeptic is another’s denialist. What, after all, is “intelligent design” if not skepticism about the biological theory of evolution, and climate change “denialism” if not skepticism about climate science? In all such cases the objector accuses his opponents of epistemological dirty pool and demands that the matter be instead illuminated by the sweet light of reason, as manifested (naturally) in his own views and the ironclad evidence for same.

Such battles about which particular things to believe do not concern the philosopher, who has bigger, more theoretical fish to fry. But these fish can smell pretty fishy to those primarily concerned to beat back the dark forces of dogma and superstition (or “metaphysics”). Perhaps they should be left out for the cat.

Bill_nye_science_guy_2015Not long ago, for example, Bill Nye the Science Guy opined on the value of philosophy. He was not impressed. One of his gripes was that philosophers spill lots of ink on pointless questions such as whether there’s really a real world out there, or whether instead we might all be in the Matrix, maaaan [*bong hit*]. There is much indefensible stupidity and ignorance packed into Nye’s short remarks, and it is not our task today is to air it out, but I did want to say a few things about the very idea of philosophical skepticism.

As it is presented in popular works and (sometimes) in Phil 101, the skeptical question is indeed given in just this form: how do we know anything at all about what’s “out there”? Most of the time we think we know all kinds of things, but here comes the skeptic to burst our bubble, and put everything we thought we knew into question. Maybe we all (or just you) are simply dreaming! Maybe we don’t know anything at all! And yet of course we do, for that way madness lies; so the whole thing looks like a perverse, logic-chopping sideshow. Why should we care about such nonsense?

Anyone who’s ever taught Phil 101 is familiar with the class contrarian. Never willing to stand still and defend a claim of his own, he spins and dances, mocking everyone else’s supposed complacency, even if he (always a he) never actually utters the word “sheeple”. If this is philosophy, the other students often think, then philosophers are jerks – and the attitude easily extends to philosophical skepticism generally. Even in Phil 101, however, we learn that Descartes’s intention in posing the modern skeptical question was not to leave us in a state of utter epistemic higgledy-piggledy, but instead to clear the ground for a definitive answer, thus setting knowledge on a firm foundation in order to understand and make best use of the then ongoing modern scientific revolution.

The first thing to understand about modern philosophical skepticism (we’ll leave the ancients for another day) is that it is not concerned to show that we don’t know anything. After all, as critics point out, that itself would be as much a dogma about knowledge as its target. Instead, the skeptic simply presents us with a paradox, demanding not that we give this or that theoretical belief up – let alone any empirical beliefs – but instead that we get clearer about what knowledge is, and thus relieve the intolerable theoretical pressure the skeptical problem reveals.

StroudIn fact it’s precisely because the modern skeptic agrees that it is an unacceptable solution to the paradox to even think about putting our empirical knowledge into doubt that he presents it as a paradox in the first place. I don’t want to get into it in any great detail (the locus classicus modernus is Barry Stroud’s The Significance of Philosophical Skepticism (1984)), but the simplest and indeed strongest version of the idea, although it is rarely put so bluntly, is this. First, it is granted by all sides that if our conception of empirical knowledge is to apply to the cases we’re actually interested in, the inference from evidence to belief must be, as we say, ampliative – that is, that it cannot be simply one of entailment, as mathematical or logical inferences are, but instead tell us something to which we were not already (however implicitly) committed. It is this epistemic gap that explains the very possibility of error – something which again all sides concede.

Not only is error theoretically possible – it’s actual, as we can see (Descartes makes this point repeatedly) from the actuality of disagreement, on matters, that is, where not all of the competing views can be correct. Someone in error is deceived: he believes that his evidence is sufficient when in fact (obviously, to us) it is not. But we also, who are (ex hypothesi) not deceived, are in precisely the same phenomenological boat: it seems to us that our evidence is sufficient and thus that we are not deceived. From the inside, then, we cannot tell whether or not we are deceived.

This, it seems, given the conception of knowledge under the microscope, is enough – or so the skeptic argues – to cause serious conceptual problems. But again, that what we think of as our knowledge is not actually known is not the skeptic’s conclusion. It is instead, as Stroud puts it with admirable candor, that there must be some mistake in there somewhere, and the bulk of his book is devoted not to debunking our knowledge claims but instead to attacking what he sees as ineffective diagnoses and treatments of the ills caused by the paradox. It is as much a defense of the modern conception of knowledge as it is an attack on it – even more, in fact, as the “anti-skeptics” he criticizes seem to him all too willing to abandon central pillars of that conception in order to preserve our knowledge against the perceived skeptical attack.

In this sense, then (paradoxically enough), modern skepticism doesn’t concern the epistemological status of our beliefs at all – after all, even Stroud finds the skeptical conclusion unacceptable – but rather their metaphysical status. Seen this way, the concept of knowledge concerns not a bunch of things – the good beliefs as opposed to the bad – but a relation, making the question not “are our beliefs true and how can we tell?” but instead “what does knowledge relate to what?”

Naturally we moderns tend to think we know the answer to this one as well: when we know something, we have an accurate representation of the outside world, like a map that shows us where the various places in the world really are, only ideally accurate (as maps are not). On this view, while it is the world’s objective nature – that it does not depend in any way on what we think or say – that forces the skeptical paradox upon us, once we are satisfied, as Descartes himself came to be, that our knowledge is safe from skeptical doubt, then the objectivity of the world is unobjectionable, and indeed a key component of the modern picture.

Thanks to Descartes and his contemporaries, the modern worldview is a broadly scientific one. That is, the modern realization, thanks in part to Descartes’s skeptical inquiries, that our representations must be rigorously scrubbed of the merely subjective contamination of their sensory pedigree in order to be valid fits perfectly with the newly mathematized and experimental scientific methods pioneered by Descartes, Huygens, et al. Since it is science and science alone which manifests the required epistemological rigor, we must turn to science if we are to have knowledge of the world as it is anyway, independent of our believing it to be that way. Premodern appeals to intuition, faith/superstition, and tradition are inferior and downright suspect. The contemporary skepticism of the Skeptical Inquirer turns out to be a direct result of Descartes’s skeptical philosophy.

K5706Indeed, when philosopher Michael Williams subjects Stroud’s skeptical argument to sustained criticism (taking it, typically, as an attack on our knowledge and looking, as anti-skeptics will, to defend it), he specifically clears Stroud’s “objectivity condition” on knowledge of being the source of the theoretical problem (as well as the “theoretical” condition, the idea that it is philosophical grounding of our everyday belief which is our concern, not the beliefs themselves). Williams locates the problem in Stroud’s “totality” condition – the idea that we must theoretically vindicate our knowledge all at once rather than piecemeal – and proposes his own doctrine, a version of epistemological contextualism, in response to what he calls Stroud’s “epistemological realism”. (While this sort of philosophical niggling is to my mind precisely as boring as it sounds – I wrote about it at length in chapter 4 of my dissertation – it is still far from earning Nye’s contemptuous dismissal.)

In my view, then, contemporary skeptics like Stroud are doing the same thing as Descartes: defending modern metaphysics – i.e., the same general picture assumed without argument (not inappropriately for a modern non-philosopher, I grant) by our CSICOP skeptic – against theoretical attack. What Stroud does, in Significance and later work, that Descartes cannot is respond directly to contemporary critics of the Cartesian picture such as Kant, Quine, Wittgenstein, and Rorty, all of whom he regards as too quick to respond to the skeptical threat by abandoning the Cartesian notion of objectivity as a world-in-itself ideally free of all subjectivity, and thus as soft on relativism or idealism in one way or other.

This is my terminology, as no one nowadays – least of all our scientific skeptic – likes to think of himself as Cartesian. Descartes’s dualistic metaphysics is generally supposed to have been decisively refuted, in favor of a scientifically respectable materialism. Daniel Dennett, for example, has led the contemporary charge against the Cartesian picture of the disembodied mind and, more importantly, the persistent fantasy of essentially subjective internal states inexplicable in objective scientific terms which survives the collapse of strict mind-body substance dualism, e.g. as manifested in the views of such contemporary Cartesians (in this sense) as Thomas Nagel, Colin McGinn, and Stroud himself.

As I have argued earlier in this very space, though, the materialist attack on the Cartesian subjective “inner” (as the last remaining residue of the rejected substance-dualist view) leaves in place, and indeed often overtly appeals to, the ideally objective “outer” world which is its direct analogue. That is, it displaces mind-body substance dualism only to leave in place a remarkably similar conceptual dualism of subject and object. This is why we cannot overcome the incoherent notion of an inaccessible subjective “inner”, as Dennett has managed more than anyone else to do, without at the same time addressing the corresponding commitment to the equally incoherent notion of an “objective” world viewable from no particular point of view – the other half of the subject-object dualism.

That this latter conception goes along with the former, overtly Cartesian one is explicit in Nagel, e.g. The View from Nowhere, the title phrase meant to capture the conception of objectivity he sees as “philosophically fundamental”. It is also evidently a paradox, like Stroud’s, meant not to be dismissed as incoherent but instead to be redeemed, in Nagel and elsewhere, with a renewed commitment to the Cartesian picture.

The dualism itself is what’s keeping the Cartesian view in place, but if we can’t see how to give it up without threatening the objectivity of science (in the relevant sense), then no modern will be willing to do so – especially in the face of postmodern attacks on science as at best a philosophical house of cards, if not an outright fraud. Cartesians have long been so successful at painting their opponents as relativists and idealists that the mere accusation can seem to carry the day. Perhaps ironically, one of the favored putdowns of contemporary anti-Cartesian views is that it amounts to “postmodern skepticism” – that is, doubt concerning the idea that the Cartesian ideally objective world is a world that we can know.

Of course doubt of this kind is just what I described Stroud pushing as part of his project to defend the Cartesian view. So it’s not surprising that the issue can seem to be a giant muddle. We’ll have to stop here for now, but at the very least I think we should find ourselves out of spitting distance from the likes of Bill Nye the Science Guy.