The Red Ribbon Argument for Skepticism

by Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. Talisse Ribbon99

In his Contra Academicos, Augustine discusses a fragment of Cicero's Academica in which Cicero advances a unique argument for skepticism. Cicero's argument is unique in that it derives, ironically, from a positive epistemic assessment of human judgments. Skeptical arguments usually proceed from negative assessments of human cognition according to which humans cannot tell the true from the false, cannot articulate their reasons, are prone to unreflective dogmatizing, and so on. Those negative assessments are then taken to yield the skeptical outlook. Cicero's argument for skepticism, by contrast, derives from a positive assessment of a subset of human judgments. Let us call it the Red Ribbon Argument (or the Argument from Second Place):

The second prize is given to the Academic (skeptical) wise person by all the self-declared sages from the other schools, since they must obviously claim the first prize for themselves. A persuasive conclusion one can draw from this is that he is right to take the first place in his own judgment given that he has the second place in the judgment of all the others.

Cicero starts from a regular observation about dogmatism: those committed to a view become not only invested in their view, but also less capable of critically reflecting on it. We often form our own theoretical, political, and religious alliances well before we have thoroughly surveyed and critically compared all of the plausible options. That is, we make our allegiances first and critically examine later. As Cicero notes elsewhere in the Academica:

All other people . . . are held in close bondage placed upon them before they were able to judge what doctrine was best, . . . they form judgments about matters as to which they know nothing at the most incompetent time in life, either under the guidance of some friend or the from the first harangue from the first lecture they attend, and cling as to a rock to whatever theory are carried to by stress or weather.

Hence we might say that we are serially confirmationally biased. As we are committed to our beliefs, and loyal to our doctrines, we tend to seek evidence that supports them. And yet we formed these allegiances with almost no judgment at all! And so, Cicero observes, we will of course assign our own view first place when asked to rank all of the views. But this method of ranking obviously is not reliable. And the widespread conflict between votes for first place is testament to it.

So our votes for first place are unreliable. And when we compare the competing views to our own, we likely will succumb to similar distortions; the competing views will be rejected simply on the grounds that they are incompatible with our own view. So our ranking of the competing doctrines against our own are epistemically polluted as well. However, our assessments of the merits of the competing views relative to each other tend not to involve such distortions. Thus Cicero predicts that when enthusiasts of a particular view are asked what the second best view is, they will judge more clearly and less prejudicially. The interesting thought is that the skepticism has massive support as the second best view. According to almost all perspectives, skepticism is the best of the incorrect views.

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Fallibilism and its Discontents

by Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. Talisse

JTxEnx5BcFallibilism is a philosophical halo term, a preferred rhetorical mantle that one attaches to the views one favors. Accordingly, fallibilists identify their view with the things that cognitively modest people tend to say about themselves: I believe this, but I may be wrong; We know things but only on the basis of incomplete evidence; In the real world, inconclusive reasons are good enough; I'm open to opposing views and ready to change my mind. But there are different kinds of epistemic modesty, and so different kinds of fallibilism. Let's distinguish two main kinds of fallibilism, each with two degrees of strength:


Weak: It is possible that at least one of my beliefs is false.

Strong: Any one of my beliefs may be false.


Weak: It is possible that I know something on the basis of inconclusive evidence

Strong: All I know is on the basis of inconclusive evidence

Belief-fallibilism is a commitment to anti-dogmatism. It holds that one (or any!) of your beliefs may be false, so you should root it out and correct it. The upshot is that one should hold beliefs in the appropriately tentative fashion, and face disagreement and doubts with seriousness.

Knowledge-fallibilism is a form of anti-skepticism. It holds, against the skeptic, that one does not need to eliminate all possible defeaters for a belief in order to have knowledge; one needs only to address the relevant defeaters. The knowledge-fallibilist contends that the skeptic proposes only the silliest and least relevant of possible defeaters of knowledge. We rebuke the skeptic by rejecting the idea that all possible defeaters are equally in need of response. Again, the knowledge-fallibilist holds that knowing that p is consistent with being unable to defuse distant skeptical defeaters; knowing that p rather requires only that the relevant defeaters have been ruled out.

Although these two varieties of fallibilism are propositionally consistent, they prescribe conflicting intellectual policies. Belief-falliblism yields the attitude that, as any of one's beliefs could be false, one must follow challenges wherever they lead. But knowledge-fallibilism holds that one needn't bother considering certain kinds of objections; it thereby condones the attitude that a certain range of challenges to one's beliefs may be simply dismissed.

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No Time for Wisdom

BedOfProcrustes It’s been roughly 20 years since I’ve purchased a book with the intention of gaining insight into life lived wisely. Like nearly everyone else, nearly all of the time, I have read for other reasons: as an engaging diversion, to reinforce things I already believed, to further my knowledge relevant to my career, to get some concrete piece of practical information, etc.

And so it was when I bought Nassim Nicolas Taleb’s latest book, Bed of Procrustes. Since it is a book of aphorisms from the iconoclastic ex-financier, I expected to grab some zingers on the misuse of statistics and economic theory. What I found, to my embarrassment, was a man focused on the problem of wisdom. Not “wisdom” with respect to predicting the future in financial contexts, but wisdom in something close to the classic sense of a well-lived life–a contemporary version of the Aristotelian megalopsychos. And to be clear: I was embarrassed for myself, not for Taleb.

The aphorism as an art form has been malnourished, humbled and neglected long enough that today it lives a life on the margins. In public media, the aphorism is replaced by the soundbite or the slogan: one meant for evanescent consumption and the other meant to preclude thought rather than stimulate it. Where the transmission of aphorisms survives, it is often reduced to the conveyance of a clever or uplifting saying. For millions of managers and executives, their most frequent contact is probably their daily industry newsletter from SmartBrief, where at the bottom of the list of stories every day is an out-of-context bon mot from a philosopher, statesman, famous wit, or business “thought leader.” (Example: “The difference between getting somewhere and nowhere is the courage to make an early start. The fellow who sits still and does just what he is told will never be told to do big things.”–Charles Schwab, entrepreneur)

Given this background, Taleb’s book, with all its crabby scorn, is a welcome effort. It is more than an attempt to rehabilitate the aphorism in the service of a well-lived life. It is also part of Taleb’s self-conscious rejection of common presumptions about knowledge (self-knowledge, business knowledge, academic knowledge) and value (the value of work, qualities of greatness).

The left holds that because markets are stupid models should be smart; the right believes that because models are stupid markets should be smart. Alas, it never hit both sides that both markets and models are very stupid.

The weak shows his strength and hides his weaknesses; the magnificent exhibits his weaknesses like ornaments.

As with Nietzsche, embracing the encapsulated form of the aphorism expresses an attitude towards knowledge of the human condition: as much a rejection of helpless formal systems in philosophy as of false precision in social science. At the same time, an aphorism is itself a bed of Procrustes. It cuts the observable complexity down to a kernel that can be more easily digested and retransmitted. Many of the best aphorisms also contain metaphors; they falsify when taken literally and break down if pushed too hard.

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