Skepticism as A Way of Life

by Dwight Furrow

Today “skepticism” has two related meanings. In ordinary language it is a behavioral disposition to withhold assent to a claim until sufficient evidence is available to judge the claim true or false. This skeptical disposition is central to scientific inquiry, although financial incentives and the attractions of prestige render it inconsistently realized. In a world increasingly afflicted with misinformation, disinformation, and outright lies we could use more skepticism of this sort.

In philosophy, “skepticism” refers to the theoretical position that no claim satisfies the requirements for genuine knowledge. It is a move in the long-standing debate about the nature of knowledge and justification. However, this modern, theoretical use of the term harkens back to an ancient philosophical tradition that viewed skepticism, not solely as a theoretical position, but as a way of life. As the debate about philosophy as a way of life has emerged in the past several decades, this ancient view of skepticism has received some discussion. It’s worth considering what it can contribute to that debate.

Is skepticism a coherent way of life?

Most of the discussion makes use of the argument provided by Sextus Empiricus, who lived in the second or third century CE somewhere in the Mediterranean region and whose works have survived largely intact. The basic argument is this:

A good life should be as free from psychological disturbance as possible. Thus, a good life is a life of tranquility. Philosophical argument is the means through which we can achieve tranquility.

If you have attended seminars in philosophy, you might question this claim but bear with me. Read more »

The Democratic Virtues of Skepticism

by Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. Talisse

Skepticism is the view that knowledge is unattainable. It comes in varying strengths. In the strongest version, it is a thesis about all knowledge, the global denial that anyone has ever known anything. More commonly, though, skepticism is constrained. It is the denial of the possibility of knowledge of some specific kind. Moral skepticism, for example, is the view that there is no such thing as knowledge of right and wrong, good and bad. External world skepticism is the thesis that there could be no knowledge with respect to matters outside of one’s mind. You get the idea.

When you think about it, we’re all skeptics in at least some of these constrained senses. You’re likely a skeptic with respect to some kind of purported knowledge or other. And most folks think that being skeptical is a healthy attitude to have when people make striking claims. Still, skepticism gets a bad rap among philosophers. So much so that entire intellectual programs have been devised solely for the purpose of defeating the skeptic.

Yet there’s a virtue to skepticism, at least in its ancient varieties. And this virtue is both crucial to a healthy democracy and presently under attack in our politics.

The insight of the ancient skeptical tradition, exemplified in both the Academic and Pyrrhonian schools, is that intellectual humility is a virtue. It is not a weakness to admit you do not know, that you don’t have the answers. In fact, with this humility and the skills of inculcating it, we not only have the ability to cut through the bullshit of others, but also our own bullshit. Read more »

The Puzzle of Cicero’s Philosophy of Religion

by Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. Talisse

Cicero’s philosophical dialogues are notoriously difficult.  In some cases, as with the Academica and the Republic, their fragmentary state exacerbates the challenge of interpretation. In other cases, as with On Ends, the breadth of the discussion makes it difficult to locate the thread. In every case, Cicero stays true to his Academic skeptical training of opposing every argument with another argument. In some instances, one line of reasoning comes out clearly best, but in others, it is not so clear. And then there is On the Nature of the Gods. It is a special case. Let us explain.

The overall structure of On the Nature of the Gods is quite simple. The theologies of three philosophical schools are represented, each with a Roman mouthpiece. Epicureanism is represented by Velleius, Stoicism by Balbus, and Academic skepticism by Cotta. Cicero writes himself into the dialogue, too, as listening in and promising not to tilt the verdict in favor of his fellow Academic, Cotta. Velleius proceeds to give an outline of Epicurean theology, complete with an account of how it is possible to know things about the gods, what the gods are like, and how we should live in light of these truths. In short, Epicureans believe that we know about the gods because we have deeply held conceptions of them, which must have antecedent causes. The gods have human bodies and they live lives free of care for eternity. Consequently, we should not fear the gods, because they take no notice of us. Cotta the Academic skeptic then proceeds to demolish the Epicurean case. Why trust preconceptions when they are so often wrong? If the gods have human-like bodies, how can they be immortal? And if the gods don’t care about us, then what’s the point of religion or piety at all? Isn’t Epicureanism really just atheism? Read more »

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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Transcendental Arguments and Their Discontents

by Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. Talisse

KantConsider the nihilist who provides us with an argument with the conclusion that nothing exists, or that there are no norms for reason. Take the relativist who contends that all facts are relative to some perspective. Note the skeptic who consistently criticizes not only our claims to knowledge, but our very standards. Call such views Transcendental Pessimism. An appealing and longstanding reply to Transcendental Pessimism is that it is self-defeating in some way. The nihilist nevertheless avows a fact and relies on norms of rationality to run the argument for his own conclusion. The relativist isn't just saying that it's all relative to her perspective, but that it's all relative full stop. The skeptic's conclusion that we have no knowledge or have no reliable means to assess knowledge purports to be a knowledge-like commitment held on purportedly good epistemic grounds. The critical line is this: Transcendental Pessimist views cannot be consistently thought. Such views, to make sense at all, must presuppose precisely what they deny.

So far, this self-defeat maneuver against nihilists, relativists, and skeptics is but an inarticulate hunch. Transcendental arguments are attempts at making that hunch explicit, not only about how the negative views are self-defeating, but also regarding the positive views worth preserving. That is, we deploy transcendental argumentation not only as a critical line against Transcendental Pessimism, but we also (and perhaps thereby) establish some positive conclusion. Call this objective Transcendental Optimism.

Immanuel Kant is widely acknowledged to be the first to overtly use the argument type. The primary example of Kantian transcendental argument comes in the Second Analogy of Kant's Critique of Pure Reason. The rough form of argument runs as follows: One can judge a series of representations is evidence of a series of events only if one holds that the series is asymmetric (it must happen in that order, not in a reverse or other order). One can believe that the representations are asymmetric only if one holds that the events represented are similarly asymmetric. If a series of states is asymmetric, the earlier states are causes of the later states. Therefore: One can take a series of representations as evidence only if one takes them as evidence of a causal order. Experience can be a source of information only if there is a causal order.

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The Dignity of Skepticism

by Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. Talisse Empiricus

Being a responsible believer requires one to have reasons for one’s beliefs. In fact, it seems that having reasons for one’s beliefs is a requirement for seeing them as beliefs at all. Consider the conflict in thought that arises with assertions like the following:

I believe I live in Nebraska, but I have no idea why I believe that.

I hold firmly that there are jellybeans in that dish, but I have no reason for doing so.

I’m confident that it will not rain on the picnic, but I have no evidence for that.

I support a flat-tax system, but all of my information concerning economic matters is highly unreliable.

Statements like these are conflicted because in each the but-clause seems to retract the grounds for asserting what came before. To affirm, for example, that one lives in Nebraska is often to affirm also that that one has reasons that are sufficient to support that claim. Statements of the kind above, then, don’t look like they could be beliefs at all; they rather something else – perhaps a cognitive symptom, an obsession, a queer dogmatism.

We may say that beliefs are supposed to be not only reason-responsive, but reason-reflective. Our beliefs should be based on our evidence and proportioned to the force of our evidence. And so, when we hold beliefs, we take ourselves to be entitled to reason to and from them. So beliefs must be backed by reasons.

Reason-backing has a curious pattern, however. Each belief must be backed by reasons. But those backing reasons must themselves be backed by still further reasons. And so on. It seems, then, that every belief must be supported by a long chain of supporting reasons.

This is a point familiar to anyone who has spent time with children. Why? is a question that can be (and often is) asked indefinitely. The child’s game of incessantly asking why? may not be particularly serious, but it calls attention to the fact that, for every belief you hold, you ought to be able to say why you hold it.

These rough observations give rise to a deep problem, one that has been at the core of the philosophical sub-discipline of epistemology since its inception.

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Happy fish and philosophical skepticism

by Dave Maier

Tao Most Westerners think of Taoism, if at all, as a form of Eastern mysticism, popular with hippies and new-agers. So interpreted, Taoism is a form of skepticism: our beliefs about the world are falsified by the ineffable wholeness beyond our conceptual grasp, as represented by the famous yin-yang symbol. This interpretation is not completely wrong, but anyone looking past that ubiquitous icon into the texts themselves will find that most of what lies there is hard to fit into that simple mold.

Zhuangzi in particular is a puzzle. The text which bears his name, which he may or may not have had a lot to do with, is a compendium of practical advice, obscure parables, evocative imagery, rigorous philosophical argument, and flat-out weirdness. In this post I'd like to look closely – risking, as usual, spoiling the joke with heavy-handed overanalysis – at the relatively famous story of the happy fish.

Zhuangzi (Z) and Huishi (H), a frequent interlocutor, are walking above the Hao river.

Z: Look how the fish are swimming: those are some happy fish!

H: You are not a fish. How [or whence] do you know fish’s happiness?

Z: You are not me. How do you know that I don’t know?

H: I’m not you, so I don’t know about you. You’re not a fish, so you don’t know about fish: Q.E.D.

Z: Let’s go back to where we started. When you said “whence do you know fish’s happiness?”, you already knew I know it before asking the question. I know it from up above the Hao river.

Ha! (Wait, what?) A lot of the book is like that: it sounds like there was a good zinger there, but who or what got zung?

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Statistics – Destroyer of Superstitious Pretension

Statistics-education-research-day1 In Philip Ball’s Critical Mass: How One Thing Leads to Another, he articulates something rather profound: statistics destroys superstition. The idea, once expressed, is simple but does not stem its profundity. Incidents in small numbers sometimes become ‘miraculous’ only because they appear unique, within a context that fuels such thinking. Ball’s own example is Uri Geller: in the 1970’s, the self-proclaimed psychic stated he would stop the watches of several viewers. He, perhaps, twisted his face and furrowed his brow and all over America watches stopped. America, no doubt, turned into an exclamation mark of incredulity. What takes the incident out of the sphere of the miraculous, however, is the consideration of statistics: With so many millions of people watching, what was the likelihood of at least some people’s watches stopping anyway? What about all those watches that did not stop?

Our psychological make-up seeks a chain in disparate events. Our mind is a bridge-builder across chasms of unrelated incidents; a credulity stone-hopper, crouching at each juncture awaiting the next link in a chain of causality. To paraphrase David Hume, we tend to see armies in the clouds, faces in trees, ghosts in shadows, and god in pizza-slices.

Many incidents that people refer to as miraculous, supernatural, and so on, become trivial when placed within their proper context. Consider the implications of this: Nicholas Leblanc, a French chemist, committed suicide in 1806; Ludwig Boltzmann, the physicist who explained the ‘arrow of time’ and gave us the Boltzmann Constant, committed suicide in 1906; his successor, Paul Ehrenfest, also committed suicide, in 1933; the American chemist Wallace Hume Carothers, credited with inventing Nylon, killed himself in 1937. This seems to ‘imply’ a strong link between suicide and science. Of course, as Ball indicates himself, we must look at the contexts: We must ask what the suicide-rating of these different demographics was in general: of Americans, Europeans, males, and any other demographic.

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