Saturday, 5 September 2009

On Scepticism

Recently, I have been considering the uses, values and applications of scepticism. I will try to distinguish firstly, what I mean by the term scepticism. We ought to bare in mind the sharp and frequently misunderstood distinction between academic, philosophical or theoretical scepticism or Scepticism, and “applied” or “practical” scepticism. I shall briefly sketch the differing forms of this position, Finally, I will recommend some practical recommendations when applying sceptical thought to real life problems.

Consider academic scepticism: this can be taken to be either one of two positions. The first being that all knowledge claims are of equal merit: we cannot rationally distinguish any claims to knowledge - we hold all claims, or pretensions to certainty, as being equally probable. The second, is a more moderate position: any inference between fact and theory - then there is always a underdetermination of evidence. This means for example, that when I throw an apple up in the air - the established and empirically backed theory of gravity explains - why the apple falls to earth. It is possible however, to construct a consistent (though implausible) theory of why the scientists are wrong - that it is, instead, a invisible demon pushing the apple down.

I shall now outline the problems with this form of Scepticism (this will apply both to the stronger and weaker forms.) Given however, the persuasiveness of arguments produced by philosophers such as Hume, Russell and Quine, it would be reasonable to say that we can never be absolutely sure of any claims to knowledge, even gravity or claims involving mathematics (Quine). Though I broadly accept this argument; while subsequently rejecting however, the idea that all knowledge claims are equally probable or likely; I find, in the end, that this sort of Scepticism is next to useless; moreover, it allows people to be lazy, or worse, insincere - “you believe what you believe and I believe what I believe - in the end its all just opinion.”

This kind of Scepticism is useless, for, like Pyrrho - you end up with your head stuck in the ground, not knowing whether or not it’s a good idea to try and remove it. Secondly, this form of scepticism is self-defeating. Like the Marxist argument concerning super-structure or false consciousness - it can be boomeranged back against the opponent and vice versa - without any address to the substance of each other’s argument. Each person take up a position of complete scepticism against the other, thus - no progress is made. Next, the claim that one knows nothing or cannot know anything - is contradictory - for one cannot claim to know even that. Finally, the claim, though sound - that we can never have absolute certainty, leads moreover, to a non-sequitur if we say that there does not exist probabilistic degrees of certainty or rational expectation - that any claim to knowledge has a 50/50 probability. Bertrand Russell closed the door to this fallacy forever when he came up with the argument from ignorance: the celestial teapot. We can never be sure that there is a teapot orbiting the sun, or that there are fairies in the bottom of the garden - though we cannot disprove such things, there is scarcely a reason to believe that a china white teapots currently orbits space or that there are pixies playing in the garden.

Turing now to the more profitable uses of scepticism then, - keep in mind how one could, potentially, be wrong. Seek out then, alternative explanations and other possibilities, indeed, invite criticism and debate - to ensure that you have not fallen for the first explanation you have been presented or came up with. Be careful when judging claims that are outside of your field of expertise; furthermore, be mindful of the emotional reactions when you comes across an argument that contrasts with your position - that “extraordinary claims require extraordinarily evidence”; finally, beware the claims that seek to bolster self-esteem or attempt to flatter one sense of self.

Here are a few useful rules of thumb when using positive or practical scepticism. I draw some of them from Bertrand Russell’s essay on the values of scepticism.

1. When experts are agreed, the opposite claim cannot be held to be certain. 2. When they (the experts) are not certain - no opinion cannot be held to be certain by a non-expert. 3. When they hold that no sufficient ground exist for a view - the non-expert suspends judgment.

In addition to these guidelines, I would add the metaphor of a juror considering evidence in a court case. Imagine what would, in the circumstances of the case, consist of reasonable doubt - has, then, those doubts been met? Consider what evidence or arguments would force you to revise or abandon your conclusion? Attempt then, to seek these alternate explanations, possibilities and doubts out - if you do not find them, or if they are not persuasive - then maintain your position. Finally, ask yourself, are you being objective and dispassionate in your analysis and evaluation, or, are you being driven by emotion and prejudice.

This short primer then, should help us keep in mind the important and often forgotten distinction between philosophical and practical scepticism. Furthermore, the maxims outlined are useful rules to keep in mind when encountering strange and extraordinary claims - especially if they lie outside our normal range of experience and expertise. In addition to this short missive on rational thought, in my next blog, I will consider a gradient or structure where we can track our ever increasing certainty when considering a theory - the process I call Rational Incrementalism.



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