The Place of Scepticism and Sceptical Arguments

14 March 2009


Today's show will be about scepticism. Our guest will be John Greco of St. Louis University. I don't really know John or his work, but I see that he has written a book called Putting Sceptics in their Place. That's sort of what I want to talk about in this warm-up to the show post.

I should start with a confession about my philosophical tastes. I tend not to find epistemology the most gripping of philosophical subjects. Roughly, epistemology has to do with the nature of knowledge. And a big part of epistemology historically has been devoted to answering the sceptic who challenges us to say whether and how we can know anything at all. Sceptical arguments, I'm sure you will see as we do the show, are pretty seductive and pretty darned hard to answer. In fact, I suspect that ultimately that sceptical arguments are not really answerable at all. At best, the sceptic can always argue the defender of knowledge to a standstill. So if the defender of knowledge is the one with the burden of proving her claims, I think she never ever succeeds in discharging that burden.

Does that mean that sceptic is right and that we really don't know anything at all?

Well, maybe. I guess that depnds what we mean by "know."

And here's precisely the thing that drives me batty about so much epistemology. So much of it is focused on analyzing and re-analyzing the concept of knowledge -- mostly in light of sceptical worries about the very possibility of knowledge. What could knowledge be such that it survives various sceptical arguments?

Don't get me wrong. Lots of really smart, creative and ambitious philosophers work on that sort of thing. And I don't doubt that they have collectively done some amazing work. But frankly, in one way I have to confess that it all seems to me so much wasted labor.

There are two reasons why I think this. First, I really do think that sceptical arguments are pretty much here to stay and are pretty much irrefutable. When we fudge around with the concept of knowledge in order to make "knowledge" seem possible even in the light of those arguments. I'm just not sure what we've accomplished, really.

Second, and more importantly, it seems to me that the real question of philosophical interest isn't what to say about the slippery concept of "knowledge" but what to say about rational inquiry and rational belief fixation. Questions about rational inquiry remain of interest, it seems to me, both before and after we give the sceptic his due. What do we reason to believe -- whether or not our beliefs count as full-blown knowledge? If knowledge is supposed to be that kind of belief, with that kind of warrant, whatever it is, that withstands sceptical arguments, then maybe we simply don't have any "knowledge." So be it. Still, we have lots of beliefs and some of those beliefs are more or less warranted by argument and/or evidence. Certainly, some of our beliefs are "warranted enough" for the multitudinious purposes of life, even if the sceptic is right that none of them deserve the honorific label "knowledge." Why shouldn't that be good enough for us?

Someone might respond that the sceptic can do the same trick on rational belief that she does on knowledge. That is, just as she can convince us that we can never know anything, she can also convince us that we never have any grounds whatsoever for believing anything. But I think as soon as the target shifts to grounds for believing and away from knowledge, the sceptic is much less compelling a figure and his arguments much less powerful. THe main reason is this: we can believe and be reasonable in believing even when we haven't ruled out certain alternative ways the world might be. Believing is, in a way, inherently more risky than knowledge purports to be. When I merely believe, even if my belief is warranted by the evidence and is backed by arguments, I don't need to rule out the very possibility that my belief could ultimately be wrong. But knowledge is supposed to be firmer than that. One can't know that p, unless p is the case.

I just looked up at the clock. I really gotta go. Too bad, because there is really a lot more to say and I'm just getting warmed up.

If I get time, I'll come back to this post after the show.

Talk to you soon.

Comments (4)

Guest's picture


Saturday, March 24, 2007 -- 5:00 PM

Hi Ken. First, let me say that I had a lot of fun

Hi Ken. First, let me say that I had a lot of fun yesterday morning on the show. I've listened to some of the earlier shows as well-- the two of you guys are amazing hosts. You really do a great job.
Anyway, I have a lot of sympathy with what you say in the post. And I agree that if the skeptical arguments trade on knowledge being some very high-powered achievement, then the skeptical arguments are not very interesting. This is especially so if they leave some other sort of epistemic merit intact, and that other sort of merit can do the same jobs we want knowledge to do. But that is where we disagree?I don?t think the skeptical arguments trade on that sort of mistake.
To a large degree my book on skepticism was written for folks like you?people who think that skeptical arguments are uninteresting because they depend on overly high standards or some other commitment that we can easily and painlessly give up. Of course, some skeptical arguments are like that, but I think the best ones are not. On the contrary, I think that answering them requires us to say something rather substantive and controversial. In that sense, taking the arguments seriously drives positive epistemology.
But all this is promises. What are these arguments that are supposed to be so great? I plan to put a couple up in a separate post, as soon as I figure out how to do that. For now, let me point out that the position in your post includes the following commitments.
1) Skeptical arguments against the possibility of knowledge are probably unanswerable. But
2) This is not interesting or important.
But these commitments seem incompatible with a third that is highly plausible and (arguably) bound up with our very concept of knowledge:
3) Knowledge is important and valuable.
There is a lot of recent literature on the value of knowledge and the importance of our concept of knowledge. These includes important roles in the norms of assertion and the norms of practical reasoning, as well as in information identification and information sharing. Plausibly, the importance and value of knowledge is tied to the importance and value of these ordinary practices.

Guest's picture


Saturday, March 24, 2007 -- 5:00 PM

Hi John: First, thanks for being on the show.

Hi John:
First, thanks for being on the show. Second, thanks for your remarks on my post. Third, thanks for your willingness to post your own thoughts, which I look forward to.
I didn't really spell out fully my reasons for thinking that sceptical arguments are less compelling when we're only talking about reasons for belief rather than knowledge. My rough thought, which I didn't make clear enough, was that reasons for belief can be comparative. Suppose I have two alternatives: P or Q. And suppose I don't have enough evidence to decisively settle which of P or Q is true. If I believe P or believe Q on the basis of such evidence, then my belief will fall short of knowledge. But it doesn't follow that my belief -- whichever alternative I believe -- will ipso facto be unwarranted. Because perhaps the preponderance of the evidence and/or arguments and/or epistemic policies -- like believe the simpler, more conservative -- weighs in favor of one or the other.
Okay, so the (knowledge) sceptic comes along and says, for any putative proposition that you think you KNOW, I can show you that there is an alternative proposition that you can't rule out.
I say even if I grant you that I can't rule it out and don't really know. It doesn't follow that there can be no preponderance of the evidence in favor of the non-sceptical alternative. And I say, I'm going to go on believing it even if I can't rule out the sceptical alternative. I do allow that I MERELY believe and don't know. But I also insist that I can be rational in believing it, despite the fact that I don't know it. I allow that this is a risky thing to do, since you've shown me that I could be wrong. If I keep on believing in this way I really could simply accummulate more and more errors. But who said that rational believing had to rule out the very possibility that I am accummulating errror?
Of course, the sceptic isn't going to stop there. He's going to try to undermine the very rationality of even believing. He could do that if he could show either that the weight of arguments, evidence, and policies could never favor the non-sceptical alternatives or that we weren't entitled to take any of our putative evidence, arguments or policies as evidence arguments or policies at all.
My only point is is that that is a VERY TALL ORDER and is much much harder than undermining KNOWLEDGE. Arguments of that sort would have to be extremely thoroughgoing, and would have to purport to undermine all possible rational relationship among beliefs, evidence, epistemic policies and the like.
Most extant sceptical arguments don't come close to doing that -- though you are right that there are arguments with that sort of ambition.
Last quick remark. I don't think that knowledge is as important as you seem to think. I tend to think rational believing does all the real work. Of course, we ultimately want our beliefs to be "stable" under all possible rational pressure. Through rational belief formation, that is, we aim to arrive at beliefs that are responsive to all rational pressures and that will remain stable when all rational pressures are in. Maybe a belief that enjoys this kind of responsiveness to reasons and would enjoy this kind of rational stability once all rational pressures were in would deserve to be called knowledge. But whether or not it would seems to me neither here nor there really.

Guest's picture


Monday, March 26, 2007 -- 5:00 PM

Ken, Rather than posting a long comment I made

Rather than posting a long comment I made a new post under "Two Skeptical Arguments." My thinking is that in these arguments we can replace "knowledge" and the like with "rational belief" and the like. And of course I mean "epistemically rational belief," not "practically rational belief." I don't think the skeptic challenges the practical rationality of believing the appearances.

Guest's picture


Tuesday, March 27, 2007 -- 5:00 PM

When the skeptic says that it is possible t

When the skeptic says that it is possible that
there are other possibilities (that we're brains
in vats, or that an evil demon makes us hallucinate)
--- my response is to say that he is not skeptical
enough---because if we take skepticism to its
ultimate length--then we should be skeptical of
skepticism itself, and our position should rather
be a neutrality concerning any possibility whatsoever--
neither affirming nor doubting. if
we take the skeptical point of view seriously then
surely skepticism must be applied to itself----resulting in not a denial of knowledge but a kind of agnosticism concerning knowledge. After all, to say that as the skeptic does, that sure knowledge is not possible, is a kind of self- contradiction.
The skeptics point of view is that certain things
are possible---being a brain in a vat for
instance--- but to hold this the skeptic it seems
must hold that the belief that certain things are
possible ---is sure knowledge.
So, it seems to me that the only way to avoid self-contradiction is to hold to a kind of neutrality
about whether true knowledge (whatever that may be)
is possible.
But, of course, if you believe you know that neutrality is the correct viewpoint--well, it can be said that that too is a kind of sure knowledge, and so must also be denied. And so, ultimately,
the skeptic view seems to lead to an infinite regression wherein the truth of all statements must be
denied in order for the skeptic to remain
In the end, however, I think that all points of view
from materialism to idealism to skepticism have their good and bad points----compelling in some ways
and not in others.
The view I favor is that all points of view
should be treated as just that--- points of view,
with the belief in the surety of truth or belief in
the impossibility of such truth---being two
examples of points of view.
The basic form of language is: X is a Y --
establishing that something is the case. Ultimately, the skeptic cannot deny that she tries to
establish something as the case--- and the believer
in knowledge must admit that people differ as to
what is the case--and that what is the case will
change in some way, and the relativist must admit
that in order to say that truth is relative she
must admit that relativity is the case---and that
this, at least, cannot be relative. The nature of
language forces us to affirm even if we want to
deny the possiblity of affirming;
The use of language can involve us in difficulties that are typified by the statement: "I deny that
anything is true at all".
Maybe the proper position for the philosopher is
to treat any point of view as one would a mathematical axiom, or a new mathematical entity; explore the thing with the aim of revealing
its properties rather than trying to establish its
truth or falsity. People do think something is the case. And what is the case or not the case---does change.
And that is the truth--- or maybe not.
thanks for philosophy talk---