Various forms of skepticism play important roles in the history of philosophy. Do we really know there are external objects? That there are other minds? That there is a distant (or even a not-s
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.