Daniel A. Franco
Dr. Alex Schilpp
October 21, 2002
The Value of Skepticism
My favorite parable concerning skepticism and how we obtain knowledge is an indirect inference I found, of all places, in a science-fiction novel.
“There was a man who sat each day looking out through a narrow vertical opening where a single board had been removed from a tall wooden fence. Each day a wild ass of the desert passed outside the fence and across the narrow opening - first the nose, then the head, the forelegs, the long brown back, the hind legs, and lastly the tail. One day, the man leaped to his feet with the light of discovery in his eyes and he shouted for all who could hear him: ‘It is obvious! The nose causes the tail!’”1
Although the above passage is intended to deride the belief in granular awareness and to ridicule the deterministic view of the universe, it also immediately elicits an internal reaction in the person reading it. The reader first has to scoff at the desert man’s lapse of logic, and immediately after, one has to justify to oneself the reasons why the logic is flawed and what the correct assumption must be. One is skeptical of the desert man’s assertion. One cannot help but to do so. Us humans seem bound to ask “why?” at every turn, and apparently condemned to forever doubt any answer provided. This skepticism, then, must have real value in our lives. Therefore, we must review the philosophical disposition of Pyrrho of Elis, and compare and contrast the main ideas of David Hume and Immanuel Kant concerning the usefulness or value of skepticism. Afterwards, we will consider what Stephen Hawking has to say about skepticism and the search for knowledge. This we do to identify what is the value of skepticism for humans - if one is to be found, that is, either positive or negative. The relevance or value we will assign to skepticism must not only be the obvious need of it as a tool to do philosophy, but also as a living component in the practice of daily mundane activities.
To begin, then, one must ask “what is skepticism?”. The Greek word skeptesthai meant “to examine”, and gradually became extended to mean doubt for what is generally accepted as truth.2 Therefore, when doing philosophy one is concerned mainly with the epistemological aspect of skepticism, which is to say, to doubt the scope and value of all human knowledge and how it was obtained. Most of the Western Philosophical tradition has its roots in Greek Philosophy. In the fifth Century B. C. the Greek Sophists professed mainly a skeptical view of life affirming that all statements concerning reality were false, and even if they were true, there was just no way to prove it. It was Pyrrho of Elis who proposed the first formal principles about skepticism. He mainly concerned himself with ethics, so he maintained that since no one can possibly know anything about the true nature of the Cosmos, it would be wise to suspend judgment. A radical thinker who put his money were his mouth was, Pyrrho is said to have doubted the reality of a precipice, and would have walked off the cliff if not physically restrained by his disciples.3
Then, twenty-two centuries later, after the Greek ideas had been embraced by the Western world, they were then forgotten only to be re-discovered and embraced again even by the established religion. David Hume arrived at the scene in the 1700’s exploring everything from causation, perception, belief, history, religion, economics, aesthetics, to psychology, making original contributions to each. Traditionally (and grudgingly so) Hume is viewed by academics as the greatest British philosopher and the most extreme skeptic at that. He stands accused of undermining all claims to the validity of every belief we could have in the real world, in the self, and in the whole concept of cause and effect. Apparently, it is his entire fault that subsequent English empiricists indulged in their alleged excesses. However, in present times academics seem to warm up to the idea that Hume had a more constructive and broad goal in mind with his skepticism. It is said that all Hume wanted to accomplish with his skepticism was to establish the limits of rational justifications. And, by turning reason against itself, he wanted to show that all our beliefs were nonetheless natural, instinctive and inevitable.4 Lord Quinton of Hollywell, president of the Royal Institution of Philosophy since 1991, says about Hume:
“In explaining how we in fact come to have the beliefs that we do, [Hume] shows that we are so constituted that we cannot help having them. After all, unless there were something to be said for them, what does he think he is doing in explaining them, since explanation is a matter of bringing things under causal laws?”4
It seems that Hume was more interested in concrete things, such as morals, politics and psychology, rather than in the theory of knowledge. In fact, he was known to be a real cool guy, the go-to guy, the real nice guy that everyone likes, not the jaded, unstable and misanthropic cynic we might have expected from an extreme skeptic. Hume’s search for living solutions to his philosophical puzzles is best described by himself:
“The intense view of these manifold contradictions and imperfections in human reason has so wrought upon me, and heated my brain, that I am ready to reject all belief and reasoning, and can look upon no opinion even as more probable or likely than another. Where am I, or what? From what causes do I derive my existence, and to what condition shall I return? Whose favour shall I court, and whose anger must I dread? What beings surround me? and on whom have I any influence, or who have any influence on me? I am confounded with all these questions, and begin to fancy myself in the most deplorable condition imaginable, environed with the deepest darkness, and utterly deprived of the use of every member and faculty. Most fortunately it happens, that since reason is incapable of dispelling these clouds, Nature herself suffices to that purpose, and cures me of this philosophical melancholy and delirium, either by relaxing this bent of mind, or by some avocation, and lively impression of my senses, which obliterate all these chimeras. I dine, I play a game of backgammon, I converse, and am merry with my friends; and when, after three or four hours’ amusement, I would return to these speculations, they appear so cold, and strained, and ridiculous, that I cannot find in my heart to enter into them any further”5
Although in his own time Hume was very respected because of his History of Britain, his philosophy went by unnoticed and his views about religion horrified people. Immanuel Kant, only thirteen years younger than Hume, claimed that he was woken from “dogmatic slumber” by reading Hume (of course, Hume being such a skeptic would have seriously doubted having any responsibility for the outcome!). Basically (if anything about Kant could be said to be basic, at all), Kant believed there actually is an objective moral law, known to us not from experience, but by pure reason (a priori). Philosophy professor Ralph Walker, of Magdalen College at Oxford, summarizes Kant like this:
“[Kant’s Moral Law] binds us to act, or to abstain from acting, simply on the grounds that the action is required by the law or forbidden by it. It is a ‘categorical imperative’: neither its authority, nor its power to motivate us, is derived from anything but itself.”6 (p.5)
In explaining his concept of moral law, Kant was opposed to most of Hume’s views. Hume believed that theoretical principles are only habits human thought derived from our psychology and ‘the contingent conditions of humanity’. Also, Hume thought that our moral principles are the natural development of attitudes that belong to human nature.6 (p. 25) Because this would mean the a priori concept was wrong, Kant launched a full-scale answer to Hume’s views in the Critique of Pure Reason, defending the inductive principle and the concept of cause as absolutely necessary for any knowledge at all. Wrongly, Kant assumed that Hume admitted to maybe a little bit of a priori knowledge because Hume did not include mathematics in his ‘empiricism‘, and that denial of such a priori knowledge would be just plain stupid (but the reason was only that Hume did not know math, so he did not write or speak about it!). Kant writes:
In this philosophical and critical age it is difficult to take this empiricism seriously, and it is presumably put forward only as an exercise for judgment and in order to set in a clearer light, through the contrast, the necessity that belongs to rational a priori principles. One can therefore be grateful to those who want to trouble themselves with this otherwise uninstructive task”.7
Ironically, in retrospective, one could say that Kant went one step further than Hume in his skepticism, by doubting Hume’s scope and capability to doubt.
While both of these great philosophers lived through what has come to be known as the “Age of Enlightenment”, they could never imagine the advances in science and technology that have transpired in the last two hundred odd years since they were alive, and how much people do “Dare to Know”, and how many times these discoveries bring about the collapse of accepted modes of thought. One example among many, is the work of astrophysicist Stephen Hawking. He has proposed that time and space are not infinite but have no edge or limit, and that there are no singularities. By doing this, he has subverted most of the science developed in the Twentieth century and brought it once more to a screeching halt to review and revise concepts that may have not been entirely correct. Then again, last century was witness to the strange situation where all scientists agreed on the facts and the mechanics of the Universe, but seemingly all disagreed about what it meant. For example, interpretations about Quantum mechanics are divided into at least six different “schools of thought”, with any one of them subdividing daily. In contrast, in the past centuries scientists were all agreed on what it all meant, but could not reconcile their facts and techniques. But the problems do not end in the realm of scientists and academics, because in the present state of our society, our philosophical stance is greatly determined by scientific facts. Apparently, the opposite is true, also. This brings a new facet of skepticism to the light: to doubt that we should doubt. Professor Hawking writes:
“Is everything determined? The answer is yes, it is. But it might as well not be, because we can never know what is determined”.8 (p. 139)
“I do not agree with the view that the universe is a mystery, something that one can have intuition about but never fully analyze or comprehend... We may not be forever doomed to grope in the dark. We may break through to a complete theory of the universe. In that case, we would indeed be Masters of the Universe”.8 (pp. viii, ix)
Although a bit melodramatic, Stephen Hawking is the best candidate to date in finding a Grand Unified Theory of Everything, the one even Albert Einstein dreamt about.
After briefly browsing through these remarkable personages’ main ideas about skepticism we still must find the value of skepticism. Pyrrho - although remarkable for his conviction - showed us that skepticism could be impractical, to say the least, in the real world when taken to extremes. Hume showed us that skepticism helps us in defining the limits of what can be known by each of us, personally, through experience and reasoning. Kant showed us that morality does not depend on how skeptic we are about what we know or how we know it, but that morality is absolutely real. And Stephen Hawking showed us that we can only be skeptical of our understanding, not of how much of it can be gained. That skepticism is a vital part in the activity of philosophy is uncontested. That it may be intrinsic to the very architecture of the human brain remains to be proven (after all, where does consciousness reside in the human body?). But is it necessary for activities other than pure reasoning? My humble opinion - which I regard first, always, even if I change it afterwards - leads me to believe that skepticism is a beneficial tool for life. It is wordless advisor in unknown situations in life and the relentless prosecutor in the mind’s wanderings. It is the small “oh, yeah?” in the back of the head when our personal beliefs are questioned, and the loud “now, wait a moment!” when those beliefs become actually under attack. It is inescapable and necessary. If anyone derives a negative value for these reasons I have given, ignorance or ignoble disposition blocks off their passage to the pure reasoning part of him somehow. We live in a time when the world is riddled by oppression and cynicism in a global scale. We live in a world when even the believers think it cowardly to leave everything up to God, or a god. We live in a world where utilitarianism is only a way of rationalizing unfeeling hearts. Skepticism did not lead us into this catastrophe: we ourselves did it. As shown in actions and words by Pyrrho (indirectly), Hume, Kant and Hawking, doubting is - for a lack of a more direct term - “good”. Even doubting our doubts, and doubting how we conceived of doubting in the first place is good. It is necessary. It is unavoidable. It just is.
1 Frank Herbert, Heretics of Dune, Berkley 1985, p. 368
2 “Skepticism”, Microsoft Encarta Online Encyclopedia, Microsoft Corp. 2000.
3 “Western Philosophy”, ibid.
4 Anthony Quinton, Hume, ed. R. Monk and F. Raphael, Routledge 1999, p. 34
5 David Hume, Treatise of Human Nature, ed. L. A. Selby-Bigge, Oxford 1888 and later, pp. 268-269
6 Ralph Walker, Kant and the moral law, ed. R. Monk and F. Raphael, Routledge 1999.
7 Kant’s gesammelte Schriften, Deutsche Akademie der Wissenschaften, Berlin, 1900, volume V Critique of Practical Reason, p. 14
8 Stephen Hawking, Black Holes and Baby Universes, Bantam1993.