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28 September 2010

Some Thoughts on Scepticism

Last night I began reading Crispin Wright’s Imploding the Demon, and I was struck by a passage early on. Wright says that there are three constraints that any response to the sceptical position must be confined by if it is to adequately tackle it in its strongest form. The second of these constraints is that attacking the argument, as if one were attacking a sceptical adversary, is not enough:

...sceptical arguments are not properly rebutted by considerations whose force depends on the assumption of an adversarial stance: a scenario in which the object is to defeat a real philosophical opponent, the Sceptic, in rational debate. There are no real such opponents.[1]

Instead, confronting scepticism is a matter of confronting the unsettling, seemingly valid sceptical arguments that occur to oneself. The real demon is the one that taunts us philosophers with the unacceptable sceptical hypothesis.

But is scepticism really all that troubling? Does every philosopher really find it impossible to sleep at night, fearing that if they never wake up again, they’ll be none the wiser? Is a response to scepticism some kind of philosophers’ rite of passage? I can’t quite see what all the fuss is about. Scepticism is interesting to me because it helps me understand the history of modern philosophy: one can view much of the philosophy since Descartes as a response to his Meditations. But I am not troubled by my inability to prove that there is more than my mind. Descartes may have believed that the sciences required absolute certainty, but today we are used to the provisional nature of what we call scientific knowledge.

Why is Moore’s argument, along with “inference to the best explanation,” not enough?

I’m looking forward to reading Wittgenstein’s On Certainty, partly because from what knowledge I have of his work I wouldn’t have expected him to be very interested in this issue.

Anyway, I think I’m beginning to see just how productive has been the drive to resist or defeat scepticism. The Meditations themselves are enjoyable, and the papers I’ve read so far on scepticism and relevant subjects have been good fun, especially Moore’s stuff, and Gilbert Harman’s Inference to the Best Explanation. This paper by Wright – which I haven’t finished yet – is a different kind of thing entirely: an attempt to meet scepticism head-on, rather than engaging in maneuvers such as Moore’s shift.

Interestingly, though, Wright concedes my point above, that scepticism is not especially troubling if one defines it as the claim that we can never be absolutely certain of anything. What he feels must be tackled is the radical sceptical argument that we never have justified belief in anything.

Much reading to be done…

1Crispin Wright, Scepticism and Dreaming: Imploding The Demon, 1991

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