On Lacking Knowledge - How Can We Reply to Scepticism?
I do not know how I ought to live my life, and I have the strong suspicion that nobody else knows either. Not knowing things is neither a very unusual nor an extraordinarily horrifying state to be in. While many professional philosophers spend much of their time disagreeing with (or, even more often, ignoring) sceptical arguments (a), for most others it appears to be one, if not the, most evident truth of philosophy - we do not know very much about this world. Socrates provokingly admitted his complete ignorance around 400 B.C. (1) and current literature suggests we have so far failed to prove him wrong. Certainly, attempts to do so have not been scarce, differing strongly both in their beauty and their heroism. Mankind has authored few accomplishments that are more awe-inspiring and touching than philosophers’ ingenious struggle for a foothold from which we can formulate a claim to knowledge.
The major sceptical argumentation is refreshingly simple: For many of our beliefs, we have so little evidence that it is not only compatible with the world being very different from our expectations, but it even fails to make our credence any more likely than its alternatives. Consider just one example: For all I know, I might not have hands. I could be a handless creature dreaming of being a member of the human race. It is not that I can (easily) prove that I do not have fingers; I have merely no reason to think that I own any, since my experience tells me nothing for or against this scenario. This schema can be easily applied to (almost) all instances of human belief and all general replies to the argument either fail or do not even engage with the problem. One of the most chivalrous counter-manoeuvres has been constructed by the French philosopher Descartes. After having followed the argument above into its darkest consequences, Descartes finds a point of certainty in the knowledge of his own existence that is unaffected by the force of the demonic argument and even strengthened by all doubts: ‘’I think, therefore I am’’. From nothing but this he hopes to demonstrate the existence of an almighty deity, whose benevolence guarantees for the truth of the rest of his insights. Thus, he regains the world from the sceptical shadows. His argument may have elegance, but if failed to convince many others. Demonstrations of God’s existence are highly contentious from our usual assumptions, and Descarte’s minimal Archimedean point (b) does not seem to suffice in giving him the deity he needs (2).
For many of our beliefs, we have so little evidence
Few have taken the sceptic as seriously as Descartes, and hence, many other strategies of resistance are less exciting. Some have suggested that the notion of knowledge applied in the sceptical argument simply demands too much from us. Our notion of ‘knowledge’ merely needs to be widened a little, and we will swiftly and safely count as knowledgeable again. Could we not agree that we know something whenever we think that something is true and the causal story leading to that specific belief is of a decent nature (3)? In this case, Socrates may have had knowledge after all, unless of course, any other than the believed scenario happens to be correct. Or may we call something ‘knowledge’ whenever someone has the epistemic state that paradigm thinkers tend to have (4). Then Socrates (and Descartes) should have been knowers. The requirements for knowledge depend on the relevant context, making sceptical arguments inapplicable to the context of common thought (5).
Discussions like these tend to bring philosophers under the suspicion of dwelling all too highly in their intellectual ivory towers to be either interesting or relevant to our life. We can use the word ‘knowledge’ in whatever way we like. Nevertheless, we still seem to have an epistemic problem which is unlikely to disappear by these conceptual debates. It is a problem that returns to the surface whenever we are forced to actively decide between different alternatives. Whenever we act in the world, we try to maximize the chance that the results of our actions are better than the alternatives. In this case an epistemic state is needed in which we are able to ascertain that any choice of action is in fact more likely to have good consequences than bad. Otherwise, all our acting is nothing but an arbitrary charade, without any chance of affecting the world according to our hopes.
Whatever our notion of knowledge may be, our sceptical argument clearly attacks our claim on that last epistemic state. We may think that human happiness is a good outcome of an action, but our intuition in favour of this claim is completely coherent with a scenario in which the only good lies in the compliance with, for example, a religious doctrine. This problem parallels the argument from above. Our justifications for our convictions (human happiness is good) and decisions seems to be insufficient to defeat possible alternatives (something a religious doctrine says is good).
We thus find ourselves in a fairly horrifying situation: No matter what could be good in our life and for our decisions, we have no chance to affect the probabilities in life with our actions. Due to our own ignorance, we cannot have high hopes of living a good and meaningful life. This is not just a philosophers’ nightmare, it affects our ability to act meaningfully directly. However, in spite of the ancient origin of sceptical fears, it is hard to find the imprint of epistemic angst (c) in human history. In spite of (or perhaps because of) its brisance for action, scepticism regarding normativity (d) has hardly affected our decisions. Just as with universal scepticism in philosophy it has mostly been ignored rather than defeated. Instead, a colourful variety of normative ideals have shaped the centuries. Not only the classics such as human happiness, freedom, justice and beauty, but also surprising constructions such as nations, ethnicities or peculiarly angry religious doctrines have guided human action for many years
Whenever the world has been transformed, it has happened under the guidance of powerful normative ideas. Humans from all over Europe travelled to fight in Palestine (and elsewhere) because their church convinced them that this was the right thing to do (6). The French people killed their king out of their enthusiasm for freedom and equality. The German youth volunteered to go to war in 1914 for their ideal of Nation and Duty. Of course, for each of these examples, personal interests and political Machiavellisms played their role. And yet – in these cases, frameworks were shifted by the credence humans gave to how they ought to live their lives (7). In those days, normative scepticism was nothing but a particularly dangerous inhabitant of the ivory tower. Today, normative scepticism may not reside there anymore.
Finally, and only after the catastrophic experiences of the previous century, it appears that our society has grown suspicious of normative claims. Our current ideals must be much more silent than their predecessors since their results are very hard to find. Many claim to care for human happiness; yet compared to the radical shifts evoked by earlier ideologies, these whole-hearted convictions do not appear to be wide-spread. When a majority genuinely believed that something was right, they shook the foundations of society and shaped the face of the world accordingly.
They built palaces, fought wars and took unbearable hardships upon themselves to act according to their ideals. Seeing this, and seeing that we are part of the most technologically advanced and economically powerful society in the history of mankind, the persistent continuity of large-scale human suffering makes it appear quite unlikely that all too many of us actually care for human happiness (8). Instead, there is much uncertainty regarding whether our moral intuitions are really all that convincing in the end. Not few are without religion, without nationalisms, without philanthropy, left without orientation – we are now, finally, doubtful about our normative beliefs.
At first sight, this development is threatening. How are we able to move forward as a society given a normative scepticism, which is not only theoretically correct but also taken seriously by many? Will we not fall even deeper into defeatism, into a pointless lethargy? The sceptical arguments have not grown worse only because we stopped ignoring them. As the public opinion stops running after its red herrings, philosophy will no longer remain an endeavour for the ivory towers. Finding an answer to the sceptic is the most urgent task for any human society – as it has always been. Now, we may be able to start solving this task as a society, if we understand that our collective lack of orientation is an essential step of Socratic aporia (e) – and if we attempt to defeat the sceptic together.
This development is recent; hence the evolving responses are still very young. We have to attempt to create new networks of thinkers who hope to find a response to the most fundamental questions in a rational way (f). If philosophers are ready to form a new public dialogue and allow their own discourse to be transformed by its results it will give us the impetus that is needed to defeat the sceptic. To achieve this, we all have to join the debate. Together, our different abilities and views can attempt to make our thoughts and life matter.
(a) Sceptical arguments are arguments in favour of the conclusion that we do not know anything about a topic which common sense assumes us to know a great deal about. Typical examples are arguments regarding our knowledge of the external world or other minds.
(b) Archimedes is said to have claimed he could move the earth, if only he had a fulcrum and a lever of sufficient length. In Epistemology, an Archimedean point is something which is certain enough that we can trust in it and construct our knowledge of the world from it.
(c) Epistemic angst is the feeling that arises once we understand that many of the things we used to accept as true may be completely mistaken, for example beliefs about our loved ones or about what matters in life.
(d) Normativity is the dimension of what ought and ought not to be done.
(e) In the Socratic methodology, aporia is the state in which we notice that what we took to be known has never been – so that we can start looking for real knowledge.
(f) With Apotheosis International eV, a charitable association has been founded in 2015 to support these developments and to strengthen the voice of those who are working on a new debate, in university societies, conferences, seminars and the journal hybris. The quickly growing network is interdisciplinary, international and open to everyone who wishes to help answering the large questions in a rational way.
(1) Cooper, John M. (ed.), 1997, Plato: Complete Work, Indianapolis, Ind.: Hackett.
(2) Descartes, René, 1964-76. Oeuvres de Descartes, 11 vols., ed. Charles Adam and Paul Tannery, new edn. Paris: Vrin/CNRS.
(3) Fumerton, Richard, 1995. Metaepistemology and Skepticism, Lanham, MA: Rowman and Littlefield.
(4) Wittgenstein L., 193, Philosophical Investigations, translated by G. E. M. Anscombe, Oxford: Blackwell, 3rd edition, 1967.
(5) Lewis, d., 1996, “Elusive Knowledge”, Australian Journal of Philosopy, 74: 549-67
(6) Maier, Christoph T., 2000, Crusade Propaganda and Ideology Model Sermons for the Preaching of the Cross, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
(7) Steger, Manfred B., 2008, The rise of the global imaginary political ideologies from the French Revolution to the global war on terror, Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press.
(8) Abhijit Banerjee, Vinayak; Bénabou, Roland; Mookherjee, Dilip (ed.), 2000, Understanding Poverty, Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press.
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