Three Pound Brain

No bells, just whistling in the dark…

Month: March, 2012

The Posthuman Paradox

by rsbakker

Aphorism of the Day: The singularity is a dirty, naked old man whipping wide his raincoat and revealing the absence of genitals.


This post got me thinking about my technological pessimism once again, and why I think ‘posthumanity’ simply has to be a disaster from our own ‘good ol’fashioned homegrown human’ standpoint. In fact, I had something of a small clarificatory revelation.

Brain science. The reason why I fear that ‘cognitive augmentation’ will be catastrophic turns on the way I see psychology and neuroscience slowing confirming what I think should be humanity’s greatest scientific fear: the possibility that meaning and morality are simply figments of our neural parochialism. If this is the case, it means the very frame of reference that Marone uses to value ‘biohacking’ will in fact be one of the first casualties of biohacking.

How does one value the death of value? How can any given frame of inferential reference argue for its own destruction without lapsing into abject contradiction?

This is a tricky, prickly, paradoxical question. To be clear, if meaning and morality are parochial artifacts of human conscious awareness, then ‘expanding’ that awareness does not, as seems to be the assumption, mean expanding meaning or morality. Quite the contrary, it means leaving them behind. In other words, given ‘semantic parochialism,’ transcending the human means transcending meaning and morality. Or put differently, embracing nihilism.

The posthuman is the postsemantic.

The possibilities extolled by Marone, in other words, are nothing more than optimistic guesses, a hope grounded on the unwarranted assumption that meaning and morality transcend the human, and so will faithfully await us as we use technology to disrobe our souls. As optimistic guesses, they should be treated as such, pending the results of that great slayer of human conceit, science.

Of course, an inverted version of the same paradox afflicts this argument as well: If science reveals there’s no such thing as meaning and morality, why should anybody give a fuck one way or another?

Welcome to the Whatever Future.

What this underscores, I think, is the way the problem of the posthuman just is the problem of nihilism considered in concretion. People keep crying, ‘More! More!’ not realizing that it could be a certain kind of less, a certain kind of confusion or even outright delusion that makes ‘more’ more valuable in the first place.

To Unknow Our Knowing

by reichorn

Aphorism of the Day:

“When… one remembers that the most striking practical application to life of the doctrine of objective certitude has been the conscientious labors of the Holy Office of the Inquisition, one feels less tempted than ever to lend the doctrine a respectful ear.”

– William James, The Will to Believe


This is my second post as a guest-blogger here at the TPB.  It’s a follow-up to my first post, To Know Our Unknowing, and it attempts to round out the brief sketch of (certain elements of) Pyrrhonian skepticism I began there.

About me: My name is Roger Eichorn.  I’m a friend of Scott’s, an aspiring fantasy novelist, and a Ph.D. student in philosophy at the University of Chicago.

My previous post ended with the self-defeating conclusion that, as far as we know, we don’t know that we know anything (with the correlate that, insofar as we’re constrained by rational norms, we’re constrained to abjure knowledge-claims).  This conclusion was reached a priori: by attempting to think our thought, reflect on our reflection, know our knowing.

For as long as there have been skeptical arguments of this sort, there have been two stock counter-arguments: the peritropē, or self-refutation, argument; and the apraxia, or impracticability, argument.  Sextus Empiricus, the only ancient Pyrrhonian whose texts (or some of them, anyway) have come down to us, was perfectly aware of these objections; he argued that they are only effective against an incomplete or distorted understanding of Pyrrhonism.  The short version is that Sextus concedes self-refutation, but denies that it constitutes a counter-argument against Pyrrhonism (indeed, the self-refutatory character of skeptical arguments is central to his use of them), but he outright rejects impracticability arguments.  Pyrrhonism is not (or at least is not merely) a philosophy; it is an agōgē, a way of life.  Sextus characterizes the Pyrrhonian agōgē in terms of living adoxastōs, meaning without opinions or beliefs.  In this post, I want to suggest a way of understanding what it means to live adoxastōs.

As I said, Sextus embraces the self-refutatory character of his arguments.  He likens them to purgative drugs, which drain themselves away along with the humors they were administered to treat, or to a ladder one kicks away after having climbed up over it (an image appropriated, though probably at second- or third-hand, by both Nietzsche and Wittgenstein).  Those who charge Pyrrhonism with self-refutation think that it falls into a dilemma: either the skeptic accepts her own arguments, which (given their self-refutatory character) is logically impossible, or the skeptic doesn’t accept her own arguments, in which case she must also reject (or at least not endorse) their conclusions.  But the self-refutation charge overlooks two crucial features of the Pyrrhonian strategy: first, that charging the skeptic with self-refutation amounts to charging philosophico-rational thought as such with self-refutation; and second, that the target of Pyrrhonian arguments at their most general is not any particular content of philosophico-rational thought, but rather the very framework of such thought.

Classical Pyrrhonians argued ad hominem, not in the sense of the logical fallacy of that name, but in the sense that their dialectical strategy necessitates the exclusive utilization of the beliefs, convictions, and assumptions of their interlocutors.  In other words, they construct their arguments on the basis of what other people hold to be true.  In demonstrating to A the rational groundlessness of his belief x, Pyrrhonians draw exclusively from premises and inferential rules that are themselves accepted by A and that lead to the conclusion that A does not after all know x.  At their most abstract, then, Pyrrhonian arguments depend only on our most abstract rational commitments.  The Five Agrippan Modes (discussed in my previous post) are merely a handy formulation by skeptics of the rational commitments of non-skeptics (‘dogmatists,’ in Sextus’s sense).  For those who accept their constraints, the Five Modes constitute part of the framework of any search for the truth.  This is borne out by the fact that the vast majority of epistemological theorizing operates within the assumptions of the Five Modes, that is, such theorizing attempts to formulate a solution to the Agrippan challenge, rather than rejecting that challenge.

Thus, the self-refutatory character of skepticism demonstrates the self-refutatory character of all philosophizing done under the aegis of the rational commitments that give rise to the skeptical conclusion.  The proponent of the self-refutation response to skepticism wants to say, in effect, “If the skeptic is right, then the skeptic is wrong.”  But what the skeptical arguments in fact show is that if the skeptical arguments are right, then the dogmatists are wrong, for it is they who hold self-refuting rational commitments.  At their most abstract, these commitments constitute the very framework of philosophico-rational thought itself.

Seen in this light, skepticism is simply philosophico-rational thought coming to an awareness of its own rational groundlessness.

But Pyrrhonism doesn’t stop there, for the conclusion that philosophico-rational thought is rationally ungrounded is itself rationally ungrounded.  In other words, for Pyrrhonians, the skeptical conclusion is just one more thing to be skeptical about.  If it has any force, it is only as a hypothetical: if x, then y, where ‘x’ is the framework of rationality as we understand it and ‘y’ is the skeptical conclusion (which, of course, wraps back around and consumes ‘x’).  Pyrrhonians are willing to accept that philosophico-rational thought may not in fact be rationally ungrounded; they claim merely that, given these apparently unavoidable rational commitments—commitments without which it seems impossible that there could be any such thing as a search for truth—it seems that our justifications fail, that our thinking turns back on itself, like a mother consuming her offspring, that our knowing drops out of the picture.

Where does this leave Pyrrhonians?  It leaves them not as some brand of philosophical skeptic, but rather as skeptics about philosophy.

Throughout its history, philosophy has displayed a tendency toward stunning arrogance and pretentiousness, which in turns has tended to give rise to condescension with respect to what I’ll call ‘common life.’  By ‘common life,’ I mean—simply but roughly—ordinary life as lived by ordinary people.  From the rarefied heights of philosophical sagehood, common life seems a paltry, precarious, self-deluded thing.  Common life is life bound in Plato’s Cave, seeing naught by shadows (appearances), whereas the Philosopher is the Great Man who has thrown off his shackles, escaped the cave, and beheld the Sun (reality).

Pyrrhonians reject the pretensions of a philosophy that would arrogate to itself the right, to say nothing of the ability, to sit in judgment over common life as such.  They live according to appearances—without the baggage of a philosophically loaded notion of ‘reality’ undermining it.  To Pyrrhonians, common life (that is, the appearances) is a sort of pragmatic-transcendental framework, an immanent, ground-level framework that comes into view only upon the collapse of the illusory philosophico-rational framework built atop it.  Common life is ‘pragmatic’ in the sense that it seems as though the appearances (the ways in which the world shows up for us, in all its phenomenological richness) arise from our social practices; it is ‘transcendental’ in the sense that the appearances seem at the same time to underlie or make possible our social practices.

(Consider: the framework-claim that the world did not pop into existence in the year 1900 both arises from various of our practices—in the sense that if we did not have such practices then the claim would not belong to the framework of common life—and constitutes those practices, since doubting it would render impossible, or at least deeply problematize, those practices.)

Throughout his texts, Sextus claims to champion ‘common life’ over the ‘conceit and rashness of the dogmatists.’  But he is also clear that Pyrrhonians differ importantly from those who have not undergone the skeptical therapy.  He marks this difference by telling us that, unlike dogmatists and pre-reflective ‘ordinary people’ alike, mature Pyrrhonians live adoxastōs, without beliefs or opinions.  What does this mean?  I want to suggest that it represents a sort of proto-contextualism.

In my previous post, I mentioned a few schools of epistemological thought, namely, foundationalism and coherentism, internalism and externalism.  Contextualism is another.  It comes in a variety of forms, but roughly, contextualists hold that the truth or justification of a claim is determined or constrained by various contextual factors.  David Lewis, for instance, (in)famously argued that ‘conversational contexts’ are defined by rules, the last of which he calls the Rule of Attention, which holds that any possibility that is in fact entered into a conversation is thereby not properly ignorable, even if the possibility (such as, e.g., that we are all living in the Matrix) was properly ignorable prior to the possibility being raised.  What this means is that we might know all sorts of things one moment, then in the next moment—after the unanswerable Matrix possibility is raised—no longer know anything.  On this view, philosophy is actually in the business of, as Lewis puts it, ‘destroying knowledge.’  To philosophize, in other words, is to unknow our ordinary knowing.

The obvious problem with this sort of contextualism is that it seems to sever the link between knowledge and truth, focusing instead on assertability conditions (which amount to answering the question, “When do we consider it okay to claim to know x?”, as opposed to answering the question, “When are we justified in claiming to know x?”).  The Pyrrhonian’s contextualism is different.  It accepts the variability of assertability conditions, namely, that common life introduces uses of ‘to know’ that fail to satisfy the philosophical constraints on justification.  In an everyday sense, then, Pyrrhonians think they know all sorts of things, the same as anyone else.  But, unlike a contextualist such as Lewis, Pyrrhonians will maintain that this sort of knowing is, as Thompson Clarke put it in an influential paper, knowing in a manner of speaking only.  As a human being in the world, thrust into a family, a culture, an environment, Pyrrhonians will believe all sorts of things—in an everyday way.  And, in an everyday way, they will claim to know all sorts of things.  But they will not mistake the degree of their doxastic commitment to x for the degree of x’s objective justification.  They will not believe that their everyday beliefs are justified—except with reference to the presuppositions (the brute assumptions) that frame their communal epistemic practices.  Like their ‘knowledge,’ the Pyrrhonians’ ‘justifications’ have a merely local force, as do (by their lights) everyone else’s—though non-Pyrrhonians are by and large too stubborn or conceited to admit as much.

Pyrrhonians, in other words, will live adoxastōs—free of the second-order belief that their first-order beliefs are (ultimately) justified.

This might sound like a trivial accomplishment, but I don’t think it is.  The desire—the felt need—for objective justification is what leads people to claim to possess it (or at least to act as though they possess it), and I would argue that it is this myopic privileging of one’s own prejudices—the baseless elevation of the parochial to the universal—that has underwritten history’s greatest atrocities and that continually threatens to give rise to any number of fresh horrors.

To unknow our knowing, in the Pyrrhonian sense, is not to rob us of our everyday certainties, to deprive us of something substantial we previously possessed.  Rather, it is to adopt a particular attitude toward ourselves, one that opens up a critical distance between what we believe to be true (often what we cannot help but believe to be true) and what we believe we know, a critical distance that allows us to live on the basis of an understanding of ourselves as reflective beings caught in a whirlwind of culture and biology, as consciousnesses at least partly shaped by forces whose power and scope we neither fully understand nor fully control.

Wank Meets Narrative. Narrative Eats Wank.

by rsbakker

Aphorism of the Day 1: Awareness always has its face mashed against the window of the world simply because that’s where Death prefers to hide. Meditation is just another way to bury our head in the sand inside our head.

Aphorism of the Day 2: Consciousness is a child encircled by magicians, never knowing whether to be terrified or amazed.

Aphorism of the Day 3: Theory is the cognitive slinky when compressed, and narrative is the cognitive slinky when extended, going ker-chuck, ker-chuck down the stairs.

Aphorism of the Day 4: Fuck off with the aphorisms already!


Creativity has swallowed me whole, once again. I apologize for my absence on the comment strings.

Just a couple of things of interest: I recently did an interview with Adam for Orbit, which is meant to introduce me to new readers, so will likely be old hat for you all.

Also, Pete directed me to this, a very cool, but very wank, essay on Neuropath. The only quibbles I would raise with Fisher’s reading is that although ‘voluntarism’ is raised as the book’s big fish – simply because it was the most intuitively accessible way to engage the largest number of readers on the shape of the problem – it is agency (and even more generally, intentionality) and its degrees that Neuropath is problematizing, whether it be social agency (reflected primarily in the invasive contrast between private and public space) or personal agency (reflected in numerous different ways). The book ends with the Bible family ‘reunited in love’ for a reason: The question is, What does this love mean? Neil says, ‘Nothing!’ The book says, ‘Nothing that I can figure out.’

What Fisher misses, I think, is the second, sceptical part of the double movement that permeates the book, the sustained critique of – you guessed it – wank as something that can rescue us. The problem of the social and personal materialization of the Argument is that it literally burns down the rational hustings under those who argue against it, either via redefinitional apologia (like Dennett) or redemptive conceptual experimentation (like Malabou) or what have you. It is inevitable that philosophers will mount rational recovery operations to salvage something of their intuitions, none of them commanding any real consensus, all of them requiring years of specialized training to comprehend and a certain wilful denial of cognitive psychology (Tom Bible’s profession) to believe. This is the sense in which Neuropath actually anticipates Fisher’s reading, engulfs it, and rewrites it into more evidence. And this is the sense in which, I think, the contemporary problem of nihilism needs to be understood. As soon as the problem ceases to be something ‘merely philosophical,’ it ceases to be something that ‘mere philosophy’ can adequately address. The question is now locked in the hands of the institution most directly responsible for its materialization, science. Neuropath, as science fiction, depicts a time when the pessimistic inductions we are making now have become/are becoming accomplished facts.

And if you have any doubt about the strength of those pessimistic inductions, I invite you to check out the links that Jorge and others have posted on the comment string for “Caution Flag.” Christ, even I’m thinking about making a TCMS cap!

Caution Flag

by rsbakker

Aphorism of the Day: The first thing to go when you turn your back on philosophy is your Ancient Greek. The next is your formal logic. Then you lose your ability to masturbate in good conscience, which tends to dwindle in direct proportion to your ability to read German.

So I’m still reading Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow here and there between several other works. One of the things I’m enjoying about the book is the significance he attributes to what he calls (rather cumbersomely) WYSIATI – or ‘What You See Is All There Is.’

For years I’ve referred to it as the Invisibility of Ignorance, or the ‘unknown unknown’ (of Donald Rumsfield fame), but lately I’ve started to call it ‘sufficiency.’ I’m also beginning to think it’s the most profound and pervasive cognitive illusion of them all.

Consider the following one sentence story about Johnny:

S1: Johnny went to the corner store, grabbed some milk, then came home to watch Bill Maher.

This is innocuous enough in isolation, until you begin packing in some modifiers:

S2: Johnny went to the corner store, stepped over the blood running into the aisle, grabbed some milk, then came home to smoke a joint and watch that idiot Bill Maher.

Pack in some more:

S3: Rather than take his medication, Johnny went to the corner store, shot the guy at the till in the face, stepped over the blood running into the aisle, grabbed some milk, then came home to smoke a joint and watch that liberal scumbag idiot Bill Maher with his neighbour’s corpse.

Oof. That Johnny’s fucking crazy, man.

The point here has nothing to do with ‘what really happened’ with Johnny. The extra modifiers are additions, not revelations. The lesson lies in the way each formulation strikes us as complete – or in other words, sufficient. This is one of those hard won nuggets of wisdom that most writers, I think, learn without realizing: reading fiction is pretty much a long-drawn out exercise in sufficiency (WYSIATI). What they don’t know about your story and your world literally does not exist for them, not even as an absence. Going back to Johnny, you can see this quite clearly: It wasn’t as if anything in the meaning of the prior sentences required anything whatsoever from the subsequent ones…

Well, not quite. S2, you might have noticed, contained an incongruous detail, ‘the blood running into the aisle,’ that pointed to the existence of something more, something crucial that had been left unsaid. Let’s call this a flag.

A flag is simply information that cuts against the invisibility of ignorance, a detail that explicitly begs other details. You might say that the key to effective writing lies in balancing sufficiency against ‘flag play.’ One of my biggest weaknesses as a young writer was to turn everything into a flag. I made the mistake of thinking the relationship between the reader’s intrigue was directly related to the quantity of flags in my prose, not realizing that the fine line between narrative confusion and mystery was a much more complicated matter of balancing sufficiency against the strategic deployment of flags. Roger’s piece, I think, can be used as a case study in just how well it can be done.

Flags also help us understand the first problem I mentioned, the way novice writers often have difficulty trusting the sufficiency of their prose, and so think they need to exhaust scenes with detail that readers already assume, such as the fact that rooms have walls, homes have windows, and so on. The fact is, the apparent sufficiency of anything can always be flagged. All you have to do is ask the right questions, and what seems sufficient will suddenly sport gaping holes. This why learning to write requires learning to anticipate the kinds of questions the bulk of your readers will be prone to ask, the kinds of things they may gloss while reading, but flag when reflecting on the story in retrospect.

This, by the way, explains why stories that strike some as pitch perfect will strike others as ridiculously flawed: different expectations means different flags means different estimations of sufficiency.

This also explains why criticism is such a delicate art, and why writers have to be exceedingly critical of the critiques they receive: since anything can be flagged, so much depends on the mindset of the reader. So many critiques you encounter as a writer turn on individual readers asking atypical questions. ‘Finding’ problems in a text is literally indistinguishable from ‘making’ problems for a text, so when you read looking for problems, you will invariably find them. Anything can be flagged. All you have to do is find the right question.

This also explains the ‘poisoning the well’ effect, the way simply broadcasting certain questions can have the effect ruining the illusion of sufficiency (for as should be apparent, sufficiency is always an illusion) for other readers. You could say that fiction is like religion this way: it requires that some questions go unasked to maintain its sufficiency. In other words, ignorance underwrites narrative bliss as much as spiritual.

And this explains how it is different books sort readers in different ways, and why so many people are inclined to judge the intelligence and character of other people on the basis of what they read: pretentious, stupid, what have you. You can tell as much about a person by the things they’re prone to find sufficient as you can by the things they’re prone to flag.

Moreover, since we seem to be hardwired to flag the other guy, we generally (mistakenly) assume that our judgments are sufficient. One of the things that makes Johnny crazy, you might assume, is the fact that he thinks S1 is an honest characterization of S3. We literally have systems in our brain dedicated to editing S3, the ugly truth of our character as others see it, into the streamlined and blameless S1, which then becomes the very gospel of sufficiency. Our memories are edited and rewritten. Our attention is prone to overlook potential flags, and cherry-pick anything that coheres with whatever ‘sufficiency hypothesis’ we happen to need.

There’s a reason you bristle every time your spouse flags something you do.

And things go deeper still. Wank deep.

You could say, for instance, that sufficiency lies at the heart of what Martin Heidegger and Jacques Derrida call the ‘Metaphysics of Presence,’ and that deconstruction, for example, is simply a regimented way to flag apparently sufficient texts.

You could also say the same about ‘essentialism,’ the philosophical whipping boy of pragmatism and contextualism more generally. Or Adorno’s ‘Identity Thinking.’

In fact, so much of contemporary philosophy and cultural critique can be seen as attempts to read S3 into S1, crazy into innocuous – raising all the same flag finding/making problems pertaining to reader critiques I mentioned above. What does wholesale cultural critique mean when it’s so bloody easy? All you have to do is begin inserting the right modifiers or asking the right questions.

And deeper still, you have science, whose claims we take as sufficient, often despite the best efforts of its flag-waving critics, primarily because nuclear explosions, cell phones, and octogenarian life-expectancies are so damn impressive.

Science, as it turns out, is the greatest flag machine in human history. Only those claims that survive its interpolative and interrogative digestive tract are taken as sufficient. And now, after centuries of development and refinement, it finally possesses the tools and techniques required to read the brain into S1, to show that innocuous Johnny, when viewed through the same lens that make nuclear explosions, cell phones, and octogenarian life-expectancies possible, is in fact a crazy ass biomechanism. Just a more complicated version of his neighbour’s corpse.

A bundle of flags, pretending to be sufficient.

In Praise and Dread of Crazy

by rsbakker

Aphorism of the Day: When the Real goes mad, sanity can only cling to delusion.


What if sane is stupid and smart is crazy?

I’ve been thinking about Neuropath a lot lately. I’m doing an interview on the book with Peter Wolfendale (whom I’ve invited to rebut Roger’s excellent post on ancient skepticism), as well as discussing it with Frank Cameron, a friend of mine who has it assigned for one of his philosophy classes. At the same time I happened to bump into a paper by Eric Schwitzgebel, entitled “The Crazyist Metaphysics of Mind.”

The question, ‘What if sane is stupid and smart is crazy?’ is pretty much Neuropath in nutshell. It depicts a world where the cracks between human intuition–sanity–and scientific knowledge–craziness–have yawned into a chasm, an anomie that either drives us further and further into fantasy or swallows us whole.

Of course not all ‘sanes’ and ‘crazies’ are equal. At the very least we need to distinguish stupid sane, from smart sane, and likewise, smart crazy from stupid crazy. So how do they rank? Like ‘chaotic evil’ in the moral metaphysics of the old Advanced Dungeons and Dragons, you might think stupid crazy would be the worst kind of crazy. I mean, what could be worse than a crazy idiot?

Well, it depends on your time-frame. The thing about stupid crazy is that it tends to be as self-defeating–not unlike chaotic evil. Think of the difference between Hannibal Lector and Buffalo Bill: Buffalo Bill did a lot of damage assembling his wardrobe, sure, but there was no question of him getting the best of the delicious Agent Starling. No. That entree (and the sequels) were reserved for Hannibal the Cannibal.

It’s the smart crazy that we need to worry about, the lawful evil. Like the line from the old Tragically Hip tune says, “The smarter it is, the further it’s gonna go…” Consider the Standard Model of Particle Physics, which is not only the gold standard of scientific theory, but the very definition of smart crazy. Think chalk, blackboard, Niels Bohr, Hiroshima…

“We are all agreed that your theory is crazy,” Bohr once famously said to Wolfgang Pauli. “The question which divides us is whether it is crazy enough to have a chance of being correct.”

And now, as Schwitzgebel argues, we have cognitive neuroscience nipping at our mental health.

The problem, it seems, is that human evolution only really cared about good enough, that the cognitive tools required to reproduce human children who reproduce only needed to land a glancing blow on the way things really are. And as a result, we find ourselves stranded with a near miss as the very yardstick (criterion) for what we call ‘sane’ – simply because it’s the only yardstick we got. The problem, in other words, is that the world really is crazy.

A psychopath, as Neuropath would have it.

So I thought I would pitch this as my counter-argument to throw into Roger’s wheelhouse (one that sidesteps all the tiresome charges of self-refutation philosophers typically used to stuff wax into their dogmatic ears): “Yes-yes. Your logic is as impeccable as always, Sextus, my dear man. That has to be the smartest defence of stupid sanity I have ever encountered.”

So the very game of giving and asking for theoretical reasons loses the game of giving and asking for theoretical reasons–fair enough. The powder is wet. The very inference structure of philosophy is self-defeating…

But who said all defeats are equal?

To Know Our Unknowing

by reichorn

Aphorism of the Day 1:

“Nothing becomes a man, even the most zealous, more perfectly in learning than to be found very learned in ignorance itself, which is his characteristic.  The more he knows that he is unknowing, the more learned he will be.”

– Nicholas of Cusa, On Learned Ignorance

Aphorism of the Day 2:

“There are some things we now know too well, we knowing ones: oh, how we nowadays learn as artists to forget well, to be good at not knowing!”

– Nietzsche, preface to The Gay Science


Welcome to the first post by a guest-blogger here at the TPB!  My name’s Roger Eichorn.  I’m a friend of Scott’s, an aspiring fantasy novelist, and a Ph.D. student in philosophy at the University of Chicago.  My primary area of specialization is ancient skepticism, particularly the Pyrrhonism of Sextus Empiricus.

In this post, I’d like to discuss one of Scott’s favorite themes—human stupidity—in relation to Pyrrhonism.

Scott focuses, and for good reason, on the growing scientific (that is, empirical) evidence to the effect that humans are stupid, stupid creatures.  Much of this work is cutting-edge stuff, largely because of recent technological advances that have (as Scott likes to say) broken open the ‘black box’ of the human brain.  Even so, there’s a sense in which the findings Scott brings to our attention are merely the latest chapter in a long story, a story that goes all the way back to the ancients.

Sextus Empicirus himself based many of his arguments on empirical evidence.  Though, of course, his ‘evidence’ was not the sort of thing that would pass muster in a modern scientific context, I believe there’s every reason to think that, were he alive today, Sextus would be at least as fascinated by the growing body of evidence concerning human cognitive shortcomings as Scott is—and moreover, there’s every reason to think that he would have made potent use of this evidence in his skeptical dialectic.

However, Sextus did not think that we require empirical evidence in order to arrive at the conclusion that we’re all idiots.  That conclusion, he thought, can be arrived at purely a priori, that is, while lounging in our armchairs and merely thinking through our knowing.  Let’s see how this works.

The question is this: What, if anything, do we know?  Knowledge is generally taken to be justified true belief.*  (This is a twentieth-century formulation, but the thought goes back at least to Plato.)  On the one hand, there are beliefs—all sorts of beliefs, many of them batshit crazy.  On the other hand, there is the way things actually are (truth).  How do we assure ourselves that a belief reflects how things actually are?  We do so, the thought goes, by justifying that belief.

So far, so good.  But any step we take from here is going to lead us into trouble, for the question immediately arises: What does and does not count as a genuine justification?  Right away, we find ourselves in the grip of what’s called the problem of the criterion, which can be summed up this way: without an already-established criterion of truth/justification, we have no way to establish the truth/justification of a putative criterion of truth/justification.  Immediately, in other words, we’ve fallen into the difficulty of needing to justify that which makes justification possible.  It is no easy task—putting it mildly—to see our way around this epistemic impasse.

But even if we bracket out the problem of the criterion, our difficulties are hardly over.  For the sake of argument, let’s all agree to construe justification in purely rationalistic terms.  Let us, in other words, agree to seek justification solely on the basis of the autonomous exercise of our capacity to reason.  (Let us, that is, become philosophers.)  Straight off, then, we can dismiss any putative justification that relies on appeals to authority (appeals that cannot be independently underwritten by reason alone, that is).  Appeals to authority (such as God, sacred texts, or your friendly neighborhood guru) can play a role in justification, but they cannot be its ground.  We can also dismiss things like divine revelation.  (Again, divine revelation can play a role in justification, but only if the truth of the revelation has been independently justified.)

In short, let’s all agree to be ‘rational.’  Now, there must exist constraints on what counts as rational; otherwise, the concept would be empty, indistinguishable from irrationality.  Ancient skeptics suggested the following as non-tendentious rational constraints:

(1)  If a person claims to know something, then that person opens herself up to the standing possibility of being asked how she knows, i.e., to being asked for the justification of her belief.

(2)  Successful justifications cannot involve:

  • Brute assumption
  • Infinite regress
  • Vicious circularity

(3)  If a claim to knowledge cannot be justified, then the claimant is rationally constrained to withdraw it (at least qua knowledge-claim).

The constraints on justification outlined in (2)–called the Agrippan Trilemma–come down simply to this: merely assuming that something is true is not a rational reason to maintain that it’s true; therefore, any putative justifier must itself be justified, from which it follows that an infinite regress of justifications (where x is justified by y, which is justified by z, on and on forever) fails, as do circular justifications (where x is justified by y, which is itself justified by x).

There’s a sense in which the Agrippan Trilemma sums up the problematic of the entire history of epistemology.  Foundationalist theories attempt to end the regress by appealing to some privileged class of self-justifying justifiers.  Coherence theories, on the other hand, attempt to make a virtue of circularity by claiming, roughly, that we are justified in holding a set of beliefs if those beliefs evince the requisite degree of internal coherence.

Despite centuries–millenia!–of ingenious epistemological tinkering by generations of staggeringly intelligent people, it is hard to see, on the face of it, how any theory can escape the Agrippan Trilemma without giving up on rational justification altogether.  The very idea of a self-justifying justifier is, if not incoherent, at least deeply suspicious.  Such ‘foundations’ to our knowledge are often said to be ‘self-evident.’  But as the Devil’s Dictionary points out, ‘self-evident’ seems to mean that which is evident to oneself–and no one else.  (Making the same point with far more plausibility, and much less humor: ‘self-evident’ seems to mean nothing more than what a particular cultural tradition has taught its members to accept without reasons.)

As for coherence theories, it may be the case that the greater the coherence of a set of beliefs, the more reason we have, ceteris paribus, to think those beliefs true.  But the game of truth is not horseshoes or hand-grenades.  Given that knowledge means justified true belief, then by claiming knowledge of x, we’re claiming that x is true, not that x is more or less likely to be true by virtue of belonging to a more or less coherent set of beliefs.  There might be all sorts of interesting uses for coherence theories, but they are not theories of truth.

Finally, some epistemologists endorse ‘externalism,’ according to which (roughly) knowledge does not require that the knowing subject know that she knows.  Here’s one way of putting it: as long as a belief was acquired by means of a reliable mechanism (a mechanism that is known to ‘track the truth’), then the belief is justified regardless of the ‘internal’ state of the subject.  Externalists will want to argue that I (and other pesky skeptics) are demanding too much, namely, not just that we know x, but that we know that we know x.

Think about it for a minute, though.  What does ‘externalism’ come down to?  Just this: “It might very well be the case that many of our beliefs are justified even if we have no way of knowing that they are.”  For consider: unless the externalist, or someone, is able to adopt the third-person perspective—the perspective from which it is possible to determine that Beatrice has arrived at belief x by means of a reliable, truth-tracking mechanism, and thus that she knows x (even though she does not know that she knows x)—then externalism amounts to saying, “It might be the case that we know all sorts of stuff.”  Fine.  I accept that, Sextus accepts that—all ancient skeptics do (at least in the externalist’s sense of having a true belief that is in fact justified in some way that escapes us).  But without specifying what we know and how we know it (what justifies it), then externalism simply does not answer the question.

On the other hand, if externalists think that they (or someone) can adopt the justification-identifying third-person perspective, can identify (e.g.) reliable truth-tracking mechanisms, then their account of justification would have to be an account of the justification of those mechanisms—that is, an account of how it’s known that those mechanisms are truth-tracking.  Externalism, then, if it is to contribute anything to the conversation, must collapse into internalism.

It is not enough to ‘know’ something in the externalist’s sense.  Unless we’re in possession of a justification for a belief we hold, then we do not know that we know it, in which case we have no warrant for crowning it Knowledge.

Where does this leave us?  It seems to leave us with the conclusion that, as far as we know, we know nothing.

But that can’t be right, for if we know that we do not know whether we know anything, then we know something.

We’ve run aground on peritropē: self-refutation.  I’ll continue the story in a later post…

What I’ve tried to show here is just that, even sitting in our armchairs, reflecting on our epistemic predicament, it’s possible to illuminate for ourselves the cognitive knots in which our thinking entangles itself—to know our unknowing.

We’re all idiots.  The more we accept this—the more we become good at not knowing—the more learned we will be.


* = Those with a philosophical background might at this point protest, “But what of Gettier cases?”  I’m going to ignore Gettier here, partly to keep things simple, but also because I think Gettier’s problematization of the standard conception of knowledge fails, that its failure has been demonstrated numerous times, and that epistemologists should just move on already.