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.