Three Pound Brain

No bells, just whistling in the dark…

Tag: Epistemology

Division By Zero

by rsbakker


If we want to know what truth consists in, perhaps we should ask what it is we are building up and tearing down when we make cases for and against the truth.

Like so many others, I found myself riveted by the Kavanaugh confirmation hearings. (My money is on Ford, not simply because I found her testimony compelling, but because her story implicates someone doomed to corroborate Kavanaugh—not the kind of detail you would expect to find in a partisan hit job). Aside from the unsettling realization that mainstream Senate Republicans—as well as Kavanaugh himself!—had adopted Trump’s ‘post-truth’ playbook, what struck me was the precarious way Rachel Mitchell’s questions were poised between ‘victim blaming’ and simple ‘fact finding.’ Had Brett Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her? Right from the beginning, Mitchell began asking questions regarding the provenance and circumstances of her accusation, the implication being that she had been coached by partisan handlers. (As it turns out, she wasn’t). But she was also careful to map the limits of Ford’s memory of the event, the insinuation being that her cognitive capacities could not be trusted. (The problem with this approach, as it turns out, was that Ford, as a psychologist, knows quite a bit about the cognitive capacities at issue, and so was able to identify those limits as precisely the kind of limits one should expect in cases such as hers).

Victim blaming is so instinctive, so common, that we often have difficulty recognizing it as such. Accusing our accusers is a go-to human strategy for managing interpersonal conflict. People are credulous. In the absence of information to the contrary, ‘warning flags,’ we simply take assertions for granted, we trust that everything neglected, everything from cognitive capacity to motivation to circumstances, is irrelevant to the reliability of the claim. Human cognitive reliability, it turns out, depends on a tremendous number of physical factors, which is why impugning the reliability of claims is so dreadfully easy. At one point, Mitchell even insinuates (citing Geiselman and Fisher) that Ford compromised her story by communicating it absent specially trained trauma interviewers. Mitchell goes so far, in other words, to suggest the very format of the ongoing Senate hearing had impacted the reliability of her account. (This is where I thought her downright insidious (especially given her use of humour at this turn), but as it turns out, she was probably being too subtle given that many see this as Mitchell criticizing the Senate proceedings).

When the Republicans finally ditched Mitchell’s plane somewhere in the Atlantic, the attacks ranged the whole of constitutive and circumstantial relevance space (apropos the semantic apocalypse, we are fast approaching the point where crude topographies of this space can be mapped and algorithms developed to exploit it), a Quixotic charge of old white men that had to raise the hackles of even the most conservative women. Cognition requires we neglect countless constitutive and circumstantial factors. Neglect insures that more information is always required to flag potential constitutive and circumstantial confounds. Thus, the spectacle of old men competing for Fox News clips, each of them insisting on the relevance of something pertaining to the production of her claims. We’re not disputing something happened, but how do you know it was Brett? 36 years! Multiple denials!

From the outset, the Republicans had made a calculation: to cue moral outrage at the Democrats, and thus ingroup solidarity among conservatives, regardless of gender. From the outset they understood the peril of cuing outrage against male politicians and ingroup solidarity among women. Having Rachel Mitchell question her prevented cuing competing identifications, not to mention the politically disastrous scripts falling out of them. The Democratic strategy, of course, was to cue both channels, lending them, I think, an intrinsic advantage. (The Republican charge that the Democrats are engineering these accusations for the purposes of political advantage are false, but there’s little doubt that they are gaming them, and as the semantic apocalypse deepens, I think we should expect the production of reputation destroying realities to become big business). If ‘trust’ is understood as the degree to which we do not, blindly or otherwise, interrogate constitutive and circumstantial factors relevant to the claims of others, the enormous importance of group affiliation becomes obvious. Think of the amount of energy expended these past days, all bent on preventing or protecting the default: that Kristine Blasey Ford speaks true. Group identity cues trust, which is to say, spares us the expense of such interrogations.

Think of truth as merely the degree to which we can take constitutive and circumstantial factors for granted relative to behavioural feedback. Truth is where neglect, brute insensitivity to otherwise relevant constitutive and circumstantial factors, does not matter. Kristine Blasey Ford ‘speaks true,’ therefore, when she speaks as one who endured the violence described, nothing more or less. (The disquotational parallel is no coincidence here, I think: what disquotation captures is the primary function of truth talk, to troubleshoot issues involving constitutive and circumstantial factors). If we can take constitutive and circumstantial factors for granted, then third-party investigations of her claims should raise no flags. Our trust should be vindicated.

But there’s a catch. Even when we investigate constitutive and circumstantial factors, we continue to neglect a great many of them as such, relying instead on a variety of heuristic work-arounds. The inaccessibility of the constitutive and circumstantial means we have to troubleshoot constitutive and circumstantial problems absent any reference to their high-dimensional reality. The question of truth, far from a question regarding what can be taken for granted relative to behavioural feedback, becomes a question of whatever happens to be available for deliberative troubleshooting: typically, the claim-maker, the claim, and the world. As a result, we have no idea just what we’re doing when embroiled in spectacles such as Kavanaugh’s Senate confirmation hearing. Everyone is left guessing, groping. The nature of the breakdowns eludes us entirely.

If a claim regards something existent, an undiscovered species of possum, say, the easiest way to verify the truth of the claim is to simply go out and ‘see for yourself’: so far as our capacities and circumstances remain irrelevant and we see the possum, the claim is true. The absence of empirical discrepancies between cognitive systems allows those cognitive systems to continue neglecting their constitution and circumstances, to rely upon other brains the way we rely upon our own: blindly. Call this ‘default synchronization’: the constitutive and circumstantial coincidence required for cooperative behaviour regarding things like new species of possum. Seeing, as the saying goes, is believing.

This, as it turns out, is one of the few ways truth can overcome trust.

If, however, a claim regards something only indirectly accessible, an ‘alleged event’ or a ‘scientific theory,’ say, we have to rely on its consistency with whatever is relevant and accessible, ‘evidence.’ And when that evidence consists of reports, more claims, then the threat is always that our original problem will simply metastasize, and the interrogation of constitutive and circumstantial factors will be multiplied to more and more claims. Both sides frame the claims of the other side as artifacts, manipulations, while they view their own claims as windows, glimpses of truth (or failing that, self-defensive artifacts in service of that truth). The claims of both are equally artifactual, of course, both equally the product of biology and environment. The difference consists only in that behaviour can remain entirely insensitive to the artifactuality of the true claim without running aground. Just as with vision. The window works so well as a figure for truth because visual cognition likewise neglects its constitutive dimension. Visual cognition provides experience with a tremendous amount of information, going so far as to index its reliability (with blur, darkness, glare, and so on), while providing nary a whiff of the machinations responsible. (You could say the so-called ‘view from nowhere’ is literal to the extent ‘nowhere’ references neglect of the constitutive and circumstantial conditions of our view.)

To call attention to constitutive and circumstantial problems is to ‘muddy the waters,’ to scotch the illusion of transparency, and so conserve in-group solidarity. We evolved to manipulate the orientations of isomorphic systems, to husband and herd the constitutive and circumstantial coincidence of those we trust according to how far we trust them. (Representationalism merely adapts and schematizes this basic capacity, thus saddling the whole of cognition with, among other things, the problem of ‘transparency,’ which is to say, an ontologization of constitutive and circumstantial neglect). We reason with one another. Neglect assures that we do so blindly, without the least second-order inkling of what is actually going on. If ‘reason’ is a lesser tool, a neurolinguistic means of policing discrepancies—effecting ‘noise reduction’—within ingroups, as it pretty clearly seems to be in instances such as these, then the ‘rationality’ of something like the Kavanaugh confirmation hearings requires some minimal coincidence, some tendency to identify with as opposed to against, and so to either neglect or overlook the same things. A spontaneous ‘kumbaya’ moment, or something… something information technology is rendering all but impossible.

Either that or some kind of ‘transparency event,’ a Burning of the Reichstag, only in the context of Kavanaugh’s or Ford’s life, something powerful enough to cue trans-group identification.

Or what amounts to the same thing: a common truth.

Metaphilosophical Reflections V: Some Concluding Thoughts

by reichorn

“Finally, lest what is most important remain unsaid: from such abysses, from such severe illness, also from the illness of severe suspicion, one returns newborn…”

– Nietzsche, The Gay Science (Preface)

“The word ‘philosophy’ must mean something whose place is above or below the natural sciences, not beside them.”

– Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus


This is the fifth and final post in a series of guest-blogger posts by me, Roger Eichorn.  The first four posts can be found here and here and here and here.

I’m also a would-be fantasy author.  Sections from my novel can be found here.


1.  The Skeptical Inversion

In my previous post, I argued that the skeptical dialectic returns us to the common life from which we set out on our search for truth, knowledge, or reality.  The return has a twofold origination, one that’s both logical and psychological.

Logically, the negative-epistemological arguments that drive us to nihilism are self-refuting in the sense that they depend on rational and normative commitments that themselves fall prey to the very negative-epistemological arguments they underwrite.  For thousands of years, but especially since Descartes, skepticism has tended to be associated not with doubt or suspension of judgment, but with denial; it is taken, primarily by those who are hostile to it, to be a substantive philosophical position, one that denies that we have (sometimes even that it is possible for us to have) knowledge either in some specific domain (e.g., religion, metaphysics, ethics) or globally, in all domains.  The latter is full-blown philosophical skepticism.  The philosophical-skeptical conclusion is that no one knows anything.  As philosophers have been pointing out for millennia, the problem with this claim is that, when applied to itself, it’s self-refuting.  If no one knows anything, then this proposition too must be something no one knows.

The self-refutation (peritropē) charge is typically deployed as part of an anti-skeptical argument.  Now, if it were true that skepticism is a philosophical position committed to the truth of self-refuting claims, then skepticism would indeed be in trouble.  (Note, however, that, even in that case, showing that the negative-epistemological conclusion is self-refuting does not suffice to demonstrate  that someone does after all know something.)  As a matter of fact, though, genuine skepticism—meaning the tradition that goes back to the original skeptics in Hellenistic times—is not committed to any self-refuting philosophical conclusions.  Rather, self-refutation is internal to genuine skepticism; it is, as we’ve seen, a ‘moment’ (that is, a phase) of the skeptical dialectic, not its end-point.

Ancient skepticism (Pyrrhonism in particular) is best understood—to borrow a helpful distinction from Robert Fogelin—not as a kind of philosophical skepticism, but rather as skepticism about philosophy.  What does it mean to be skeptical of philosophy?  As we’ve seen, ‘philosophy’ as such is not a specialized domain of inquiry with its own distinctive subject-matter and presupposition-set.  It is rather that mode of questioning that allows for even the most radical questions to be asked; it is where our childish wonder is given free rein, where no ‘Why?’ can be simply dismissed.  To be skeptical of philosophy, then, is to be skeptical of human reason as such, of its ability to achieve rational satisfaction solely on the basis of its own resources (i.e., without seeking justificatory shelter in tradition, or common sense, or the irrational or arational).  Positive dogmatists claim to have discovered the truth and thereby to have achieved rational satisfaction.  Negative dogmatists (i.e., philosophical ‘skeptics’) claim that the truth cannot be discovered.  This too affords us with a kind of rational satisfaction, for negative dogmatism is still a dogmatism; it still claims to expound a truth.  It may be an ugly or distasteful truth, but it’s satisfying to the extent that it settles the matter.  As Nietzsche says in a different context, it is “a basic fact of human will” that “it prefers to will nothingness rather than not will” (On the Genealogy of Morals, §3.1).  In epistemological terms, Nietzsche’s insight is that the human drive toward rational satisfaction is such that we prefer to know that knowledge is impossible than to suspend our judgment, to admit our ignorance and thereby leave open the possibility of knowledge.  Since the upshot of genuine skepticism is precisely suspension of judgment (epochē) rather than denial, we can recast Nietzsche’s insight: Human beings prefer nihilism to skepticism.

“What am I to choose?” Montaigne wonders.  “What you like, provided you choose!  There is a stupid answer, to which nevertheless all dogmatism seems to come, by which we are not allowed not to know what we do not know” (Apology for Raymond Sebond).

But nihilism’s ability to provide rational satisfaction depends on inconsistency, in particular a self-reflexive failure, i.e., the failure to apply its negative-epistemological arguments to itself.  The mature skeptic goes further than the nihilist, by calling into question nihilism’s own rationalistic presuppositions.  By doing so, the nihilistic conclusion is transformed from, “No one knows anything,” to “Relative to these rational standards, no one knows whether or not anyone knows anything.”  The difference between these two claims is enormous, especially given that skepticism calls into question the rational standards it has made explicit.

The result is the return to common life.  But why?  Here we get the other half of the answer.  Psychologically, human beings are such that we naturally believe all sorts of things, usually for no good reason whatsoever.  (Note that there is an important difference between having a reason to believe something and believing something because of that reason.)  As such, achieving a belief-free state is either impossible or else the result of some sort of intervention in the ordinary course of our cognitive processes.  The skeptical dialectic, animated by a commitment to what I called, in my previous post, the philosophical epistemic–doxastic norm, gradually rids us of beliefs by eroding their rational foundation.  This process is either merely ideal, in the sense that we don’t actually cease to believe (even if we claim otherwise), or it is psychologically actual.  (I imagine real-life cases would be a mix of the two: we cease to believe some things, while maintaining other beliefs though recognizing their questionability.)  Either way, the process is predicated on certain epistemic standards and doxastic norms, which are taken, either implicitly or explicitly, to belong to the framework of any ‘search for the truth.’  But in the end, skepticism undermines these very standards and norms, thereby eliminating them as obstructions in the ordinary course of our cognitive processes.  We end up more or less where we started, at least regarding the content of our beliefs.

The Pyrrhonian claim—the basis of its ‘philosophical therapy’—is that, having undergone this process for ourselves, we will no longer assent to our beliefs dogmatically.  We’ll acquire a philosophical attitude toward our own beliefs, in something like the colloquial sense: calm, somewhat detached, thoughtful, perhaps slightly reticent, slow to denounce, open to contradiction.  (More precisely, the Pyrrhonian will claim only that the skeptical therapy seems to have had this effect on certain people and that it may have a similar effect on you.)

Some people have claimed that Pyrrhonism would doom us, at best, to an entirely ‘passive’ intellectual life.  Pyrrhonians, having suspended judgment on all their beliefs, can have no recourse to reason.  They’ll simply ‘go along’ with whatever external force is acting upon them at the time.  The charge, in other words, is that the Pyrrhonians’ version of ‘giving themselves up to nature’ entails giving up on reason, rational agency, etc.—all those features of human beings that are traditionally supposed to distinguish us from lesser animals.  These claims are frequently leveraged in arguments to the effect that Pyrrhonism is “morally pernicious”: the Pyrrhonian may act morally, but only by accident; we cannot count on the Pyrrhonian (e.g.) to oppose tyranny and stand up for human rights.

These charges—both the ‘impassivity’ and the ‘immorality’ charges—are based on the same misunderstanding of the practical upshot of the Pyrrhonian skeptical therapy.  The misunderstanding follows from failing to appreciate the richness of the Pyrrhonian notion of ‘appearances.’  Sextus Empiricus tells us that mature skeptics will live “in accordance with appearances.”  The life adoxastōs is precisely such a life.  To understand what this means, we need to understand the following.

First, ‘appearances’ (phainomena) must be contrasted with ‘reality’ (ousia).  In the first instance, ‘appearances’ are associated with the sensory realm (the kosmos aisthetos), whereas ‘reality’ belongs to the intelligible realm (the kosmos noetos; later Kant’s ‘noumenal’).  We have access to appearance simply by virtue of our natural embodiment, but our access to the intelligible is a gift of our reason.  The most influential statement of the appearance–reality distinction in the history of Western philosophy is to be found in Plato’s Republic, in the sections that include his discussion of the Divided Line.

Divided Line 2

The Divided Line has both ontological and epistemological implications.  Ontologically, the ordo essendi (order of being) goes top-down: the highest section of the Divided Line, which contains the invisible, immaterial, noumenal Forms (of which the multiplicity of phenomenal objects are mere copies), are the ontological ground of appearances.  Epistemologically, although the ordo cognoscendi (order of understanding) goes bottom-up, from the appearances to reality, the order of justification follows the ordo essendi.  We only get knowledge at the top of the Line.  The world of appearances affords us, at best, with mere belief (pistis, a subdivision of doxa).  Thus, until and unless we ascend to the top of the Line, we will have no knowledge, no justification; we will be sunk in “a kind of morass of philistinism” (533d), unable to distinguish true beliefs from false.

Few philosophers are Platonists these days, nor have they been for some time; but elements of these metaphysico-epistemological commitments continue to live on in a great deal of philosophical thinking.  Indeed, I’ve suggested that something like this picture is intrinsic to philosophical inquiry as such, for, as we saw in my second post, is it part of Plato’s conception of justification that it must be presuppositionless, which requires, according to him, that we go top-down on the Divided Line.  The rejection of ‘appearances’ corresponds with the rejection of ‘common life’ I discussed in my third post.  The move from pistis to dianoia corresponds to the point at which skeptical challenges become sophisticated enough to call into question common life as a whole.  The example I used involved calling into question the senses as a whole, and it’s precisely that which Plato has in mind.  At the bottom of the line are mere images (eikōni), by which Plato has in mind shadows, reflections, etc.  One step up, we have physical objects, which are the source of those images.  The move from the sensory world to the intelligible world involves coming to treat physical objects (qua objects-of-sense) as mere images of a truer reality behind or above them; it is to reject the appearances altogether.

I argued in my second post that philosophy as such is predicated on a ‘social skepticism’ that calls into question the epistemic and practical authority of common life in favor of autonomous reason.  This move involved an inversion of the order of explanation.  Where before, appearances (common life) was the ground of explanation, now that ground is sought in some immaterial rational order.  This philosophical inversion engenders a host of rational and normative commitments that have proven difficult—to say the least—to live up to.  The skeptic is in the business of righting the inverted world, of seeing appearances as ontological and epistemological ground, with the ‘higher’ levels of the Divided Line as abstractions from the world of appearances, abstractions that, as such, grow increasingly tenuous the further they move from the relatively solid ground of common life.

This is the skeptical inversion.  Skepticism of philosophy leads to the restoration of the appearances.  For Sextus, ‘appearance’ is no longer the anemic notion we find in Plato; the notion is freed from its pejorative connotations that accrue to it in philosophical discourse.  As Julia Annas and Jonathan Barnes have written,

When the Pyrronists talk of appearances or of how things appear they are not indulging in technical philosophical jargon…  There is no suggestion that ‘appearances’ are somehow entities distinct from the objects which purportedly produce them.  The Pyrrhonists are not assuming that when we attend to ‘the appearances’ we are attending to a peculiar sort of entity, a mental image of a sense-datum, say,  On the contrary, to attend to the appearances is simply to attend to the way things appear…  Appearing is not something which only perceptible objects can do: music may sound, and hence appear, loud; sandpaper may feel, and hence appear, rough; but equally an argument may appear valid, a statement may appear true, an action may appear unwarranted…  To say how things appear is to say how they impress us or how they strike us…  (Modes of Scepticism, p. 23)

The life lived in accordance with appearances, then, is normally rich in intellectual and moral content, regardless of the ontological (e.g., physiological) facts of the matter with respect to ‘rational agency’ and so on.  Continuing to refer to appearances as ‘appearances’ has a twofold purpose: first, it is a characteristically undogmatic mode of assertion, in that it does not make definite claims about the way things necessarily are; and more specifically, second, it serves to establish distance between the assertions of mature skeptics and the assertions of philosophical dogmatists who would claim access to some supersensible beyond, some privileged ontologico-epistemic ground that raises their proclamations above those of others.

The nihilist as well as the dogmatist insist on maintaining the appearance–reality distinction.  As Jay Garfield puts it, “the nihilist challenges us to explain the apparently problematic [i.e., appearances] by reference to what, according to the reificationist [i.e., the dogmatist], should be the unproblematic [i.e., reality], and argues that we cannot.  The skeptic grants the force of this argument but demonstrates that in fact the explanans [i.e., reality]… is what is problematic and obscure.  Moreover, the skeptic argues, the very reality—such as it is—of that explanans is in fact grounded in what was originally problematized by the skeptical challenge [i.e., the appearances]” (Jay Garfield, “Epochē and Śūnyatā,” p. 10).  (Montaigne makes a similar observation about philosophical dogmatists when he points out that we try to use our reason “to arrive at apparent things from things obscure.”)  Consider the case of causation.  Garfield describes the skeptical inversion of casual explanation this way: “The reificationist with regard to causation argues that the regularities we observe in nature are to be explained by a fundamental causal power that causes have to bring about their effects—a necessary connection.  The nihilist argues that because we can have no clear idea of such a causal power or natural necessity, causal explanation is impossible.  The skeptical solution to the problem thus posed regarding the possibility of scientific explanation… is, rather than to understand regularity as vouchsafed by causation, to understand causal explanation as grounded in regularities” (p. 8).

Garfield clearly recognizes the sense in which the skeptical inversion involves a return to common life.  He writes that “an appeal to social conventions is central to the skeptical reconstruction of our heretofore metaphysically or epistemologically confused discourse” (p. 11).  But the upshot of Pyrrhonism, on this view, is not naively to accept social conventions, but “to understand the conventional as conventional, and as [apparently] empty of any reality or foundation beyond convention” (p. 12), i.e., to invert the Divided Line.

Moreover, Garfield recognizes that what he calls ‘reificationism’ is both an ‘everyday’ as well as a ‘philosophical’ phenomenon: “… reificationism comes in two versions.  We might call these… ‘ordinary’ and ‘philosophical.’  For arguably, the person on the street thinks of the physical as substantial, thinks of causation as a real force, thinks of personal identity as grounded in a soul, and so forth.  But these views are probably in the typical case rather inchoate.  Philosophical reificationism can be seen as a careful conceptual refinement of this fallacy of everyday metaphysics.  It is the job of the skeptic to cure both the ordinary and the sophisticated form of the disease” (p. 262–3).  I would add that this relationship goes both ways: yes, philosophical reflection refines everyday metaphysics, but the everyday is itself shot through with metaphysics derived from philosophical reflection.  Thus, the two ‘inversions’ form a kind of recursive loop.  It is impossible to trace this back to its earliest beginnings.  My diagram of the skeptical dialectic suggests that when skepticism overthrows everyday dogmatism, it gives rise to the philosophical inversion, and that when it overthrows philosophical dogmatism, it gives rise to the skeptical inversion.  But now we can see that ‘philosophy’ and ‘common life’ intertwine, so that there is no pure ‘philosophical’ or ‘skeptical’ inversion: each inversion is partly one, partly the other.


2.  Science, Truth, and Life

In this final section, I will at long last address the question of science.  I will do so much too quickly and to the satisfaction of few if any readers of this blog, I am sure.

The short answer is simply this:  When we try to think ‘philosophically’ about science or mathematics—when we try to account for their success, etc.—we reach the point where we just don’t know what to say.

There is no satisfactory philosophical account of science.  Philosophizing about science falls into the same sorts of aporia as any other philosophical inquiry.  Science is simply not something we can make sense of—except in the sort of descriptive way in which I’ve attempted to make sense of philosophy in these posts.  That is, we can try to look at what it does, see how it works, and try to find the best means of conceptualizing it.  The most convincing conceptualization of science with which I’m familiar is Scott’s: that science is best thought of as a prosthetic for our Stone Age brains.  It provides a systematic, institutionalized means of attempting, as far as possible, to bypass or short-circuit the quagmire of everyday human cognition.  The emphasis here has to be placed on ‘systematic’ and ‘institutionalized,’ for science’s impressiveness is inversely related to how closely one investigates it.  But, contra sociologists of knowledge and the like, this is merely part of what makes science as a whole so impressive: the fact that, up close, it’s precisely the god-awful mess you would expect from any human intellectual endeavor… and yet it works.

So when it comes to accounting for science’s success, my response is that there is no accounting for it, not in any rationally satisfying way.  (Notice that philosophy doesn’t present us with this problem: my metaphilosophical account can be rationally satisfying, for there are no conspicuous successes that it must account for.  Indeed, its primary purpose is to account for philosophy’s failures.)

In closing, I’d like to make some further remarks about science as it relates to issues I’ve brought up in these posts.

First, modern history has demonstrated the extent to which science is capable of transforming ‘common life’ in a way that is (a) out of anyone’s control, and (b) not strictly rational.  This is, potentially, a deeply troubling trend.  It relates to the point I just made about the ‘recursive loop’ between common life and philosophy.  The beliefs of common life—the ‘world-picture’ it provides us with—is for the most part something we simply inherit.  Thus, it is shot through with various dogmas that have filtered down from various specialized domains of inquiry.  It is commonly claimed, for instance, that contemporary Westerners are commonsense Cartesian dualists.  I think this is probably accurate.  The way we think about ourselves, our ‘minds’ or ‘souls’ and their relation to our bodies, is shaped and conditioned by centuries- (or millennia-)old philosophizing of which most people are entirely unaware.  These once ‘hard-won’ conclusions becomes common sense, what ‘everybody knows.’  These views filter down into common life not because they’re true or because everyone agreed, but because they somehow spread through the intellectual world of our forebears, like a virus—one that has been passed on to us.

Science, I want to suggest, exerts this same sort of influence over common life.  It works generation-by-generation such that it is not a matter of convincing people, but of waiting for the old to die and the young to be born into the new world science has created.  As I often put it, you can lock up Galileo, but sooner or later your descendants will exonerate him.  Science alters our view of the world in astounding—and sometimes frightening—ways, and these changes are in an important sense irrational even if the scientific enterprise as a whole is rational; indeed, even if the views themselves are correct.  For it is possible to believe what is true for irrational reasons—and hence not to know that it is true.

The question is: What further changes does science have in store?


I’m going to end, as I so often do, with Nietzsche.

The ethics of skepticism, I would argue, is the ethics of life.  It is an ethics that is built up out of our lived experience in the world.  Emidio Spinelli has convincingly argued that Sextus’s “polemical targets” in the moral sphere are “the dogmatists” who insist that a moral theory or action “can be counted as legitimate if and only if it rests on strong theoretical conclusions regarding the nature of reality” (“Beyond the Theoretikos Bios,” p. 102).  The skeptic “places [his] trust not in the strength of any philosophical logos or in the rigid norms of theoretical rationality; rather, [he] makes [his] choices and rejections on the basis of non-philosophical observances…  This sensibility arises in accordance with [his] repeated and consolidated experiences” (p. 112).  The skeptic will not make any claims of necessity here, but it is plausible to suppose that this kind of ‘moral skepticism’ will tend to lead one to embrace ‘moral naturalism’—a morality rooted in our experience as embodied creatures, not one subservient to some otherworldly ideal.

It was precisely this sort of subservience that disgusted Nietzsche everywhere he found it.  Just as I’ve spoken of nihilism as committed to rational norms, Nietzsche too smells morality everywhere.  And not just any morality, but the rot-stink of life-opposing moralities.  He lumps these together under the heading of the ‘ascetic ideal.’  He associates the ascetic ideal most strongly with Judaism and Christianity, but he argues that it has reached into virtually every facet of human life, most conspicuously every facet of human intellectual life, including the life of science.

In my previous post, I argued that nihilism was covertly rational, in that it depends on maintaining commitments that it itself ought to call into question.  Nietzsche adopts a similar strategy, by which I mean that he approaches the problem of science—the problem of its disenchanting of the world, its “unchaining of this earth from its sun”—by asking the question that science does not, and perhaps cannot, ask: What is the value of truth?

The will to truth that still seduces us into taking so many risks, this famous truthfulness that all philosophers so far have talked about with veneration: what questions this will to truth has already laid before us!  What strange, terrible, questionable questions!…  Is it any wonder if we finally become suspicious, lose patience, turn impatiently away?  That we ourselves are also learning from this Sphinx to pose questions?  Who is it really that questions us here?  What in us really wills the truth?  In fact, we paused for a long time before the question of the cause of this will—until we finally came to a complete standstill in front of an even more fundamental question.  We asked about the value of this will.  Granted, we will truth: why not untruth instead?  And uncertainty?  Even ignorance?  (Beyond Good and Evil, §1.1)

Indeed, why not?  Because, Nietzsche argues, we are committed to the ascetic ideal: “[T]he compulsion towards [truth], that unconditional will to truth, is faith in the ascetic ideal itself, even if, as an unconscious imperative, make no mistake about it,—it is the faith in a metaphysical value, a value as such of truth as vouched for and confirmed by that ideal alone (it stands and falls by that ideal)…  From the very moment that faith in the God of the ascetic ideal is denied, there is a new problem as well: that of the value of truth. —The will to truth needs a critique—let us define our own task with this—, the value of truth is tentatively to be called into question” (Genealogy of Morals, §3.24).

If we abandon truth as our goal, our yardstick, our ideal, how do we find our way about?  If not truth, what should we strive for?  In what direction should be pour the energy that we previously expended in our will to truth?  Nietzsche’s answer: Life.  The problem with science, with ‘truth,’ is that it seems to tear us away from life.  “The trust in life is gone: life itself has become a problem.”  Nietzsche’s notoriously indeterminate appeals to ‘life,’ and his many cryptic remarks about what awaits us on the other side of the ‘ascetic ideal’ and the ‘will to truth,’ can be understood, I would argue, in terms of precisely the picture I’ve presented in this and previous posts, as the return to common life adoxastōs that results from questioning further even than the ‘skeptics’ (i.e., the nihilists).

The trust in life is gone: life itself has become a problem. Yet one should not jump to the conclusion that this necessarily makes one sullen. Even love of life is still possible—only one loves differently…  [T]he attraction of everything problematic, the delight in an X, is so great in highly spiritual, spiritualized people such as these that this delight flares up like bright embers again and again over all the distress of what is problematic, over all the danger of uncertainty, and even over the jealousy of the lover.  We know a new happiness…  (Gay Science, Preface, §3)

Finally, lest what is most important remain unsaid: from such abysses, from such severe illness, also from the illness of severe suspicion, one returns newborn…  [W]e have grown sick of this bad taste, this will to truth, to ‘truth at any price’, this youthful madness in the love of truth: we are too experienced, too serious, too jovial, too burned, too deep for that…  We no longer believe that truth remains truth when one pulls off the veil; we have lived too much to believe this.  Today we consider it a matter of decency not to wish to see everything naked, to be present everywhere, to understand and ‘know’ everything.  ‘Is it true that God is everywhere?’ a little girl asked her mother; ‘I find that indecent!’—a hint for philosophers!  One should have more respect for the bashfulness with which nature has hidden behind riddles and iridescent uncertainties.  Perhaps truth is a woman who has grounds for not showing her grounds?

We must learn from the Greeks.

They knew how to live: what is needed for that is to stop bravely at the surface, the fold, the skin; to worship appearance, to believe in shapes, tones, words—in the whole Olympus of appearance!…  Those Greeks were superficial—out of profundity!  And is not this precisely what we are coming back to, we daredevils of the spirit who have climbed the highest and most dangerous peak of current thought and looked around from up there, looked down from up there?  Are we not just in this respect—Greeks?  Worshippers of shapes, tones, words?  And therefore—artists?  (Gay Science, Preface, §4)

Why truth?  Why not—art?  The return to appearances (to shapes, tones , words), to sensation and celebration and life?  This choice lies before us, to whatever extent it does, precisely because the will to truth is itself questionable.

Metaphilosophical Reflections III: The Skeptical Dialectic

by reichorn

“Human reason is a two-edged and dangerous sword.”

– Montaigne, “Of Presumption”


This is the third in a series of guest-blogger posts by me, Roger Eichorn.  The first two posts can be found here and here.

I’m also a would-be fantasy author.  The first three chapters of my novel, The House of Yesteryear, can be found here.  I’ve also recently uploaded the first of what will be two ‘Bonus Scenes’ from later in the book.  You can find it here, if you’re into that sort of thing.


In my previous post, I argued that skepticism and philosophy are inextricably entwined.  Following Hegel, Michael Forster has made a similar argument, and I’ve benefited a great deal (and cribbed) from his discussion.  But whereas Forster stops with the claim that an engagement (direct or indirect) with skepticism is a defining feature of philosophy, I’ve gone farther and tried to develop a conceptual framework for understanding why this is the case.  My explanation turns on the notion of presuppositions.  The view, in short, is this:

  1. Intellectual inquiry can make determinate progress only against a background of unquestioned fundamental premises, propositions, or assumptions (what I call ‘presuppositions’).
  2. These fundamental presuppositions provide contexts for inquiry; they are like boundary-markers or the rules of a game, in that overstepping or questioning them entails ceasing to play the ‘discursive game’ they enclose or constitute.
  3. Calling into question context-constitutive presuppositions involves a kind of skepticism.
  4. Stepping outside of a presupposition context entails ‘going meta,’ i.e., it entails transitioning into a more abstract domain of inquiry.
  5. Given (3) and (4), it is skepticism that pushes us to ever-greater levels of discursive–epistemological abstraction.
  6. In ‘going meta,’ we end up—either immediately or after some intermediary steps—within the domain of philosophy.
  7. Given (5) and (6), it is skepticism that leads us to philosophy, i.e., philosophy begins in skepticism.
  8. There is no uncontroversial rationale that is both global and principled for forestalling the possibility of ‘going meta,’ i.e., of calling into question any presupposition.  (Principled rationales are always context-specific or ‘local.’  The claim I’m making here, then, is that there are no principled meta-contextual, i.e., global, rationales for forestalling the questioning of a presupposition or set of presuppositions.)
  9. Given (8), according to which any presupposition can be called into question, and (6), according to which philosophy is the domain of inquiry one occupies (sooner or later) in calling presuppositions into question, it follows that philosophy as such possesses no definitive presupposition-set of its own.
  10. Given (1) and (9), philosophy can make no determinate progress.
  11. Given (10), philosophy ends in skepticism.

This argument can, of course, be challenged on any number of fronts.  I have not, for instance, made a sufficient case for (1).  I touched on it in my previous post (where I mentioned Stalnaker and Wittgenstein), but I did not attempt to defend the view in any detail.  Nor, in the interests of space, am I going to do so here.  It should be enough for now to note (1)’s extreme plausibility.  If we visualize intellectual progress as involving forward movement, and the act of questioning presuppositions as involving backward movement, then it’s easy to see that we can make progress only if we’re not calling presuppositions into question: we have to stop moving backward before we can move forward.  Given (8)—which is itself a plausible view, though with its own complications—these presuppositions-of-inquiry must remain unquestioned, either in the sense of (a) never having been thematized or (b) being set aside, “apart from the route travelled by enquiry” (Wittgenstein, On Certainty, §88), whether (i) they are recognized as questionable though necessarily unquestioned (just as the rules of a game are questionable, but cannot be questioned from within the game itself) or (ii) they are (mis)taken as lying beyond all question (as in the form of indubitable first principles, the supposedly self-evident, etc.).

In this post, I want to elaborate—and with any luck buttress—my case for (3), (4), and (6).  I want, in other words, to get clearer on the dialectical relations among presuppositions, skepticism, and philosophy.


In earlier posts, I introduced the idea of ‘common life,’ which I’m conceptualizing here as the general, usually invisible presupposition context that frames our everyday sayings and doings.  Common life is our twofold inheritance as beings who are both embodied in nature and embedded in a society; it is our natural medium, the subcognitive water for us cognitive fishes.  When we are, as Hubert Dreyfus or Richard Rorty (influenced by Heidegger and pragmatism) would put it, smoothly and effortlessly ‘coping with the world,’ the fact of common life’s inherent questionability—its possible contingency—never presents itself.  At such times, common life is (to borrow some Heideggerian terminology) ‘inconspicuous’ (see: Being and Time, §§15–6).  Common life becomes ‘conspicuous’ only as a result of disruptions in the orderly flow of our everyday lives.  Such disruptions can be relatively minor (what Heidegger called the mode of ‘obtrusiveness’).  But they can also be more significant (what Heidegger called the mode of ‘obstinacy’).  The deeper the disruption, the more the presuppositional structure of common life comes into view.  The more the presuppositional structure of common life comes into view, the higher its ‘index of questionability’ climbs (cf., Luciano Floridi, Scepticism and the Foundation of Epistemology, Ch. 4).

Initially, then, we occupy the standpoint of common life as what I call ‘everyday dogmatists.’  This means that we acquiesce, usually unconsciously, in everyday dogmatisms: we (mis)take (again, usually only implicitly) the presuppositions of common life for known truths.


Michel de Montaigne wrote that “[p]resumption is our natural and original malady” (Apology for Raymond Sebond).  Everyday dogmatism is, in his terms, ‘everyday presumption.’  In her book on Montaigne, Ann Hartle characterizes everyday presumption as “the unreflective milieu of prephilosophical certitude, the sea of opinion in which we are immersed” (Montaigne: Accidental Philosopher, p. 106).  Human beings are, as I like to put it, natural-born dogmatists.

Common life provides us not only with first-order beliefs, but also with more or less established means of adjudicating many, even most, sorts of dispute.  For instance, authoritative scriptures belong to the presupposition-framework of the common life into which many people are born.  For such people, appeal to scripture is capable of settling certain kinds of dispute: in these cases, common life itself provides the resources that allow for the resolution of conflicts that arise within common life.

An initial challenge to an everyday dogmatism is issued.  Here we encounter the most rudimentary form of skepticism.  The skeptical challenge gives rise to a state of dissatisfaction: there is a felt need to resolve the conflict, to ‘refute’ the skeptic and restore our earlier confidence in the dogmatisms of common life.  In many cases of such skeptical challenges, the dissatisfaction in question can be resolved simply by drawing more water from the well of everyday dogmatisms.  In more extreme cases, the skeptical challenges can be resolved only by appealing to the context-constitutive presuppositions of common life.  Either way, what we have is a kind of circular dialectic of skepticism and dogmatism.


In time, though, the skeptical challenges grow more sophisticated.  They reach their apogee when they call into question not just intracontextual everyday dogmatisms, nor just one or another context-constitutive presupposition of common life, but rather common life as a whole.  When that happens, it becomes clear that no appeal to everyday dogmatisms can satisfactorily answer the skeptical challenge, for the skeptical challenge now calls into question the entire domain of everyday dogmatisms.

Consider a simple case of perceptual skepticism.  You see a tree.  You think you know it’s a tree, precisely because you can see it (and you know what trees are, what they look like, etc.).  This is an entirely acceptable everyday judgment, accompanied by an entirely acceptable everyday justification.  Then a skeptic comes along and asks you how you know that what you think you see is actually a tree.  At this point, no dissatisfaction arises, since you have to hand your everyday justification.  But the skeptic presses the point: “How do you know it’s not an extraordinarily lifelike papier-mâché tree?”  This might be enough to give rise to dissatisfaction; if not, then imagine that the skeptic has some further story to tell about how the city in which you both live has funded an art project that involves the creation of amazingly lifelike papier-mâché trees.  Now you’re prepared to call into question your belief that it’s a tree (along with the sufficiency of your everyday justification).  What do you do now?  Obviously, you walk up to the tree and inspect it.  The skeptic has hardly deprived you of all your everyday means of settling disputes.  You poke the tree, peel back its bark, pluck off a leaf, and conclude that, clearly, this is not a papier-mâché tree.  But what do you do when the skeptic smiles and asks, “Fair enough.  But how do you know you’re not dreaming?”

Now, most of us would, most of the time, simply dismiss this question as nonsense.  We’d say, “‘O, rubbish!’ to someone who wanted to make objections to the propositions that are beyond doubt.  That is, not reply to him but admonish him” (Wittgenstein, On Certainty, §495).  But the problem of justification remains.  Most of us are going to believe that we’re justified in claiming to know that we’re not dreaming (even more so that we’re not dreaming all the time) and that we therefore know all sorts of things about the world as a result of our present and past experiences.  Nothing is easier, in the course of our everyday lives, than to dismiss this sort of worry.  But if it nags at us—if it persists as a source of dissatisfaction—then we’re going to want to find an answer to the skeptic.  But, ex hypothesi, we’ve accepted the fact that we cannot answer the skeptical challenge by appealing to our experience (in the broader case: to common life or its presuppositions), since the skeptical challenge has called into question the veridicality of our experience in toto (in the broader case: the veridicality of common life and its presuppositions in toto).  What do we do?

Bearing in mind that this whole process is animated by a commitment to truth and rationality (by what Nietzsche called our ‘intellectual conscience’), without which our capacity for epistemico-existential crises would be severely limited, there seems only one path open to us: that is, to repudiate the inherent authority of common life in favor of what I call autonomous reason.


I borrow the phrase ‘autonomous reason’ from Donald Livingston’s book on Hume (Hume’s Philosophy of Common Life).  Livingston claims that, for Hume, philosophy is committed to autonomous reason, according to which “it is philosophically irrational to accept any standard, principle, custom, or tradition of common life unless it has withstood the fires of critical philosophical reflection” (23).  We can quibble about whether or not this applies to every philosopher or even every philosophical tradition; but that’s beside the point if the claim is correct in the main—and I think it is.  Moreover, I think it’s not just superficially correct (‘in the main’), but that it illuminates a deep and important feature of philosophy that goes back to its very earliest manifestations.

Philosophy is, at least initially, predicated on skepticism regarding common life.  Thus, it seeks autonomy.  The philosophy–common life distinction can be understood in terms of the familiar dichotomy between reason and tradition.  Reason’s autonomy from tradition is often taken to be a necessary feature of any properly critical enterprise.  As Kenneth Westphal has noted in referring to a “dichotomy, pervasive since the Enlightenment, that reason and tradition are distinct and independent resources”: “because tradition is a social phenomenon, reason must be an independent, individualistic phenomenon.  Otherwise it could not assess or critique tradition, because criticizing tradition requires an independent, ‘external’ standpoint and standards” (Hegel’s Epistemology, p. 77).  Westphal rejects this view, but it is common enough.  Nicholas Wolterstorff, for example, gives voice to it when he writes, “Traditions are still a source of benightedness, chicanery, hostility, and oppression…  In this situation, examining our traditions remains for many of us a deep obligation, and for all of us together, a desperate need” (John Locke and the Ethics of Belief, p. 246).  Enlightened reason, in other words, must be able to rise above the soup of prejudices that is common life; otherwise, it will be unable to establish the distance needed to criticize those traditions.

These metatheoretical concerns are usually articulated without any reference to skepticism.  Even when it is separated from the Kantian project, however, critique is best understood as a response to skepticism, an attempt to forge a middle way between skepticism and dogmatism.  The repudiation of the inherent authority of common life and the subsequent commitment to autonomous reason is predicated on a kind of skepticism.  And this is not, as is commonly claimed or implied, unique (whether as a whole or just in character) to the modern period.  Rather, this kind of skepticism was a precondition of the emergence of philosophical thought itself, 2,500 years ago.  The motto for this transition is von Mythos zum Logos—from myth to reason.


In his fascinating book The Discovery of the Mind—a study of conceptions of the self in archaic and ancient Greece—Bruno Snell refers to the emergence of a “social scepticism” that opened up a space within which individuals could call into question the epistemic and practical authority of the traditions into which they’d been born.  Given this sort of social skepticism, according to Snell, “[r]eality is no longer something that is simply given.  The meaningful no longer impresses itself as an incontrovertible fact, and appearances have ceased to reveal their significance directly to man.  All this really means that myth has come to an end” (p. 24).  The repudiation of myth was, on my picture, a repudiation by philosophers of common life, of the world of their fathers.  Malcolm Schofield has written that “[t]he transition from myths to philosophy… entails, and is the product of, a change that is political, social and religious rather than sheerly intellectual, away from the closed traditional society… and toward an open society in which the values of the past become relatively unimportant and radically fresh opinions can be formed both of the community itself and of its expanding environment…  It is this kind of change that took place in Greece between the ninth and sixth centuries B.C.” (The Presocratic Philosophers, pp. 73–4).

Going beyond the Eurocentrism of Snell and Schofield, Karl Jaspers developed the idea of what he calls ‘the Axial Age,’ a period of sudden social, political, and philosophical enlightenment that, he claimed, occurred nearly simultaneously and yet independently in Greece (with the Presocratics), India (with the Buddha), and China (with Confucianism and Daoism).  In this period, Jaspers writes, “hitherto unconsciously accepted ideas, customs and conditions were subjected to examination, questioned and liquidated.  Everything was swept into the vortex.  In so far as the traditional substance still possessed vitality and reality, its manifestations were clarified and thereby transmuted” (The Origin and Goal of History, p. 2).  As though to confirm Jaspers’s theory—though he was writing decades earlier—S. Radhakrishnan tells us that

[t]he age of the Buddha represents the great springtide of philosophical spirit in India.  The progress of philosophy is generally due to a powerful attack on a historical tradition when men feel themselves compelled to go back on their steps and raise once more the fundamental questions which their fathers had disposed of by the older schemes.  The revolt of Buddhism and Jainism… finally exploded the method of dogmatism and helped to bring about a critical point of view…  Buddhism served as a cathartic in clearing the mind of the cramping effects of ancient obstructions.  Scepticism, when it is honest, helps to reorganise belief.  (Indian Philosophy, Vol. 2, p. 18)

The notion of a clear-cut transition ‘from myth to reason’ is deeply entrenched in our cultural narrative, yet it is clearly problematic if understood in an overly simplistic way.  Just as Aristotle was not the first person to use logic, so the presocratic philosophers were not the first Greeks to use reason or to think reasonably.  Still, I think it is clear that something important occurred during the Axial Age.  It may not have been unprecedented, as some commentators want to claim, but its effects were, for (it seems to me) we are still feeling those effects today.  The fundamental transition, I want to argue, is best understood not as being from myth to reason, but as being from common life to autonomous reason.

The ability of reasoning to call into question—to radically disrupt—common life was recognized very early.  Plato worries about it in the Republic

We all have strongly held beliefs, I take it, going back to our childhood [i.e., our pretheoretical certainties], about things which are just and things which are fine and beautiful…  When someone… encounters the question ‘What is the beautiful?’, and gives the answer he used to hear from the lawgiver [i.e., from tradition], and argument shows it to be incorrect, what happens to him?  He may have many of his answers refuted, in many different ways, and be reduced to thinking that the beautiful is no more beautiful or fine than it is ugly or shameful.  The same with ‘just’, ‘good’, and the things he used to have more respect for.  At the end of this, what do you think his attitude to these strongly held beliefs will be, when it comes to respect for them and obedience to their authority?…  I imagine he’ll be thought to have changed from a law-abiding citizen into a criminal. (538c–539a)

We find the same recognition of the cultural–existential (as opposed to merely epistemological) threat of skepticism in Hegel.

The need to understand logic in a deeper sense than that of the science of mere formal thinking is prompted by the interest we take in religion, the state, the law and ethical life.  In earlier times, people had no misgivings about thought…  But while engaging in thinking… it turned out that the highest relationships of life are thereby compromised.  Through thinking, the positive state of affairs was deprived of its power…  Thus, for example, the Greek philosophers opposed the old religion and destroyed representations of it…  In this way, thinking made its mark on actuality and had the most awe-inspiring effect.  People thus became aware of the power of thinking and started to examine more closely its pretensions.  They professed to finding out that it claimed too much and could not achieve what it undertook.  Instead of coming to understand the essence of God, nature and spirit and in general the truth, thinking had overthrown the state and religion.  (Encyclopedia Logic, §19)

The transition to autonomous reason, then, is in many respects a desperate gamble, an attempt to salvage by way of reason what reason itself has taken away from us, namely, the certainty and stability of common life.


Thus, the move to autonomous reason gives rise to a new kind of dogmatism, not the simple, inchoate or prereflective dogmatisms of common life, but sophisticated philosophical dogmatisms.  The hope of most developers of philosophical dogmatisms is to refute the skeptical challenges that led to the repudiation of common life, to restore common life on a more solid foundation.  Unfortunately for philosophical dogmatists, skepticism does not obediently remain at the level of common life, waiting to be overthrown; rather, it follows them up to the level of autonomous reason, continuing to attack them where they live.


As at the level of common life, the initial response to skeptical challenges to philosophical dogmas will involve a circular return to those same philosophical dogmas, hoping to marshal more resources with which to overthrow the skeptic.  But, again as at the level of common life, eventually the skeptical challenges will becomes sophisticated enough to call into question the entire epistemological project.  The result is metaepistemological skepticism.  Its most conceptually powerful, and historically influential, expression is found in the Agrippan Trilemma, which I briefly discussed in the previous post.  The fundamental challenge of the Trilemma at the epistemological level is this: How do you justify that which makes justification possible?  Just as the skeptical challenges at the level of common life ended up calling into question the presupposition context of common life as a whole, likewise skeptical challenges at the level of autonomous reason end up calling into question the presupposition context of autonomous reason as a whole.  The question, of course, is where this leaves us.


I’ll take up that question, among others, in my next post.