Three Pound Brain

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Tag: Plato

AI and the Coming Cognitive Ecological Collapse: A Reply to David Krakauer

by rsbakker


Thanks to Dirk and his tireless linking generosity, I caught “Will AI Harm Us?” in Nautilus by David Krakauer, the President of the Santa Fe Institute, on the potential dangers posed by AI on this side of the Singularity. According to Krakauer, the problem lies in the fact that AI’s are competitive as opposed to complementary cognitive artifacts of the kind we have enjoyed until now. Complementary cognitive artifacts, devices such as everything from mnemonics to astrolabes to mathematical notations, allow us to pull up the cognitive ladder behind us in some way—to somehow do without the tool. “In almost every use of an ancient cognitive artifact,” he writes, “after repeated practice and training, the artifact itself could be set aside and its mental simulacrum deployed in its place.”

Competitive cognitive artifacts, however, things like calculators, GPS’s, and pretty much anything AI-ish, don’t let us kick away the ladder. We lose the artifact, and we lose the ability. As Krakauer writes:

In the case of competitive artifacts, when we are deprived of their use, we are no better than when we started. They are not coaches and teachers—they are serfs. We have created an artificial serf economy where incremental and competitive artificial intelligence both amplifies our productivity and threatens to diminish organic and complementary artificial intelligence…

So where complementary cognitive artifacts teach us how to fish, competitive cognitive artifacts simply deliver the fish, rendering us dependent. Krakauer’s complaint against AI, in other words, is the same as Plato’s complaint against writing, and I think fares just as well argumentatively. As Socrates famously claims in The Phaedrus,

For this invention will produce forgetfulness in the minds of those who learn to use it, because they will not practice their memory. Their trust in writing, produced by external characters which are no part of themselves, will discourage the use of their own memory within them. You have invented an elixir not of memory, but of reminding; and you offer your pupils the appearance of wisdom, not true wisdom, for they will read many things without instruction and will therefore seem to know many things, when they are for the most part ignorant and hard to get along with, since they are not wise, but only appear wise.

The problem with writing is that it is competitive precisely in Krakauer’s sense: it’s a ladder we cannot kick away. What Plato could not foresee, of course, was the way writing would fundamentally transform human cognitive ecology. He was a relic of the preliterate age, just as Krakauer (like us) is a relic of the pre-AI age. The problem for Krakauer, then, is that the distinction between complementary and competitive cognitive artifacts—the difference between things like mnemonics and things like writing—possesses no reliable evaluative force. All tools involve trade-offs. Since Krakauer has no way of knowing how AI will transform our cognitive ecology he has no way of evaluating the kinds of trade-offs they will force upon us.

This is the problem with all ‘excess dependency arguments’ against technology, I think: they have no convincing way of assessing the kind of cognitive ecology that will result, aside from the fact that it involves dependencies. No one likes dependencies, ergo…

But I like to think I’ve figured the naturalistic riddle of cognition out,* and as a result I think I can make a pretty compelling case why we should nevertheless accept that AI poses a very grave threat this side of the Singularity. The problem, in a nut shell, is that we are shallow information consumers, evolved to generate as much gene-promoting behaviour out of as little environmental information as possible. Human cognition relies on simple cues to draw very complex conclusions simply because it could always rely on adaptive correlations between those cues and the systems requiring solution: it could always depend on what might be called cognitive ecological stability.

Since our growing cognitive dependency on our technology always involves trade-offs, it should remain an important concern (as it clearly seems to be, given the endless stream of works devoted to the downside of this or that technology in this or that context). The dependency we really need to worry about, however, is our cognitive biological dependency on ancestral environmental correlations, simply because we have good reason to believe those cognitive ecologies will very soon cease to exist. Human cognition is thoroughly heuristic, which is to say, thoroughly dependent on cues reliably correlated to whatever environmental system requires solution. AI constitutes a particular threat because no form of human cognition is more heuristic, more cue dependent, than social cognition. Humans are very easily duped into anthropomorphizing given the barest cues, let alone processes possessing AI. It pays to remember the simplicity of the bots Ashley Madison used to gull male subscribers into thinking they were getting female nibbles.

And herein lies the rub: the environmental proliferation of AI means the fundamental transformation of our ancestral sociocognitive ecologies, from one where the cues we encounter are reliably correlated to systems we can in fact solve—namely, each other—into one where the cues we encounter are correlated to systems that cannot be fathomed, and the only soul solved is the consumer’s.


*  Bakker, R. Scott. “On Alien Philosophy,” Journal of Consciousness Studies, forthcoming.

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 II: The Entwinement of Skepticism and Philosophy

by reichorn

“… skepticism itself is in its inmost heart at one with every true philosophy.”

– Hegel, On the Relationship of Skepticism to Philosophy

“Whoever is believed in his presuppositions, he is our master and our God; he will plant his foundations so broad and easy that by them he will be able to raise us, if he wants, up to the clouds.”

–  Montaigne, Apology for Raymond Sebond


This is the second in a series of guest-blogger posts by me, Roger Eichorn.  The first post can be found 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 that here.  Now on to business…


What is philosophy?

In asking this question, it is misguided—and probably hopeless—to insist upon a strict definition (i.e., a definition that specifies necessary and sufficient conditions for something to qualify as ‘philosophy’).  Chances are good that no such definition is possible.  Rather, it is likely that philosophy is what Wittgenstein called a ‘family resemblance’ concept, that is, a concept that picks out a number of importantly distinct things that are more or less loosely bound together by a resemblance-relation.  Wittgenstein’s most famous example is the concept game: it seems impossible to provide necessary and sufficient conditions for something to qualify as a game, yet it also seems that all the various things we refer to as ‘games’ bear some sort of resemblance to one another.

What I’m after, then, is not a strict definition, but a sort of physiognomy of philosophy.  What is/are the most salient or common feature(s) of the family resemblance?  The explanatory desideratum is to understand what makes philosophy distinct from other intellectual domains.  What distinguishes philosophy from, say, theology or the sciences?  In most cases, it does seem that, as with porn, we ‘know it when we see it.’  But I think that, in addressing the question “What is philosophy?”, we can do better than simply pointing to examples.  Indeed, I believe that there is a single feature of philosophy that both (a) stands out more prominently than any other and (b) provides the groundwork for a systematic explanation both of philosophy’s relation to other intellectual domains and of the apparent interminability of philosophical inquiries.  That feature is skepticism.

Philosophy and skepticism are, I want to argue, inextricably entwined.


Now, what exactly I mean by ‘the entwinement of skepticism and philosophy’ will be the topic of this and the two posts that will follow.  Thus, my claim should not be prejudged.  In particular, it should not be dismissed out of hand.  Given what I’ve said so far, there are numerous ways of understanding the claim as meaning things I do not intend.

I began by asking “What is philosophy?”  Now, it seems, I’m forced to address first another nebulous question, namely, “What is skepticism?”  In fact, my answers to both questions will unfold together, over the course of this and subsequent posts.  The questions will be approached by way of a discussion of presuppositions, specifically the idea of freedom from presuppositions, or ‘presuppositionlessness.’

What do I mean by ‘presuppositions’?  It is important that we not over-intellectualize the concept, for doing so would obscure the sort of presupposition I’m most interested in.  I imagine that when many people think of presuppositions, they think first of something like (i) consciously developed and articulated hypotheses, such as those posited by scientists.  But there is also a deeper sense of presupposition, according to which presuppositions are (ii) the unreflective (or prereflective) commitments that frame or underlay our sayings and doings, our ‘situation’ as human-beings-in-the-world.  Presuppositions of this sort lie so far in the background—or, alternatively, saturate so completely—our cognitive lives as to be effectively invisible.  Such presuppositions can, at least in principle, be made visible; but such a process of explication involves thematizing commitments that were already there, rather than (as in the case of scientific hypotheses) developing new commitments.  A third sort of presupposition lies somewhere between the two: (iii) they are not hypotheses, but neither are they entirely unreflective.  In most cases, this third kind of presupposition will be taken, by those who hold them, as obviously true, perhaps as ‘self-evident.’  Thus, they will not be seen as presuppositions by those who hold them, but as something like fundamental, immovable, or indubitable beliefs/truths.

I shall refer in what follows to presupposition contexts.  A presupposition context is a ‘situation,’ with regard to our sayings and doings, that is framed and defined by either the second or the third sort of presupposition introduced in the previous paragraph.  Presupposition(ii) contexts define what I call ‘common life,’ i.e., the context into which we’re ‘thrown’ (as Heidegger would say), both as natural beings and as products of a particular culture.  Such contexts are the ‘background’ of our ‘everydayness’; their constitutive presuppositions determine to a large extent how the world shows up for us, in the sense of how things strike us, how they appear to us to be.  These presuppositions are expressed affectively as well as—indeed, perhaps more fundamentally than they are expressed—cognitively.

For instance, I happen to think that incest is wrong.  The proposition is one I find that I cannot fail to assent to.  Why do I believe that incest is wrong?  I could, of course, marshal any number of reasons to support the belief, but (a) the belief, in its cognitive guise, is capable of withstanding devastating counterarguments, and (b) even if I were brought around, intellectually, to rejecting the belief (which happens when I stop and really think about it), the belief qua affective-disposition remains.  In other words, even if I ‘officially’ reject the proposition that incest is wrong, I continue to find incest repulsive.  (Regarding this example: see the study referenced and discussed by Jesse Prinz in The Emotional Construction of Morals, p. 30.)  This repulsion is, on my view, an expression of the sort of deep underlying commitment that constitutes the context of common life.  Common life is, as Wittgenstein put it, an inherited background:  “I did not get my picture of the world by satisfying myself of its correctness; nor do I have it because I am satisfied of its correctness.  No: it is the inherited background against which I distinguish between true and false” (On Certainty, §94).  Presupposition(ii) contexts, then, are similar to what Wittgenstein refers to as ‘world-pictures’: “The propositions describing this world-picture [= in my terms, context-constitutive presuppositions] might be part of a kind of mythology.  And their role is like that of rules of a game; and the game can be learned purely practically, without learning any explicit rules” (On Certainty, §95).

Presupposition(iii) contexts are specialized domains of inquiry.  Their constitutive presuppositions are more or less reflective on a case-by-case basis.  Often, their constitutive presuppositions are going to match, and arise from, presuppositions framing the more general context of common life, with which specialized domains of inquiry are (at least) going to overlap.  So, for instance, historians presuppose that the past existed (i.e., that the world didn’t pop into existence five minutes ago), that the past is unchanging, that certain kinds of presently existing artifacts are capable of informing us about what happened in the past, etc.  It may be that a given historian has never actually formulated the belief that the past existed, in which case it looks more like an unreflective Type-2 presupposition.  The important point, however, is that the claim that the world has existed for x number of years is constitutive of the very practice of historical inquiry.  The historical-inquiry domain is specialized for precisely this reason: it has more or less definite boundaries, the crossing of which constitutes something like a foul.  If a nosy ‘subversive epistemologist’ (to borrow a helpful phrase from Michael Forster)—or perhaps a moon-eyed metaphysician—butts into an historical debate to ask, “But how do you know the world didn’t pop into existence five minutes ago?”, the historians have to hand a principled rationale for rejecting the question, for it lies outside the limits of the game they’re playing.  The historical-inquiry game can only proceed on the basis of such presuppositions.  Calling these context-constitutive presuppositions into question would entail the cessation of historical inquiry.  One would begin, instead, to philosophize.

As I suggested above, it can be misleading to refer to Type-2 and Types-3 presuppositions as presuppositions.  Type-2 presuppositions can seem to run ‘deeper’ than any mere presupposition.  As for Type-3 presuppositions, they are taken to be true (and so not merely presupposed) by those who hold them.  In the first case, ‘presupposition’ can seem too intellectual a notion; in the second case, it can seem inappropriate insofar as ‘presupposing’ seems to imply a degree of doubt or tentativeness.  All of that is true enough.  The rationale for nevertheless referring to ‘presuppositions’ in these cases is that that is how they appear from a philosophical standpoint.

As I’ll argue in more detail in my next post, the practice of philosophy is both historically and conceptually predicated on an initial skepticism regarding the inherent epistemic and practical authority of common life.  It strives to provide, now on a purely rational basis, the explanations and justifications that it itself took away from common life.  Crucial to stripping common life of epistemic and practical authority involves thematizing, and subsequently calling into question, its presuppositions.  (This does not mean that philosophers are necessarily hostile to everyday presuppositions.  On the contrary, I find that they are generally apologists.  But qua philosophers, they seek—usually without outright admitting as much—simply to transplant everyday presuppositions into richer, more solid, and, above all, more rational ground.  We can engage in combat in order to strengthen as well as to overthrow.)  Philosophy adopts the same sort of attitude toward the more reflective presuppositions of specialized contexts: what the historian takes to be self-evident or indubitable, the philosopher reduces to the status of a mere presupposition.


It’s hardly surprising, then, that philosophy has traditionally striven to free itself from presuppositions.  We simply accept, without reasons, all sorts of things in common life as well as in other, less ‘radical’ domains of inquiry.  Moreover, as context-constitutive, such presuppositions form the ground of our presupposition-contextual epistemic–doxastic practices.  Given this picture, it can seem that, barring the establishment of presuppositionless knowledge, we’re doomed to irrationality—to playing mere games in the upper stories of the citadel of reason while failing, or even refusing, to investigate its foundations, to see whether the building is sound, whether it rests upon the ground of truth.

In the Republic, Plato argues that genuine knowledge must be presuppositionless: it must descend from the top of the Divided Line down.  If we try to make progress bottom-up, we’re “compelled to work from assumptions, proceeding to an end-point, rather than back to an origin or first principle” (510b).  He considers the example of geometry and arithmetic: “[T]here are some things they take for granted in their respective disciplines.  Odd and even, figures and the three types of angle.  That sort of thing.  Taking these as known, they make them into assumptions.  They see no need to justify them either to themselves or to anyone else.  They regard them as plain to anyone.  Starting from these, they then go through the rest of the argument, and finally reach, by agreed steps, that which they set out to investigate” (510c–d).  Plato associates this sort of inquiry with what he simply calls “thinking” (534a).  ‘Thinking’ deals with objects of knowledge, but cannot arrive at genuine knowledge itself, precisely because it cannot dispose of its presuppositions.  “As for the subjects which we said did grasp some part of what really is [i.e., geometry and arithmetic]… we can now see that as long as they leave the assumptions they use untouched, without being able to give any justification for them, they are only dreaming about what is.  They cannot possibly have any waking awareness of it.  After all, if the first principles of a subject are something you don’t know, and the endpoint and intermediate steps are interwoven out of what you don’t know, what possible mechanism can there ever be for turning a coherence between elements of this kind into knowledge?” (533b–c).  Knowledge, on the other hand, is acquired only when one achieves freedom from presuppositions: the soul “goes from an assumption to an origin or first principle which is free from assumptions” (510b).  Reason “uses assumptions not as first principles, but as true ‘bases’—points to take off from, entry-points—until it gets to what is free from assumptions, and arrives at the origin or first principle of everything.  This it seizes hold of, then turns round and follows the things which follow from this first principle, and so makes its way down to an end-point” (511b–c).  The method of achieving presuppositionlessness Plato calls ‘dialectic’:  “The dialectical method is the only one which in its determination to make itself secure proceeds by this route—doing away with its assumptions until it reaches the first principle itself” (537d).

The same commitment to presuppositionlessness can be found in Kant.  As in Plato, this commitment pushes Kant to reject experience as capable of providing rational satisfaction.  “[E]xperience never fully satisfies reason; it [i.e., reason] directs us ever further back in answering questions and leaves us unsatisfied as regards their full elucidation” (Prolegomena).  “[R]eason does not find its satisfaction in experience, it asks about the ‘why,’ and can find a ‘because’ for a while, but not always.  Therefore it ventures a step out of the field of experience and comes to ideas.”  Unfortunately, the move to ‘ideas’ doesn’t help; even here, “one cannot satisfy reason,” for the ‘whys?’ never let up (Metaphysik Mrongovius).  As he puts it in the first introduction to the Critique of Pure Reason, “Reason falls into this perplexity through no fault of its own.  It begins from principles whose use is unavoidable in the course of experience and at the same time sufficiently warranted by it.  With these principles it rises (as its nature also requires) ever higher, to more remote conditions.  But since it becomes aware in this way that its business must always remain incomplete because the questions never cease, reason sees itself necessitated to take refuge in principles that overstep all possible use in experience, and yet seem so unsuspicious that even ordinary common sense agrees with them.  But it thereby falls into obscurity and contradictions” (Avii–viii).  In other words, the common understanding makes use of principles that, although they are taken to be unproblematic in the course of everyday life, reason (i.e., philosophy) unmasks as objectively unjustified presuppositions (cf., Critique of Pure Reason, A473/B501).  Reason, which is not held in check by experience or by the contingencies of common life, strives after, and is satisfied by nothing less than, presuppositionlessness or, in Kant’s terms, the unconditioned.  “[R]eason in its logical use seeks the universal condition of its judgment…  [T]he proper principle of reason in general (in its logical use) is to find the unconditioned for conditioned cognitions of the understanding” (Critique of Pure Reason, A307/B364).  “[R]eason demands to know the unconditioned, and therewith the totality of all conditions, for otherwise it does not cease to question, just as if nothing had yet been answered” (“What Real Progress Has Metaphysics Made…?”).

Unlike Plato, however, Kant rejects the possibility at arriving at any sort of transcendent ground of truth.  Instead, he argues that we can only have knowledge within the sphere of experience.  Still, experience is structured in such a way, he argues, that we can have certain knowledge of what must be the case for experience to be possible at all.  (Kant calls this approach transcendental, which refers to conditions of possibility, not to ‘transcendence.’)  For Kant, the quest for presuppositionless knowledge ends not in transcendence, but in the uncovering of the determinate limits of knowledge.  As he puts it, reason will only be satisfied with “complete certainty”—which entails presuppositionlessness, since any lingering presuppositions could be doubted—“whether it be one of the cognition of the objects themselves or of the boundaries within which all of our cognitions of objects is enclosed” (Critique of Pure Reason, A761/B789).

There is a quite different tradition in Western philosophy, going back at least to Aristotle, that can be seen as furnishing a counterexample to my claim that philosophy strives for presuppositionlessness.  It is often thought that Aristotle was not concerned with skeptical problems, that he did not consider them worthy or requiring of response or refutation.  He is often taken to preempt skeptical philosophers by claiming that some of what they call ‘presuppositions’ are known to be true even though their truth cannot be demonstrated.  There’s clearly something right about the latter claim at least: as Aristotle says in the Posterior Analytics, “We contend that not all knowledge is demonstrative: knowledge of the immediate premises is indemonstrable” (72b).  The ‘immediate premises’ are what Aristotle calls ‘first principles.’  His argument, then, is that the truth of first principles cannot be demonstrated, yet nevertheless we can know them.

First off, I think it is clear that Aristotle’s philosophy is indeed entwined with skepticism, broadly construed (i.e., ‘subversive epistemologies’).  As we’ve just seen, he presents in the Posterior Analytics an anti-skeptical argument.  A similar anti-skeptical intent can be found elsewhere in the Aristotelian corpus, such as in the defense of logical laws in Metaphysics Book Gamma.  And while he has far more regard than Plato does for common, prephilosophical opinion (endoxa)—often using them as starting-points for the development of his own positions—he is ultimately skeptical of endoxa, for he displays both a willingness to reject it (when it happens to be wrong) and a desire to provide it with a more rational foundation (when it happens to be right).  If this is right, and if I’m right to conceptualize the entwinement of skepticism and philosophy as I’ve been doing so far, then we should find in Aristotle a commitment to the epistemic ideal of presuppositionlessness.  But just as it has seemed to many that Aristotle is unconcerned with skepticism, so it may seem that he lacks a commitment to the epistemic ideal of presuppositionlessness.  Addressing this issue in anything approaching a thorough way is impossible here.  All I’m going to do is focus on the anti-skeptical position we’ve looked at from the Posterior Analytics, according to which first principles are known immediately and indemonstrably.  Does this mean that Aristotle contents himself with presuppositional knowledge?

Aristotle’s argument in the Posterior Analytics anticipates—and may well have been the source of—the most powerful of all skeptical arguments, namely, the Agrippan Trilemma, according to which any attempt to justify a claim will end either in vicious circularity, infinite regress, or brute hypothesis.  Aristotle rejects outright the possibility of an infinite chain of justifications.  He also rejects circularity, for on his view, demonstrative knowledge relies on premises that are both prior to and better known than the conclusions derived from them.  In the case of circular justifications, though, the same propositions would have to be alternatively prior and subsequent to each other, alternatively better and worse known than each other.  Finally, he denies that immediately known first principles are mere hypotheses; if they were, then the most that could be concluded from them is that “if the primary things [the first principles] obtain, then so too do the things derived from them.”  His way of avoiding the Trilemma is to reject the assumption that all knowledge must be demonstrable: there is a type of indemonstrable knowledge, namely, knowledge of first principles.  But how do we know first principles?  On this, Aristotle’s remarks are cryptic, to say the least.  Such knowledge is not innate, but is said to “come to rest in the soul” as a result of “induction” from various instances of “perception” (100a–b).  Are these first principles merely presupposed, or are they known?  The skeptic—as well as many a dogmatist, such as Plato—will claim that they’re merely presupposed.  Aristotle, however, is going to deny this.  As we’ve seen, he holds that the first principles can be known, not merely hypothesized.  In fact, he holds that all demonstrative knowledge rests on prior knowledge: “All teaching and all learning of an intellectual kind proceed from pre-existent knowledge” (71a).  Aristotle, then, is not content with presuppositional knowledge.  We can disagree over the effectiveness of his strategy, but that his strategy evinces a commitment to presuppositionlessness should be clear.

Aristotle’s brand of anti-skeptical foundationalism can be found not only in later Aristotelians, but also, I would argue, in such philosophically distant groups as the so-called commonsense philosophers.  Like Aristotle, commonsense philosophy, from Thomas Reid to G.E. Moore to Jim Pryor, maintain that some things (indeed, a great many things) are simply and irrefutably known and so cannot be genuinely called into question.  These privileged bits of knowledge are indubitable, immovable, self-evident.

The problem—as Ambroise Beirce underlines in the entry on “Self-Evident” in The Devil’s Dictionary—is that, when scrutinized, self-evident seems to mean merely that which is “[e]vident to one’s self and to nobody else.”


More recently, many philosophers have questioned the viability or necessity of attaining freedom from presuppositions.  It has been argued, for instance by Robert Stalnaker, that ‘pragmatic presuppositions’ are a necessary condition for discourse (see his Content and Context, p. 49).  In On Certainty, Wittgenstein seems to make a similar argument: “[T]he questions that we raise and our doubts depend on the fact that some propositions are exempt from doubt, are as it were like hinges on which those turn” (§341).  But, Wittgenstein adds, “[I]t isn’t that the situation is like this: We just can’t investigate everything, and for that reason we are forced to rest content with assumption.  If I want the door to turn, the hinges must stay put” (§343).  “It may be that all enquiry on our part is set so as to exempt certain propositions from doubt, if they are ever formulated.  They lie apart from the route travelled by enquiry” (§88).

I’ll return to some of these ideas in subsequent posts.  For now, I want merely to point out that, on the picture I’m presenting, all domains of inquiry are presupposition-contextual from a philosophical standpoint.  It may be that determinate intellectual or dialogic progress can only be made against a fixed background of unquestioned commitments.  If this is so, and if I’m right that philosophy is traditionally committed to the ideal of presuppositionlessness, then we would have the beginnings of an explanation of the apparent interminability of philosophical inquiries.  Philosophy, even when explicitly committed to presuppositionlessness, often proceeds presupposition-contextually, such as when it mistakes its presuppositions for self-evident first principles.  If progress cannot be made presuppositionlessly, then the only way for philosophy to make progress would be somehow to forestall the possibility of calling into question the presuppositions structuring a given philosophical discourse.  The problem with this is that philosophy does not appear to have any determinate boundaries, such as those that structure historical inquiries.  Philosophy, in short, lacks a principled means of calling “Foul!”  Philosophers are free, qua philosophers, to call into question any presupposition whatsoever.  It seems, in fact, that the task of securing a determinate set of presuppositions for philosophy—a presupposition-set that would allow philosophy to make determinate progress—is actually incoherent, for it seems that the only rational way to forestall the possibility of calling into question context-constitutive presuppositions is to ground or justify those presuppositions; yet doing so is tantamount to stripping those presuppositions of their status as presuppositions.

In the Apology for Raymond Sebond, Michel de Montaigne wrote that “[i]t is very easy, upon accepted foundations, to build what you please…  Whoever is believed in his presuppositions, he is our master and our God; he will plant his foundations so broad and easy that by them he will be able to raise us, if he wants, up to the clouds…  If you happen to crash this barrier in which lies the principal error, immediately [philosophical dogmatists] have this maxim in their mouth, that there is no arguing against people who deny first principles.”  In Montaigne’s view, “there cannot be first principals for men,” given the limits of our reason.  “To those who fight by presupposition, we must presuppose the opposite of the same axiom we are disputing about.  For every human presupposition and every enunciation has as much authority as another, unless reason shows the difference between them.  Thus they must all be put in the scales, and first of all the general ones, and those which tyrannize over us.”  For as Kant wrote, “[R]eason has no dictatorial authority; its verdict is always simply the agreement of free citizens, of whom each one must be permitted to express, without holding back, his objections and even his veto” (Critique of Pure Reason, A738–9/B766–7).