Why Sceptical Argument is Completely Practical
The story of scepticism is a story of hijacking. It begins with uncertainty as a basic human state. Uncertainty is simple enough, you might think, but easy to forget when we get attached to absolute assumptions in the press of our lives. Sceptical arguments were devised, going back thousands of years, to remind us of that uncertainty. The value of such reminders is to help us make adjustments for our ignorance, to avoid getting into conflicts with others because of needlessly absolute stances. But so little did we want to be reminded of such an awkward point that we have constantly responded with distractions and appropriations. If you ask most people what ‘scepticism’ is today, they’ll probably assume that it’s some kind of negative position: but this is a calumny, because there is nothing negative about uncertainty. Others have hijacked and abused sceptical argument by using it one-sidedly, to cast doubt on everyone else’s assumptions but not their own. Both followers of religions and devotees of science have been guilty of that one-sidedness.
First then, let me clarify what ‘sceptical argument’ means. There are a whole set of sceptical arguments that have been used in the history of philosophy, from the early Pyrrhonists in Hellenistic times, to some post-modernist thinkers today. These arguments all in some way or another point out that because of our embodied human limitations we do not have access to representations of how the world ‘really is’. Nearly all such thinkers have also attached positive claims to their sceptical arguments, but we do not have to accept any of these to appreciate their sceptical arguments. Here are a few examples:
- We only view each object from particular perspectives at a given distance, so may miss important information about it.
- Our senses are limited to a range of wavelengths of light, sound etc.(e.g. we can’t see infra red), so we may be completely unaware of things beyond our range.
- There is no way of proving that we are not dreaming at any given moment of experience, so it is possible that our entire experience may be false.
- Any reasoning we engage in to draw further conclusions depends on the assumptions we began with, and those assumptions in turn depend on other assumptions: so we are left with an infinite regression of justifications with no proven starting point.
- The language we use does not represent states of affairs about the world, but is meaningful to us because of sets of neural associations developed through the course of our experience. This is reflected in the ambiguity of all such language and its dependence on metaphor.
I suggest that we consider such arguments in their own terms for what they tell us about the lack of certainty in our beliefs. Let’s not distract ourselves with concerns about where they came from, which are not relevant to the practical point each one wants to deliver.
Such arguments have been constantly misunderstood as being either negative or impractical or both. They are neither. Let’s start with the assumption of negativity.
If you look at any one of those arguments above and consider how they apply to arguments that make positive claims, you will also find that they apply equally well to negative claims. For example, if I hear a strange noise outside my house one night, I don’t know that it’s a burglar trying to break in. There could be all sorts of possible sources for the noise. On the other hand, I also don’t know that it’s not a burglar. Uncertainty cuts both ways. It is practically important that I understand it as cutting both ways too, so that I neither jump out of bed in a state of panic convinced that it is a burglar, nor do I just go back to sleep convinced that it is not a burglar.
That’s why uncertainty implies the Middle Way: that is, the practice of navigating between those two false certainties, or absolutizations, on either side. The Middle Way is a practical strategy for us embodied humans having to live our lives without certainty either way.
Let’s also address the assumption that sceptical argument is impractical. This is the effect of assuming that it is somehow negative, and thus that if we took sceptical argument seriously, we couldn’t do anything. On the contrary, though, sceptical argument reminds us of our embodied state of uncertainty, which is exactly the state we always have to act in. In that embodied state we do have all sorts of beliefs about the world we live in, from everyday beliefs about who we can trust and what to eat, through to our justifications for political judgements or career choices. Recognising uncertainty does not take away any of the confidence we need to make those judgements and continue to hold those beliefs, but rather it just reminds us that these beliefs should be provisional. If beliefs are provisional, then we are open to possible alternative beliefs.
On the contrary, taking sceptical arguments seriously makes us more practical. We are more practical when we are more provisional, because we are taking into account the limitations of what we believe now. Whatever we believe now, things may change tomorrow. Completely unexpected ‘black swans’ may arise to overturn our view of the world. If we are provisional in relation to our current beliefs, then we are able to consider alternative options that we would otherwise shut off due to absolutized assumptions. If we can use those alternative options when we need them, we are more adaptable. We carry a toolbox of possibilities around with us, to be opened and used when required.
The assumption that sceptical argument is somehow self-contradictory or hypocritical is also avoided when we recognise that scepticism is not negative, and confine our reflections to sceptical arguments themselves rather than being concerned with the positive claims philosophers may have tried to promote in the past by using them. The function of those arguments doesn’t lie in some abstract land of warring propositions that have to be ‘true’ and ‘false’ in relation to the universe: rather they’re intended for our use as embodied humans. They are reminders of the need to view our beliefs more provisionally, not claims about what the universe either is or is not that could clash with other such claims. You could even rephrase the arguments as questions to reinforce this point. For example, you could turn the first argument above into this question: “Could you be mistaken about that thing because of the limited perspective you have encountered it from?”
For me, sceptical arguments are reminders of the need for a wider practice that helps us to avoid absolutized beliefs and helps us remain provisional. Practices like mindfulness, the arts and critical thinking can all help with this. Considering these arguments is not enough by itself to live one’s life provisionally, which depends on bodily and emotional states as well as on philosophical reflections. Sceptical arguments are completely practical because they can contribute to the practice of the Middle Way.
For a more detailed academic version of this argument please see Challenging misunderstandings of scepticism on Researchgate. For more information on the practice of the Middle Way in general please see the Middle Way Society website.