Skepticism

The idea of skepticism has a lot of baggage in our popular culture, usually associated with a scoffing refusal to entertain even the possibility of some positive claim.

The reality of the concept is a lot simpler than that.

As someone I knew once put it, to be skeptical is to refuse to accept statements more strongly than the available evidence permits, and to always be willing to re-evaluate a position as new evidence becomes available.

When trying to argue a position on rational grounds, there are certain things that need to be done to convince a skeptical listener. You should be able to provide evidence and reasoning of sufficient strength to convince a listener to move away from the null hypothesis.

Since you’re arguing on rational grounds, you’re asserting that your position is a rational one, that you yourself were once neutral, and were convinced to leave a state of neutral uncertainty by certain arguments and evidence you encountered.

Not presenting such an argument strongly suggests that you don’t possess one. Not possessing one strongly suggests that you never encountered justification sufficient to support the claim you’re making. And that indicates that your position is not a rational one.

Holding and presenting a belief, without possessing rational justification for it, is only possible if your reasons for believing are not rational ones.

In all my life, I have met only a handful of people capable not only of generating rational beliefs but presenting them coherently, and most of them can manage this only for a tiny subset of their beliefs.

The problems arise when such people believe that all of their beliefs are rational merely because they can be reasonable on a few limited subjects, and demand (explicitly or implicitly) that everything they say be afforded the respect due to a justified claim.

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12 Responses to “Skepticism”

  1. If this ‘rationality’ you seek is found amongst so few humans, maybe you’re the one who’s doing it wrong.

    One should not expect to have rational justification for all of one’s beliefs. If one can present to me an argument that proves, for instance, that this is my hand, then I will tell him he is confused for thinking there can be an argument for that, as it’s more obvious to me than any possible argument. Thus James (and later Wittgenstein) showed what was wrong with the Cartesian effort to justify everything.

    Rationality is said in many ways, and one’s emotions and intuitions should not be discounted in the process. Science has its methods for good reason, but justification in a profession is not justification in the human soul.

    That I have a belief is evidence to me that it is a belief I should have. One cannot spend every day examining one’s navel. Not even a philosopher.

  2. “One should not expect to have rational justification for all of one’s beliefs.”

    Perhaps, perhaps not. But we should certainly expect rational justification for all of one’s arguments.

    The beliefs that we cannot justify, we cannot claim to hold rationally. The beliefs that we claim are rational MUST BE JUSTIFIED.

    “That I have a belief is evidence to me that it is a belief I should have.”

    Circularity is not a property of logical justification.

  3. That isn’t circular. It would be circular if I said “That I have a belief is evidence that I have a belief” or “That it is a belief I should have is evidence that it is a belief I should have”

    If I have a particular belief B, I can take that as evidence that I should have belief B. Yes, this can be self-reinforcing. However, it is not simply circular.

  4. The belief must point to something beyond itself. Belief cannot serve as evidence for itself. The fact that you believe a thing cannot be evidence that you should believe it.

    There is a hierarchy of evidence that must be maintained in order for beliefs to be rational, in the same sort of way that preferences must exist in a hierarchy.

    Otherwise, you can generate ‘utility pumps’ that drain a system of resources without increasing any property within the system.

  5. a painful part of growing up for me was the slow realization that most people don’t attempt to justify beliefs and instead utilize curiosity-stoppers. Rationality can be viewed as simply a more sophisticated version of the child who incessantly asks “why?”.

  6. But that one should believe X is a reason to believe X. And so that one should believe X can cause belief in X. And so belief in X can serve as evidence that one should believe X.

    Much as: The sun being out can cause it being very bright outside, and so it being bright outside can serve as evidence that the sun is out.

  7. “But that one should believe X is a reason to believe X.”

    Circular argument. We’re debating when you “should believe X”. You’re assuming that as an argument premise.

    “The sun being out can cause it being very bright outside, and so it being bright outside can serve as evidence that the sun is out.”

    Well, first of all that example does not have the same logical structure as the argument you’re making.

    Secondly, it’s circumstantial at best. There are more possibilities than the sun’s being out that are compatible with that ‘evidence’. Generating a conclusion on that alone is unjustified.

    But to return to the previous point: a conclusion can never serve as evidence for itself. If you let the fact that you believe something serve as evidence for itself, you create a credulity pump that quickly moves all your beliefs to 100% certainty.

    Thom, face it: you’re not very good at this.

  8. You misunderstand. In the argument above, I’m not assuming one should believe X. Perhaps it would be clearer if I used conditionals.

    1. In general, if (one should Y) then (‘one should Y’ is a reason to Y).
    2. Reasons can be causes.
    3. ‘one should Y’ can cause Y. – by 1,2
    4. If A can cause B, then B is evidence for A.
    5. Y is a evidence that ‘one should Y’. – by 3,4

    I disagree with your assessment that generating a conclusion on that alone is unjustified. In the absence of other evidence, it being bright outside can lead to the conclusion that the sun is out. If there are other hypotheses, then the available evidence must be weighed to see which hypothesis is favored. But at any given time, one must act on whatever conclusion is best-supported given available evidence, however flimsy it may be.

    And again, the conclusion is not serving as evidence for itself. I’m not reasoning from ‘this belief is justified’ to ‘this belief is justified’; I’m reasoning from ‘I have this belief’ to ‘this belief is justified’. I’m not sure why you are equating ‘this belief is justified’ to ‘I have this belief’ – if that were the case, then you should already be assuming that all of your beliefs are justified, by definition.

  9. “4. If A can cause B, then B is evidence for A.”

    Wrong.

    An event can cause (roughly speaking) a representation of that event to exist in our minds.

    But the representation of an event in our minds is not in itself evidence that such an event occurred. An additional assumption — that of our accuracy — is needed.

    More importantly, no matter what additional assumptions we make, the fact that we believe something can NEVER serve as evidence supporting that belief.

    “In the absence of other evidence, it being bright outside can lead to the conclusion that the sun is out.”

    Of course it can lead to that conclusion. Anything can lead to any conclusion. The question is whether it validly can — and the answer is NO.

    “I’m reasoning from ‘I have this belief’ to ‘this belief is justified’.”

    That’s just dumb. You’re presuming that your belief isn’t held in error, noting that justification is required for valid belief, and then concluding that you have the justification. But as the presence or absence of justification determines the question of error, if we’re seeking an answer to that question we cannot assume that answer or any evidence that determines it.

    You’re assuming what you’re trying to demonstrate. I don’t know how to get that through to you.

  10. Here, I’ll make this simpler:

    When you’re asking whether a belief is valid, you have to exclude any presumptions that include in their logical structure the assertion that the belief is valid. The conclusion can only arise from points that are more primitive than the statement evaluated.

  11. I’m beginning to think that you don’t know what ‘evidence’ means. If A causes B, then B is always evidence for A – it might also be even stronger evidence for C (given some other fact) and so one might consistently reject B out of hand in favor of C. But if it turns out C is definitely not the case, then one turns back to B.

    Also, I had missed the comment a while ago where you claimed you saw no use in abductive reasoning; I consider it the basis of scientific investigation. If you don’t accept abductive reasoning, I don’t think you can be convinced of anything you don’t already believe.

    Regarding the question of academic philosophy, you take Dennett to be an exception amongst philosophers, while I consider him a typical example. And given the nature of philosophy (particularly if one sees it as a Popperian) it makes more sense to judge it by its best work rather than its worst.

    So I think we’re at the point where I’m going to have to note that you’re far too alien a being for me to convince of anything here. It seems like I’d have to convince you of the most basic things about the universe to argue anything reasonably, and I don’t have time for that (and I’m not convinced it’s possible).

  12. “I’m beginning to think that you don’t know what ‘evidence’ means. ”

    I’m beginning to think that you and I have a radically different definition for that word.

    You’d probably be happier conversing with Yudkowsky and his group.

    Abduction is a silly concept created by people who couldn’t be bothered to think about deduction deeply enough to recognize that it’s just a form of induction. There’s no need to unify the two; they’re already one.

    ‘Induction’ is used both to refer to an overarching concept, and the part of that concept that isn’t deduction. The resulting equivocation error is crippling.

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