orm?Can Skepticism Be Defended, Perhaps In A Limited Form?1. IntroductionThis essay centres around what it means to know something is true and also whyit is important to distinguish between what you know and do not or can not know. The sceptic in challenging the possibility of knowing anything challenges thebasis on which all epistemology is based. It is from this attack on epistemologythat the defence of scepticism is seen.
2. Strong ScepticismStrong scepticism states that it is not possible to know anything. That is wecannot have absolute knowledge of anything. This can however immediately havethe reflexive argument turned on it and have the question begged of it: “If itis not possible to know anything then how is it you know that nothing isknowable ?”. Strong Scepticism is therefore unable to be defended. 3.
A Definition of KnowledgeKnowledge can be said to be information that the brain has received that meets acertain set of criteria. When someone states that they know something they mustalso believe that, that something is so. If they did not believe in it then howcould they take it in as knowledge ?, they would instead be doubtful of it andlook for evidence or justification as to why they should believe it. Secondly for someone to believe in something they must also believe that it istrue. If they did not believe that it was true then what is mentioned abovewould not occur. So, so far it is decided that knowledge should be true belief.Order now
How does one cometo the conclusion that something is true however ?. We seek justification. Thejustification really is the most important part of the criteria because withoutit one cannot say something is true and therefore cannot say that one believes. This does however bring up the question of how does something become justified ?,do we hear it from other people ?, see it on the news ?. The justification ofsomething really depends on its predictability. If something becomes predictablethen it can becomes justified aswell.
For example, I know that the sun will risetomorrow is a fair thing to say because I believe this is so, I believe this istrue, and I am justified in believing this due to my past experience* of thepredictableness of the sun rising each day. The only problem with meeting the set of criteria laid out above is that onemust use one senses to do so and as shall be shown in the next section they arenot the most reliable of instruments. 4. PerceptionsA persons sensual perceptions are generally their means of receiving informationbut how much can we trust our senses ?.
Two examples of a persons sensualperception leading them astray are as follows. Two people are looking at a white object. The first person is looking at theobject through a transparent red sheet and the other through a transparent greensheet. Neither person knows that the sheets are there so both come away withdifferent conclusions and perceptions as to what colour the object in front ofthem is.
(Cornman, Lehrer, Pappas, 1992, pp. 46-47)Another example is when two people are looking at an oblong object fromdifferent angles one may see a perfect rectangle the other a perfect square. (Cornman, Lehrer, Pappas, 1992, pp. 46-47)The point I am making here is that sensual perceptions are all relevant to theposition of the observer.
This is not a good situation for something that wecontrive to get justification for our knowledge from. 5. The Brain in the Vat ArgumentThis argument is similar to the one in Plato’s republic in that it involves animaginary situation where the people or person involved believes that they haveknowledge (Plato, Cave Analogy, Book VII). In the brain in the vat example the brain believes that it is a fullyfunctioning human being and there exists an external world around it. The reasonfor the brain believing that it knows this is that it has reasonable belief dueto the fact that everything in it’s environment coheres, this is obviously notso however if everything does not cohere (Harrison, 1966-67, pp 179-189). The sceptical argument from this however is that it is impossible to knowanything if one does not know the initial fact that one is a brain in a vat.
This can be shown as follows. Suppose that you claim to know that you are sitting reading a book. Youpresumably also know that if you are sitting reading, you are not a brain in avat. We can surely conclude that if you know that you are sitting reading, youknow that you are not a brain in a vat, and hence (by simple modus tollens) thatsince you don’t know that you are not a brain in a vat (agreed above) you don’tknow you are sitting reading. (Dancy, 1985, p.
10). The epistemist rejoin however states that this does not matter. The reason givenis that since there is no perceptible difference between being a brain in a vatbeing fed sense data and sitting reading then there is nothing of importancethat relies on this distinction. This can be said to be the case. The reason forthis is that if the brain in the vat’s environment coheres then it is possiblefor the brain in the vat to know something about his or her environment.
This brings us to the case of what is real if everything is a fake. What moneywould be considered the real thing if it was suddenly realised that all themoney in the world was counterfeit ?. Surely a paradigm switch would then occurand the counterfeit would be considered real and the real counterfeit. Thereforewhile the brain in the vat may not have any real knowledge about the world thatis external to it’s vat it would still have knowledge of it’s own counterfeit’world.
6. Argument from ErrorThis argument is based upon the errors made by a human’s sensory perceptions. Anerroneous perception can be said to be something like a hallucination or anillusion or even those strange voices in your head at night. The sceptics however say that if for you to have knowledge about something youmust have complete justification then you cannot admit that you may be wrong.
The epistemist rejoin to this though is that while it is true that we areoccasionally subject to hallucinations and illusions it does not mean that weare always wrong. The sceptic would then say though, if your erroneous perceptions areindistinguishable from your veridical perceptions how can you tell thedifference between real and erroneous perceptions. The reply by the epistemist would then be that you know you are having orreceiving a veridical perception if it coheres with the rest of your perceptions. Now this is all well and good but it does not account for what I will call new’knowledge for want of a better description. Did the fact that in the sixteenthcentury Ferdinand Magellan managed to not fall off the edge of the Earth coherewith current knowledge or experience.
This is where the gap in the epistemistargument is because if it held no new knowledge that was radically to differentto current belief could occur. The very fact that there is new knowledge impliesthat what used to be considered knowledge was merely reasonable belief. An example of this is the white proposition. In Europe up until the seventeenthor eighteenth century the proposition was that:All swans are white,This is a swan,Therefore it is white. This proposition was considered knowledge up until the black swans of WesternAustralia were discovered causing all the European textbooks to be rewritten forone thing but also, and more importantly, it showed that the previousproposition above was not ever knowledge because one of the criteria ofknowledge is truth. Truth values if they are once true will always remain true,so therefore the fact that swans are white’ was never true and therefore couldnever be knowledge.
The best it could be is reasonable belief and this is wherethe strength of scepticism lies. Universals, i. e propositions of the order All x are y can never be proved truebut only falsified. Sceptics can always argue that the most people can hope for is reasonable beliefbecause it will always be impossible to consider all the factors involved. Ifsomething that is reasonable belief becomes predictable then it becomesconsidered as knowledge, due to the fact that to be predictable it must firstcohere. The problem with this is situations like the two theories of light.
Inone instance it may be predictable that light is in particle form while inothers wave form. Both of these theories are considered knowledge but both arenot always true. Therefore they must both only be considered as reasonablebelief. 7. Justification of Arguments from ExperienceFrom one’s experience or observations, current and past, one can inductivelyinfer what will happen in the near future and where certain things exist. Therefore one can say that in the cupboard my coat is hanging and that I shallhave a sandwich for lunch.
David Hume however argued that I cannot know that mycoat is in the cupboard unless I have justification in believing that myexperience makes my proposition probable (Dancy, 1985, p. 15). This again drawson my knowledge of the consistency of the outside world but it also needs me tobelieve that events that I have not observed are similar to those I haveobserved and Hume’s point is that I have no reason to believe this. The sceptical side of this therefore is that one cannot make assumptionsregarding one’s senses which are unreliable in the first place. The experiencesone has had cannot lead to assumptions beyond one’s experiences. The epistemist’s response to this would be to then ask the sceptic but wherewould we be if we could not believe the unobserved events to be happening.
Thereasonable belief of these events flows from the consistency of the outsideworld. If we could not believe in this consistency sitting down would even causeproblems due to the fact that the chair would at some point become an unobservedexperience. The fact of the matter is that we would not be able to survive forvery long if we could not trust in our previous experience. 8.
The Epistemist Rejoin for all ArgumentsThis is the reply that any epistemist can make to a sceptic with a guaranteedoutcome. The epistemist really just needs to say that since the sceptics arguethat there is no knowledge only reasonable belief then reasonable belief is themost they can have of their propositions and conclusions. This is anotherexample of the reflexive argument being turned on scepticism. 9.
ConclusionJudging by the above arguments, which are admittedly not of the strongestsceptical type as they are all global arguments and do not attack our notion ofunderstanding, scepticism can be defended. The onus of proof of the fact thatknowledge exists lies with the epistemist and viewing the above arguments. Thesceptic should concede that reasonable belief can exist but should vehementlyargue that true knowledge cannot exist even though reasonable belief orjustification exists. The part of the knowledge criteria that causes the problemis the truth criterion and this criterion can never totally be fulfilled.
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