Rated: 18+ · Essay · Philosophy · #847199
Do we really know anything? Do we really want to know anything?
Is it possible to not have any possible truths? The concept of skepticism suggests that possibility. The definition of skepticism states that knowledge (truth) is not possible; however, it is more than personal doubt. It is systematic, and the doubts that a skeptic holds are rationalized. Skepticism is naturally to be expected (as most philosophical concepts will allow for the rise of an antithesis via the debate of an issue), but to convincingly prove that no knowledge can exist in anyone’s mind is a difficult task, as this issue is open for more gaps in theory.
Traditionally, there are two philosophers associated with skepticism. One is Rationalist Rene Descartes, and the other is Empiricist David Hume. Descartes created his Method of Doubt using Pure Reason, and Hume focuses on determining the type of truth that is most appropriate for the principle of human causality. However, skepticism has faced a significant challenge from Immanuel Kant and his synthetic a priori.
Descartes created his Method of Doubt while in a quest to find a certain foundation for his philosophical system, a foundation that could not be disproven. In his numerous meditations (during which he attempted to find this foundation), Descartes discovered he could disprove the existence of the external world, a principle many epistemologists relied on to prove the existence of knowledge and truths. He made this discovery when in his meditations, he assumed that everything was false and only accepts beliefs that can be proven or be known to be true without any possibility of doubt. He found that the external world could be entirely in his mind and not actually exist because he was always dreaming. However, he did find one thing that could be proven true; if he had the ability to doubt, then he had to have a mind, hence the famous quote “I think, therefore I am.” What went wrong in Descartes’ case, though, was he decided to prove that there was an external world using an ontological proof of God’s existence.
Hume, as an Empiricist, stated that knowledge stemmed from experience. Then he posed two questions: could the beliefs of an external world and universal causality be justified. He utilizes the principle of Hume’s Fork to answer the question of justification for universal causality. The Fork is a system that divides every justifiable belief into two categories: a truth of reason and empirical truths. He tests the principle of universal causality first in regards to it being a rational truth (a truth of reason). After answering no to the questions of imagining the principle to be false and knowing everything has a cause simply by thinking it does, Hume concluded that universal causality wasn’t a rational truth. So he tested it in regards to empirical truths. In this case, he defines causal connections as necessary or law-like connections. If universal causality was to be true, then we would learn of these connections through experience. Hume argues that experience doesn’t teach us of these necessary connections and that all we ever see of them is constant conjunctions (or maybe more likely the after affects) between effects. Thus, universal causality isn’t justifiable either through reason or empiricism. He says the same of the external world as well, as we could be dreaming up the external world and no experience exists to prove we aren’t dreaming up the external world. In spite of this, Hume states that in spite of the lack of justification for both beliefs, they are used in common practice, almost perceived as necessary truths.
Kant, a Rationalist thinker, tackled the problem of Hume’s skepticism. He opted to reject two principles that were crucial to Hume’s skepticism: the two world assumption (internal/external) and Hume’s Fork (necessary and empirical truths). In regards to the two world assumption, Kant argues that the world consists only of human experiences and that there is nothing beyond it that can be known. He also argues that humans do not directly know their experiences and indirectly know things about the world. Kant then proposes that there are three kinds of truths (as opposed to Hume’s Fork, which states there are only two). These truths are truths of reason, empirical truths, and synthetic a priori truths. The last one is defined as the imposition of innate forms and categories on experiences. Such forms make knowledge possible, and the principle of causality is cited as a synthetic a priori truth. Kant implies that it is pointless to be skeptical of these truths, as these truths are rules that make experience possible, experience that leads to (among other things) empirical truths and knowledge.
Skepticism to me is a very interesting topic, as I have dealt with my own personal skepticism throughout my life. The skepticism of knowledge, then, has presented me with an opportunity to solve an interesting puzzle. What is this puzzle? This puzzle is the validity of skepticism.
I look at Descartes Method of Doubt with a slightly tampered perspective. I confess that I am an avid fan of The Matrix, as that movie gave me my first experience in doubting the existence of the external world, and looking at Descartes’ meditations reminds me of that concept as it was presented in the movie. Detaching myself from that conception is hard, but when I finally do so, I find myself asking this question. If I am dreaming of this external world, am I an emotional masochist? Why would I want to dream of a world of over development, pollution, and daily human exploitation of every species of living thing? To accept Descartes’ idea that the external world is simply a dream of mine is very troubling, for the external world I know is painful and dangerously close to a lethal, sudden end. Such a dream would cause tremendous stress and trauma to the mind, something Descartes was certain existed. If the mind exists and we dream up external worlds that could inflict serious trauma on the mind, there’s one of two ways to explain this trauma. One is to say that we as humans are all connected in our minds, and our dreaming combines to form an “external world”. This is a conclusion that raises a lot of questions about how individual minds work and why some appear to be programmed towards more violent and destructive attitudes while some are more pacific. Could some minds gain dominance in the collective dream world and steer everyone’s dreams towards one attitude? This could certainly explain the collective acceptance of war with Iraq over a year ago. Perhaps Donald Rumsfeld gained the upper hand in the dream world and persuaded his fellow dreamers to follow a destructive attitude. The other possibility is that there is an external world that actually exists, but to prove the existence of it would be next to impossible, as the burden of proof must be determined. Does this world exist simply by sense, or are there other criteria (such as common perception) that can prove this external world exists?
Hume’s reasonings, for some reason, are less troubling, possibly because while I state that I don’t like them, I do believe in coincidences. The conclusion that universal causality can’t be proven allows for coincidences to occur. It allows for coincidences, because a coincidence stems from two events that have little to no relation creating a certain situation. Universal causality eliminates coincidences by giving everything a direct cause, thus giving the two previously unrelated events a more solid link. While this would sound beneficial in understanding our world, most times, coincidences are signs of a malignant problem that, if found to have a common cause, usually intensifies, causing paranoia in the populace. Such is the case with stereotyping. Finding a common cause builds these stereotypes, and stereotypes lead people to ignoring the signs of problems in groups outside of those who are stereotyped. For example, an intoxicated teenager with a reputation of being a Goth may get into an accident that kills someone. The news media will make the public fear Goths because of this one incident but will ignore the fact that popular teenagers are twice as likely to become involved with substance abuse. When causes are found, this unfortunate fallacy of thought is committed. Coincidences allow for each case to be studied individually and handled accordingly.
Skepticism is the idea that knowledge cannot exist. This belief has been tested by both rationalists and empiricists with varying results. The problem that skepticism faces, especially in the 21st century, is application, and the application of skepticism to modern thought yields startling, potentially traumatic results.