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Significance of philosophical scepticism


To: Ian L.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Significance of philosophical scepticism
Date: 26 June 2001 11:36

Dear Ian,

Thank you for your e-mail of 14 June, with your second essay for the Possible World Machine, in response to the question, 'Explain the Significance of Philosophical Scepticism.'

Before I begin, on a technical note, you are the one who has ever sent me an attachment in Lotus WordPro. I am able to translate most file formats into Word for Mac but not this one! (I had to open your file in a text editor and then remove all the formatting information, using search and replace.) If you could save documents either as Word documents, or in plain text that would help a lot!

I was very interested in this essay, especially the theological angle. In fact, I wish you'd exploited that a little more.

Before we get onto that, it is worth distinguishing two fundamentally different forms of scepticism 'about the world'. The thought that any of the beliefs that I hold about the world might be false still carries the assumption that there is such a thing as a world outside me. Using your excellent example of 'The Matrix', there is a real world whose grim reality becomes apparent to those who wake up from their dream. Cartesian scepticism of the 'evil demon' variety goes further in questioning whether there is any world of objects in space.

The most striking apparent difference between scepticism concerning our beliefs about the world, or 'empirical scepticism' and scepticism concerning belief in God is that - notwithstanding the heroic efforts of Pyrrho and his followers - it is not possible to *live* thoroughgoing empirical scepticism, whereas there are very many persons whose lives testify to the fact that it is possible to live thoroughgoing scepticism about God. There are not only many persons who entertain doubts concerning the Deity, but also many whose lives have no place for a God. There are no persons whose lives have no place for a world of some sort.

I used to think that the impossibility of consistently living as a complete empirical sceptic was sufficient to show that there is an incoherence in the idea of empirical scepticism. I am not so sure now.

Hume is relevant here, especially if you look at the famous section 'On Scepticism With Regard to the Senses' in Book One of his 'Treatise on Human Nature'. Hume analyses the basis for our beliefs in the 'continued and distinct' existence of objects outside us, and comes to the conclusion that they are completely irrational, and indeed unintelligible. Hume's famous, or infamous, solution to this challenge is to put the blame on philosophy. He goes off to play a game of backgammon!

Hume's view was that there was a perfectly sound psychological explanation why we entertain 'fictions' such as the belief in the continued and distinct existence of bodies, or why we believe in the effectiveness of induction as a means of acquiring reliable beliefs about the world. Where the philosopher goes wrong is in thinking that these beliefs can be *justified by reason*. So Hume's response to scepticism is to see it as an attack on false philosophical theories rather than an attack on our everyday beliefs.

I said that it is impossible to live without a world of some sort. Every action we perform *assumes* that objects be have in predictable ways. It would be extremely hazardous making a mug of tea if the water from the kettle could not be relied on to pour down rather than to the side.

Might the same be said of religious scepticism? I have heard the argument (as it happens, from my sister, the Rabbi) that if we do not believe in God, we will make a 'God' of something else, something less worthy of that status. In other words, there will always be a gap which has to be filled one way or the other. The theist's case is that filling the gap with God is the only acceptable or effective way.

Just as there are better or worse ways of conceiving of 'the World' - goes the argument - so there are better or worse ways of conceiving of one's 'God'. The thoughts of someone who believes in a world ruled by magic are crippled with internal inconsistency. One escapes the inconsistency only by not thinking things through. The same can arguably be said of someone whose 'God' is 'personal achievement', or 'knowledge', or 'humanity' - or 'philosophy'.

All the best,