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Knowledge and scepticism - and war


To: Ian W.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Knowledge and scepticism - and war
Date: 15 May 2002 14:46

Dear Ian,

Thank you for your second essay for the Possible World Machine program, on the significance of philosophical scepticism.

One thing that struck me about your war story was its seeming authenticity. This is obviously something you take an interest in.

As a fan of war films myself, it seems to me that the best films convey the sense of anticipation and not just the action. It is a game of uncertainty. Everything is quiet, yet although it is hard to believe, you know that the very next moment enemy could strike.

The boredom, the fear, the sense of unreality all connect with this uncertainty. Then something happens - the attack starts - and a whole new set of uncertainties come into play.

'What is knowledge' would be a good question to raise in this context.

The friendly farmers can be trusted, so the information they provide is 'knowledge'. If they could not be trusted, or if there was some doubt about their trustworthiness, then the very same 'information' would no longer have the same utility. One would have to include in one's calculation the possibility that this was not information but disinformation.

The men trust their commander because he 'knows' what to do in a given situation. But this means that he must carefully hide his own very real doubts. So 'certainty' becomes other than certainty - confidence, optimism, a sense of invulnerability - and the men know this too.

We take ourselves to 'know' how things will turn out when we have ruled out all of the alternative possibilities. This is not something you can often do in a battle situation. Captain Thomas is guilty of overlooking the possibility that the enemy had the ability to build an effective anti-missile battery. Worse, he had actually read about it, so really had no excuse. Yet, for all the things we remember to take into account, we know in advance that there will be many other things that we will overlook. There is only finite thinking time before we have to act.

Faced with such a robust sense of the difference between 'knowing' and 'not knowing' as illustrated by your story it is difficult to take seriously the theoretical or philosophical worry that none of the things we call 'knowledge' are worth that title. - Well, actually, I wonder about this. Because the best sceptical arguments (e.g. Glass House Philosopher page 130) make you see that there is always something 'funny' about claiming knowledge. Information may be more or less reliable. But to claim knowledge is to claim that a given piece of information is 100 per cent reliable, and not just highly reliable.

I felt that your own conclusion that there is 'no significance in philosophical scepticism in a world where wars exist, where humans are persecuted for their skin colour' etc. was a bit of a let down. Not because I disagree with the sentiment that the study of philosophy is sadly a luxury which a large proportion of the world's population must do without. That is true, but it is also true that this point affects just about any philosophical theory one might care to discuss. Scepticism is just one question amongst many.

The reason I was disappointed was that your story looked like a very effective way of raising the particular question of knowledge and its possibility. I wonder whether this may have been your first, and best thought - before you allowed your own scepticism about the value of philosophy to swamp what was a promising investigation of the practical significance of scepticism.

All the best,