A random burst of ontology and epistemology, part 1

20 November, 2007 at 7:37 pm (philosophy) (, , , )

Skepticism is a fun way to think. Global skepticism is a philosophical stance according which we can know pretty much nothing. Everyone who is not a skepticist tries, of course, to show that the skepticist is wrong. I have not seen a tight proof along those lines, as of yet. I think it is pretty futile to try, due to skepticism being right. There is precisely one thing we can know with certainty, though reasoning must be assumed to work (if it doesn’t, this entire exercise if futile, but so are any and all responses and claims of futility, so I find myself justified in assuming that reasoning does work).

The argument goes thusly: I think, therefore a thought exists.

Do note that “I” does not necessarily exist. Or the thought might be momentary; time and other measures of change may be illusions.

The skeptic can’t really touch that argument. Neither is it particularly strong argument. The existence of a world in which we live would be nice to know, for example, and would be a lot stronger claim. I just can’t figure out a way to prove it without nontrivial assumptions. This is why I will assume it and the capability of know things about it. There are further justifications for that assumption, gratefully.

It is a fact that I perceive something around me. I will call the immediate source (as opposed to the ultimate or final source, if there is such) of these perceptions a world or a reality or some word that is practically synonym thereof.

If there actually is no world, I will lose little by assuming it, because I can’t perceive whatever else there may exist (otherwise it would, by definition, be part of world, which is a contradiction). If there exists a totally irrational and random world (defined as one about which useful knowledge can’t be gained), I likewise lose little, because no matter what I assume or don’t assume, there is nothing useful I can know about it. At least trying to find patterns keeps me well amused. If a world about which something useful can be known exists, it is smart to assume so, because it is true. A world which works so that all human assumptions about it are false is contradictory, because one could assume that all human assumptions about it all false, which leads a and not a, where “a” means “all human assumptions about it are false”.

Hence, it is justified to assume that there is a world about which one can know things.


  1. Opusinsania said,

    Have you heard of Peirce’s argument against scepticism? He uses the concept of “hard facts”, and tells a story that goes a little like this:

    Once upon a time, a scepticist is walking the streets of New York. He is contemplating his latest theory of why the universe doesn’t exist, and there is nothing (except possibly himself, he being the great chap he happened to be). Being in deep thought, he doesn’t notice a busy New Yorkian walking at the opposite direction, and walks right into him. There is collision and the wise metaphysicist is at fault. The guy he walked into happens to be ill-tempered and – despite the fact that he doesn’t in all likely exist – throws a punch at the scepticist, throwing him off his feet. He gets a sore jaw, and a reminder that the universe doesn’t care what he thinks. That’s a hard fact – one that is hard to ignore, when your jaw is aching.

    There is also another thing to consider: How many scepticists are really coherent in their views? A coherent sceptist would at least once use the window instead of the door when leaving a building, if indeed, it’s all an illusion. Not many scepticists would be willing to try this in a building with, say, three or more floors? Or at least twice.

  2. Thanuir said,

    Nope, never heard that one.

    It is not exactly a proof, because evil demon/god/God/scientist/the admin of your virtual reality/the people who play you in an RPG (pick at least one) could just have created you, or made you capable of thinking, and the memory and the pain may be fake.

    The point of that argument is a good one, and fundamentally the same I did; even if we can’t have absolutely certain knowledge about things, it would be foolish not to take our perceptions into account.

  3. Calvino said,

    The problem with your brand of “skepticism” is that it is based on a deeply metaphysical notion of “knowledge” and “existence”, where there could be deep principal differences between what you think is the case and what actually is the case.

    In order to believe, for instance, that the world might not exist, one would need to believe that there is some ultimate metaphysical authority that determined whether things existed or not, forever outside the reach of human knowledge. But the concept of “existence” is a human concept, and there is no reason to assume that when we predicate “existence” on things we tacitly assume the existence of such a metaphysical authority that nods its head in approval. We are forever caught inside the world of our experience, and it is only within this world that the predicate “existence” is employed. So if you claim that the world might not exist, then I claim, on the contrary, the world exists BY DEFINITION.

    Maurice Merleau-Ponty puts this nicely in the introduction to “The Phenomenology of Perception”: “we must not […] wonder whether we really perceive a world, we must instead say: the world is what we perceive”.

  4. Tommi said,

    Good point. It raises the possibility of there being several kinds of existence.

    Damn. The entire discussion about existence, as practiced in the field of philosophy, is utterly confused mess of terminological muddles. That we can, for example, discuss and think about Tolkien’s Middle-earth implies that it exists on some level, in some way, for any (IMO) meaningful definition of existence.

    Which, now that I read it, is close to the thing you stated, but in different words.

    Whether there exists some metaphysical criterion of things really existing is a matter of definitions. I did not define much anything when writing the post. (Neither did the lecturer whose work inspired this post, so I have an excuse of naively thinking there were implied definitions there.)

  5. Calvino said,

    Well, a logical positivist would tell you that any definition that refers to some principally unreachable metaphysical domain is essentially meaningless.

    As for me, I tend to think that philosophers should worry less about playing with definitions and more about interpreting the concepts that actually shape our experience. I e, given that we actually experience something that we tend to call “existence”, what is this something, and what does it mean to us?

  6. Tommi said,

    As for me, I think philosophers should play more with definitions; the process is, define something, see if it fits the phenomenon or some other phenomenon, see what follows from that definition. If (or when) it is not satisfactory, try to reach a better one.

    Actually: In addition to, or even instead of, definitions, philosophers should be explicit about the assumptions the make. (Definitions are often, though not always, assumptions.) This would kill a lot of meaningless debate where someone presents an argument, which is attacked (criticised, elaborated, built upon, …) by other people, but what is attacked stays obscure.

    One can attack the assumptions, the reasoning, or the conclusions, though only attacking conclusions is the equivalent of saying “You are wrong. Tell me how.”. It is not very constructive (see also: a constructive proof in mathematics).

    Are there significant historical cases of people “playing with definitions” just having wandered in circles, as opposed to getting something done? I think these exist, but can’t name them, and it is annoying.

  7. theblunderbuss said,

    – Maurice Merleau-Ponty puts this nicely in the introduction to “The Phenomenology of Perception”: “we must not […] wonder whether we really perceive a world, we must instead say: the world is what we perceive”. –

    In the same vein we could argue that the fact that there might or might not be a world (in the broadest sense of the expression, as in the sureness of existence) is a lot less relevant to us than the fact that we experience something and we believe that we affect and are affected by that something. It is real because it is meaningful but it does not need to be true to be so. A confirmation of the existence of a world we live on is merely entertaining rather than useful, our lives would function pretty much the same either way (except, of course, for the effect of said confirmation in the formation of reality.)

    Which is more or less what you said in your post I guess.

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