A Case for Scepticism


On Being Uncertain:
A Case for Scepticism
by Sean Gabb
2004

I will write nothing yet again about the great issues of the day. I will instead respond to several of my readers who objected to my confession of scepticism in my last piece about ghosts. I am asked how I can be a sceptic when our knowledge of the world is based on such sure foundations. How can I deny the obvious, and so join myself to the nihilists whose own course of doubt ends in the various kinds of political correctness, and whose denial of reality in earlier generations cleared the way for the gulag and the holocaust?

My answer is that the probability of a belief is not determined by its alleged consequences. As for nihilism, I am not devoid of belief. I have strong beliefs, indeed, on just about every subject. I am a sceptic in the sense that I do not believe rational certainty to be possible in any of these subjects. In arguing this, I do not pretend to originality. Nor do I claim that this will be an academically useful essay. I am writing while sat on a railway train, far away from my books. If I draw on the thoughts of Plato, Lucretius, Cicero, Sextus Empiricus, Descartes, Berkeley and Hume, it is without consulting them on any point, and often without having read them for many years. I will use and conflate and alter the ideas of others as I see fit to argue my case. This being said, I will begin.

First, I take the existence of an external world. I perceive a stream of sensory impressions. I see shifting patterns of colours, and hear sounds, and feel heat and cold and soft and hard; and I have sensations of taste and smell. But I cannot know for sure if these impressions are in any sense related to an external reality independent of my perceiving it. I have had dreams in which I do not for a moment suppose any immediate connection between the things perceived and their existence outside my mind. It may be argued that the impressions of my waking life are different in both intensity and internal coherence from those when I am asleep. I disagree. I have had dreams quite as vivid and my waking experiences. As for continuity, I seldom notice any carrying over of memories between one dream and another. I recall them all afterwards as fragments. In each of them, though, I generally have the same awareness as I have now of a permanent state of affairs.

It is not inconceivable that I am now dreaming—or, to use the modern terminology, to say this does not imply any contradiction. Or I could be some vastly superior being—God, perhaps—who has grown bored with perfection, and like, the Thetans of Scientology, has created an imaginary universe in which to divert himself. Or, to connect myself for a moment with the popular culture, I could be imprisoned in a bottle and plugged into a computer that feeds me a stream of perceptions of a world that my gaolers destroyed a very long time ago, or that never existed in the first place. I have no means of knowing anything for sure about the world.

Even assuming that the world does exist, I cannot know that I perceive it as you do. What I see as blue, you may see as red. What you smell as a rose, I may smell as mown hay. The words we attach to impressions are conventional in their meaning, and all that matters is that we use them consistently. Just as when I see the first number written, I say “one” to myself, and a Frenchman says “un”, and a Slovak “jeden”, so the words attached to things may not describe the same impressions on all our minds. This may also apply to shapes and even ideas. I cannot tell.

Even assuming further, that the world exists and that we all perceive it in much the same way, we cannot be sure why it behaves as it does, or how long it will continue so to behave. It may be that the apparent connections between events that we call cause and effect are derived from a set of universal laws. Or it may be that nothing exists but atoms moving at random, and that these have temporarily come together into an appearance of stability vastly more unlikely than throwing a million double sixes at dice. Again, this is not inconceivable, and so it is possible. This conjunction may last for a long time to come, or it may end a moment from now—or it may continue, but with unexpected changes in the sequence of events. All our science is grounded on observed regularities, and no amount of clever reasoning from the laws thereby derived can strengthen this grounding. Just because the sun rose yesterday gives no rational certainty that it will rise tomorrow, or that it will rise in the east. We believe that it will rise, but cannot do more than believe.

In the second place, there are the truths of reflection. If I take thought, I seem to know that two and two make four and neither five nor three, and that the square of the side of a triangle opposite a right angle is equal to the sum of the square of the other two sides. But I cannot know these things for sure.

I cannot know them because I cannot know to what degree I exist. I can say with Descartes “I think, therefore I am”, which is an undisputable proposition. But it is undisputable only in the present moment that I conceive the idea. It gives me no surety that I shall exist a moment later, or that I existed a moment before. Again to connect myself with the popular culture, I might be a replicant, brought into being quite recently, but given apparently true recollection of events from before then. Or I might be the purchaser of an extended holiday from the Rekall Corporation—though if so, I shall want a refund when I wake. Yet again, none of these possibilities is inconceivable; and what can be conceived can be.

This being so, I cannot be sure of the truth of any complex reasoning. If I try to examine the theorem of Pythagoras, for example, the larger part of my reasoning is remembered from a time that may not have existed, and what I conclude in the present may rest on a delusion. Even if I have existed as long as I believe I have, I may be the victim of some force that systematically diverts my thinking from its logical course, so that I always reach a false conclusion. I once dreamed that I had found the internal angles of a triangle not to be equal to 180 degrees. I once dreamed, indeed, that I could see the music of Beethoven flowing through a plastic tube. On each occasion, I was filled with a sense of absolute conviction, though I cannot now say exactly how these things appeared—I recall my descriptions on waking, not the things described—I cannot be sure that what I conceive awake is not also deluded.

It goes without saying that all the trivial analytic truths alleged against scepticism are also to be doubted. The same object may well be able to exist in two places at the same time. When two things are equal to something else, they may not be equal to each other. Not all bachelors may be unmarried men.

So where does this leave us? Does it justify us in believing that nothing exists or that nothing matters? Does it mean that it is not wrong for me to murder my neighbour and rape his wife before sending her to be worked to death in a labour camp? Or that the world view of radical Islam is no worse than that of western liberalism? Or that all knowledge—not excepting the laws of motion—is socially constructed to serve some ideology of repression? I do not think so.

Faced with the apparent reality and consistency of things, I feel no choice but to believe in them—or perhaps I just choose to believe in them. I believe that you exist, and that the whole universe exists as I experience it or as it is persuasively explained to me. I also believe in the validity of clearly conceived ideas. I cannot know these things in the sense that a philosophical rationalist claims to know them, but I see no reason not to believe in them.

From this, it follows that, if we feel any benevolence for our fellow creatures, there are fairly obvious ways of adding to the common stock of happiness. People should be left, so far as possible in the given circumstances, to mind their own affairs. Given that we are left to mind ourselves, there is a large body of experience on which we can draw to minimise our chances of personal unhappiness or the hatred of others from which this often proceeds. We have fair reason to know what is the good life and how to achieve it. So long as it tastes good, does it matter if our dinner really and truly exists? So long as I love her, does it matter if my wife may vanish every time I look away from her?

Only when it is defined as an absolute and undeniable certainty does knowledge become a problem. It is no problem at all, so long as we rely on the evidence of our senses and judge this according to our common sense. That gives us all the knowledge of which we are capable, and all that we need for the improvement of ourselves and of the world around us.

There may be nothing more suited to making the world into a nightmare than an ideology that claims a rational certainty to its conclusions. When disagreement is seen as proof of imperfection or of malevolence, the call for persecution is never far behind. Above the metaphorical entrance to every good society that has ever existed has been inscribed the words “Nothing too much”.

I am a sceptic and a libertarian and a conservative; and these are connected views of the world. I do accept the need for occasional unpleasantness to others. I would send a man to prison for theft; and if I doubt the value of hanging a man for murder, I do believe in the right to shoot him if I catch him uninvited in my house at night. If I can be persuaded that it is for the defence of the community to which I belong, and that no unavoidably horrible consequences will follow, I accept the use of weapons of mass destruction. But I do all this in the belief that I may be wrong, and that I may one day regret all this, or be held up to universal infamy. I see tolerance as a virtue, and I welcome diversity of lifestyle. I think I know roughly what is best for people, but would never presume to impose it on them —unless to prevent them from interfering with the legitimate rights of others.

There—to the best of my ability, and as briefly as I can, I have made my case for scepticism. I only wish I could make a convert of Tony Blair. While nothing can undo the crimes he has already committed, I know as surely as I need to that the world would be a better place in future could it be spared more of his smug, murderous conviction.

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38 responses to “A Case for Scepticism

  1. An interesting essay. As an absolute subjectivist (and thus the negative space of a Randian, philosophically), I often muse on these issues myself. The one part I think is highly questionable is-

    there are fairly obvious ways of adding to the common stock of happiness. People should be left, so far as possible in the given circumstances, to mind their own affairs.

    As a libertarian, I agree with this. But our whole argument with our fellow men boils down to the problem that most of them do not believe this, and instead that greater happiness will be achieved by arbitrary restraint of the human passions by the State (or, among some libertarians, by a Church, “civil society” or other repressive system). So it comes down to a matter of proof of this assertion in order to persuade others. Most people are informal utilitarians whether we like it or not, so we need powerful proofs that liberty will improve the common stock of happiness. I was just thinking last week that it would be very nice if there were a proof that “if each invidiual seeks to maximise their own happiness, the aggregate happiness will be maximised” since that would answer the Benthamites, but I know of no such proof.

    On the subject of dreams, a couple of points. I seem to have a lot of vivid dreams, which seems to be because (a) I might be a bit mad (b) I smoke quite a lot, and nicotine causes vivid dreaming and (c) I suffer from persistent migraines which seem to addle me somewhat in the brain department. I’ll get back to that. I’ve had a couple of dreams of late that have quite shaken me.

    The first was a dream in which I suspected I was dreaming and, being “me” just as much there as here, I applied my reason and (a) checked whether everything “felt” normal. And it did. And (b) whether I had that “yes I’m awake feeling”. That one you get when you wake up and know for sure it’s reality. And, rather worryingly, I did have that feeling. And then a bit later, of course, I woke up. Feeling profoundly disconcerted.

    The other one was very weird. As I said, I suffer a lot of migraines. Fortunately, rarely any pain, but I do get spectacular auras- visual hallucinations in particular, sometimes accompanied by strange, otherworldy mental states. I still know who I am, and all that, but “feel” very different. I once had to go out for a walk in the middle of the night to prove the world was still there, because I had (during the aura) ceased to entirely believe it existed. This kind of thing might be why I am entirely convinced that the human mind is simply a machine (and thus, though it is upsetting to some, entirely deterministic in operation) since mine malfunctions on a regular basis and then “me” is not the same “me” as I was an hour before.

    But anyway, this dream. I had a migraine aura during it. I have never had that before. In the dream, I was in a supermarket, and the visual aura -it’s called a fortification spectra, if anyone’s interested, here’s a visual representation (scroll down past barmy article)-

    http://sacredsalamander.wordpress.com/2010/01/13/kundalini-surges/

    – was visible in the dream such that in the dream supermarket, I couldn’t see the things on the shelves properly and had to ask another dream shopper what the price was (this I remember from it). And then I woke up, and the aura was still running. So, I wasn’t dreaming of having an aura, I was really having one.

    The problem is that these auras are simple shapes, everyone has much the same, and geometric. One doesn’t hallucinate complex objects like horses or houses or even cubes and spheres. It’s two dimensional, just a flat flashing area in the way of what you’re trying to see. So as someone interested in the biology of perception, I have always presumed that they occur in a relatively early stage of visual processing, when everything is still “pixels” and has not yet been decoded into “objects” which we conceptualise. But I have also always assumed that dreams do not use that part of the visual cortex at all; when I “see” a horse in a dream, it’s just conjuring up the concept of a horse in the “thinking” part of the brain.

    So, how could I see the migraine aura? It was actually interposed between the things I was “seeing” in the dream and my perception of them. I simply cannot think of an ordering of the mechanism of the brain that could achieve this effect. It’s really puzzling me. And again, leaves me wondering how much I can rely on my perceptions to be representative of reality.

  2. Being a solipsist myself, I can’t take any of you very seriously.

  3. Julie near Chicago

    Rob, as a solipsist, your remark implies that you also don’t take yourself seriously. Since we are all products of you, that is.

    Nothing wrong with that, of course.

    Still, since you don’t take yourself seriously, you don’t take any of your thoughts or ideas seriously, including your solipsism.

    So therefore you’re not a solipsist.

    Nothing wrong with that either. :>)

    • Julie, I’m selective in my solipsism – I’ll allow your existence, but I’m confused by Messrs Gabb and Blake.

  4. Julie near Chicago

    Well, Rob, I thank Your Graciousness most truly for Your Dispensation. It’s quite uncomfortable, having an unAuthorized existence.

    It’s very tempting to say that Messrs. Gabb and Blake would confuse anyone. Especially when the nature of non-existence is being discussed.

  5. Paul Marks

    A libertarian holds that certain things are true.

    Firstly that we exist – it is bit pointless to talk any further if we do not exist.

    That we are reasoning subjects (objects – but not just objects) that we can determine some of out actions – CHOOSE.

    Again it is pointless to talk about libertarianism if there are no agents – pointless to talk about freedom of choice if there is no is no possibility of real choice.

    And that it is wrong (morally wrong) to aggress against other agents (other beings). Hence the nonaggression principle.

    That we can choose to rob, rape and murder, – but that such actions are morally wrong, so we should make the effort to resist them (to choose not to do these things).

    Is all the above “objectively” true, or are these things we “subjectively” assume to be true?

    Perhaps it does not matter if we call them “objectively true” or “subjectively true” – as long as we follow these principles.

  6. Paul Marks

    Rob – “Mr Blake” is an interesting case.

    C.S. Lewis argued (briefly) that fictional stories are “lies – even if they are lies breathed through silver” – but Tolkien corrected him (and Jack Lewis accepted the correction) by pointing out that there was no intention to deceive in an openly fictional story. The story teller was acting as a “sub creator” (the Creator Himself being God – in Tolkien view) creating a fictional world (but not a liar – as there was no real pretence that the world was real).

    However. historical novels (which Sean Gabb tends to concentrate on) are a grey area.

    Some historical novelists do not stress enough that though their works may include the names of real historical figures – the actual people whose names they use did not do things they describe.

    I am NOT saying that Sean falls into that trap (I am not an expert on his work) – but it is a trap that a lot of historical novelists have fallen into.

    Nor is it just a case of books – most people now get their ideas of history from films and fictional television series.

    Watching an openly fictional series such as “Game of Thrones” should not distort people’s view of history (although, oddly enough, sometimes it does) – “so the bankers were in charge even the Middle Ages, no King could get away with a default” and other nonsense)..

    But watching a fictional series set in the Roman Empire which implies (for example) that most people in a typical Roman town were slaves is certainly going to distort some people’s view of the past.

    Even in Italy (where slaves were most common) it is simply not true that most people in an average town were slaves.

    One reason why slave revolts were never successful is because they were revolts of a MINORITY.

    Also how common it was for slaves to become Freedmen (and remember the children of Freedmen were full Roman Citizens) is rather downplayed in historical fiction.

    And this is just one of the very many dangers of historical fiction.

    Of course all of the above assumes there is such a thing as real history – and that we can have knowledge of it.

    As such different thinkers as Collingwood and Oakeshott have argued – this is a very bold assumption.

    The Cambridge (and LSE) man Oakeshott came to conclusion that old Oxford man Cook Wilson was correct – that history was about “past events” and that it was possible to have knowledge of it.

    Oxford man Collingwood comes to far less clear conclusions – arguing (for example) that we can only understand the deeds of past people if they “solved their problems” and (thus) became part of our (own) present thoughts.

    This seems to exclude the possibility that a past “great thinker” can ever just have been flat wrong – yet still understandable.

    So Collingwood was faced with the (false) choice of either saying that the thought of Karl Marx could not be understood (because he had not “solved his problems”) or was (in some sense) correct – and Collingwood choose the latter alternative, declaring that Karl Marx was “exceptionally strong” in economic history (but that there were other aspects of history such as ………),in fact Karl Marx was NOT “exceptionally strong” in economic history (he got it wrong) – but then, in the Collingwood scheme, we could not understand what Karl Marx is saying (as it would not have “solved his problems” and thus become part of our PRESENT thoughts).

    Collingwood goes as far as to apply his scheme to military history – saying that as the French Admiral has lost the battle of Trafalgar we “could not know what his plan was”.

    Actually the plan of the French Admiral was quite simple – form a standard of line of battle and hope that superiority in numbers won the day (although he had doubts about whether it would – due to the greater experience of the smaller Royal Navy fleet he faced).

    But Collingwood can not say that – for reasons of philosophical scepticism (or his odd version of it).

    We can (according to Collingwood) only know our present thoughts and experiences (what about memory?) and thus only know about the doings of people in the past if they have become part of our present thoughts by “solving their problems”.

    So I (according to Collingwood) can not say that Pompey’s plan was to pin Caesar’s infantry in the centre and use his (Pompey’s) superior numbers in cavalry to attack Caesar’s army in the flanks and rear.

    [By the way that is exactly what I would have done – and I would have LOST against Caesar as well].

    According the Collingwood scheme (his weird version of scepticism) Pompey did not “solve his problems” (and thus become part of us in the PRESENT – by adding himself to our present thoughts) so we can not know what his plan was. Even if Pompey had left us a detailed “battle plan” titled “My Battle Plan Is As Follows” we could not know what his plan was – because he did not win the battle (“solve his problems”) just as we can only understand the thoughts of a thinker such as Hegel (or Marx) if they are correct – if they have “solved their problems” and become part of us in the present.

    When I first read this (as a lad) I assumed that Collingwood had gone mad – at least by the time he wrote the “Autobiography”.

  7. Sean, sorry to disappoint. But it’s May, not April 1st.

    (To those who don’t understand; read, and parse, the second paragraph again).

  8. IanB–You would seem an ideal candidate to develop lucid dreams. I am surprised that someone as erudite and well-read as yourself does not seem to have heard of them.

  9. Ecks I have. I’ve had a few. But I can never know whether I’m really lucid in the dream, or just dreaming that I am. I have occasionally been able to deliberately wake myself to escape one.

  10. Why would you want to escape one?. I have been trying for years to get into them with limited success. In fact I am shortly going on a lucid dream retreat with some Tibetan Buddhists in the hope of making a few breakthroughs.
    The late psychologist Stan Gooch writes about lucid dreams in his book “The Double Helix of the Mind”. Although he was an atheist miserablist like yourself (nothing personal when I say that) he recommended lucid dreams very highly –it was that book that first introduced me to the idea. He later wrote another tome called “Cities of Dreams” which I rushed out to get thinking it was more about dreams–but it turned out to be his theories about Neanderthal man and thus was a disappointment.

  11. Because in my experience I found it disturbing and upsetting. In my twenties I went through a phase of having these awful dreams where, over and over, I’d realise I was in a dream, “wake up” from it, only a little later to realise I was dreaming again, “wake up”… It was horrible.

    I also have a very vivid recurring one involving an ex-girlfriend and a street with very wide pavements, onto which everyone is moving their furniture out of their houses, all the way along the seemingly infinite straight road. I presume it’s the memory of our unpleasant breakup, and moving out of the flat we shared. Always gives me the willies, that one.

  12. Julie near Chicago

    Lucid dreaming: Mr. Ecks, it’s quite uncomfortable. For one thing, there’s generally something “off” about the scenario in which we find ourselves, something that doesn’t quite make sense even though it may be quite a pleasant situation (for instance, my husband and parents are alive after all!). For another, that particular kind of “unconsciousness” or perhaps better, “quasi-consciousness” doesn’t cooperate with an urge that we feel to .. how shall I put it … be “fully THERE.” In short, you know you’re dreaming, you have a strong urge to wake up (yes, “urge,” not always a deliberate thing), and you can’t.

    Being truly awake feels entirely different. Even if we don’t have words to explain the difference, it is there and we recognize it. We may not have words for why we feel “warmer” in the sun than in the shade, but the fact itself is clear. I wouldn’t conclude that there’s no such thing as “temperature” just because I can’t find the words to differentiate amongst different degrees of it.

    Actually, I’ve often thought that our brains are given to storytelling, to making up narratives to go along with or “explain” the mental experiences we’re having, be they mental images or movies, or whatever. But when we’re sleeping, the monitor in our heads that tries to keep our thoughts straight and reasonable (if not strictly logical) is off duty. So the narratives in sleep may seem to make sense, but in the cold light of day they don’t hang together very well.

    Lucid dreaming…trying to wake up…it can feel as if you’re trying to swim through Jell-o or something, so no matter how hard you swim you can’t get anywhere. Like being in a trap, or held down by restraints, and no matter how you struggle to get free, you can’t accomplish it.

    Actually, when this happens to me I usually have one lucid dream that’s not bothersome, and then, as I’m “falling back to sleep” I realize that I wasn’t really awake after all. Then there’s a second, with maybe a little more uncomfortable overtone, and this time of course I’m awake for real. –Or, wait! I guess I wasn’t! I’m phasing into yet another one, and this time I know for sure I want OUT of this dreadful condition (however pleasant the dream itself). I get into sleep again, and for how long I don’t know but it really feels like a tiny length of time, and then I really do wake up. With a sense of relief relief relief!

  13. Paul Marks

    How alarming Ian.

    Neil – Sean’s second paragraph.

    Actually it is a common fault – and it is to Sean’s credit that he admits it.

    This business of not accurately reflecting what previous thinkers (that one cites) actually thought – just the thoughts that naming them gives rise to in OURSELVES.

    One does not to have to be a total sceptic to understand that it is actually rather difficult to work out (and then remember) what various people actually thought (it is much easier just to go with the thoughts that the sound of their name reminds us of).

    F. H. Hayek admitted the same fault – when a thinker was named he (Hayek) remembered what thoughts reading that thinker had led to in HIM (Hayek) not-so-much the thoughts of the thinkers themselves.

  14. Julie, I agree about the storytelling. It seems that during dream sleep, the brain is shuffling memories and experiences around, and it may be that the “storytelling unit” is simply trying to make sense of disordered data. A little like an improvisational performance where members of the audience have to say what happens next, and the cast must then incorporate that into their ongoing acted narrative.

  15. Julie near Chicago

    Paul, interesting comments all, but I’m particularly struck by your observation that even when we know perfectly well that we’re reading or seeing fiction that claims not a particle of truth, bits of it can lodge in our minds as true and thereby color our views of the real world, past and present.*

    I think this is very true. Powerful in the case of drama, because you’re seeing and hearing, no imagination required. Powerful in the case of books, because we all “know” that if it is in a book then it is true. There tends to be some residuum of that belief from when we started “book-learning,” I think, no matter how intellectually mature we’ve become. Oh, we may question non-fiction works (philosophy, history, anthropology, whatever), but when it’s fiction it can sort of slither into the cracks in our brains and lie there waiting … waiting ….

    *On re-reading, I guess you didn’t say that after all. But what you did say prompted me to think of what I said. ;)

    In any case, the history you give is interesting and a good corrective to misapprehensions about Roman slavery.

  16. Julie near Chicago

    Ian, it is a very rare and gratifying experience to learn that someone has understood you perfectly!

    Thanks a bunch, you’ve made my day! :>)))

  17. Julie near Chicago

    Paul, another great point of yours, and very true of me as well as Hayek. Not only that, but I suspect I’ve observed this in quite a few others as well.

    Can lead to the well-known “knee-jerk reflex.”

  18. Paul Marks

    Julie – that is why fiction is so powerful.

    And why (for example) that “little” rule change at the FCC in the early 1960s (that, de facto, gave a strangle hold on television fiction to the left – ironically in the name of “editorial freedom” by forbidding any old company just paying to have their own television series broadcast) is important.

    The “creative” people (at ABC, CBS and NBC – and now Fox entertainment, a very different beast from Fox News) were put in charge, Whereas before any company (a coal company anything) could just produce anything it liked – and push it on the basis of sponsorship and advertising (whilst keeping editorial control).

  19. Paul Marks

    Yes Julie – not just Hayek and not just Sean Gabb, just about everyone.

    Including me.

    The first thought is the memory of the thoughts that reading X led to – one has to fight to get beyond that (if one wants to).

  20. Julie near Chicago

    Interestingly, I saw a day or two ago a video of (perhaps; I might be mixed up on this) Ilya Shapiro with Somebody Schmidt on the Cato website. It was a debate put on by the American Constitution Society, which is the Progressives’ and Leftists’ answer to The Federalist Society. The topic was “Constitution Violations of the Obama Administration.”

    Regardless of the actors and the venue, the point is the same:

    The Proggie gets into the issue of child labor laws, union laws, Lochner,, food inspection and safety laws, etc., and how they were necessary at the time. Then he says, his voice shaking with passionate intensity, “Just read Upton Sinclair’s book The Jungle to see how dreadful conditions were!” Mr. Shapiro (if it was he) holds his temper and his tongue until it’s his turn to speak, but then he jumps in with both feet: “The Jungle! That book is a novel! It’s Fiction!

  21. Paul Marks

    Mr Sinclair (whose novel set off the Panic that led to the FDA) was a dedicated socialist – a bit of a problem for the “libertarian” left who like to pretend that the FDA was created to benefit big business (of course business enterprises will seek to benefit from the FDA – but they will also seek to benefit from the weather, it does not mean they created the weather, the logical fallacy at the base of the L.L. position).

    Now let us assume that every word that the novelist Upton Sinclair wrote was true – why the assumption that government edicts would improve matters for the workers?

    Wages and conditions are determined by supply and conditions and (contrary to the LLs) were a lot WORSE in the Founding Ear (the time of Washington and so on) than they were in early 1900s Chicago (people came to the United States from all over the world because wages and conditions of work were LESS bad than elsewhere).

    The idea that wages and conditions were not as good as people would like because of wicked “capitalists” (no doubt with big noses and names such as “Mr Cohen”) rubbing their hands as they grinded the faces of the poor is childish nonsense. In reality wages and conditions of work were determined by the level of economic development (technology and so on) that existed at the time.

    A government edict (to try and ARTIFICIALLY improve wages and conditions of work above the market level) will either be ignored, or will lead to higher UNEMPLOYMENT.

  22. Julie near Chicago

    You mean Big Oil and Big Pharma and Big Food don’t create the weather? *puzzled expression*

    It’s all a plot, I tell you. An evil plot by Republican trillionaires.

  23. Julie- that anecdote about The Jungle is a good one. It made me think of my frustration with The Lord Of The Flies. People treat it like it actually happened, rather than it being the fictional creation of one man’s mind, like it’s the slam-dunk proof of mankind’s Hobbesian nature. Drives me mad, that does.

    People forget that a story about a bunch of boys on a desert island who organise a functional, stable community wouldn’t make very exciting reading.

  24. Paul Marks

    Ian – there are books about people ship wreaked on a desert island who make the best of things (one was even produced with the backing of the Conservative Research Department back in the 1950s – to show that voluntary trading of skills on the island would work better than people being told what to do, but I can not remember the title), but you are right most readers want the blood-and-guts not Mr Jones was good at making shelters but less good at fishing, whereas Miss Jones was not so good at making shelters, but better at fishing ……..

    Julie…

    One Jew sees another Jew reading a Nazi newspaper.

    “”Why are you reading that ….?”

    “Well [says the Jew reading the Nazi newspaper] among friends I keep hearing terrible things – but this newspaper is different, it says we are very powerful indeed that we RULE THE WORLD, I find it very comforting”.

    As American businessmen wake up each morning wondering if (in spite of all the PROTECTION MONEY they pay) some arbitrary regulation is going to wreak their business – I suspect that (in an odd way) they find the “Occupy” drivel comforting.

    “Look we have got nothing to worry about – these clever college kids say we are very powerful, that we RULE THE WORLD, it is so comforting”.

  25. Julie near Chicago

    Ian,
    You’re not going to want to associate with me anymore since my brow is so low it’s under my feet — but I’m probably the only person in the English-speaking UNIVERSE who hasn’t read The Lord of the Flies. [But, she added brightly, I know who wrote it.]

    It gets worse. I also never read The Catcher in the Rye.. :(
    But I do know somebody named Holden Caulfield is in it. :)

    Generally speaking, Good noose is no noose. Even in a fiction book. However, one does want a happy ending. :>))

    Paul,
    It is miraculous in a negative sort of way, is it not. How people can be sensible enough to run successful businesses and yet have such a capacity to kid themselves.

  26. Julie, you clearly haven’t read my comments closely enough. If I stand for anything, it’s the low brow. :)

    As to TLOTF, I had to study it for O Level (an exam at 16yo that’s now been replaced by the GCSELGBTQsomethingorother) English Lit, and have hated the damned thing ever since. Possibly because the teacher clearly thought it held profound truths about the nature of humankind, and that’s what we were supposed to think, and I thought it was pure speculative bilge of an unconvincing and possbly pederastic nature.

    I didn’t get on with her, she tried to get me suspended from school, largely because I spent every single Eng Lit class arguing with her at every turn, since it was quite plain to me that every assessment of subtext is subjective, and most of her analyses were what we now call politically correct barmcakery.

    I still got an “A” grade in the exam, which pissed her off no end.

    I’ve never read Catcher In The Rye, though.

  27. Julie near Chicago

    LOL! “Living well [or being successful] is the best revenge.” It’s de troof.

    As for CitR and LotF, one of us is clearly one-up on the other. In this case I think it’s me. ;)

  28. Paul Marks

    Ian – you have some interesting supporters.

    For example Casey (Merton Oxford) also supports “low brow” literature – as he argues that what passes for “high brow” literature in the modern world is mostly pretentious …….

  29. Paul Marks

    Julie the latest example (example of the rich idiot) is the hedge fund manager who is donating 50 million Dollars to candidates and campaigns who are against (for example) the Keystone pipeline.

    As far as I can tell he does not have a financial interest in the trains that carry the oil instead of the pipeline (unlike Warren Buffett – who really is a corrupt corporate welfare man), and carrying the oil by train or truck means MORE (not less) C02 emissions.

    The Californian hedge fund man is very successful financially – yet he is also an idiot.

    There seems to be no connection between the ability to make money and COMMON SENSE.

  30. Julie near Chicago

    Paul, this one I hadn’t heard about. I wish I could say I’m shocked, but, well…. Man moves in mysterious ways, his nitwittery to perform.

    I still can’t comprehend how Jim Rogers can square living in Singapore with his alleged libertarianism. I can’t understand understand how John Mackey (Whole Foods) squares being what amounts to a Georgist (and Social Democrat) with being a “libertarian.” I can’t understand how libertarian libertarians can think Mackey is a libertarian. I mean, just because you walk on two feet doesn’t mean you’re a human.

    But *sigh* … I guess in general people who are very good in their own little area of endeavor are often downright foolish when they stray off the reservation. Ignorance, reinforced by lack of interest or of time or of both; the wish to “belong”; the wish to act the way they think successful people act; a bit of a case of Swelled Head; plain human cussedness.

    • Julie near Chicago

      But in fairness, Mr. Mackey is apparently not entirely out to lunch. I just ran across this 2010 posting from Climate Realists, at

      http://climaterealists.com/index.php?tid=489&linkbox=true :

      You Could Not Make It Up: Budweiser: The Beer of Climate Change Deniers?

      Monday, January 11th 2010, 2:45 PM EST

      When Whole Foods founder John Mackey revealed himself to be a climate change skeptic in a New Yorker profile last month, the punishment was swift. Outrage from Whole Foods’ key demographic–affluent, ecologically-minded eaters–was apparently the proverbial last straw that compelled the company to remove Mackey as CEO.

      Mackey’s ouster showed the power of carbon footprint-conscious foodies to influence a corporation. Now, it’s time for all the lager-lovers who support low-impact living to step up to the plate–or, rather, the bar–to demand better from Anheuser-Busch.

      If you’re still drinking Budweiser, Michelob, Rolling Rock, or any other brew marketed by Anheuser-Busch, you’re inadvertently bankrolling a company that continues to stand by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce despite its ongoing efforts to thwart any efforts to address global warming. Will Budweiser become the brew of choice for the “Drill, Baby, Drill” crowd?

      Click source for more and drink a cool long cold Budweiser, and cheers to John Mackey

  31. Paul, I think you’re thinking of John Carey. I broadly agree with what he’s said about it, which is not so much against highbrow as against the creation of deliberately baffling writing and art by pseuds (e.g. Finnegan’s Wake) purely to exclude ordinary people. Modern and conceptual art being another example.

  32. Paul Marks

    Yes Ian – John Carey. I used to know these things – alas for old age (especially after a rather bad life that has left me older. more decayed, than my years).

    Julie yes – the rich are often not knitting elaborate plots, they are just nitwits (like the mega rich hedge fund man).

    Still there may be method in their madness, after all no one has been removed from a business position for their LEFTIST political opinions.

    Mr Mackey created the business enterprise know as Whole Foods – he has been removed because of his political opinions.

    The left are ruthless they do things like this whenever they can – they can not be reasoned with and they no honour. They are like rabid dogs – yet filled with a terrible cunning.

    This is why it ENRAGES me when some libertarians join in the kicking, cheering on the P.C. Legion with little “humour” articles.

    It is also an argument against corporations.

    Corporations are not the powerful creatures of Hollywood films (or the left “libertarian” fantasies).

    Actually Corporations are, too often, cowardly collections of nobodies.

    And the Corporate form gives them COVER for their cowardice.

    “Sorry ….. – you know how long we have been friends, you gave me my first jobs when you were building this company, but I HAVE TO vote to remove you, it is my corporate DUTY to do so…. I am sure you understand”.

    I understand only too well – you rat.

    Sell shares and you sell CONTROL.

    And even if you own a MAJORITY of shares (and so think you control the company) you can find a Board you appointed voting AGAINST you (and the courts backing them up)_.

    The legal doctrine being that your behaviour (for example say you used the “n word” when reading an old paint catalogue as in “n…. brown”). devalued the shares of the minority shareholders – so you have to go (kicked out of your own company).

    Henry Ford got round this problem (back in the interwar period) by owning 100% of the Ford Motor Company (there were no minority shareholders – he learned the hard way that lawyers would use them to attack him).

    But if you are going to own 100% of the shares there is no point in being a corporation – as you will not be raising any capital.

    And (these days in the United States) taxes and regulations on Corporations are actually WORSE than for an individually owned business enterprise.

    Of course you risk personal bankruptcy if you and the business are one and the same (no corporate shield of limited liability).

    But that is better than “you have used a bad word in a private conversation at home – so you must now leave the building and hand over everything”.

    As for the American way of organising team sports – with “franchises” and so on (top down, rather than bottom up).

    Well I can find no libertarian reason to oppose (as long as people are aware that American TEAM sports are actually entertainment things) – but I do get some Ian-like feelings when I thin about it.

    Still as the person said in the “”Wild Bunch” when told that “baseball is a America’s sport”…….

    “Sir America’s sport is shooting – it always has been and it always will be”.

  33. I have just seen this stint by Sean on scepticism.

    The sceptics were right that there can never be any foundations to any of our ideas. No true observation amounted to more than an assumption; nor did any valid argument. All will agree with the sceptics of 2500 years back than a mere assumption cannot back up, or justify, so justification never did, nor never will, exist.

    But the sceptics were utterly wrong on our ability to suspend any belief, for as all belief is automatic this no more to do with our choice, or what we want, than is any food that we digest, or fail to. We can choose to eat but never to afterwards digest. Similarly, we choose to speak but not to think, still less to believe. Clearly, we do not believe all that we think.

    In the hard sense that I am concerned with here, to believe is to be certain of what we believe. But no actual belief lasts longer than a bit of fresh air does. We use beliefs in action just as we use the air we inhale and we need to doubt between beliefs just as much we need to exhale. Belief is cognitive rather than on the autonomic nervous system [ANS] but it is just as automatic. Thus no one is really responsible for his beliefs but only for whatever he says.

    The mere word” belief” has many other uses in English, in particular that something might be so, but we are not certain. This meaning is not really germane here nor is the use of English as a topic. Only the hard sense of certainty as belief is germane here. We all have it at any waking time, just as we all use air at all times.

    We can all see that we cannot control our beliefs by mere introspection.

    No belief is any more stable than an intake of fresh air. We use it then use our senses to see how things are currently with the next thing that we want to do. Our senses aid us in making fresh beliefs in all that we do. If anyone of our senses were damaged we would be in practical trouble just because fresh beliefs are needed in all that we want to do.
    In debate, our beliefs are usually involved with putting a case rather than whether we still think the case we do put forward is true. We listen then reply. We will haply think over the case put to us later. We do our best to counter it at the moment.

    Sometimes we can see that we have been refuted, if we are, at once but it is more likely that we will only see that later.
    Descartes invented a most unreal theatrical epistemological type of certainty that not only he lacked, but that was not of this world. Real psychological certainty exists, it is just belief, but it is not germane to any fact, as it is just an automatic assumption that might as well be false as well as true. Any assumption risks falsehood as well as having a chance of truth.

    Common sense sees we risk error with assumptions but is tends to overlook that assumption is the sole way to truth too. Common sense is very unfair on mere assumptions. Assumptions have no rivals as a means t5 the truth or knowledge but many do not realise that fact. But common sense is right that any assumption risks falsehood.

    Hence we all do have the very dire epistemological problem of how we can know anything. The answer is that we always know by mere assumption but we can err by assumption too. So we often need to re-check.

    We all do believe there is a common external world out there. Belief in this sense feels certain. But there is no Descartes-like rival epistemological certainty. Certainty is just a common feeling that we all have.

    We do have dreams but in what way do dreams suggest a lack of an external world? We are not using our senses to see what in happening while we are asleep but that does not suggest there is no world at all.

    Few write in their dreams so it is not likely that you were dreaming when you wrote on scepticism, Sean. To dream that you are writing rarely gets something we can put up ion the Internet, so we know you were not dreaming when you wrote on scepticism.

    Mere assumptions are a means to knowledge, indeed the only means to knowledge. We can be sure of what we know, and we often are, but knowledge does not require any feeling of sureness. Nor can mere doubt clear out what we know, as Descartes had it in his book. Doubt is simply irrelevant to knowledge. A lot of student doubters discover that when they worry in doubt prior to the college examinations but still do quite well once they begin writing.

    Again, we do know that the world is common to one and all, again by mere assumption. It hardly matters that we experience the world differently, or even that a few of us truly are colour blind, or see colours differently. That sort of thing cannot negate the idea that he world is common to us. We know that different animals see different aspects of the world, but it is sheer hyperbole to say they thereby live in a different world, though it is often said. People are free to say what they like, but never to believe as they like; or ever to dodge all feelings of certainty or belief. Belief is quite automatic.
    Science is not grounded at all. Nor does it need to be.

    What we can conceive, or imagine, is no strong test of reality. Fiction is normally coherent but that hardly means it is not fiction after all.

    Again, it hardly matters to you knowing that 2+2=4 whether you feel sure of it, or not, Sean. Feeling sure is nothing to do with actual knowledge, or truth, but you might as well note that you usually do feel sure about it before we move on, as you might, thereby, realise the falseness of saying that you cannot be sure of it, for you often are, Sean; and ditto most other people. We all know that about other people by mere assumption.

    There are no propositions that are indisputable and almost any book on Descartes will dispute “I think therefore I am” for you.

    Why do you think that existence is a matter of degree? Descartes big error was that doubt matters much. If I doubt that I exist that will have no affect whatsoever on the fact that I exist and nor can doubt ever matter very much in any case at all.

    You end up imagining that you have a choice in belief despite also truly saying that you have no choice in belief, Sean.

    We do have the epistemological problem with all knowledge. It means we often need to check, as best as we can. It has nothing to do with pristine liberalism of complete social liberty for one and all.

    Absolute assumptions are no worse than non-absolute assumptions. The idea that they are seems to be mere daft dogma; very common but also very stupid. Truth is absolute, in every case, for example. Truth is also usually very trivial and mundane. Most truth is not worth talking about, but philosophers use it in their talks as examples of what the truth is like e.g. I have only had one cup of tea today before 5pm Monday, 12 May 2014.

    As you admit that common sense is enough to know, you are no sceptic at all. Sean.

    I have never been a sceptic though I admitted at once they got observation and argument right. It was their silly idea of suspending belief that was as unreal for me, as it was for them too. but they lacked the whit to realise it, despite all their experience to the contrary for hardly has any human gone a waking hour free of some belief.

    But the sceptics were quite right to use free speech to deny in mere philosophy their own experience. We can often get the truth by an assumption way beyond our experience, but they failed to do so on belief. They said false things but they stimulated thought, I suppose. And philosophy is to stimulate thought as well as to try for the truth.

    Anyway, we can say whatever we like: free speech if never free thought or free belief. I can tolerate the confusion in the sceptics with ease.

    What was wrong about Blair was the state and politics, It was not anything to do with epistemology, or even wider philosophy. It is the power he once had, not his mere beliefs or even his values. Real tax cuts [nationalised money is a problem, as it allows taxation by the backdoor by inflation] will lower that power; and no taxes at all will get rid of it.

    .