A Case for Scepticism

From Free Life, Issue 17, January 1993
ISSN: 0260 5112

Christopher Hookway
Routledge, London, 1992, 251 pp., £12.50
(ISBN 0 415 08764 3(pbk))

The beginning of scepticism is to realise that I cannot be sure if material objects really exist. I can, for example, take up my snuff box. What do I perceive? I see an area of colour bounded by other colours. I feel a smooth hardness. I smell menthol. If I open the box and carry a pinch of snuff to my nose, I can describe further sensations, culminating in a brief but intense burning, followed by an agreeable change in my way of conceiving and ordering ideas. At all times, I perceive impressions of a snuff box, never the thing itself.

This is not an idle distinction, since I have often in dreams experienced all the normal impressions of an object without once later supposing that a real object had actually been there. For at least this reason, then, impressions and the objects to which they may refer are logically separable.

I can object that the sequence of impressions, together with my repeated experience of their harmonious combination, indicates a substratum of existence. This, however, brings me to a more radical scepticism. I have to consider that my memory of the past may be defective, or that events which I have always taken as causally related are in fact only accidentally conjoined.

If I go one stage further, and conceive that my logical faculties are systematically defective – so that I conclude two and two to be four when it is actually something else, and am unable even to discover where I am going wrong – I find myself in a state of almost total uncertainty. I am left certain only of my own present existence. All else is open to doubt – the origin of my perceptions, their meaning, even my own existence in the past.

The progress of scepticism between Pyrrho and Hume is one of the most interesting parts of the history of philosophy. Despite two thousand years of often hysterical effort, the sceptical arguments are irrefutable: they seem, paradoxically, to be the only sure knowledge of which we are capable.

Mr Hookway has provided an excellent account and analysis of these arguments; and I gladly recommend his book to anyone who feels disinclined to read Sextus Empiricus – who is an insufferably dull writer – or Descartes or Hume. It is better, of course, to read these writers in their own words. But, if that is not possible, it is better to read about them in an informed source than to read the casual, and sometimes distorted, accounts to be found in many of the standard philosophical textbooks.

I have just one objection to what Mr Hookway has written. He concludes that scepticism ceases to be an active intellectual problem if we adopt a more modest notion of knowledge – that is, if we abandon the Cartesian claim that before it can be useful, knowledge must be certain, and accept that certainty is neither possible nor necessary for the knowledge that we require. For example, I do not need to be certain that you exist, or that a railway train speeding towards me exists. I need only to believe that it is useful for me to accept their existence, and then forget about sceptical cavils, just as I forget that the Sun, strictly speaking, does not rise, but is brought to my notice by the movement of the Earth.

This is so, and it has been practically accepted, or even propagated, by all the great sceptics. Mr Hookway seems not to have realised that the best use of the sceptical arguments is not to make us doubt that our dinner really is in front of us, or that Darwin had no reason to hypothesise about a natural world of which he had no perfectly secure knowledge. They can be so used, and quite often are; but such uses serve no valuable purpose. Their best use is instead to rule out certain kinds of knowledge. In the negative sense, this compels us to frame our explanations of the world in a manner that takes account of how narrow are the bounds of human understanding. In the positive sense, it can greatly reduce the causes of human unhappiness.

The kinds of knowledge traditionally ruled out have been religious. God is a being of whom we normally have no direct knowledge. Visions aside – and these are outside rational argument in any case – there are two ways of demonstrating His existence. The first is to reason from the harmony and nature of His creation. The second is to define Him into existence by analysing the meaning of certain concepts. Scepticism undermines both these attempts. The empirical attempt fails as soon as we realise how little we know for sure about the world: certain conclusions cannot be reached from uncertain premises; and a merely contingent knowledge of God’s existence is at least psychologically unsatisfactory – more so, certainly, than a contingent knowledge of my snuff box. The purely rational method fails – never mind the related empirical criticisms – once we start asking how secure any chain of reasoning can be.

Other kinds of such knowledge, however, are the political dogmatisms. For some time past, humanity has been plagued by fanatical doctrines that have driven many of their followers into murderous frenzies. Scepticism can have the same deflating effect on political as it has long had on religious fanaticism. It is perhaps no accident that Marxism evolved and flourished in an age and places where formal scepticism was unfashionable. It may equally be no accident that the decline of academic socialism in the English-speaking world coincides far more exactly with the renewed interest in scepticism than with the the perceived failures of socialism in practice.

But I have said enough. I can only continue repeating, that Hookway is well worth reading.

Sean Gabb

4 responses to “A Case for Scepticism

  1. A lot of good stuff here.

    However, as regards the physical world, should not the burden-of-proof be on the doubter?

    Why should someone who believes the physical world exists have to “prove” it to an incredibly high level of proof, not the person who denies the evidence of the senses?

    Should not the sceptic (as most do) operate on the assumption “well all this could be an illusion – but it most likely is not an illusion and I am going to proceed on the basis that it is real”?

    As for logical truths (such as the law of idenity – A is A) if we seriously doubt them – well then madness is at the end of that road.

    Although, yes, be careful of trusting the claimed results of “logical reasoning” – as the smallest mistake in one’s assumptions can lead to radically false conclusions (more and more false as one goes down the road of reasoning from the false assumption).

    Think “Hitch Hikers Guide the Galaxy” stuff.

    Or just being one degree out – and then going for a thousand miles.

  2. By the way I wish academic socialism was in decline.

    Under new names (such as “Critical Theory” – which is critical of everything bar socialism, i.e. is disguised socialism) it seems to be as strong as ever.

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