What is skepticism? You are probably familiar with the word “skeptical.” Skeptics are those who doubt everything. The worst part is that they have a good case for it. But what could be the arguments of skepticism?
Skepticism (from the Greek σκεπτικός, skeptikos, “who examines”), also called Pyrrhonism, is an ancient Greek philosophy and method that compares and opposes all things in order to achieve the tranquility (ἀταραξία, ataraxia) of the soul (ψυχή, psyche). For example, the Pyrrhonian skeptic says that nothing is true or false, neither true and false at the same time, and not even this last sentence because it is opposed to itself.
“Skepticism is a faculty and a method which serves to examine, which compares and opposes, in all possible ways, the apparent things, or sensitive, and those which are perceived by the understanding; by means of which faculty we arrive (because of the equal weight which is in things or in opposing reasons) first to the epochè, that is to say to the suspension of the assent, and then to ataraxia, that is, freedom from trouble, peace of mind. » (Pyrrhonian Sketches, Book 1, Sextus Empiricus).
Skeptics Divide Philosophy Into Three:
– Dogmatic are those who claim to have found the truth;
– Academics are those who dogmatically claim that the truth is incomprehensible (and therefore include itself in the previous category);
– Skeptics are those who are always looking. The latter is opposed to the two preceding ones because it is adogmatic. (Pyrrhonian Sketches, Book 1). Note, however, this paradox: they cannot prove that everything is false. Because then they would at least have this certainty, that of knowing nothing! So Socrates is not skeptical, for he knows at least one thing: “All I know is that I don’t know anything.”
The real skeptic doesn’t even say he doesn’t know anything. He’s not even sure he doesn’t know anything! Rather, he will have to say, like Montaigne: “What do I know?” ”
This paradox being seen, let us move on to the presentation of the skeptical arguments.
I – The Arguments of Skepticism
1. The First Group of the Arguments of Skepticism-the Sense Is Deceptive
The simplest idea is that our knowledge comes from the senses: I see it is raining, therefore I know it is raining. Now, say the skeptics, the senses are no guarantee of truth, for they are deceptive.
“Deception” Is the First Reason for the Arguments of Skepticism
For example, we are often deceived: a stick immersed in water seems broken; the sun looks as big as a coin; many optical illusions mislead us.
“Interpretation” Is the Second Reason for the Arguments of Skepticism
In fact, the object is constructed by our mind from the sensations it interprets. So what is it that shows us that there are no other possible interpretations, more “true” than ours?
“On the contrary, the world, for us, has become infinite again, in the sense that we cannot rule out the possibility that it contains within it an infinity of interpretations. We are seized with the great shudder.” Friedrich Nietzsche, Le Gai knowledge, p.374
“Missing Meaning” Is the Third Reason for the Arguments of Skepticism
Likewise, we can assume that we are missing some meaning. The blind, for example, know only a part of the world that we know. What proves to us that we ourselves are not blind, and that there are no hidden dimensions of the world that we ignore? This is what modern physics reveals, which invites us to design a space that does not have 3 dimensions, but 11 or 26.
“Dream Hypothesis” Is the Fourth Reason for the Arguments of Skepticism
In addition, sometimes we dream: that is, we perceive when there is no object to perceive.
So if our senses sometimes deceive us, what is it that shows us that they don’t always deceive us?
“Subjectivity of Sensation” Is the Fifth Reason for the Arguments of Skepticism
Besides, they always cheat on us. Indeed, each sensation results from the interaction between object and subject, between the world and my body. For example, the sun is shining, it interacts with my eye, producing a mental image, and it is this image that I perceive. This image is therefore produced by the sun and by myself: a fly or a dog perceives the sun in a completely different way! We can even say that this perception says more about myself, about my body than about the sun. In other words, all sensation is subjective.
2. The Second Group of the Arguments of Skepticism- Everything Changes
The second big argument: not only are our senses deceptive, but in addition, the world itself is unknowable, because it is unstable: everything is in perpetual flux, “everything flows”. Heraclitus, an old pre-Socratic poet, and philosopher are one of the first to express this idea:
“You can’t go down the same river twice.” Heraclitus, Fragments, p.91
“The sun is new every day.” Heraclitus, Fragments, p.6
We Find It at Montaigne:
“The world is only a perennial shackle: All things are constantly shaking there, the earth, the rocks of the Caucasus, the pyramids of Egypt: and public commotion, and theirs. Even constancy is nothing else than a more languid motion. I cannot assure my object: it goes cloudy and tottering, with a natural intoxication. I take it at this point, as it is, at the moment that I am having fun with it. do not paint being, I paint the passage: not a passage from age to another, or as the people say, from seven to seven years, but from day to day, from minute to minute. time.” Montaigne, Essays, III, 2
How, then, to know anything since nothing lasts?
Strictly speaking, this is impossible: the most fundamental logical principle, the principle of identity, which states that everything is identical to itself, is simply false if we take into account the perpetual change of things. In other words, time poses a fundamental problem for thought, because it spontaneously places itself outside time.
3. The Third Group of the Arguments of Skepticism-Everything Is Different
Likewise, skeptics were keenly aware of the difference between things. There are no two things exactly the same in this world.
“The resemblance does not make so much, one, as the difference does, other. Nature has forced herself to do nothing other, which is not dissimilar.” Montaigne, Essays, III, 13
“The diversity is so ample, that all the tones of voice, all the walkers, coughers, fly birds … We can distinguish between fruits, grapes, and, between them all, muscats, and then Condrieu, and then Desargues, and then this ente. Is that all? Has it ever produced two similar clusters? And does a cluster have two identical kernels? Etc. ” Pascal, Thoughts, ed. Brunschvicg, p.114
Finally, Nietzsche, who was a great skeptic, sums up all these doubts in a few words, along with a few others that we have not mentioned:
“There are many of those erroneous articles of faith which, passed down by inheritance, ended up becoming a kind of common stock of the human species, for example: that there are enduring and identical things, that there are objects, materials, bodies, that a thing is what it appears to be, that our will is free, that what is good for some is good in itself. ” Nietzsche, Le Gai savoir, p.110
II – Counter-Arguments How to solve these problems? Here are some counter-arguments:
1. The Senses Are Not Misleading
Of course, the senses are sometimes misleading, but they are also the ones that allow us to correct the error. Being the source of both error and truth, they cannot be dismissed as a whole, and they should be relied upon nonetheless. Plus we don’t have anything else to use instead!
The idea that there would be other interpretations is perhaps the most difficult to fight. But we can already notice that the interpretations are sometimes limited: for example, to project a two-dimensional image in a three-dimensional space, there are only two possibilities.
Let’s add that among several interpretations we can always choose the simplest or the most useful. However, we must admit that this solution does not prove to us that the truth is not in another, more complex interpretation. The door to discovery remains open. But the “simpler” interpretation then remains valid, at least as a first approximation, in exactly the same way that Newtonian physics remains valid with very good precision for the most common phenomena, although Einstein’s interpretation is actually closer to the “truth”.
On the idea of missing meaning, I think we have a good argument to make against the skeptics. Certainly, we could miss many senses. Besides, we know very well that we do not perceive all electromagnetic waves, for example. Among them, we only perceive those that have a certain wavelength (the colors of the rainbow). We do not perceive infrared (like snakes), ultraviolet, radio waves, or ultrasound (like bats). But precisely, we nevertheless know all these waves! How? ‘Or’ What? Thanks to the technique and the measuring instruments that allow us to detect them.
That is, anything that interacts with our world can be detected by the “domino effect”. If a phenomenon really exists, we can perceive it through its interaction with a known phenomenon, just like a blind man who “sees the relief of the ground” through his cane. So the only phenomena to which we do not have access are those which would be in a “parallel world”, that is to say, a world that would absolutely not interact with our own.
In addition, there is an important difference between deceiving sometimes and always deceiving. It has a precise meaning to say that the senses deceive us on occasion: because we can indicate what would be, in the given situation, the “good” feeling, the right feeling. But what meaning is there in saying that our senses “always” deceive us, for example, that we are dreaming or living in the “matrix”? Because then we have no yardstick and don’t even know what a “right feeling” would be. In fact, there is no right feeling because the only “right feeling” would be to wake up, that is, to leave this life.
Last but not least, it is not the senses that deceive us but our mind. A sense (the eye, for example) is a pure mechanism. Therefore he cannot lie, because a mechanism says nothing. A hammer doesn’t lie; at worst, it’s broken. It is from our mind that the error comes, because it misinterprets the data of the senses, as in the case of mirage: my eye tells me that such and such a bluish ray of light comes from the ground, which is true; but my mind concludes that there is an oasis there, which is not true.
Subjectivity of Sensation
Finally, concerning the subjectivity of sensation: of course, my sensation is subjective. But the relations between the sensations are objective. For example, if I perceive green grass, this color is “subjective”: it is created by my brain, and I cannot say that this color objectively exists in the outside world.
It could also be that others perceive what everyone calls “green” in the same way that I perceive what everyone calls “blue” … And there would be no way to realize this inversion of the spectrum of colors unless you get into the other’s head to “see” what he perceives!
So I cannot say that the feeling reveals something objective to me. But on the other hand, the similarities and the differences between my sensations are necessarily objective! For example, the differences in color that I perceive cannot come from my mind, which remains the same: they must come from things that change. So, if I perceive the grass and the leaves in green, and the sky in blue, that does not mean that these colors are objective, but it at least means that the grass and the leaves have the same unknown property, that the sky does not have.
Mathematization: This is a matter of partial derivative. The sensation is a function of the subject (s) and the object (o), so we can write: Sensation = f (s, o)
Conversely, if we vary s (we ask different people how they perceive the same object), the differences will have to be imputed to the subjects. So these are subjective differences. In short, to say it in Chinese:
∂f (s, o) / ∂o = objective
∂f (s, o) / ∂s = subjective
So, even if we “dream”, even if we are locked into our sensations, we can still have access to the “thing in itself”, to objective knowledge, because the relationships between our sensations are necessarily objective.
It’s like the unemployment rate: even if the indicator is completely rigged by the government, its variations reflect objective variations – provided that the methodology for calculating the rate does not change over the period, of course.
2. Identity and Analogy
Let’s come to the idea of change. Here again, we have several arguments to oppose the skeptics.
First, we always swim in the same “river”. It is true that the river is a perpetual flow, but what we call a “river” is not a precise being but a phenomenon, a moving and fluctuating whole.
Likewise, we may well call a cat a cat, although there are no two identical cats: for even if they are not identical cats are sufficiently similar and are distinguished enough from dogs and other animals to be able to be grouped together in the same species and called by the same name. That’s all we need to be able to use a word. Using a concept does not assume identity but only analogy.
Let us add that the laws of motion (discovered only at the end of the 16th century by Galileo) allow us to overcome this objection because we see that the flow is not chaos: it obeys a law. Moreover, Heraclitus himself seemed to recognize this:
“This world, the same for all beings, none of the gods nor of the men created it; but it has always been, it is and it will be an ever-living fire, kindling in measure and extinguishing with measure. ” Heraclitus, Fragments, p.30