from my Dissertation
: Constructive Skepticism, Critical Thinking and the Ethics of Belief (Chapter
1, Sec 8) Ó1994
University of British Columbia
1.8 Constructive Skepticism
As we have seen, when philosophers talk
about skepticism, they are usually referring to the kind of radical or
methodological skepticism directed against epistemological claims such as the
existence of the external world, other minds and standards of rationality.
However, the speculations about the evil demon (in Descartes Meditations)
and the brain in a vat (Putnam, 1981, Chap. 1) are merely dramatic devices to
express our skeptical thoughts, our private doubts, in their most radical form.
Since there is no neutral position from which we can defend our most basic
intellectual foundations, the study of epistemology quite inevitably leads to
skeptical anxiety, including concerns about rational procedures and the
scientific method. No matter what procedures or standards we employ, how much
reflection and inquiry we engage in or how much evidence we gather, there do
not exist intellectual guarantees to prevent the possibility of error. Although
we find ourselves defending rationality and the methods of induction on their
own terms (i.e., we employ our rational procedures in their own defense), some
questions such as the reliability of our fundamental methods of inquiry can, it
seems, be rightfully begged. It seems odd to demand a justification
for rationality because the notion of justification itself is clearly a concept within rationality. Any attempt to stand outside the framework of
rationality in order to pass judgment on it requires that one remain inside, and
this is clearly incoherent.
Hence, as I will argue throughout this thesis, there are principles of
rational belief and rational action that are universal, and there are general
ways in which we can appraise institutions, practices, and world-views with
respect to their rationality without falling into ethnocentrism, relativism or
some tendentious ideological stance.
The skepticism that I will endorse is not so much a philosophical
position as it is an attitude, frame of mind or disposition - a psychological
mechanism to combat the intellectual vices of credulity and pretentious
dogmatism. I will presently use the term constructive
skeptcism to describe the skeptical temperament that entails a perspicuous conscientiousness
and judiciousness regarding demands for evidence, a
propensity to suspicion about extraordinary claims, and a desire for further
argument and persuasion than would satisfy the majority of people. It is a form
of skepticism that is not abstract, but rather selective and contextual. It
rejects the nihilism and pessimism of radical skepticism and accepts that there
is reliable knowledge about the world that can be known by rational,
epistemically responsible agents employing reliable rational methods, not only
in the sciences, but in the normative realm as well.
Constructive skepticism is a protection
against pretension, false hopes, illusion, self-deception and
"unworldliness," an acceptance of a world in which nothing is
permanent except change - and change at an ever-increasingly rapid rate. Hence,
one attempts to see the world and reality as it is now, recognizing that the future is tenuous and unpredictable, save
what science may be able to tell us. This does not mean that we must accept the
arbitrary and the contingent, although much of who we are, what we have become,
is a function of accident. As Thomas Nagel has so aptly pointed out
...two things, neither of them easy to
assimilate, strike me about my birth: its extreme contingency and its
unimportance... we are here by luck, not by right or by necessity...My own
existence or that of any other particular person is extremely gratuitous...
Just as we can't evade skepticism by denying the pretensions of our
beliefs about the world and interpreting them as entirely relative to a
subjective or personal point of view, so we can't evade the impact of objective
detachment by denying the objective pretensions of our dominant aims in life.
This would simply falsify the situation. The problem of the meaning of life is
in fact a form of skepticism at the level of motivation. We can no more abandon
our unqualified commitments at will than we can abandon our beliefs about the
world in response to skeptical arguments, however persuasive we may find them,
as Hume famously observed. Nor can we avoid either problem by refusing to take
that step outside ourselves which calls that ordinary view into question.
the choices we have made in life and must continue to make imply that we could
have chosen and can choose otherwise - we are "condemned to be free"
as Sartre has proclaimed, and we are responsible for who we are in spite of the
fact that we are always more a product of our contingency than we are of our
accomplishments. Real purpose and meaning in life can only come from within
ourselves and our immediate surroundings - our friends, our family, our work,
our recreational activities, and so on.
The constructive skeptic is a stoical
optimist who has the capacity to laugh at failures and disappointments. Although
the skeptic avoids false hopes and illusions (that stock is going higher), he
too has plans and projects that often do not come to fruition. Life is too short
to be taken too seriously since one
is at the mercy of many forces that are beyond one's control. The perfect
antidote is humor - to laugh at the stock I bought yesterday at $10 that trades
today at 50 cents. Hence, the constructive skeptic is a fallibilist who avoids
the concept of "perfection" - all life's projects are fallible,
imperfect, incomplete, human. The moral life, for example, should be construed as an appeal
to the best-reasoned ethical principles that our culture has to offer and to
view all ethical discourse as rational and contextual. One must tolerate (and
even laugh at) what is accidental and contingent, because living with what is
accidental and contingent is not a failure to achieve absolute perfection or the
transcendental, but is our normal situation. The purpose of life is life itself
and to ask for some transcendent purpose is to not know what “purpose” is;
to ask for the ultimate goal of the tennis player is to be interested in
something other than tennis.
The constructive skeptic rarely contemplates
extremes such as suicide because he accepts his fate (perhaps after some crying)
with stoical resignation and humor - life must go on. But the life of the
constructive skeptic is the life of reason; a rational person can examine means
and ends and, hence, exercise some personal control regarding his future and the
future of those to whom he is responsible. The life of reason is the rejection
of the attempt to remain ignorant. The constructive skeptic is suspicious of a
priori theories, grand metaphysical or utopian schemes, and "salvation
plans." Oversimplified views of the world and ideological abstractions,
including oversimplified solutions to real human problems are to be distrusted,
as are appeals to absolute, transcendent or immutable closed systems of thought
(absolute truth, absolute choice, absolute authority, absolute knowledge,
absolute ethical principles, absolute reality, absolute life, etc.). Man's
search for absolutes is an attempt to escape intellectual and moral
responsibility - to escape life, the negation of reality.
Many postmodernist philosophers have
rejected the rational tradition of the Enlightenment simply because its project
has not resulted in perfection, utopia or the absolute. We cannot entirely
reject our traditions and social practices merely because we doubt their
efficacy. Although all beliefs are
subject to critical scrutiny, choice requires an appeal to an existing structure
of mores, accumulated reliable knowledge, social practices. A revolution, for
example, rarely works because we end up sinking "Neurath's boat."
Criticism is, above all, conflict between social practices. To be capable of
constructive criticism of social practices and institutions, one must know
social practices and institutions, as well as rules of rational discourse.
Because they are asking people to change, the burden of proof for reformulation
or rejection of existing social mores and practices must always be on the
advocates of change. The constructive skeptic, however, rejects the unexamined
belief in the status quo and further rejects the acceptance of the premise that
we are prisoners within our own "language games" or "conceptual
scheme" (I will deal with this issue later in the thesis). All
beliefs, values and social institutions are subject to criticism. The
constructive skeptic is also critically aware of authority, in a world in which
one is increasingly dependent on experts and specialists rather than direct
personal experience and thinking for oneself (perhaps real personal
experience is becoming obsolete).
Constructive skepticism is not
equivalent to cynicism, pessimism, lack of hope, relativism, or nihilism. But
neither is it a resigned acceptance of the Leibnitzian "best of all
possible worlds." Evil and suffering do not exist, as apologists like
Leibnitz have claimed, so that one can come to understand the "Good"!
The constructive skeptic avoids the intemperance of seeing the world through
"rose-tinted spectacles." In any event, the universe is morally
neutral and indifferent to our plans, projects and values. Value and meaning in
life are not externally imposed a priori,
and even if they were, our existence can, in the relevant sense of
"end", "purpose" or "meaning" have no other end,
purpose of meaning than what we as responsible human beings give it by our own
deliberate rational choices, decisions and value judgments.
And as Thomas Nagel has written, "What makes doubt inescapable with regard
to the limited aims of life also make it inescapable with regard to any larger
purpose that encourages the sense that life is meaningful."
We do not eo ipso establish that
something is good or ought to be done by discovering that I or others approve of
it, like it, desire it, ought to do it, strive for it, seek it, and the like.
Moreover, "X is good" and "Y ought to be done" cannot be
inferred from "That transcendent entity whom we call Z says X is good"
or "Z wills Y" unless we independently judge that whatever Z says is good is good
or whatever Z says ought to be done.
Constructive skepticism does not dismiss
Metaphysics. Rationality does not and likely will not give us all the answers to
our questions and problems. Metaphysics is the cognitive department of
"realms of the unknown" - the "awe factor." Metaphysics is
the realization of infinite speculative possibility, that our knowledge is
never complete and our problems never completely "solved." A major
part of being human is to be faced with problems, enduring problems that are
never really "solved," but only dealt with or perhaps mitigated. As
John Dewey has pointed out, we are always looking at ends that ultimately become
means to further ends, and we are continuously dealing with unfinished business.
Problems never have only one solution, and one who gives only one solution to a
problem and who thinks he has solved the problem easily or absolutely falls prey
to self-satisfied dogmatism.
the constructive skeptic, Metaphysics is not the unreflective acceptance of a priori or authoritatively given world views; nor is it the
creation of immutable and absolutist systems of thought so that we can resign
ourselves to the comforts, consolations and "certainty" of a closed
system. Metaphysics is the attempt to understand, to make sense of the world, to
see, as best we can, how things really are,
to get things right, and not to escape reality by engaging in quixotic quests
for certainty. Metaphysical theories are, as John Kekes has stated, not
"gratuitous speculations of idle minds, but passionate attempts to make
sense out of reality."
An adequate metaphysical theory must provide a rational, conceptually coherent, and comprehensive interpretation
and explanation of how things really are, a reasonable view of reality and man's
place in it. The possession of such a world-view is an essential component of
the humanistic outlook and makes rational action possible. Plausible, yet
facile, superficial and highly speculative transcendental world-views are often
a function of dogmatism, self-deception or unreflective wishful thinking.
Outlandish forms of transcendent, supernatural metaphysical theorizing should
heed Wittgenstein's closing words of the Tractatus, namely, "Whereof
one cannot speak, thereof one must remain silent." Speculative theories
should be falsifiable and subject to criticism by experience and
experimentation. The fabrication of vague, ambiguous ontological entities and
propositions that have no way of being tested are vacuous. It is difficult to
conceive of a bona fide fact claim with no empirical consequences and if the
more conceptually oriented approaches to metaphysics do not work either, there
is an excellent case for incoherence.
I have come to believe that people can be
placed in three main "metaphysical camps": First, there are people who
take the world for granted, or: A what you see is what you get and it is obvious
that is how it is and talking about it is not going to change anything, and so
why bother? Metaphysics is a waste of time so let's get on with our lives. This
appears to be the outlook of most people.
Second, there are the religious (in the "theological" or
"ecclesiastical" sense). To Christians and Moslems, for example, this
life is a preparation for better things to come which will be satisfied by the
God who has made them and this world, has given them immortal souls, and their
purpose and meaning in life can be discovered only through God. All the
questions, contradictions, paradoxes, ironies and "accidents" of this
world can be explained by the Almighty - He has all the answers. Thus, we should
quit pestering ourselves with questions and put our faith and trust in Him. Our
questions will only be answered when we die. The attitude of this group I find
as complacent and incurious as the first; they simply offer different reasons
for evading the real problems and questions of life, and equally do not really
seem to feel the problems. They have subdued themselves into a smug sense of
security with a story which may or may not be true but which they have no
serious evidence or grounds for believing.
Third, there is the group who condemn the
previous two groups for their credulity and intellectual slothfulness. This
third group is in awe of the very fact of our existence and possess a natural
curiosity about the mysteries of the universe, refusing to accept simplistic
answers and explanations. This group questions both the way things are and our
traditional social and religious beliefs. They challenge the adherents of the
other two groups for proof or at least good evidence, justification or argument.
Within this group are two subsets or subgroups. Subgroup1 is the
group who believe that everything is explicable and solvable at the bar of
reason, that rational inquiry will eventually answer all our questions. However,
they forget that the perplexity and insolvency of most pressing human problems
are brought into existence by the application of rational thought and seemingly
cannot be removed by it. This unreflective "faith" in the power of
reason tends to elevate rationality to the status of a religion or ideology. If
there is a God, however, His gift of reason is surely His greatest gift; but it
is not an infallible one. Subgroup2 agree with the criticisms that
subgroup1 directs at the previous two groups and accepts rationality
as our most valuable and useful human attribute, but they maintain a stance of
skepticism, fallibilism and humility concerning both what we claim to know and
the sovereignty of rationality. It is my contention that we should, as
educators, encourage and foster in our students the attributes and dispositions
characteristic of subgroup2, the group within which a constructive
skeptic would be found.
References: Kekes, John (1976) A Justification of Rationality. Albany: State
University of New York.
Nagel, Thomas (1979) Mortal Questions. New York: Cambridge
Nagel, Thomas (1986) The View From Nowhere. New York: Oxford
Trigg, Roger (1973) Reason and Commitment. London: Cambridge