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 Excerpt from my Dissertation : Constructive Skepticism, Critical Thinking and the Ethics of Belief (Chapter 1, Sec 8) Ó 1994 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.[1] 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.[2]

All 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."[3] 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.[4] 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."[5] 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.[6]    

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.              

   To 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."[7] 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.

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References: Kekes, John (1976) A Justification of Rationality. Albany: State University of New York.

                           Nagel, Thomas (1979) Mortal Questions. New York: Cambridge University Press

                           Nagel, Thomas (1986) The View From Nowhere. New York: Oxford  University Press

                            Trigg, Roger (1973) Reason and Commitment. London: Cambridge University Press. 

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    [1] Roger Trigg (1973), p. 149.

    [2] Thomas Nagel (1986), pp. 211, 213, 218.

  [3] Neurath’s boat is an anti-foundationalist, coherentist epistemic stance originated by Otto Neurath and later adopted by Quine. In this powerful metaphor a system of beliefs is compared to a boat that must be repaired at sea so that we are never able to start at the bottom. Any part can be replaced, provided there is enough of the rest on which to remain afloat.

    [4] To say that our lives can be viewed sub specie aeternitatis  and given some external meaning or purpose can only provide an explanation of the facts of existence - it cannot offer a justification of these facts. There is no essential difference, for example, between a teleological explanation of events and a mechanical explanation. Teleological explanations of human behaviour are irreducible because in explaining, teleologically or other­wise, we are still showing how things are; we are not providing any justifi­cation. In any event, is it really compatible with human dignity to be made for something? What you are for is an insult! Finally, is it not infantile to go on looking for some authority, some order, that will lift all the burden of creativity and decision from you?

    [5] Thomas Nagel (1979), p. 17.

    [6] Many theists assert that ethics cannot do without religion because the very meaning of "good" is nothing other than "what God approves", thus reducing ethics to a mere tautology. Plato, in the Euthyphro, refuted similar claims more than 2000 years ago by arguing that if the gods approve of some actions it must be because those actions are good, in which case it cannot be the god's approval that makes them good. The moral irrelevance of the appeal to authority can be brought out best, perhaps, in this way: If there is a God who is the source of moral commands then either God had reasons for commanding what he did or he did not. If God has no reasons for giving the commands he does, there does not seem to be any good reason why we should obey them other than our fear of His power. This latter view reduces ethics to prudence and makes divine approval entirely arbitrary: if God approves torture of innocent children and disapproves of honesty then torture of innocent children would have been good and honesty bad. But if God commands something because it is good, this implies that something can be good independently of God. Why? Because "God commands it because it is good" implies that God apprehends it to be good and then tells us to do it. But if God does this then it is at least logically possible for us to see or in some way know or come to appreciate that it is good without God's telling us to do it.

    [7] John Kekes (1976), p. 241.



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