In this article, I am going to be discussing the different positions about claiming to know or strongly opining about certain things, or even anything (dogmatism) – or not (skepticism), and arguing for my personal view – which, as you will see, leans towards the latter.
- A note on terminology
Some may shy away from the term owing to it’s negative connotations. I shall use the word “dogmatist” as described above, in the neutral sense throughout this article (sometimes interchangeably with “epistemist” or “credulist” and with clarifications about the forms being discussed) for lack of a better, similarly familiar to many, word.
The word “skepticism” has different definitions. Colloquially, it is often used to mean being strongly doubtful or inclined towards disbelief or denial or rejection. Many also use it in the above sense about many specific contemporary or controversial (Such as religious, political media, science-related, ect.) beliefs or claims and often, to denote an attitude of rationalism or “critical thinking” and scientific application more generally.
There is also the “methodological” sense of doubting claims (as per Descartes) and accepting the un-doubtable ones as knowledge. Philosophically, it is the view that it is doubtful that most things or anything can be known, or, more strongly, the suspense of judgment or not having much of a strong opinion. The philosophical sense is the one in which I shall be using the term throughout this article.
2. An overview
There are (at least) two major opinions or positions one can take on a proposition (at least in most logical and other theories, but that’s a different topic):
- Assent to or belief in it or opining in favor or accepting it as true (The exact sense of what this means is, of course, debatable) or inclination towards it, or
- Disbelief or assent to it’s negation or falsehood, denial, or strong doubt or inclination to deny it.
Now, one may also lack any opinion and, hence, doubt it’s validity or lack thereof and be neutral. It is also possible to be inclined towards a view or hold it weakly or only to a degree.
Holding a strong position as described above, or considering it easily known or as a known fact, is what is meant by “dogma”. Skepticism is the lack thereof, or holding an opinion or claimed knowledge to be doubtful or uncertain.
So there is a range of positions:
Hard or strong dogmatism or epistemism (infallibilism)-
Complete conviction or exact certainty of something (An infallible or indefeasible knowledge claim)
Moderate epistemism or moderate fallibilism –
No infallible or indefeasible knowledge claim, but a pretty strong guess is acceptable (i.e. “virtual knowledge” which is a good approximation)
Moderate (e.g. Academic or probabilistic) skepticism –
Not much is really known. Some idea is attainable, but only to a degree.
Radical skepticism (e.g. hard solipsism or Pyrrhonism)-
Nothing is known at all. Minimal (e.g. only about seemings and nothing more) or no opinions at all.
For fallibilism in general:
-That we are not infallible and our knowledge is limited, or that our methods are not 100% reliable owing to limitations. Even the most sure things, like logically necessary truths, are not exceptions to this because of the (even occasional) occurrence of human error.
-That it’s possible, maybe even plausible, for all we know, that one is in a situation – a skeptical hypothesis – where most or all of what is taken to be true about the world could well be wrong. (E.g. a dream, a brain in a vat, the “Matrix”, ect.) This is the best one in my estimation, especially as such a scenario has actually been proposed.
– The epistemic regress problem: It is proposed that, for any body of support argued to support a claim, that one can demand such support of that, and for that too, and so on leading to an infinite regress suggesting radical skepticism – the hypothesis that no belief is more well-founded than any other. This is an interesting philosophical problem. I suspect I could (somewhat) answer it’s question (Short answer: This seems to apply to objective truth. Maybe more general (not complete) truths can be inferred from one’s personal subjective stuff.), but that’s probably a topic for another post.
Anti-skeptical (for “dogmatism” ):
-That there are some sure truths (e.g. Cogito egro sum, one’s mental state and logical and mathematical truths) beyond any thinkable doubt. While these are probably the strongest ones and seem “self -evident” and it’s hard to think of anything that doesn’t presuppose them, they are not complete examples as I have shown above, since we still presuppose the reliability of our knowledge and methods which are limited. Even these things have been criticized. For instance, one’s memory can fail. There are also different theories of logic and math being debated. Even Cogito egro sum has been criticized for still presuming that there must be thinking.
-That skepticism is self-refuting (“Do you know that?”).
This is probably the weakest one against the moderate, whose position could be a weaker probabilistic guess rather than a knowledge claim. Even against the radical it is still debatable. More on this: https://anonofreason.wordpress.com/2019/07/22/skepticisms-alleged-self-refutation-refuted/
-That it is impractical: This obviously only applies to the radical. The premise that action requires belief is debatable given the other states one can have (e.g. emotions or seemings) and much of everyday action (especially of animals) is more instinctual then the result of a conscious thought-process.
Against moderate positions:
-That without certainty there is no ground for anything, such as in the method of Descartes of rejecting anything for which he could think of any even ever-so-slighty plausible scenario of being deceived about. Some have used David Hume’s argument that all probability reduces to nothing where he argued that an uncertain probabilistic estimate and such an estimate of that, and of that, and so on by adding more and more doubt leads to a regress which must either “fade away” leading to radical skepticism without any estimates at all or terminate in a sure completely undefeated foundation. This is however, it seems, mathematically unsound.
There are many different positions varying from each other, not just two. Which is why it can be very silly to lump all skeptics (or believers in most worldviews, for that matter) in together. I think a good degree of skepticism by default is by far the best position to take especially in highly controversial matters that people argue about a lot or ones where the evidence doesn’t seem clear or where there are a lot of arguments both ways. There are quite a lot of areas (like politics, religion, science, philosophy, ect.) that could use some skepticism. I shall hopefully discuss the arguments mentioned above some more in some future posts.
For more on this:
An excellent, though long, article explaining this subject probably much better than I have, albet with some complicated terms.
A formulation of the different positions about skeptical hypotheses and how they relate to ordinary propositions.
A defense of a moderate position, the “Health approach” arguing that skepticism is sometimes reasonable and sometimes it’s better to be a credulist about obvious truths.
A defense of radical skepticism containing responses to some common objections.
An article about skeptical hypotheses arguing that the skeptical challenge doesn’t matter without presupposing that the world as it seems to be is real.
A YouTuber with pretty good coverage of philosophy with a radical skeptical view.
An article arguing that it’s not just possible but actually plausible or even likely under some reasonable assumptions that this world is a simulation.