Is There such a Thing as Unreasonable
Scepticism? Give Examples
People hate sceptics far more than they hate the passionate advocates of opinions hostile to their own.
The hardest of hard data are of two sorts: the particular facts of sense, and the general truths of logic. The more we reflect upon these, the more we realize exactly what they are, and exactly what a doubt concerning them really means, the more luminously certain do they become. Verbal doubt concerning even these is possible, but verbal doubt may occur when what is nominally being doubted is not really in our thoughts, and only words are actually present to our minds. Real doubt, in these two cases, would, I think, be pathological. At any rate, to me they seem quite certain, and I shall assume that you agree with me in this. Without this assumption, we are in danger of falling into that universal scepticism which, as we saw, is as barren as it is irrefutable.
Let us take an illustration. You look out of the window, and observe that you can see three houses. You turn back into the room and say “three houses are visible from the window.” The kind of sceptic that I have in mind would say “you mean three houses were visible.” You would reply “but they can’t have vanished in this little moment.” You might look again and say “yes, there they are still.” The sceptic would retort: “I grant that when you looked again they were there again, but what makes you think they had been there in the interval?” You would only be able to say “because I see them whenever I look.” The sceptic would say “then you ought to infer that they are caused by your looking.” You will never succeed in getting any evidence against this view, because you can’t find out what the houses look like when no one is looking at them.
I do not think it is possible to get anywhere if we start from scepticism. We must start from a broad acceptance of whatever seems to be knowledge and is not rejected for some specific reason. Hypothetical scepticism is useful in logical dissection. It enables us to see how far we can get without this or that premise—as, for example, we can inquire how much of geometry is possible without the axiom of parallels. But it is only for such purposes that hypothetical scepticism is useful.
We assume that perception can cause knowledge, although it may cause error if we are logically careless. Without this fundamental assumption, we should be reduced to complete scepticism as regards the empirical world. No arguments are logically possible either for or against complete scepticism, which must be admitted to be one among possible philosophies. It is, however, too short and simple to be interesting. I shall, therefore, without more ado, develop the opposite hypothesis, according to which beliefs caused by perception are to be accepted unless there are positive grounds for rejecting them.
The young sceptic says, “I have a right to think for myself.” But the old sceptic, the complete sceptic, says, “I have no right to think for myself. I have no right to think at all.” Man, by a blind instinct, knew that if once things were wildly questioned, reason could be questioned first. More undemonstrable, more supernatural than all [is] the authority of a man to think... In so far as religion is gone, reason is going. For they are both of the same primary and authoritative kind. They are both methods of proof which cannot themselves be proved... With a long and sustained tug we have attempted to pull the mitre off pontifical man; and his head has come off with it.
G. K. Chesterton
Better risk loss of truth than chance of error,—that is your faith-vetoer’s exact position. He is actively playing his stake as much as the believer is; he is backing the field against the religious hypothesis, just as the believer is backing the religious hypothesis against the field... It is not intellect against all passions, then; it is only intellect with one passion laying down its law.
William James (from The Will to Believe)
She believed in nothing; only her scepticism kept her from being an atheist.
When we speak of philosophy as a criticism of knowledge, it is necessary to impose a certain limitation. If we adopt the attitude of the complete sceptic, placing ourselves wholly outside all knowledge, and asking, from this outside position, to be compelled to return within the circle of knowledge, we are demanding what is impossible, and our scepticism can never be refuted. For all refutation must begin with some piece of knowledge which the disputants share; from blank doubt, no argument can begin. Hence the criticism of knowledge which philosophy employs must not be of this destructive kind, if any result is to be achieved. Against this absolute scepticism, no logical argument can be advanced. But it is not difficult to see that scepticism of this kind is unreasonable. Descartes’s ‘methodical doubt,’ with which modern philosophy began, is not of this kind, but is rather the kind of criticism which we are asserting to be the essence of philosophy. His ‘methodical doubt’ consisted in doubting whatever seemed doubtful; in pausing, with each apparent piece of knowledge, to ask himself whether, on reflection, he could feel certain that he really knew it. This is the kind of criticism which constitutes philosophy.
The famous cogito ergo sum—“I think, therefore I am”—does not carry the mathematical certainty that Descartes attributed to it. The sceptical exercises by which he challenged our common-place perceptions and the familiar propositions of our common sense cannot be brought to a halt so easily. If we follow in Descartes’s footsteps, rigorously demanding absolute certainty, we will end with accepting the reality, not of an enduring thinking subject, but of something far “thinner” and much less satisfying—a moment of isolated sentience, of truncated consciousness.
Mathematics and the stars consoled me when the human world seemed empty of comfort. But changes in my philosophy have robbed me of such consolations. It seemed that what we had thought of as laws of nature were only linguistic conventions, and that physics was not really concerned with an external world. I do not mean that I quite believed this, but that it became a haunting nightmare, increasingly invading my imagination.
Fundamental scepticism, where it is fully believed, is a pathological condition and calls for intervention and help of the psychiatric kind.
Thoughts about Scepticism
Agnosticism is always an admirable thing, so long as it admits that the thing which it does not understand may be much superior to the mind which does not understand it.
G. K. Chesterton
I am too much of a sceptic to deny the possibility of anything.
T. H. Huxley
I can’t stand people who will not believe anything because it might be false nor deny anything because it might be true.
George Bernard Shaw
In some ways we should be more sceptical of our moral sentiments once we realize that they are the byproducts of evolution. And, as far as we know, they are morally arbitrary.
It is clear that unless civilisation is built on truisms, it is not built at all. Clearly, there could be no safety for a society in which the remark by the Chief Justice that murder was wrong was regarded as an original and dazzling epigram.
G. K. Chesterton
It is not certain that everything is uncertain.
If (as I said to my friend, furiously brandishing an empty bottle) it is impossible intellectually to entertain certainty, what is this certainty which it is impossible to entertain? If I have never experienced such a thing as certainty I cannot even say that a thing is not certain. Similarly, if I have never experienced such a thing as green I cannot even say that my nose is not green. It may be as green as possible for all I know, if I have really no experience of greenness.
G. K. Chesterton
Modern scepticism is on its guard against the word ‘truth.’ But nobody will object if it is understood to denote the illumination accompanying the contact of our mind with what we call realities.
Let us not pretend to doubt in philosophy what we do not doubt in our hearts.
C. S. Peirce
Not all possibilities commend themselves to us equally. To some we are led by rational considerations and processes of reasoned argument. Others are purely arbitrary postulates.
Suppose the absurd were true?
Scepticism can quickly reach a point where it becomes meaningless to talk of the alternatives of reason and faith. Reason itself becomes a matter of faith. It becomes an act of faith to assert that our thoughts have any relation to reality at all.
The hope of understanding the world is itself one of those daydreams which science tends to dissipate. There is little but prejudice and habit to be said for the view that there is a world at all.
The arguments of the sceptic are, says Hume, valid. But only theoretically. Having conceded their validity as arguments he drives home the point that it is impossible for anyone actually to live as a sceptic.
No sceptic who believes that truth is subjective has any hesitation about treating it as objective. No determinist who thinks his mind was made up for him by heredity and environment has any hesitation in making up his mind. All sceptics without exception work on the principle that it is possible to assume in practice what it is not possible to believe in theory.
You cannot fancy a more sceptical world than one in which men doubt if there is a world, a world in which men ask themselves if they have any selves.
G. K. Chesterton
If these primordial sanities can be disturbed, the whole of practical life can be disturbed with them. Men can be frozen by fatalism, or crazed by anarchism, or driven to death by pessimism; for men will not go on indefinitely acting on what they feel to be a fable.
G. K. Chesterton
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