Saturday, June 26, 2010

Foundation 2: Skeptical Commitment and the Modern Meditator

This post aims to provide the reader with a philosophical stance suitable for exploring the origins of the world. Without it, you cannot proceed with certainty. With it, all is certain.

There is only one sure stance.
Berkeley picked out the challenges for one who seeks knowledge:
[N]o sooner do we depart from sense and instinct to follow the light of a superior principle, to reason, meditate, and reflect on the nature of things, but a thousand scruples spring up in our minds concerning those things which before we seemed fully to comprehend. Prejudices and errors of sense do from all parts discover themselves to our view; and, endeavouring to correct these by reason, we are insensibly drawn into uncouth paradoxes, difficulties, and inconsistencies, which multiply and grow upon us as we advance in speculation, till at length, having wandered through many intricate mazes, we find ourselves just where we were, or, which is worse, sit down in a forlorn Scepticism.
There is only one stance of sufficient strength to stand against the confusion that rushes in when one tries to make reason match with the presenting world, and that is the stance of the modern Cartesian meditator. This stance is a significant variation on Rene Descartes' stance. Where Descartes relied on the existence of a non-deceiving God, the modern Meditator has no such reliance. I want to develop the stance of the hard-forged skeptic. I will leave it to the academics to decide whether my Meditator is that of Descartes or not.

On conviction.
Should you just accept what you are told? Of course not. Even if the person telling you something has the best intentions (like me) they might be mistaken (to consider this in more detail, consider Newman , Vogt or Groarke). Equally, can you trust the impressions you receive from the world? No; at least not if you are seeking certainty. You could be dreaming; you might be in a Matrix, or be a brain in a vat under the influence of an evil genius. Indeed, that the theories of the universe change every few years, is good reason for suspicion. Indeed there may be many reasons why you ought not trust the world as it appears to be.

The question arises - what method might be employed to ensure us that what we think is correct, is indeed correct? Descartes’ said that knowledge is conviction based on a reason so strong that it can never be shaken by any stronger reason (1640 letter, AT 3:64-65 in Newman 2008). He argued that the only way to identify knowledge is to begin by doubting everything. This is known as the Method of Doubt. Throw everything out, he said; start again. Then, if you find something that is immune to doubt, that cannot be rationally doubted, in this you can be sure. No matter what assails you, you can say that this at least is trustworthy.

These days philosophers think that this certainty is achieved in stages. They say: 'As my certainty increases, my doubt decreases; conversely, as my doubt increases, my certainty decreases.' I fundamentally do not agree. Descartes’ Meditator does not come to certainty - to knowledge - bit by bit. For Descartes’ meditator a proposition is either fully justified or it is not justified. There ought not be any intermediate assignation of belief either for or against some proposition unless and until it is found to be indefeasible. Descartes devised the Method of Doubt exactly to help set aside preconceived opinions.

The thoroughgoing Meditator has no business dealing with conviction unless and until it is unshakable, exactly because if there is room for doubt, our ideas may be simply wrong, no matter how attractive they may seem.

20th Century Physics is littered with the corpses of attractive theories. Descartes (Search, AT 10:526 in Newman 2008) himself says:
All the mistakes made in the sciences happen, in my view, simply because at the beginning we make judgements too hastily, and accept as our first principles matters which are obscure and of which we do not have a clear and distinct notion.
I agree. Empiricism (the view that the well-founded knowledge can be founded on the world as it seems to be to the senses) is too hasty: look at the world, guess at something, form a belief, write a theory, see it wither, throw it out. It is all description of more or less dubious objects anyway, so the laws we trust are hardly trustworthy beyond statistics. This is Popper’s legacy to empiricism—that no finite amount of data can verify or probabilify an interesting scientific theory, but data can falsify the theory (see Oddie 2008).

Skeptical commitment
By contrast, the modern Meditator, as hard forged skeptic, is fettered by a particular and important kind of commitment, an endpoint to Ancient Skepticism. Call this ‘Skeptical Commitment’. According to Sextus the skeptic is someone who has investigated the questions of philosophy but has ‘suspended judgment’ (either in the affirmative or the negative) because he or she is unable to resolve the differences among the contrary attitudes, opinions and arguments he found. Instead of adhering to a definite philosophical position, the skeptic is someone who continues to investigate (Groarke 2009).

Skepticism is a natural response to the apparent infinite regress of justification required to establish a truth, as well as the apparent inconsistency of our rationally derived understanding of how the world ought to be, with the way our impressions demand it must be, such that the cognitive dissonance is too great to be accommodated. Examples include arguments that lead to Zeno’s paradox, Parmenides denial of change in the face of change at every level, and the Problem of Bundling, among a plethora of other problems of philosophy.

However, if this founds Skepticism, then the hard-forged skeptic is obliged by skepticism itself to accept indefeasibility as a proof of the truth of the proposition. By indefeasible I mean indubitable in Broughton’s (2002) sense that indubitability:
[C]oncerns not “the power of the human mind to enter into a state of doubtfulness about a proposition,” but instead the condition whereby “it is impossible both that the proposition be false and that I be doubting whether it is true” (p. 100)
Another way to think of this is (and this is the basis of my proofs): One has no basis to rationally doubt a proposition if that doubt relies on the truth of the proposition for the doubt itself to be properly put.

Descartes' proposition 'I think therefore I am' is necessarily true to each meditator because one must exist to be able to doubt one's existence.

Broughton’s interpretation reduces Descartes’ need to rely on clear and distinct impressions, to simple rational thought, founded on inherent ideas of equivalence and difference, that underpins all understanding. This method then defines the modern Meditator and refines the intent of Descartes’ meditator. To the modern Meditator, a proposition that is indefeasible must be accepted as true, meaning a statement that properly models a condition of the world.

Not only does an indefeasible proposition have the power to stand against any argument brought from empiricism because such arguments are founded on dubious evidence, it has ontological force, meaning that the Meditator can be certain that any implication that follows from such proposition, is also a model of a condition of the world to which the objects of the world must comply.

Should this rational analysis be at odds with the presenting world, for example say that it implies the Bundling Problem or Parmenides concerns about change, how ought this affect the Meditator’s stance? Because the modern Meditator holds no belief in the affirmative or the negative about the reality of impressions that might seem to contradict any propositions that have been shown to be indefeasible, there is no need to judge these at all.

Rather, the Meditator can stand steady in the knowledge that any dichotomy will resolve itself as the internally developed world-view develops, for surely an indefeasible proposition cannot truly be contradictory to reality. This ought to goad the Meditator to continue in developing his rationally derived world-view.

Given hyperbolic doubts (Newman 2008) about the presenting world, it would seem that the only available source of knowledge is achievable through an Internalist, Indefeasibilist, Methodist (hence Foundationalist), Rationalist stance.

Sitting in the lap of the modern Meditator provides a fundamentally different perspective of the world, which is the exact opposite to that of the scientist. The scientist is revisionist. The scientist’s world is immediately populated by the evidence of the senses—by reliance on impressions. But when the world presents with data that conflicts with the laws of the universe, the laws must yield. By contrast the world of the modern Meditator begins as a sparse world of barely defined, essentially windowless objects, shrouded in doubt, about which we seek to determine laws that have ontological force, that bring these objects into some level of focus, in so far as each principle defines a characteristic of the system, to which the objects must comply, or they have no place in the system. The goal of the modern Meditator then is clear—find sufficient indefeasible propositions to build a rich world.

Broughton, J., 2002, Descartes’s method of doubt, Princeton University Press, Princeton. Groarke, L., 2009, 'Ancient Skepticism', in EN Zalta (ed.), The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy Spring 2009 edn,
Newman, L., 2008, 'Descartes' Epistemology', in EN Zalta (ed.), The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy Summer 2008 edn,
Oddie, G., 2008, ‘Truthlikeness’, in EN Zalta (ed.) The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy Fall 2008 edn,
Vogt, Katja, "Ancient Skepticism", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2010 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = .

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