Strawson’s anti-scepticism: a critical reconstruction



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STRAWSON’S ANTI-SCEPTICISM: A CRITICAL
RECONSTRUCTION
1

Wai-hung Wong
Abstract
Strawson suggests an anti-sceptical strategy which consists in offer­ing good reason for ignoring scepticism rather than trying to refute it, and the reason he offers is that beliefs about the exter­nal world are indispensable to us. I give an exposition of Straw­son’s arguments for the indispensability thesis and explain why they are not strong enough. I then propose an argument based on some of Davidson’s ideas in his theory of radical interpretation, which I think can establish the indispensability thesis. Finally, I spell out the force of Strawson’s anti-sceptical strategy by arguing that we have good reason for ignoring scepticism not only because beliefs about the world are indispensable, but also because it is irra­tional to have both beliefs about the world and sceptical doubts.
The best way to deal with epistemological scepticism is to refute it, but the best way is also the hardest way; and no alleged refu­tation of skepticism has ever been widely accepted. If we can neither refute skepticism nor accept it, the second best way to deal with it is to ignore it with good reason. P. F. Strawson has given us, in the first chapter of his Scepticism and Naturalism: Some Varieties (Strawson 1985), an outline of this anti-sceptical strategy. An outline only, for his arguments are sketchy, some crucial ideas are not clear enough, and, most importantly, the anti-sceptical impli­cations are not adequately explained. This paper is an attempt to work out the full force of Strawson’s anti-scepticism on the basis of what he has already done.
I
Strawson makes it very clear that he is not trying to refute scep­ticism, but to show that sceptical doubts are ‘simply to be neg[291]lected’. Sceptical doubts are to be neglected because they ‘are idle; powerless against the force of nature, of our naturally implanted disposition to belief [about the external world]’ (Strawson 1985, pp. 11 and 13). But what does it mean to say that sceptical doubts are idle?

There are two ways of understanding the idleness of sceptical doubts. Strawson can be read as saying that for those beliefs to which we have ‘inescapable natural commitment’ (p. 13), we cannot have any doubt at all about the things we believe. Sceptical doubts are ‘unreal, a pretense’ (p. 19); this is why whoever has tried to refute scepticism ‘has really disputed without an antagonist’ (p. 11; from Hume 1739–40, p. 183). If sceptical doubts are idle in this sense, the reason why they are to be neglected is simple: they are not really there to be worth our attention.

But are sceptical doubts unreal? It may be true that if a person strongly believes that p, he cannot at the same time doubt that p, where ‘doubting’ is understood in terms of some phenomeno­logical features. Sceptical doubts, however, do not have to be understood phenomenologically. G.E. Moore has made the fol­lowing observation:

I think that all that is necessary for a man to be properly called a sceptic with regard to our knowledge of certain kinds of things is that he should sincerely hold the view that things of that kind are always doubtful; and that this is a thing which he may do both without having any doubt at all that such things always are doubtful and also without ever doubting any partic­ular thing of the sort. There is, therefore, a sort of scepticism which is compatible with a complete absence of doubt on any subject whatever. (Moore 1959, p. 199)

The distinction Moore draws here is, I believe, that between intel­lectual doubts and doubtful feelings. This seems a valid distinction, for it is sometimes appropriate for a person to say something like ‘I know this is doubtful, but I just can’t bring myself to doubt it’ or ‘There is good reason for doubting it, but I still feel very certain about it’. If we cannot help believing in, say, the existence of phys­ical objects, then perhaps no one can have doubtful feelings about the existence of physical objects. But why can’t sceptical doubts be purely intellectual, unaccompanied by any doubtful feelings? And if sceptical doubts can be purely intellectual, it is far from obvious that they can never be real. [292]

The idleness of sceptical doubts can be, however, understood in another way – they are idle in the sense that we can never act on them; they are ‘totally inefficacious’ (Strawson 1985, p. 11). Even if sceptical doubts can co-exist with beliefs about the world, we cannot act on both these beliefs and sceptical doubts about them. Now if we do have inescapable commitment to beliefs about the world, sceptical doubts have to remain inefficacious. In what follows I will adopt this more plausible understanding of the idle­ness of sceptical doubts.

It is essential to Strawson’s anti-sceptical strategy that we really have inescapable commitment to beliefs about the world. What has to be true is not merely that we do have these beliefs, but also that they are indispensable. Obviously we all have beliefs about the world, and it is presumably very difficult to give up all these beliefs; but why are they indispensable?

Some may think the ancient Pyrrhonists were practising the sus-pension of judgements (epoché) in such a way that they were actu­ally trying to live a life without beliefs about the world. This was the Pyrrhonists’ way of securing a life of tranquillity (ataraxia). According to one interpretation of Pyrrhonism (Burnyeat 1980), although the Pyrrhonists might still need beliefs about how things appear, these beliefs are not strictly speaking beliefs about the external world. If Pyrrhonism is a possible way of life, doesn’t it imply that beliefs about the world are dispensable?

Two points are in place here. First, there is much controversy among scholars over whether the Pyrrhonists were advocating the abandonment of all beliefs about the world. Michael Frede (Frede 1979), for example, argues that the Pyrrhonists did have beliefs about the external world, and that in calling for the suspension of judgement they were merely pointing out to their philosophical opponent that by his own standards he should suspend judgement on the matter concerned. Second, even if the Pyrrhonists were really advocating a life without beliefs about the world, they might just be advocating a life that is impossible.

In any case, it remains to be shown that beliefs about the world are indispensable. Even if we are strongly inclined to take these beliefs to be indispensable, such an inclination might simply be the result of our having these beliefs strongly. What is needed are good arguments for the indispensability of such beliefs. And if there are good arguments for that, they should be taken to be [293] good arguments against Pyrrhonism (understood as advocating a life without beliefs about the world) as well.

Strawson offers two arguments for the indispensability of beliefs about the world. I will try to first see what we can actually get from Strawson’s arguments, and then offer an argument which I believe is the strongest possible for showing that beliefs about the world are indispensable. Since Strawson ascribes the two arguments to Hume and Wittgenstein respectively, I will call them the Humean argument and the Wittgensteinian argument.

II
The Humean argument looks more like a bare claim than an argument. Let us begin with a claim that is indeed Hume’s:
Nature, by an absolute and uncontroulable necessity has deter­min’d us to judge as well as to breathe and feel; nor can we any more forbear viewing certain objects in a stronger and fuller light, upon account of their customary connexion with a present impression, than we can hinder ourselves from think­ing as long as we are awake, or seeing the surrounding bodies, when we turn our eyes towards them in broad sunshine. . . . a faculty, which nature has antecedently implanted in the mind, and render’d unavoidable. (Hume 1739–40, p. 183)
As Strawson points out, the ‘faculty’ Hume believes to be implanted in the mind by nature is constituted by the ‘acceptance of the existence of body and of the general reliability of inductive belief-formation’ (Strawson 1985, p. 18). If the acceptance of these two things is unavoidable, it follows that beliefs about the world are unavoidable too. Although there might not be any spe­cific beliefs about the world that can be shown to be unavoidable, we cannot believe in the existence of body generally without having beliefs about the existence of many individual physical objects, nor can we make inductive inferences without having many beliefs about things and events in the world.

The mere appeal to nature does not seem to be an explanation of why we cannot help accepting the existence of body and the general reliability of inductive inference or why beliefs about the world are indispensable. Here is a plausible Humean explanation: we cannot avoid having these beliefs because they are necessary [294] for intentional actions, and intentional actions are necessary for leading a human life.2 This explanation is Humean in the sense that there is still an appeal to nature in it: nature has determined us to act, or rather, it is our nature to act. It is clear that the expla­nation is based on the desire-belief model of intentional action. Although the desire-belief model may have to be much refined to serve some specific philosophical purposes, the basic idea – intentional actions require desires and beliefs – seems indis­putable. Since we are acting in the world, the desires are mostly desires for things in the world and the beliefs beliefs about the world. And the indispensability of beliefs about the world should be doubly undeniable given that desires for things in the world are impossible without beliefs about the world.

The Humean argument is, however, still objectionable on two counts. First, suppose intentional actions are impossible without desires and beliefs, it is not clear why the beliefs must be beliefs about the external world. Why is ‘living by appearances’, as Burnyeat calls the Pyrrhonian way of life, not possible? Why can’t a person adhere ‘strictly to appearance’ and ‘talk about anything under the sun – but only to note how it appears to him, not to say how it really is’ (Burnyeat 1980, p. 36)? This question cannot be fully answered without a satisfactory argument for the indispensability of beliefs about the world, but at this point there can be two quick responses to it.

First of all, it is doubtful whether anyone can turn all his beliefs about the world into beliefs about mere appearances. It is impor­tant to note that there is no other way to have only beliefs about appearances, for beliefs about appearances require the concept of appearance, but we must already have a lot of beliefs about the world before we are able to grasp that concept. And to turn all our beliefs about the world into beliefs about appearances is to give up numerous beliefs we originally have, beliefs that partly determine what kinds of intentions we can have and how we form them. I cannot, for example, intend to get an ice-cream bar from the refrigerator without believing that there is an ice-cream bar there. If I had only beliefs about appearances, what I could believe would instead be that there is what appears to be an ice-cream [295] bar in what appears to be a refrigerator; and what I could intend to do would be to appear to act in such a way that I will get what appears to be an ice-cream bar from what appears to be a refrigerator.

Relatedly, and this is the second quick response, if we did not have any beliefs about the world, it is doubtful whether we would have desires for anything, and hence doubtful whether we would have any intentional actions at all. I could not desire to have an ice-cream bar if I did not have any beliefs about the world; but if I did not desire to have an ice-cream bar, why would I desire to have what appears to be an ice-cream bar?

Let us now turn to the other objectionable aspect of the Humean argument. Hume thinks that beliefs about the world are ‘implanted in the mind’ by nature, and that we are unable to get rid of these beliefs even if we judge that we have good reason for giving them up. Here nature is opposed to reason, and ‘the pre-tensions of critical thinking are completely overridden and sup-pressed by Nature’ (Strawson 1985, p. 13). This is a problematic picture underlain by an incorrect understanding of the nature of belief, an understanding which is indeed Hume’s: ‘belief is more properly an act of the sensitive, than of the cogitative part of our natures’, and ‘belief consists merely in a certain feeling or senti­ment; in something, that depends not on the will, but must arise from certain determinate causes and principles, of which we are not masters’ (Hume 1739–40, pp. 183 and 624).

Most philosophers agree that we cannot acquire (or give up) a belief at will, but the Humean view does not explain the invol­untariness of belief correctly. As Bernard Williams points out, Hume ‘seems to think that it is just a contingent fact about belief that it . . . does not respond to the will’ (Williams 1970, p. 148). On the Humean view, we cannot acquire a belief at will just as we cannot be sad or angry or feeling peaceful at will; and this is more than an analogy, for Hume thinks that ‘belief consists merely in a certain feeling or sentiment’.

Now even if belief has some phenomenological feature similar to a feeling or sentiment, it cannot be because of such a feature that belief cannot be acquired at will, for it is not a contingent fact that it cannot be so acquired. It is conceptually possible for a person to be, say, sad at will, but it is conceptually impossible for a person to acquire a belief at will. If a person could acquire a belief at will, he could acquire it whether he thought it was true or not – a false belief is still a belief. But it is conceptually impos[296]sible for a person to acquire a belief if he knows or believes that the belief is false.3 The Humean view fails to notice that there is a conceptual connection between belief and truth: to believe something is to believe it to be true. We cannot acquire a belief at will because truth is independent of the will in the sense that something is true or not whether we want it to be true or not.

Given the conceptual connection between belief and truth, belief and reason cannot be opposed to each other as depicted by the Humean argument. Since belief aims at truth, and since the less (epistemically) justified we take a belief to be the less likely in our eyes that the belief is true, reason obliges us to give up unjustified beliefs. It is thus not clear why a person who judges that all his beliefs about the world are unjustified cannot abandon those beliefs in accordance with his reason. In order to show that beliefs about the world are indispensable, we must make clear what the place of reason is as far as these beliefs are concerned.

III
What Strawson gets from Hume is the specific idea that we cannot help accepting the existence of body (‘EB’ for short) and the reli­ability of inductive belief-formation (‘RI’ for short). In Strawson’s presentation of the Humean argument, however, the significance of the unavoidable acceptance of EB and RI is sometimes taken to lie not only in its implying that beliefs about the world are unavoidable, but also in the role it plays in the connection between belief and reason.

Strawson believes that the opposition of nature to reason ‘does not mean that Reason has no part to play in relation to our beliefs concerning matters of fact and existence’ (Strawson 1985, p. 13). As he writes,


Our inescapable natural commitment is to a general frame of belief and to a general style (the inductive) of belief-formation. But within that frame and style, the requirement of Reason, that [297] our beliefs should form a consistent and coherent system, may be given full play. (p. 14)
Since EB and RI are, as Strawson quotes Hume, what ‘we must take for granted in all our reasonings’, our reason simply cannot function at all other than within the frame and style formed by the acceptance of EB and RI. Accordingly, even if belief and reason are connected through the conceptual connection between belief and truth, reason on its own can never lead us to the abandonment of all our beliefs about the world, for the EB-frame and the RI-style are constituted by some beliefs about the world.

But is the acceptance of EB and RI really unavoidable? It is not clear that intentional actions require the acceptance of EB and RI. Although the acceptance of EB can be considered a belief (i.e. the belief that there are physical bodies), it is questionable that such a general belief is required by any intentional action. As for the acceptance of RI, it does not seem to be a belief at all. Perhaps some people do have the belief that inductive inference is gen­erally reliable, but one does not have to have that belief to count as accepting RI – one only has to make inductive inferences fre­quently and confidently. But if the acceptance of RI is not a belief, then it cannot be shown to be indispensable for intentional actions on the desire-belief model of intention action.

The Wittgensteinian argument, based on some remarks in Wittgenstein’s On Certainty, is also an attempt to put reason into place in connection with sceptical doubts. As Strawson reads them, these remarks are suggestive of the Humean idea that there are beliefs about the world which ‘we must take for granted in all our reasonings’. The basic idea of the argument can be expressed by the following compilation of Wittgenstein’s remarks: ‘certain propositions seem to underlie all questions and all thinking’, the truth of which ‘belongs to our frame of reference’ or ‘the scaf­folding of our thoughts’, such that these propositions are ‘exempt from doubt’; and ‘[i]f you tried to doubt everything you would not get as far as doubting anything. The game of doubting itself presupposes certainty’ (Wittgenstein 1969, §§415, 83, 211, 341 & 115).

Let us call beliefs that are exempt from doubt this way ‘frame-work judgements’. Framework judgements are much more diverse than the acceptance of EB and RI, and the distinction between beliefs about the world which are framework judgements [298] and those which are not is not supposed to be a ‘sharp, absolute, and unchangeable’ distinction (Strawson 1985, p. 16). Framework judgements are exempt from doubt because they are nec­essary for ‘all questions and all thinking’, and doubting is a kind of thinking. That is, to doubt framework judgements is to under-cut the doubting itself.

If there really are framework judgements, it seems to follow that beliefs about the world are indispensable to us as long as we are thinking beings. But the question remains, what reason do we have for believing that there are framework judgements? Here we have to distinguish between two ideas, one of which is obviously true, while the other is dubious. It is the dubious idea that gives rise to the notion of framework judgements, and the seeming plausibility of such a notion may be the result of confusing the two ideas.

The obviously true idea is this: with respect to a specific propo­sition or judgement, we could believe or doubt it only if we already have some other specific beliefs. Let us call this relation a target-judgement’s need of some background beliefs. The back-ground beliefs for a target-judgement are the reasons for believ­ing or doubting it, or are what is necessary for its intelligibility. For instance, I would not believe that there are nine planets in the solar system if I did not believe that the solar system exists, that there are planets, that we have some ways of observing the solar system, etc. This idea concerning the relation between a target-judgement and its background beliefs reflects nothing but the undeniable fact that our beliefs or doubts are interdependent.

This obviously true idea is not equivalent to, nor does it imply, the idea that there are framework judgements. The background beliefs are necessary for believing or doubting the target-judgement, but they are not indispensable as long as the target-judgement itself is not. Perhaps there are some general beliefs, such as the belief that the world exists, which are required for any specific belief about the world. But even such beliefs fall short of being framework judgements, for they do not seem to be neces­sary for ‘all questions and all thinking’ either. They are necessary for all other beliefs about the world, but they are dispensable if we can give up all these other beliefs about the world – and it has not been shown that we cannot do so.

It may be helpful to illustrate this point by an analogy that Wittgenstein himself draws: ‘[w]hen I am trying to mate someone [299] in chess, I cannot have doubts about the pieces perhaps chang­ing places of themselves and my memory simultaneously playing tricks on me so that I don’t notice’ (Wittgenstein 1969, §346). That is, to play chess, I must believe that the pieces do not change places of themselves and that my memory is fairly reliable. This is analogous to the idea that in order to have beliefs about the world, we must have some general beliefs about the world. However, it seems that when I am not playing chess, I can have doubts about the movements of the pieces or my memory; and I certainly do not have to play chess. So why can’t our having beliefs about the world, like my playing chess, be optional?

I am not arguing that there are no framework judgements, and I do not know how to show that there are or are not. What we should see here is just that the Wittgensteinian argument relies on the bare claim that there are framework judgements, and does not appear to be in any way more convincing than the Humean argument.

IV
In this section I will put together an argument based on some of the ideas in Donald Davidson’s theory of radical interpretation, which I believe to be the strongest possible argument for the indis­pensability thesis.

The situation of radical interpretation is one in which an inter­preter has to figure out from scratch what a speaker’s utterances mean. Although we do not seem to engage in radical interpre­tation in our actual practice of understanding and communicat­ing with one another, the problem of radical interpretation, Davidson believes, ‘surfaces for speakers of the same language in the form of the question, how can it be determined that the lan­guage is the same?’, and in this sense ‘[a]ll understanding of the speech of another involves radical interpretation’ (Davidson 1984, p. 125).

Radical interpretation reveals ‘the dependencies among our basic propositional attitudes at a level fundamental enough to avoid the assumption that we can come to grasp them – or intelligibly attribute them to others – one at a time’ (Davidson 1990, p. 325); it reveals also the interdependency of thought and talk. And Davidson focuses on the interdependency of belief and meaning because ‘belief is central to all kinds of thought’ [300] (Davidson 1984, p. 156). Here is how he puts the interdepend­ency of belief and meaning:
The interdependence of belief and meaning is evident in this way: a speaker holds a sentence to be true because of what the sentence (in his language) means, and because of what he believes. Knowing that he holds the sentence to be true, and knowing the meaning, we can infer his belief; given enough information about his beliefs, we can perhaps infer the meaning. (pp. 134–135)
In radical interpretation we have to get both the speaker’s belief and the meaning of his utterance. Davidson thinks we have to do it ‘by holding belief constant as far as possible while solving for meaning’ (p. 137). To hold the speaker’s belief constant is to take what he (sincerely) holds true, and hence believes, to be in fact true. Since we know that the speaker is fallible, we can still ascribe a false belief to him if his error is explicable; we only have to hold the speaker’s belief constant as far as possible.

Davidson sometimes calls this the principle of charity. The word ‘principle’ as well as Davidson’s use of expressions like ‘method’ or ‘methodology of interpretation’ suggest that it is purely methodological. But it is a misunderstanding to think that the interpreter has to self-consciously employ the principle of charity as a methodological principle, taking himself to be only assuming that the speaker’s beliefs are largely true. In fact, the interpreter simply is interpretively charitable. He is naturally and unavoidably so, while he does not have to be aware that he is so. Every inter­preter is interpretively charitable, whether the situation is radical or not – radical interpretation only helps us see more clearly the necessity of interpretive charity.

Interpretive charity, as Davidson emphasizes, ‘is not an option’ but something ‘forced on us’ (p. 197). But why? There are two important points in Davidson’s theory that can answer this question. The first is that given the holistic nature of belief, understanding and communication – the purpose of interpreta­tion – requires massive agreement between interpreter and speaker. Without massive agreement, we would not be able to identify the content of the speaker’s beliefs. This does not imply that disagreement is impossible, but ‘disagreement and agree­ment alike are intelligible only against a background of massive agreement’ (p. 137). [301]

Although a very strict holism is questionable, which holds that the content of a belief will change whenever there is some change in the belief-system of which it is a member, it seems undeniable that a person cannot have a particular belief without having a good lot of related beliefs, and that the content of that particu­lar belief is partially determined by these related beliefs. This implies at least a loose form of holism, which is sufficient for the claim that we will not understand a person if he does not share many of our beliefs. Perhaps the agreement required is not strictly speaking massive, but interpreter and speaker still have to agree on many different things if they are to be intelligible to each other. Given this fact, the only way of ascribing intelligible beliefs to the speaker is to ascribe true beliefs to him as far as possible.

The second important point is this. The beliefs we ascribe to the speaker include those which are about objects that are public and straightforwardly observable.4 Now for a belief about such an object, we have to identify its content by observing what the speaker observes. Although the speaker can occasionally be wrong about what is going on or observe something quite differ­ent from what we observe in the same circumstances, he must be right (by our lights) and observe the same things as we do most of the time, or we cannot be sure that he observes anything at all or tell what it is that he observes. And in taking the speaker to be observing what we ourselves are observing, we are actually taking him to have the same belief as we do.

Since we cannot interpret, and thus cannot understand and communicate with, others without sharing with them many beliefs about the world, our de facto understanding of what others say implies that we do have beliefs about the world. Surely we do not need Davidson’s help to see that we have these beliefs, but his theory shows that as long as we understand others’ speech, we must have beliefs about the world. Our beliefs about the world are indispensable because there is simply no way that we can change ourselves from understanding others’ speech to not understand­ing it (that is, save by damaging our general linguistic or mental capacities). [302]

Although the argument does not prove that it is impossible for a human being with normal mental capacities to live a life without beliefs about the world, it at least shows that no one who under-stands a public language can give up his beliefs about the world. And the set of human beings to whom it makes sense to ask whether beliefs about the world are indispensable is coextensive with the set of human beings who speak at least one public lan­guage. If it has been shown that beliefs about the world are indis­pensable to anyone who is capable of asking whether these beliefs are indispensable, there does not seem to be anything further that has to be shown.

V
So beliefs about the world are indispensable; this is the basis of Strawson’s anti-scepticism. But if Strawson’s argument stops here, it is not clear how much force it has against scepticism. I have suggested that we read Strawson as arguing that since beliefs about the world are indispensable, sceptical doubts can only be purely intellectual doubts that are totally inefficacious. We cannot act on sceptical doubts, nor can we give up all our beliefs about the world as a result of having sceptical doubts. Strawson seems to think that this gives us good reason for ignoring scepticism, but it is good reason only if sceptical doubts are sup-posed to be acted on, or have the effect of making us give up all our beliefs about the world. But why should sceptical doubts be acted on or have such an effect? In fact, since sceptical doubts can be purely intellectual, and hence without any phenomeno­logical feature and motivational force, it does not seem reason-able to expect them to be efficacious. So what is left of Strawson’s anti-sceptical strategy? I think the most promising direction to go is to argue that even if there is nothing wrong with having ineffi­cacious sceptical doubts, there is still something wrong with having sceptical doubts and beliefs about the world at the same time.

The sceptic is a person who has sceptical doubts about our beliefs about the external world, but these should be taken to include his own beliefs about the world given that he does have such beliefs and that he, being a philosophical sceptic, is self-reflective and self-critical. That is, the sceptic is supposed to be aware of both his beliefs about the world and his sceptical doubts, [303] and thus is supposed to have beliefs of the following form, where ‘p’ is a proposition about the external world:


(D1) I believe that p, but I doubt that p.
Such beliefs are, however, rather perverse. A natural question for the sceptic is: if you doubt that p, why do you at the same time believe that p? There is at least a tension between the two con­juncts of (D1).

It is reasonable to assume that some of the sceptic’s beliefs about the world are strong beliefs since he acquires beliefs about the world in the same way as everyone else does. Now if the sceptic knows that these are his strong beliefs, which he should know if he is self-reflective, then he is supposed to have beliefs of the form:


(D2) I strongly believe that p, but I doubt that p.
(D2) is even more perverse than (D1). How can a person strongly believe something that he doubts, or doubt what he strongly believes?

Some may think that the perverseness of (D1) and (D2) can be explained by the fact that the locution ‘I doubt that . . .’ is typi­cally used to express doubtful feelings rather than purely intel­lectual doubts. But the perverseness remains even if we substitute ‘I doubt that . . .’ with ‘it is doubtful that . . .’, which seems to be a locution suitable to express purely intellectual doubts:


(D3) I strongly believe that p, but it is doubtful that p.
It is still natural for us to challenge the sceptic with the question: if you judge that it is doubtful that p, why do you still strongly believe that p?

The tension between the two conjuncts of (D3) can be put this way: in strongly believing that p, and being aware of having that belief, the sceptic is supposed to commit himself to the truth of p knowingly, while in judging and saying that it is doubtful that p, he is supposed to disengage himself from such commitment knowingly. The sceptic seems to be irrational in doing both not only because he seems to be inconsistent in some way, but also because it is questionable that he aims his belief at truth when he sticks to the belief while judging that the belief is doubtful.

But why is it irrational not to aim one’s belief at truth? A satis­factory answer requires a lengthy discussion; what I can do here is to make just two general points. First, a person who does not [304] aim his beliefs at truth can be understood as thwarting the normal functioning of his own cognitive system (by thwarting the normal functioning of those cognitive mechanisms that regulate his acquisition of beliefs). This is irrational insofar as rationality is in part a matter of cognizing according to the normal functioning of one’s cognitive system. Second, belief, reasons for belief, and truth are conceptually related in such a way that we see a belief as more likely to be true when we have reasons for it than when we have not. A person who does not aim his belief at truth thus has to ignore reasons for his belief even when these reasons are prominent. This is irrational insofar as rationality is in part a matter of respecting reasons.

I have been arguing on the assumption that the sceptic has to express his sceptical doubts by means of the locution ‘I doubt that . . .’ or ‘it is doubtful that . . .’, but this assumption could be ques­tioned. The sceptic might just as well express his sceptical doubts by saying ‘I (and all other human beings) do not know anything about the external world’. Accordingly, instead of having beliefs of the forms (D1)–(D3), he might simply have beliefs of the form:


(D4) I (strongly) believe that p, but I do not know that p.
Since belief and the lack of knowledge are compatible, (D4) ap­pears to be a perfectly reasonable way of passing the sceptical verdict upon one’s own beliefs about the world, namely, that they are mere beliefs rather than knowledge.

(D4) is in itself may be unproblematic, but in this connection we should bear in mind two important points. First, it seems that the sceptic is obliged to answer the question why he thinks he does not know anything about the world, and he will be forced to either return to (D1)–(D3) or try to answer it in some other way. Second, the sceptical verdict is typically the conclusion of some arguments showing that our beliefs about the world are all unjus­tified. So, if the sceptic does not return to (D1)–(D3), he is expected to explain (D4) by means of:


(D5) I (strongly) believe that p, but I am not justified in believ­ing that p.
But (D5) is not unproblematic at all, for we can then challenge the sceptic with the question: if you judge that you are not justi­fied in believing that p, then why do you (strongly) believe that p? [305] It is clear that the notion of justification employed here is epis­temic, and the distinguishing characteristic of epistemic justifica­tion is, as Laurence BonJour puts it, ‘its essential or internal relation to the cognitive goal of truth’ – epistemic justification is ‘conducive to truth’ (BonJour 1985, p. 8). The connection between epistemic justification and conduciveness to truth is a conceptual one. That is, a belief taken to be (epistemically) jus­tified must also be taken to be more likely to be true; and con­versely, a belief taken to be unjustified must also be taken to be more likely to be false. The judgement that a belief is unjustified is thus a judgement that it is more likely to be false than true. The sceptic should then be considered irrational because in having beliefs of the form (D5), he reveals himself as not aiming his belief at truth and not respecting reasons.

It is, therefore, irrational to have both beliefs about the exter­nal world and sceptical doubts. Since beliefs about the world are indispensable while sceptical doubts are not, we have only two options: to have sceptical doubts and be irrational, or to ignore scepticism and live with our beliefs about the world. The second option is clearly more acceptable as far as rationality is concerned. We all take most of our beliefs about the world to be justified to a certain extent, for we all take most of our beliefs about the world to be supported by some of the other beliefs we have. This is indeed an essential aspect of how we acquire beliefs about the world. We acquire most of our beliefs about the world partly because of the beliefs we already have that can serve as reasons or justification for the newly acquired beliefs. Even if we concede to the sceptic that none of our beliefs about the world are fully justified, we cannot take them to be all totally unjustified.

In fact, it is not just that we must take most of our beliefs about the world to be supported by some of the other beliefs we have, our beliefs do support one another. Our beliefs form a coherent system in the main. As BonJour points out, coherence is not mere consistency; it ‘has to do with the mutual inferability of the beliefs in the system’, and ‘relations of explanation are one central ingre­dient in coherence’ (BonJour 1985, p. 95). The coherence of our beliefs manifests the connection between belief and reason, and is partially what makes us rational beings. Our beliefs about the world are to this extent justified, though such justification does not imply the falsity of scepticism. [306]

This is, I believe, the best rendition we can give of Strawson’s anti-sceptical strategy. It does not show, and does not rely on showing, that scepticism is false; what it gives us is good reason for ignoring scepticism. And this is good enough, for the second best is presumably good enough when the best is so hard to attain.


Department of Philosophy California State University-Chico Chico, CA 95929 USA whwong@csuchico.edu
References
BonJour, L. (1985). The Structure of Empirical Knowledge. (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Uni­versity Press).

Burnyeat, M. F. (1980). ‘Can the Sceptic Live His Scepticism?’, in J. Barnes, M. F. Burnyeat and M. Schofield (eds), Doubt and Dogmatism: Studies in Hellenistic Epistemology. (Oxford: Clarendon Press), pp. 20–53.

Davidson, D. (1984). Inquiries into Truth and Interpretation. (Oxford: Clarendon Press). —— (1990). ‘The Structure and Content of Truth’, Journal of Philosophy 87, pp. 279–328. Frede, M. (1979). ‘The Sceptic’s Beliefs’, reprinted in M. Burnyeat and M. Frede (eds),

The Original Sceptics: A Controversy. (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Co., 1997),

pp. 1–24.

Ginet, C. (2001). ‘Deciding to Believe’, in M. Steup (ed), Knowledge, Truth, and Duty: Essays on Epistemic Justification, Responsibility, and Virtue. (Oxford: Oxford University Press), pp. 63–76.

Hume, D. (1739–40). A Treatise of Human Nature, edited by L. A. Selby-Bigge, 2nd edition, revised by P. H. Nidditch. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1978).

Moore, G. E. (1959). Philosophical Papers. (London: George Allen and Unwin Ltd). Strawson, P. F. (1985). Skepticism and Naturalism: Some Varieties. (New York: Columbia University Press).

Williams, B. (1970). ‘Deciding to Believe’, reprinted in B. Williams, Problems of the Self. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1973), pp. 136–151.

Wittgenstein, L. (1969). On Certainty, edited by G. E. M. Anscombe and G. H. von Wright, translated by G. E. M. Anscombe and D. Paul. (Oxford: Basil Blackwell).


1 This article appears in Ratio (new series) XVI 3 September 2003 0034–0006, pp. 290-306, with the following Author’s note:

I am grateful to Chris Kutz, Sam Scheffler, and Barry Stroud for helpful discussions and comments.



Ratio is © Blackwell Publishing Ltd. 2003, 9600 Garsington Road, Oxford OX4 2DQ, UK and 350 Main Street, Malden, MA 02148, USA. This version is intended only for educational use.

2 If this sounds begging the question against skepticism, we can take it to be a less clumsy way of saying this: beliefs about the world are necessary for what we believe to be intentional actions, and what we believe to be intentional actions are necessary for or constitutive of what we believe to be leading a human life.

3 This argument admittedly oversimplifies the issue, for it overlooks the possibility that a person might acquire at will a belief that he had an inclination to have, where the incli­nation itself was not compelling enough to result in the belief. For an interesting discus­sion of this kind of case, see Ginet 2001. The oversimplification does not, however, affect my criticism of the Humean view.

4 As far as the present point is concerned, there is no need to argue that there are pub­licly and straightforwardly observable objects; the fact that we believe there are suffices.



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