Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Why Skepticism? (Part 1)

I've decided to start off my content posts with some explanations of why I believe what I do, and why I approach life the way I do. The first subject I'm going to address is Skepticism.

First of all, it's always good form to properly define a term that might be subject to abuse. A quick search on Wikipedia defines Skepticism as:

  1. an attitude of doubt or a disposition to incredulity either in general or toward a particular object,
  2. the doctrine that true knowledge or knowledge in a particular area is uncertain, or
  3. the method of suspended judgment, systematic doubt, or criticism that is characteristic of skeptics (Merriam–Webster).

While the last one is a tautology once you apply grammar rules (Skepticism is what Skeptics have? No way!), the first two do a good job of defining it. If I were to give a personal, succinct definition, I'd go with:

Doubting everything - even your doubts.

There are two primary levels of Skepticism. The first, and more easily defined level is what's called "Empirical Skepticism." Empirical Skepticism is what I intend to address in this post. My next post will deal with the deeper level, Philosophical Skepticism. (Of course, "deeper" is personal opinion.)

So, what is Empirical Skepticism? Empirical means relating to the real, objective world, so putting it together with Skepticism gives us doubt about aspects of the world. Many come about this form of Skepticism from a scientific standpoint, which implies doubting any possibly-scientific claims until they are tested sufficiently and the tests have failed to disprove them. These claims are then tentatively accepted, with the acknowledgment that further tests may still reveal that these claims are incomplete or even false.

Personally, however, I came about my Empirical Skepticism through a more philosophical standpoint. Rather than explaining it, I feel it's better to demonstrate it with a thought experiment.

Imagine you are in a closed room with opaque walls and no doors, windows, or other openings. You may request to see video of the current state of the world outside the room, and an unknown entity supplies you with such. The same is true for sounds, smells, tastes, and tactile sensations (including the sensations of temperature). These are your only ways of gaining information about the outside world.

How do you determine if this information is being accurate, or if you are being lied to? Treat this as a scientific hypothesis: The information received is accurate. The null hypothesis is: The information received is inaccurate. This hypothesis is falsifiable as an internal contradiction seen in the information would imply that it must be inaccurate For instance, if lightning is seen at close distance but thunder is not heard, when it is established that these always coincide, this would be a contradiction and would imply some flaw in the information.

On the other hand, is it possible to prove the hypothesis? The basics of the Philosophy of Science tells us that it is not possible to prove any hypothesis absolutely. If an experiment would produce a certain type of results if a hypothesis is true, and it doesn't, we can logically infer that either the hypothesis is false, or the experiment is faulty. If this result doesn't occur we cannot logically infer that the hypothesis must be true, even if we somehow knew that the experiment was perfect (See: Affirming the Consequent).

What is the end result of this? It's that we cannot prove that the perceived information is accurate.

Step out of the thought experiment now. The human mind is in much the same isolation. It can only access the world through its five senses. There is no way for it to go beyond these senses and check the world to make sure it is consistent with what it perceived. Even if there were, there would be no way to know that this new method of perceiving the world is any more accurate.

If there's a flaw in our senses, we might recognize it as such (such as minor hallucinations, which may appear as spots in the vision). On the other hand, we might believe that it is an actual aspect of the world (as is the case with major hallucinations, such as those that Schizophrenics suffer from).

With this in mind, I came to the conclusion that all in the world is subject to some level of doubt. This does not mean, however, that I take on a Nihilist point of view. I simply accept that my perceptions may be wrong, and then proceed with life as if they were correct (which is the most likely hypothesis). I have been known to see silver specks in front of my eyes on occasion, but the evidence leads me to believe that these are simply a minor flaw in my senses, and I go on with life under the assumption that they aren't really there.

I could be wrong, though. The silver specks just might be glimpses of the true reality, while the rest of the world is the illusion, but I find it extremely unlikely. My chosen reality has held up to all tests so far, and I plan to keep treating it as if it's true until I have evidence that it isn't.

In particular, I've chosen to take a scientific view of reality. Why? Because it's what's worked for the world. Science has led to a plethora of advances and improvements in life, while pseudoscience and religion have led to practically none. Science has shown itself to work, and until something else does so, I will remain highly skeptical of it.

There is one amusing exception to being sure of some piece of empirical knowledge, however. Think to yourself the statement, "I exist." That claim cannot be false, because that would imply the non-existence of the one thinking it, which would imply the non-existence of the thought itself. Since it being false leads to a contradiction, it must be true.

"I think, therefore I am." - Descartes


King Aardvark said...

I think; therefore I am.

With the caveat that you may not be what you think you are.

Anonymous said...

Sorry to butt in to such an old post.

I don't think there's one line in philosophy is dislike as much as I do that one: I think, therefore I am.

Of course you can doubt it too. You can doubt the I (is it you? the way you think you are? is there really such thing?), the think (what you think is a thought could be anything really), the causality (therefore) and the am (being, existing).

Let me put it this way: theres no way knowing things could be in a way that is completely beyond our imagination. So, even if imagining how that sentence could not be true (while it can be imagined, just think of a collective conciousness for example) would be impossible for us, it's still doubtable.

..Sorry about the rant. I think this is why a lot of people hate arguing with sceptics. Whatever you say, I doubt it. ;)