Dogmatism vs Skepticism

Lately I’ve been reading Outline of Pyrrhonism by Sextus Empiricus. Sextus collects the arguments for Skepticism as practiced by ancient Greek and Roman philosophers. Since the notion of “skepticism” seems to play some small role here, I thought it would be fun to take a look at what Sextus means by it.

Sextus situates skepticism as the only reasonable response to “dogmatism”. The dogmatists he has in mind are Platonism, Stoicism, Epicureanism, and Aristotelianism (“the Peripatetics”).

He observes, firstly, that the dogmatists all contradict one another — if Stoicism is right, then Epicureanism must be false; if Epicureanism is right, then Aristotelianism must be wrong, etc. What are we to do when dogmatism contradicts dogmatism?

Sextus then observes that none of these positions is “self-evident”, because all of them requires “going beyond the appearances” by making claims about what is “nonevident”. In order to do make claims about what is nonevident, the dogmatist must always either make a circular argument that assumes what they purport to establish or commit themselves to an infinite regress. On this basis he concludes that it is not reasonable to make claims about reality one way or the other. Instead the Skeptic endeavors to live only according to the appearances, and be guided only by what is immediately evident to the senses.

A nice corollary of Sextus’s arguments is that one cannot be a naturalist and a skeptic, since the naturalist does make positive claims about the nature of reality. Naturalism and theism effectively cancel each other out.

The dialectic between dogmatism and skepticism stretches out across the whole history of philosophy. The re-discovery of Stoicism and Epicureanism during the Renaissance re-activated the ancient quarrels between competing dogmatisms (though with a different political dimension, since by this time Aristotelianism had become, thanks to Aquinas and subsequent theologians, the official doctrine of the Catholic Church, which its entrenched power structure).  So the quarrel between competing dogmatisms had a political dimension that it seemed to have lacked in antiquity. The revival of Skepticism, most notably (to my mind) with Montaigne, then leads to renewed efforts to establish dogmatism by refuting Skepticism. (This did not prevent some philosophers from attempting to integrate Christianity and skepticism, as Pierre Gassendi did.)

Descartes was, as we know, the most famous (or infamous) of attempts to refute skepticism. But as was pointed out even then, Descartes’ arguments do not avoid circularity. (I believe it was Antonin Artaud who first made this point in first, in his Objections to the Meditations. Descartes’ Reply is, to put it mildly, not convincing.)

The inconsistencies within Cartesian dogmatism led to multiple and contradicting attempts to repair it: Spinoza, Leibniz, Malebranche, and Berkeley being the attempts that have since made it into the Canon (largely because they were all men). At the same time, Pierre Bayle is collecting the new Skepticism into what amounted to a new version of Outlines of Pyrrhonism for the modern era. Following on the heels of all of them, it fell to Hume in his Treatise on Human Nature to demolish all permutations of modern dogmatism by destroying their basis in Cartesianism.

Since then, the dialectic runs back and forth between competing dogmatisms and between dogmatism and skepticism. Kant was perhaps the first philosopher to even attempt a genuine via media between dogmatism and skepticism, but the fatal problems with Kant’s solution are well-known to most casual students of philosophy.

To this day it remains unclear whether there is a via media between dogmatism and skepticism. Some philosophers, including myself, think that the historical arc of pragmatism that runs from Hegel through Peirce and Dewey to Sellars should be understood as precisely an alternative to both dogmatism and skepticism. Others, of course, are not convinced. And so we have the persistence of both multiple forms of dogmatism — naturalism and theism alike — as well as new forms of skepticism.

Can a naturalist be a skeptic? Is skepticism more reasonable than any competing dogmatism? Is skepticism a viable philosophy as a way of life? Is pragmatism a dialectically stable alternative to dogmatism and to skepticism, or must it collapse into one or the other?

443 thoughts on “Dogmatism vs Skepticism

  1. keiths: Why is that insufficient?

    You’ll find a good discussion of that in the Schonbaumsfeld book you just ordered. As we’ve discussed on numerous occasions already, most philosophers don’t take the same moral from the fact that we’re possibly mistaken that you do.

  2. keiths: These are logical possibilities that cannot be dismissed as improbable.

    That’s true; their probabilities can’t be measured at all. Sort of like they are out of the realm of probability or improbability determinations completely. In fact, it’s almost as if they are completely irrelevant to what we generally call knowledge or error!

  3. walto,

    You’ll find a good discussion of that in the Schonbaumsfeld book you just ordered.

    Could you summarize the argument? I haven’t received my copy yet.

  4. As I mentioned earlier, the first chapter is available online as “The ‘Default View’ of Perceptual Reasons and ‘Closure-Based’ Sceptical Arguments.” While I don’t completely agree with her critique of Dretske, I think her discussion of skepticism is pretty good and is relevant to issues that interest you. You might also like Dancy’s book on epistemology and Strawson (pere)’s introductory book.

    But, again, there are no “refutations” of skepticism I don’t believe.

    ETA: The Strawson book I mean is called, Analysis and Metaphysics: An Introduction to Philosophy.

  5. KN,

    There are lots of tests that work in practice for reliably distinguishing between perceptions and hallucinations. Descartes has to brush all those aside in order to generate his merging together of perceptions and dreams into one category. And so do you, it seems.

    Those tests do not work when the perceptions are systematically mistaken. Ponder that; it’s extremely important.

    If you are a brain in a vat, what tests will reveal that your perceptions are systematically mistaken?

  6. walto,

    That’s true; their probabilities can’t be measured at all. Sort of like they are out of the realm of probability or improbability determinations completely. In fact, it’s almost as if they are completely irrelevant to what we generally call knowledge or error!

    Don’t forget that the likelihood of your favorite hypothesis — that our perceptions are generally veridical and that the world is pretty much how we take it to be — also cannot be assessed.

    You can’t show that it’s any more likely than the skeptical alternatives.

  7. walto,

    I appreciate the reading recommendations, but I’m interested in hearing your own reasons for disagreeing with me in the following exchange, regardless of where they originated:

    walto:

    I’m pretty sure everybody here agrees that what you’re calling here inaccurate perceptions are always possible.

    keiths:

    From there, all it takes to get to Cartesian skepticism is to acknowledge that systematically inaccurate perceptions are possible.

    walto:

    I don’t agree with that. Most people don’t, actually.

    keiths:

    Why is that insufficient? The whole point of Cartesian skepticism is that Cartesian demons, brain-in-vat apparatuses, etc., can produce systematically inaccurate perceptions, and that we cannot rule out those possibilities or even demonstrate that they are unlikely.

    Could you explain why you think it is insufficient?

  8. walto,

    Because nothing of epistemological interest follows from the possible truth of any particular proposition.

    Are you kidding? The possibility that the world is nothing like we take it to be — along with the fact that we can’t dismiss this as unlikely — is of enormous epistemological interest.

  9. keiths: Did you fail to notice the quote marks around “representation”, Mung?

    Yes, I noticed the quote marks and wondered why they were there. My question wasn’t a ‘gotcha” it was a serious question motivated by a discussion I was having with someone else about photons and representations.

    And once again your vaunted mind-reading skills fail you. You need to either get a refund or take a refresher course.

  10. Oh, please.

    On a thread in which I had just talked about photons “representing” keys, you wrote:

    As an aside, what do people think about calling the photons a representation of the keys? Is that a proper use of the term representation?

    You were obviously referring to my statement, Mung.

    And once again your bluffing skills fail you. You need to either get a refund or take a refresher course.

  11. keiths:
    walto,

    Are you kidding?The possibility that the world is nothing like we take it to be — along with the fact that we can’t dismiss this as unlikely — is of enormous epistemological interest.

    Nope. Not kidding.

  12. keiths: What motivates Cartesian skepticism is the possibility that perceptions can be systematically mistaken. You’ve been unable to demonstrate that this is impossible or unlikely.

    I gave an argument on that in the last two paragraphs of an earlier post. You have not yet responded.

  13. keiths: Are you kidding? The possibility that the world is nothing like we take it to be — along with the fact that we can’t dismiss this as unlikely — is of enormous epistemological interest.

    So much the worse for epistemology.

  14. keiths: You were obviously referring to my statement, Mung.

    Yes. So? Your claim was that I was attempting a “gotcha” rather than asking a serious question. You were wrong. Get over it. Move on. Life is too short. Really.

  15. For this would be like agreeing that it is logically impossible for there to be round squares, but then to insist that explicit claims to know that there are no such things be backed by ’empirical evidence’. This surely is not coherent
    . – Schonbaumfeld

    Don’t ask me why, but this made me think of Patrick.

  16. keiths:

    Are you kidding? The possibility that the world is nothing like we take it to be — along with the fact that we can’t dismiss this as unlikely — is of enormous epistemological interest.

    walto:

    Nope. Not kidding.

    Quick — someone tell Schönbaumsfeld, before she wastes any more of her career on this question of no epistemological interest.

  17. keiths:

    Are you kidding? The possibility that the world is nothing like we take it to be — along with the fact that we can’t dismiss this as unlikely — is of enormous epistemological interest.

    Neil:

    So much the worse for epistemology.

    Those idiot epistemologists. Always focused on epistemological questions, such as what we can and cannot know about the world, and how knowledge works.

    Epistemology should be about something more interesting, like taxidermy.

  18. keiths:

    You were obviously referring to my statement, Mung.

    Mung:

    So? Your claim was that I was attempting a “gotcha” rather than asking a serious question.

    Yes. How dare I suggest that this was yet another instance of something you do continually in thread after thread after thread.

    I should have assumed, for no reason, that this was the rare exception.

  19. Neil Rickert: So much the worse for epistemology.

    So much the worse for that kind of epistemology, perhaps. There are many other ways of doing epistemology besides taking skepticism about the external world as the central issue.

    I do find Pyrrhonian skepticism to be much more interesting — hence the OP — but I think that the correct response to Pyrrhonian skepticism is to notice that the Myth of the Given applies as much to skepticism as it does to any kind of dogmatism.

  20. Neil Rickert: Neil Rickert February 27, 2017 at 2:42 pm

    Kantian Naturalist: So much the worse for that kind of epistemology, perhaps.
    Fair enough. Yes, my comment was too broad.

    Wait, Neil. I think I just heard (admittedly from an unreliable source, but still) that you never admit to mistakes! Who has taken over your login?!?

  21. walto: Wait, Neil. I think I just heard (admittedly from an unreliable source, but still) that you never admit to mistakes! Who has taken over your login?!?

    LOL.

    I considered replying to that admittedly unreliable source, but decided that it wasn’t worth the effort.

  22. walto,

    Wait, Neil. I think I just heard (admittedly from an unreliable source, but still) that you never admit to mistakes!

    No, that isn’t what you “heard”. What you actually heard was this:

    walto:

    If you were really looking squarely, you’d have to admit that there’s likely nobody on this board who admits more errors than I do–either on a count or percentage basis.

    keiths:

    Um, no.

    And while you’re better than Alan and Neil, you give them a run for their money when it comes to denying obvious mistakes.

  23. KN,

    Your response to the following?

    KN:

    There are lots of tests that work in practice for reliably distinguishing between perceptions and hallucinations. Descartes has to brush all those aside in order to generate his merging together of perceptions and dreams into one category. And so do you, it seems.

    keiths:

    Those tests do not work when the perceptions are systematically mistaken. Ponder that; it’s extremely important.

    If you are a brain in a vat, what tests will reveal that your perceptions are systematically mistaken?

  24. keiths,

    Sure, tests that work perfectly well in practice are not immune to skeptical worries based on infinitely many logical possibilities.

    The fact remains that doubts based on logical possibilities that cannot to logically refuted are still artificial doubts that cannot play any role in regulating or improving actual epistemic practice. They are not the kinds of genuine doubt that can lead to improvemebts in inquiry, whether scientific, ethical, political, etc. They are idle doubts.

    An epistemology fixated on idle doubts cannot offer suggestions as to how inquiry can improved upon. The result is a vision of epistemology that has nothing to say about our norms of epistemic conduct can be made more conducive to the ends of inquiry.

    I can understand why it’s kind of cool to ponder from time to time. I don’t understand why you think it’s so important.

  25. keiths:
    walto,

    At least this gives you an opportunity to admit another mistake.

    I admit it! As a friend of mine on another board says, “Without hyperbole, I’ve really got nothing.”

    You really are much worse on the admitting error front than anybody else here though. That’s why your OPs on the subject were so amusing.

  26. You really are much worse on the admitting error front than anybody else here though.

    Says walto, with no evidence whatsoever.

    Another mistake for you to admit.

  27. keiths: Yes. How dare I suggest that this was yet another instance of something you do continually in thread after thread after thread.

    Yes. How dare you just keep your mouth shut.

  28. Kantian Naturalist: Sure, tests that work perfectly well in practice are not immune to skeptical worries based on infinitely many logical possibilities.

    I can’t see how tests are even at all relevant, given that they are also immune to challenge. Cartesian Immunity.

  29. …perceptual discrimination is entirely irrelevant in the radical sceptical case (as one can neither motivate nor reject the BIV scenario on perceptual discriminatory grounds) … it is only the ‘default view’ of perceptual grounds that lends any credence to the idea that one must be able perceptually to distinguish between BIV and non-BIV scenarios in order to know that one is not the victim of a radical sceptical hypothesis.

    – Schonbaumsfeld

  30. KN:

    Sure, tests that work perfectly well in practice are not immune to skeptical worries based on infinitely many logical possibilities.

    So your statement is incorrect:

    There are lots of tests that work in practice for reliably distinguishing between perceptions and hallucinations. Descartes has to brush all those aside in order to generate his merging together of perceptions and dreams into one category. And so do you, it seems.

  31. The logic of validation allows us to move between the two limits of dogmatism and skepticism.

    – Paul Ricoeur

  32. Mung,

    The logic of validation allows us to move between the two limits of dogmatism and skepticism.

    – Paul Ricoeur

    I can imagine some interpretations of “validation” on which that quote comes out as true. Do you have a citation?

  33. Kantian Naturalist: I can imagine some interpretations of “validation” on which that quote comes out as true. Do you have a citation?

    I don’t. It was quoted in a software book I am reading, of all places. A chapter on “validations.”

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