Derek Sivers

Scepticism: A Very Short Introduction - by Duncan Pritchard

Scepticism: A Very Short Introduction - by Duncan Pritchard

ISBN: 0198829167
Date read: 2020-07-01
How strongly I recommend it: 5/10
(See my list of 200+ books, for more.)

Go to the Amazon page for details and reviews.

I love scepticism as a subject, as a mindset, raising the standards of knowledge or belief. Especially self-doubt: not believing yourself. This book was a bit too academic, but worthwhile with good ideas.

my notes

The epistemological enterprise of seeking a foundation for knowledge that is indubitable, and hence absolutely certain, as Descartes was, then one is not going to hold that one’s everyday beliefs could ever fulfil that role.

Our everyday conception of knowledge seems to leave us perfectly happy with the idea that knowledge can be fallible and not absolutely certain (and thus to a degree dubitable) while being bona fide knowledge nonetheless.

Reasons for believing what we do: we can have such reasons even in the absence of infallibility and absolutely certainty.

Radical scepticism: The sceptical claim is not merely that one does not know many of the things that one takes oneself to know. Rather, it is the stronger thesis that one does not have any good epistemic reason for believing many of the things that one takes oneself to know.

If one proposes radical scepticism as a paradox, however, then one is under no such obligation to explain oneself. After all, the paradox is simply composed of the dialectical stand-off here between philosophy and commonsense, but that in the presence of such an impasse we are entitled to go with commonsense and thus reject the philosophical (i.e. sceptical) conclusion that we lack everyday knowledge.

The radical sceptic is somehow illicitly raising the standards for knowledge.

No-one thinks that two people are disagreeing if one person says ‘I am hungry’ and the other person says ‘I am not hungry’. If the same person made both assertions one after the other, then we would be puzzled, since they would seem to be contradicting themselves. But if two people make these assertions then there is no contradiction, since the ‘I’ in each case refers to a different person.
So there is clearly a precedent for there being terms in our language that are context-sensitive in roughly the way that it is being suggested that ‘knows’ might be.

We’re right and the sceptic is right.
‘Knows’ is a context-sensitive term

Arational = neither rational nor irrational

Suppose we want to work out whether someone’s belief that the tree that they are looking at is an oak amounts to knowledge. To do so we will consider various epistemically relevant factors. These might include why they believe what they do (e.g. is it because of the way the tree looks or is it based on someone else’s testimony?); how responsible they are in forming their belief (e.g. did they inspect the tree closely, or merely take a quick glance at it?); how likely it would be that this person could be wrong about this subject matter (e.g. are there types of tree in the vicinity that look like oaks but which aren’t oaks?);
We are evaluating whether one belief (in this case about whether this tree is an oak) amounts to knowledge relative to a background of claims that are already accepted as knowledge.

Rational evaluations are normally local in that we are not rationally evaluating all of our beliefs all at once, but only a sub-set of those beliefs, relative to a wider set of beliefs that are not in doubt (and which are thus treated as knowledge).

The very idea that one could undertake a global rational evaluation - that is, to rationally evaluate all of one’s beliefs all at once - is simply incoherent.

The questions that we raise and our doubts depend upon the fact that some propositions are exempt from doubt, are as it were like hinges on which those turn.
If I want the door to turn, the hinges must stay put.

Accordingly, if at root our beliefs come down to faith, then it is hard to see why that doesn’t simply entail that we don’t know anything, just as the radical sceptic contends.

If all our beliefs are open to question, then why be committed to the truth of anything?

why should it matter any more what is true?

That we are sometimes mistaken does not mean that we are always mistaken.
There is always the possibility of error.
We are fallible - and hence to some degree quite rightly uncertain - creatures.

We find a moderate scepticism at work in the scientific method.
Even well-founded scientific claims are nonetheless treated as provisional, in the sense of being open to being reevaluated if new evidence comes to light.

The scientific revolution is in large part due to the rediscovery of ancient sceptical texts during the Renaissance.

A virtue lies between two vices, a vice of excess and a vice of deficiency.
The lack of courage - cowardice - is a vice, but one can also take excessive risks and thereby exhibit the very different vice of being rash or foolhardy.
Being courageous is thus having the good judgement to be disposed to act between these two extremes.
One needs to cultivate this virtue once acquired, or it is apt to be lost.

Aristotle held that the good life is the life of virtue.
If one is kind, generous, courageous, and so on, then one can flourish.
The intellectual virtues include such traits as conscientiousness and open-mindedness, intellectually courageous, intellectual humility (as opposed to intellectual arrogance).

Moderate scepticism is involved in being conscientious when one weighs up the evidence, rather than leaping to conclusions?
Or in being open-minded in one’s opinions, as opposed to being dogmatic?

Radical scepticism represents a vice of excess (i.e. of excessive doubt), with dogmatism representing the opposing vice of deficiency (i.e. of insufficient doubt).

Pyrrhonian scepticism: there are some intriguing parallels between Pyrrhonian sceptical thought and Madhyamaka Buddhism, as founded by the Indian philosopher, Nāgārjuna.
Pyrrhonians offer techniques designed to induce doubt in response to someone putting forward a theoretical claim, one can employ these modes to oppose them, with the result that this would engender a neutral attitude.
This would eventually lead to a tranquil and untroubled state of mind.
Pyrrhonians instead just maintain that we should continue inquiring.

Just as we should avoid settled beliefs where we can, and always be open to the possibility of error, so we should avoid settled doubts where we can too, as both have a tendency to close down inquiry.

Promote the suspension of belief.

What the original Greeks meant by the word ‘sceptic’, which refers more to an inquirer than a doubter.

There is nothing particularly laudable about people who stick to their convictions regardless of the rational support they have for those beliefs,
Merely holding onto one’s beliefs no matter what looks like mere dogmatism,

If one has really thought through why one is so convinced about this subject matter, then one should be able to rebut weak counterevidence.

Rather than regarding oneself as knowing it all, one instead treats oneself as being a highly fallible agent with an imperfect grasp of the truth, and hence willing to learn from others around one.