Why is it so difficult to counter Skepticism? This is because Philosophical Skepticism can leave you with nothing to build an argument with. The difficulty of dispatching Philosophical Skepticism becomes clearer by looking at how we cope with everyday skepticism. It then becomes clear that our normal means of proof simply do not exist when trying to counter a Philosophical Skeptic.
Who washed the dishes?
In contrast, we often (easily) deal with isolated incidences of skepticism in our day-to-day lives. If you washed up the dishes, and someone doubts you, you might point to clean dishes. Maybe a trustworthy person saw you do it. Yet here we have an accepted idea of what the burden of proof is. Imagine if your inquisitor pointed out that another person may have broken in and washed the dishes. This is automatically regarded as ridiculous – and people don’t expect you to formally disprove it!
Further, these arguments are evaluated in light of a set of certain agreed, if not explicit, assumptions. Certain aspects of human behaviour are assumed implicitly. For example, someone breaking into the house to do your chores is absurd.
How normal people reason
In these encounters there exists an accepted:
- means or method of proof
- set (broadly speaking) of starting points or axioms
- burden of proof as well as method
- set of concepts and syntax which have some meaning
This might be clearest in mathematics. There are an agreed set of axioms. Using definitions and the axioms you can make deductions (method). You know, if 1+1=2 and 2+1=3 then 1+1+1=3 (although some other bits are actually needed). Burden of proof is more interesting – it differs between Pure Mathematicians, Physicists, Engineers… to students, children etc. If these lead to contradiction with the axioms or others (or you) spot errors then it is wrong. (A Skeptic might question the validity of this burden of proof!). The syntax you use in maths varies from addition to group theory.
It is now clearer why Philosophical Skepticism is so hard to counter. The Skeptic definitely questions the burden of proof! Yet how to deal with eventualities? Imagine someone wasn’t satisfied with you saying that the person didn’t break in to clean. Surely, it’s a possibility? When you protest that it is unlikely, they question more. Are you assuming causality? How do you know other minds exist? Perhaps they are robots which only behave regularly to this exact date. By this point their questioning of you – which assumed that washing up needed to be done – seems a tad hypocritical!
Axe the Axioms
A skeptic goes further and questions your axioms. Maybe you used understanding of human behaviour as an axiom in this case for convenience. Given time, you say, you could prove it from other principles. Yet what if they question causality? If you can’t link up an action and its consequences, statements about human nature are hard. Aren’t you assuming that your memory gives correct (enough) information? What if it was false? Perhaps when you make a long argument, your memory of the earlier bits of the argument being correct is false (undermining your case).
How did you do that?
They may even question the method. Why do those symbols mean that A follows from B? What is logical proof? It may seem nonsense to question this, but if all men are green, and I am a man, why does it follow that I am green? It may appear obvious, but have a go at ‘proving’ it, whatever that means. By this point you might want to play your a priori truth card. What is truth again…? Why should your concepts have a relation to truth? Yes, the Skeptic’s questions seem to assume these things, but if your burden of proof, understanding of truth and axioms make the arguments valid, then you are left with a conundrum. The Skeptic lacks these obligations. They are like a thorn in the backside – you need to sit on the bottom, the thorn doesn’t.
Finally, they can even question the syntax and meaning itself. What is truth? meaning? A concept? Logical deduction? Maybe words are meaningless!
Hopefully you now understand the problem. So many things are questioned at once it appears impossible to martial enough resources to tackle a single objection. This is because all your tools for proof are attacked at once, and your understanding of how to use the tools!
I wrote an article called ‘Where’s Wally?’, The Value of Circular Arguments and the Munchhausen Trilemma which begins to look at how you might deal with these issues. I am also going to write some more in a similar vein soon.