Sunday, March 23, 2008

Verificationism in Epistemology

This occasional series on verificationism (one on mind, one on social philosophy) turns to epistemology. The idea is to apply verificationism to epistemology. As it happens, I see one interesting application: to skepticism, as the position that no one has any justification to claim empirical knowledge.

The skeptic need only point to our record of mistaken beliefs and our realistic dreams, as Descartes did, to motivate his argument that nothing we seem to know is in fact knowledge. (How do you know there is a computer before you? You've been mistaken in the past and you've dreamed of things that aren't there. Perhaps it is also so in this case. Etc.) Skepticism recommends that we doubt that our evidence warrants our beliefs in commonly accepted descriptions of the world, in the results of science, or even in the existence of the physical world. Call these three beliefs "common beliefs".

Here's the problem with skepticism. Skeptics have not and cannot offer evidential criteria by which we could verify that the common beliefs are not justified. Skeptics first need to answer a question: What would you take as evidence that the common beliefs are without justification? More to the point, What sort of facts would count as evidence that the ordinary evidential standards (call them "OES") which we use to justify common beliefs do not in fact yield any justification? This is a general question to which the skeptic must have an answer before proceeding to claim that he has any such facts. In other words, we want to know what sort of evidence would prove skepticism before we move on to the task of deciding whether there is any evidence of that sort. Now, the skeptic cannot reply that the evidence he has in mind is simply the same as that warranted by the OES, because this would imply that he could obtain a warrant from a source that gives no warrants. So, what kind of evidence does the skeptic have in mind? None.

In short, the skeptic has no idea what he means by "evidence that the application of OES dos not yield justification." You can formulate the case in the form of an open-question argument, if you like. For example, "By the OES, Joe has sufficient warrant for his belief; but is he justified in his belief?" The question seems open. It has an "open" ring to it, like the question, "My mom has acted normally all these years; but is she perhaps a zombie?" But it is not open. No one has any concept of evidential standards required for justification in addition to the OES, just as no one has concept of zombies.

Of course, the skeptic could reply that he accepts only the OES and merely proposes that we never satisfy them in any case. Okay, so we move to a case-by-case examination of common beliefs, rather than skepticism at the level of principle. In each dispute, the skeptic will have to point to discoveries of facts that refute the particular belief in question, such as "I discovered that it was only a shadow, not a monster," "I woke up an realized that I'd been dreaming and it was not actually summertime," or "my fever subsided and found out that I'd hallucinated the bear." All of these discoveries are comprised of common beliefs, such as "there is a shadow," "it is winter now," and "there is no bear in this room." As you can see, no one has any concept of what would count as a finished refutation of the set of common beliefs. Therefore, no one has any concept of what it would take to justify skepticism.

Skepticism has its appeal to the philosopher in adolescence because it's fun to seem to pop all the old bubbles. But after that it becomes merely tiresome. The reason is that it pretends to have substance when in fact it doesn't.