A Simple Proposition
When I was younger, and just entering the world of ideas, just learning how to think for myself, I was approached by a proposition. It was a strange proposition, one that had never come to me before, and I didn’t really take it seriously. Very quietly and earnestly, it asked me how I knew anything around me existed at all. How did I know that everyone and everything I’d ever laid eyes on wasn’t just a projection of my own subconscious imagination?
The question was ridiculous but relentless, and strong in its simple and unassuming way; however, it could not match the power of my own apathy. As soon as I realized that answering the question would take more than just a marginal amount of effort, I asked it right back, “Why does it matter?” and subsequently dropped the mic without waiting for a reply.
It wasn’t until years later, while reading G. K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy, that I realized this question, or more specifically the idea behind this question, was a legitimate and well-founded philosophy with an extensive history. It stretches as far back as 300 B.C., and includes, among its adherents, a Greek thinker named Pyrrho of Elis, an Islamic philosopher called Al-Ghazali, and more modern philosophers such as René Descartes and David Hume.
The philosophy of skepticism is the view that our perception of reality cannot be trusted and that absolute truth is unknowable. While comparing philosophical skepticism to ordinary credulity, the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy puts it like this: “philosophical skepticism attempts to render doubtful every member of some class of propositions that we think falls within our ken.”
In other words, there is nothing, no assumption, no proposition, no concept universally assumed to be true, that can be taken for granted, or, as more radical skeptics would assert, even proven true. Skepticism can come in varying degrees and shades—is not always absolute in its perspective, and its influence can even be observed in popular culture (who hasn’t seen, and loved, The Matrix or Inception?).
Thus, I realized that I had to try and answer the question I had been too lazy to examine. Could I take things like my senses, my morals, or even my very reality, to be true? The riddle was important; it troubled philosophers for centuries! I had to look into it and find out how the wisest men of our race dealt with this issue.
I will confess that I came into the discussion somewhat biased: I emphatically believed and still believe that my perceptions are reliable— the world I observe does not depend upon my mind for its existence. Thus, I have spent more time reading authors who deny skepticism than those who support it. I have much left to study on this issue; therefore, I advise the reader to treat this article not as an objective and comprehensive comparison of the arguments for and against skepticism but as an update on where I have gotten so far. This subject is vast, and five minutes of looking into it will show the reader how little I actually know about it.
Through the writing of three different writers—a Scotsman named Thomas Reid, an Englishman named Gilbert Keith Chesterton, and an Irishman named Clive Staples Lewis—I have identified a common argument against skepticism. Each man states it differently, but the arguments boil down to a single assertion: that skepticism is not tenable because its claims preclude and defeat itself.
The first man, Thomas Reid, was a professor in 18th century Scotland, a major player in the Scottish Enlightenment, and a contemporary and critic of the famous skeptic, David Hume. Reid’s first book, An Inquiry Into the Human Mind on the Principles of Common Sense, was in part a reaction against the skepticism of Hume, as well as that of René Descartes. Reid focused his efforts on refuting idealism, a general skepticism of the possibility of knowing anything independent of the realm of the mind. The central theme within Reid’s arguments was something called common sense: the idea that there are principles, or propositions, that nature itself leads us to believe. Furthermore, he states that it is necessary to take these principles for granted while going through the common concerns of life, without having to defend their validity.
Reid proposes that it is impossible to either escape, or defend, skepticism unless certain assumptions1 are made, assumptions which nearly all men and women naturally make every day. If one does not come to the discussion with these principles taken for granted, that person is stuck even before they get started, because one of those assumptions is the reliability of reason. In other words, a person cannot argue the side of absolute skepticism, because all human faculties are brought into question by this worldview, including a person’s ability to make arguments.
Chesterton’s argument against skepticism is ultimately the same that of Reid but phrased differently and directed towards the skepticism within the philosophy of modernism. In short, he claimed that if one is a complete skeptic, he has lost the right to form a reasonable thought, even about skepticism itself; he refers to this as “the suicide of thought.” Here is an excerpt from his book Orthodoxy, in which he lays it out:
…One set of thinkers can in some degree prevent further thinking by teaching the next generation that there is no validity in any human thought. It is idle to talk always of the alternative of reason and faith… It is an act of faith to assert that our thoughts have any relation to reality at all… The young sceptic says, “I have a right to think for myself.” But the old sceptic, the complete sceptic, says, “I have no right to think for myself. I have no right to think at all.”
In short, if one is a complete skeptic, he has lost the right to form a single reasonable thought; not even about skepticism itself.
The last case I will bring up, that of the Cambridge professor, C. S. Lewis, was made when Lewis was defending theism from the naturalistic viewpoint. It is not an argument against skepticism per se, but naturalism seems to borrow heavily from skepticism. Naturalism denies the significance, or the existence, of things that are outside of or transcend physical and chemical processes, such as variousemotions, the appreciation of beauty, or reason. (Reid might consider these concepts as belonging to his principles of common sense.) Lewis, like both Reid and Chesterton before him, uses the reality and validity of reason as the point on which his argument turns. In his essay “Is Theology Poetry?” from the book The Weight of Glory, Lewis speaks on the importance and implications of taking reason, as a concept, for granted:
… Unless Reason is an absolute—all is in ruins. Yet those who ask me to believe…that Reaon is simply the unforeseen and unintended by-product of mindless matter at one stage of its endless and aimless becoming… They ask me at the same moment to accept a conclusion and to discredit the only testimony on which that conclusion can be based.
Five pages later, Lewis phrases his point succinctly:
If minds are wholly dependent on brains, and brains on biochemistry, and biochemistry (in the long run) on the meaningless flux of atoms, I cannot understand how the thought of those minds should have any more significance than the sound of the wind in the trees.
Thus, when stripped down to its essential elements, Lewis’ argument is almost indistinguishable from that of Reid and Chesterton.
This is the argument against skepticism which has seemed to me, so far, the strongest. The fact that skepticism, in its absolute and philosophical form, both denies and depends upon reason and sound logic drives a hole in the defense of skepticism that is too wide to leave unnoticed. Of course, this isn’t the end of the discussion. This only refutes complete skeptics, and allows room for all manner of different skeptical beliefs that aren’t quite as exclusive.
Although I don’t agree with skepticism, as a Christian, I do think there is an element of truth to the concept. Trees, colors, concepts, and friends don’t depend upon my mind for their existence, but they do depend upon a mind.
I take many things for granted, and believe many other things to be true on the basis of what I have seen, heard, and thought. Fundamentally, I take Colossians 1:16-17 as absolutely and irrefutably true: “For by [Christ] all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together.” Jesus Christ is the source by which all things came into being and continue to be, and he is the mainstay of every Christian’s life. When all else fails, when my senses rebel and my reason flees, he will still be there, and I will trust him.
1 C. S. Lewis, in his essay “Why I’m Not A Pacifist”, talks of similar principles, and refers to them as “intuitions” that are common to the vast majority of humanity.
John Nystrom is a sophomore animal science major on the pre-vet track. He is interested in the partnership of livestock and people, and how this partnership can both empower and enhance the lives of individuals around the world. His favorite authors include C.S. Lewis, George MacDonald, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, and G. K. Chesterton.
Image credit: Justina Lee – The Brown & RISD Cornerstone, Spring 2015.Tags: Al-Ghazali, beauty, CS Lewis, David Hume, Descartes, faith, GK Chesterton, Inception, philosophy, Pyrrho of Elis, reason, skepticism, The Matrix, Thomas Reid