Skeptical Certainty

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Skeptical Certainty

What is it that I mean to say when I claim to know something? In general usage, the word knowledge has a comparatively low value as a threshold for acceptance. When using the word ‘knowledge’ in a philosophical context, however, it is necessary to delineate the boundaries of its definition. It is in this context that I will discuss knowledge in the sense that implies certainty as the level of confidence I hold in its ability to reflect reality.

Hereafter I will defend the notion that certain knowledge is impossible, as delineated by the theory of skepticism, and conclude by asserting that certainty is an unnecessary quality of knowledge in non-philosophical use. Let’s begin by examining the skeptic’s argument. Someone who holds the skeptic’s position on the issue of knowledge would posit that certain knowledge is impossible because it is not possible for us to ascertain objectively the verity of what we call knowledge about the world external to our own minds.

The skeptical claim advances as its first premise the statement that knowledge requires certainty, however the skeptic also posits as the second premise of the argument that our ideas about the external world lack certainty and could be mistaken; we therefore must conclude that we cannot have knowledge about the external world. Next we will scrutinize the premises of this argument. In examining the first premise of the skeptic’s argument we must ask ourselves: Why do skeptics think knowledge requires certainty?

One reason is the fact that certainty is the distinguishing factor between knowledge and mere belief. Interpreting the two terms in the context of their daily use, knowledge requires a basis in verifiable fact, while belief requires only a likelihood of the factual truth of its accurate representation of reality. An example of belief as opposed to knowledge would be upon waking in the morning, I believe it is raining outside based upon the fact that it was raining when I went to bed last night.

It is not until I step outside that I can say I know it is raining based on my experience of rain on my face. Based on this standard of verifiable fact, and judged in the context of the skeptic’s argument, what we call knowledge in everyday use would not pass the threshold of verifiability required to call it knowledge in the sense of the word as it is used by the skeptic.

In justification of the skeptic’s second premise, A skeptic would argue that all the information we have regarding the world around us is merely a product of our brain’s interpretation of stimuli perceived by our body’s sensory receptors, and as such it is not possible to verify its accurate portrayal of our surrounding environment, given the highly subjective nature of such an analysis. Such a position has proven durable because it is inherently impossible to refute in an absolute sense.

Any attempt to disprove this stance must, by nature, rely upon sensory experience for evidence, which naturally brings us back to the original starting point with the question ‘How can I prove ‘x’ as factually true without relying on sensory experience for evidence?

’And so any attempt to rebut the skeptic’s viewpoint must submit instead to logically rational explanations of likely reliable definitions describing epistemological realities, rather than definitive refutations of the skeptic’s position. An objection to skepticism can be found in the work of the standard theorists, who conjecture that knowledge is possible if it meets the requirements of a warranted accurate conviction. A standard theorist would disagree with the skeptic’s first premise that knowledge requires certainty, asserting instead that the threshold that supporting information must meet is that it must be reliable evidence.

Knowledge, by this definition, is in fact a justified true belief. In order for it to be said that a subject knows that a given proposition is true, the subject, in addition to believing the true proposition, must also have justification for believing it. So, rather than attempting to disprove the skeptic’s definition of knowledge, adherents of the standard theory merely redefine knowledge using less stringent criteria. Another flaw in the standard theory is inherent in its own criteria as we shall see next. The standard theory has been disputed in its capacity to define knowledge by what are known as “Gettier Cases”.

Gettier described hypothetical scenarios wherein subjects’ beliefs were both true and justified, and so satisfied all three conditions of the standard theory, but could not be said to support real knowledge. Smith has applied for a job, but has a justified belief that “Jones will get the job”. He also has a justified belief that “Jones has 10 coins in his pocket”, having seen Jones count them. Smith therefore (justifiably) concludes that “the man who will get the job has 10 coins in his pocket”. In fact, Jones does not get the job. Instead, Smith does.

However, as it happens, Smith (unknowingly and by sheer chance) also had 10 coins in his pocket. So his belief that “the man who will get the job has 10 coins in his pocket” was justified and true. But it does not appear to be knowledge [ (Gettier problem, 2013) ]. As we have seen, a theory that serves as a major objection to skepticism falls to a criticism that reinforces skeptical precepts not only because it fails as a rebuttal but also by the very nature of its flaw: that justification is dependent on the senses for its affirmation, and can sometimes be said to deceive us as to its accuracy.

While it seems it is impossible to irrefutably challenge skepticism’s account of the nature of reality, it seems difficult to wholeheartedly accept it as a depiction of existence. After all, whereas we have no indubitable proof that existence is as we observe it, we have no such proof that it is not either. We do, however, have reasonable evidence that our senses are reliable, and where they are shown to be unreliable, there is always a verifiable reason for the discrepancy.

So while my eyes tell me that a stick in water appears to bend, I know that this is the case because of the differing refractory qualities of air vs. water. This position admittedly relies on the acceptance of the validity of our innate capacity for logic and reason, but these faculties have proven dependable as means of charting a course through the trials and challenges presented by this existence, whatever its true nature may be. Bibliography Gettier problem. (2013, 02 10). Retrieved from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia: http://en. wikipedia. org/wiki/Gettier_problem#Knowledge_as_justified_true_belief.


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  • University/College: University of Chicago

  • Type of paper: Thesis/Dissertation Chapter

  • Date: 5 November 2016

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