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RS46 - The Varieties of Skepticism

Release date: October 23, 2011

All of us who are involved in the skeptics movement are regularly confronted with one of two reactions when revealing ourselves as skeptics: either that we are cynics or that, like the classic skeptics, we don't believe that anything is knowable. In this episode, Massimo and Julia take us trough the history of skepticism. From its roots in ancient Greece, to Descartes, the last rationalist, to David Hume, the father of modern skepticism, and to today's skeptic movement. Also, is anything really knowable? How do we know that we really exist and are not residents of a cosmic holodeck?

Julia's pick:  "The Matrix as Metaphysics"

Massimo's pick: "On Bullshit"


Reader Comments (4)

I find your treatment of Pyrrhonian skepticism somewhat distressing. Doubt is not denial, so being skeptical of skepticism does not result in any sort of contradiction at all. Instead it results in the skeptical position across an infinite meta-progression (or, if you wish, an infinite regress). There is no reason to artificially protect skepticism itself from skeptical inquiry (as Shermer's agenda-ridden apprehension claims). The result of skepticism of skepticism is no conclusion, which is skepticism.

As for it being sterile (not allowing us to progress) that is a straight up error, unless one measures progression by the acquisition of certainty (in which case the lesson was obviously missed completely). We don't need affirmations of certainty to build - tentative positing are sufficient for progressing. Indeed, I would argue that maintaining an eschewing of certainty is what permits growth, change and adaptability, since one suffers no delusions of certainty to act as a perimeter of ignorance (that halts inquiry).

From my perspective, the casually dismissive attitude toward Pyrrhonian skepticism also casually dismisses the important lessons to be learned, especially with regards to offering us protection from dogmatic affirmations of certainty. This lesson itself is a necessary, practical prerequisite for inquiry. Far from "sterile," it is *the* opportunity for growth. That is not sterility; it is an invitation to explore.

When, at the zero point of epistemic nihilism, we begin our explorations on the basis of tentative positings we have a much better possibility of correcting error than we do if we begin our exploration on the basis of dogmatic affirmations of certainty, which allows for no correction. I think Massimo's use of the phrase "epistemological humbleness" (paraphrasing) is critically important to the investigative effort. This is not, in my view, an academic curiosity or an unreasonable stance; it is a necessary prerequisite of the mentality of inquiry.

As for the "little asterisk" stuff, apparently Julie has never encountered people who claim certainty (yes, certainty) based on faith. These people, and they do exist in vast numbers, do not have any asterisks at all.

Side Note: If one is going to critique Pyrrhonian skepticism, then it would be much more productive to go after the Ancient Greek philosophical idea of "living a philosophy." which, entertainingly, Pyrrhonian skeptics shoehorned into skepticism in the form of "ataraxia." You can have a lot of fun picking apart the "giving assent" to this purpose of philosophy. The traditional bugbear that there is an inherent contradiction in skepticism, however, is a chimera and arises from conflating doubt with denial.

October 24, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterDglas Raeat

This episode was a joke. As a grad student in phil working in, broadly, epistemology, both the discussion of skepticism and the ensuing 20 minutes of rambling were disappointing. Massimo ended the show in quite a hole: the naturalist and "skeptic" today work with a giant asterisk next to all of their claims: "All of this is contingent upon there actually being an external world, upon humans reliably tracking the truth, upon humans not being deceived in their beliefs, etc. etc." Massimo's response was "We can't disprove skepticism--in fact, total skepticism may even be likely--so we just carry on as if we HAD refuted it." Of course, why can't the theist (or anyone else?) say exactly the same thing? "We can't disprove atheism--in fact, atheism may even be likely--so we'll just process as if atheism were false. It is the best we can do after all." So how do I even decide between the "skeptic" and the religious dogmatist in the first place when the foundation of all positions is the same dogmatic head in the sand? What a joke.

November 26, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterjtr

I've listened to several episodes and read several of Dr. Pigliucci's essays. I'm wondering if he isn't advocating a sort of pragmatism with much of his work? Being a pragmatist myself, I would not be terribly upset at this, but I would be interested to hear if Dr. Pigliucci considers himself a pragmatist, or if he feels a sort of intellectual kinship with any pragmatists.

February 10, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJeffrey Elliott
Wonderful discussion. "I think therefore I am" still makes a lot of sense. Even with split brain studies, we still know that (1) we can think, (2) and that this thinking makes us something, if only a "thinking thing". Everything else we must doubt.
January 29, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterJameson

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