Currently, epistemology is perceived by a plenty of philosophers as a discipline which concerns philosophical scepticism. Besides, the term ‘epistemological scepticism’ provoke in reader’s mind a conception of the scientific study of cognition that mainly deals with knowledge regarding its sceptical argumentative nature. Nowadays epistemology has become a topical and much discussed issue in the field of philosophy all over the world thus having aroused many contemporary discussions and sceptical debates. Therefore, there are a number of up-to-date investigations revealing the particular questions that epistemology embraces. Most papers include opposing positions of scepticism and anti-scepticism, which serve the function of epistemic dualistic nature. By this, epistemic and practical reasoning of scepticism is meant. Taking into account presently existent sceptical hypotheses and empirical issues, in this essay I will discuss the following sceptical problems: the reasons of epistemological scepticism emergence, the principles of sceptical argumentation, and the sceptical challenge.
Regarding historical approach to epistemological scepticism, the time span of its development embraces the philosophical doctrine from Savonarola to Bayle. Here one should mention the notion of “the intellectual crisis of the reformation” being characterised by a disputable issue of religious knowledge called “the truth of faith” at that time (Popkin 2003). Knowledge-religion peripeteia served as a foundation of the classical philosophy led by Greek Pyrrhonists the main aim of which was to search for truth. “With the rediscovery in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries of writings of Sextus Empiricus, the arguments and views of Greek sceptics became part of the philosophical core of the religious struggles taking place then” (Popkin 2003). Thus, an epistemic problem lied in the concept of truth that was later reinforced in the new study of knowledge. Those were the first reasons of the emergence of critical thinking that would further lead to sceptical re-conceptualisation of epistemological issues.
Rene Descartes is regarded to be a philosopher who gave birth to the idea of scepticism belonging to philosophical study. “Before Descartes, there had been Sceptics, but who were only Sceptics” (Popkin 2003). Descartes tried to contribute novelty to the existent medieval worldview investigating an adequate way of combining the Christian convictions and the seventeenth century’s scientific revolution. Those were the times scepticism appeared to be recognised as a concern to epistemology with Descartes noticing the distinction between science and religion. Religion was no longer enough to satisfy the common philosophical demands of humanity, thus those who were seeking the truth had to combine it with sceptical considerations. Nonetheless, after a range of events including life experiences in Netherlands and Germany, Descartes changed his outlook regarding scepticism that was later resembled in his philosophy, namely him being against the sceptics.
“Descartes, having presented his triumphant conquest of the sceptical dragon, immediately found himself denounced as a dangerous Pyrrhonist and unsuccessful dogmatist whose theories were only fantasies and illusions” (Popkin 2003). The traditional thinkers considered Descartes to be a sceptic as far as his idea of doubt did not reinforce constant traditions of that period of time. However, he was a philosopher who tried to reach the truth through the rationality of knowledge. He was not “a philosophical sceptic” and used “arguments to establish that claims about the physical world do not satisfy” the indubitable nature of knowledge (Huemer 2002). By this Descartes meant that the knowledge could not be thrown doubts on. Nevertheless, the non-sceptical thinkers regarded Descartes having achieved nothing and exposed the already existent beliefs to uncertainty. Moreover, “the dogmatists pressed their attack against the First Meditation, for herein lay the most powerful Pyrrhonian argument, which, once admitted, they saw could never be overcome” (Popkin 2003). The other Meditations were doubted by sceptics leaving Descartes between two oppositional sides.
In his Meditations, Descartes questions the things he used to believe in so he can demolish his previous opinions. By saying “my reason tells me that as well as withholding assent from propositions that are obviously false, I should also withhold it from ones that are not completely certain and indubitable” the philosopher meant all his opinions should have been exposed to doubt and further critical analysis (Descartes 2007). Descartes builds his meditation on constant contradiction of his previous ideas. Thus, he reaches some conclusions. His main goal is to realise what a human being is and to define whether he exists or no. Finally, he asserts that he exists as long as he thinks. Besides, the definition of a human body in terms of its physics, he defines the notion of a human being with regard to mind or soul, as it is called in his meditations.
One and the same ‘I’ “doubts almost everything, understands some things, affirms this one thing firmly, denies almost everything else, wants to know more, refuses to be deceived, imagines many things involuntarily, and is aware of others that seem to come from the senses” (Descartes 2007). Descartes is not sure whether he really sees things or just imagines them. He is not sure whether his whole life is just a perpetual dream. Therefore, there is no surety that material objects like fire from his Second Meditation do exist in reality. They may exist only in imagination. Thus, they may cease to exist when a person stops thinking about them and imagining them. There is nothing real in the world if we assume that people are just dreaming all the time. No one knows what objects invoked by imagination have their physical correspondence in reality as well as no one knows what reality is. Even if things that a person imagines do not exist in reality, they become the part of the person`s thinking and they start existing for this particular person.
Another attribute that is essential for understanding the perception of fire is sensing. Sensing and consequently being aware of bodily things that are perceived by senses is another proof that a human being exists. Descartes cannot say that he can be wrong when saying that there is a fire in front of him because he cannot be sure that he is not dreaming at that moment. If he is dreaming, this fire does not exist in the physical realm, but it exists in his imagination. Supposing that he may be dreaming, he has no right to assert that there is actually fire in front of him, that he really sees flames and feels the heat of the fire. However, he can assert that he seems to see the fire, feel its heat and that this fire is real in his cognitive system. It simply cannot be wrong. Therefore, he equates sensing with seeming. Understanding sensing in this narrow sense, it becomes just one of the thinking processes that are essential for deciding whether a human being exists and what is more important – mind or body.
Fire as well as many other objects certainly exists in imagination and mind of a person who seems to see and sense them. Nevertheless, there is a chance that this fire and these objects do not exist in reality. Assuming that a person is dreaming and that fire exists only in the person`s mind, we may definitely say that seeing and seeming to see are two different ways of naming the same process of perception of some external object. However, in this case, fire or any other thing cannot be definitely called an external object as they exist within the boundaries of the person’s mind. They become an internal part of the imagined world, at the same time having their physical correlates in the real outer world that starts to be perceived as soon as a person stops dreaming.
Descartes` claim about fire in front of a person should be regarded taking into consideration the possibility that a human being is only dreaming. Thus, when a person thinks about fire, it cannot be wrong that he or she sees or seems to see this fire, though it can be wrong that there is actually fire near this person. Although the first and the remainder Meditations were perceived differently by sceptics and non-sceptics, the author uses sceptical approach in order to reach the truth while doubting all the previous beliefs. The statement “now, when I consider the fact that I have doubts – which means that I am incomplete and dependent – that leads to my having a vivid and clear idea of a being who is independent and complete…” is followed by further argumentation about uncertainty of human intellectual abilities and finished by concluding about the truth and falsity (Descartes 2007).
Descartes’ Meditations also contain the establishment of the physical world existence. Sceptically to the former convictions of the philosopher, the last three Meditations provide the reader with an argument proving the existence of God. The nature of falsity is described in order to point out the fact that the truth is hidden under our perception and beliefs. The Fourth Meditation does not present the “discussion of matters pertaining to faith or the conduct of life, but simply of speculative truth which are known solely by means of the natural light” (Huemer 2002).
The reasons for emergence of epistemological scepticism varied over the centuries and from the Bible to politics. Biblical criticism gave birth to the so-called religious scepticism that was followed by Spinoza’s scepticism and anti-scepticism. Later, new scepticism served as the fact of ‘shelter’ to both former and new philosophies with their sceptical approach. “Simon Foucher, Pierre-Daniel Huet, and Pierre Bayle attacked the new philosophies of Descartes, Spinoza, Malebranche, Leibniz, Locke, and others” (Popkin 2003). Sceptical critiques reached its climax when Pierre Bayle, a supersceptic of seventeenth century, used his sceptical argumentations in order to enrich the former philosophical writings with his fresh theories and opinions.
Both synchronically and diachronically, epistemological scepticism was motivated by various reasons that reached presently existent defenders of this branch of philosophy. For instance, Pyrrhonian sceptics claim that people never have relevant reasons for adopting a certain position on anything because for every argument in favour of a particular doctrine or claim there is an equally strong argument against this argument or claim (Nielsen 1973). This variety of scepticism is different to some extent from two key forms of modern scepticism, namely the one claiming that a human being knows nothing, and that he/she only may know the contents of his/her own mind. Thus, if Pyrrhonian sceptic are claiming to know the truth of the generalisation that for every argument in support of a doctrine or claim there is an equally strong argument against it. It means that something is actually incompatible with those modern forms of scepticism, because Pyrrhonians are claiming much more than they claim and indeed are claiming something that could not be justifiably claimed if either of these modern forms of scepticism were true.
The first modern form of scepticism is reduced to the claim that nobody knows anything about anything. But this is not what traditionally Pyrrhonism has been about. However, in any of its traditional forms Pyrrhonism deals with no serious philosophical challenge at all. Additionally, the situation is very different for religious scepticism. Unlike philosophical scepticism, religious scepticism is not thought to be a paradoxical philosophical thesis, but is thought by many intellectuals to be a commonplace and is pervasively accepted by a large number of educated people and by many uneducated people as well (Nielsen 1973).
Distinctions and peripeteia between religious and philosophical scepticism create arguments in a slightly different way. The arguments having been developed for religious scepticism are not necessarily acceptable in philosophical scepticism, as well as certain fideistic responses to religious scepticism do not gain much plausibility by an appeal to such a dubious construction as philosophical scepticism. The latter can be taken seriously as a doctrine concerning our knowledge claims as it is not something that can be lived or certainly believed. Therefore, we can have Cartesian methodological doubts but not real doubts, which is not the same in case with religious doubts. Some seem to reject a religious orientation, others perceive the whole question of religious faith indifferently and still others adopt forms of fideism in which they are either tortured with doubt or appear to hold their religious beliefs in a different way as a result of the influence of scepticism regarding religion (Nielsen 1973).
Concerning religious approach, the distinction between believers and sceptics has become a disputable issue and heated debates are being arisen on this topic. In the dialectic of the argument between belief and unbelief, often what is taken by some as belief will be regarded by others as unbelief, the superstition indicating a lack of true belief may be evaluated differently as well, and what is taken by some to be a kind of intellectually chastened fideism will be perceived by others as a form of scepticism. It is by no means easy to say what counts as true religion or the essence of Christianity. It seems to be true that with such definitions of persuasive talk the normative questions are raised, but it does not necessarily mean that one answer is as good as another and that we can only commit ourselves one way or another or that there are not key troubling issues here which require philosophical assessment (Nielsen 1973).
Epistemological scepticism presupposes a particular subjective experience regarding the empirical basis for the evaluation of beliefs. A human being may have a set of conceptions, senses, beliefs, or some knowledge on how things appear or seem to appear, though those data may be inadequate for justifying the truth. This argument stands for the necessity of subjective experience that serves as an obvious external factor for reaching the conclusion regarding the truth about the world that is hidden behind those ideas. However, we do not have direct knowledge about the causes of these ideas and our beliefs are regarded to be inferred from the former knowledge on their effects.
As far as epistemology is a normative study, sceptical arguments appear to be distinguished with the help of normativity principle. Thus, one can mention the discipline’s concerns to certain epistemic norms. Nonetheless, it is complicated to find out where and why this normativity principle is relevant. When a human being forms his/her beliefs about something, he/she is able to reflect upon the matter of how it is done. The only possible way to reflect on this epistemic thinking is to raise questions about these beliefs (Nielsen 1973).
The classification of sceptical arguments distinguishes the most important one, which is the argument from error. Besides, this type of argument is the most widespread among epistemologists and it is presented in various forms. This argument seems to embrace the suggestion that we cannot have a clear idea whether a proposition is true when there is a possible way to be mistaken about it. Therefore, any guesses and accidents cannot be perceived as true knowledge. Sometimes it happens that accidentally the belief tends to become true, though it can be false thus concluding that the most relevant and reliable thoughts may be called knowledge. This knowing has to exclude not only an error proper, but the threat of this error as well.
The sceptics insist on the error significance and its serious matter. Moreover, it does not matter which source of the errors it is, we have to be aware of this particular error as long as we have no knowledge whether this mistake from the past is a present instance. By this the principles of generalisation and universalisation are meant. No one can claim knowledge of any proposition unless the relevant difference between the past and present cases is proven. Besides, the actual errors are non-obvious, as long as an imaginative epistemic situation of a possible error is enough to generate the situations that might have happened. Thus, universalisation presupposes our awareness of the fact that our present epistemic situation does not belong to one of those possible cases.
According to epistemologists’ standpoint, people have a great deal of knowledge about the external world. On the contrary, philosophical sceptics doubt the fact that this knowledge is certain. Nevertheless, the reason for the theoretical interest in sceptical approach lies in argumentation for epistemological scepticism. There have been two main opponent positions of philosophical sceptics and non-sceptics respectively. “Philosophical sceptics frequently appear able to start from plausible, commonly held assumptions about the nature of knowledge and deduce from these assumptions that we really know little or nothing. Non-sceptical philosophers then face the task of identifying the mistake in these otherwise plausible assumptions” (Huemer 2002).
Presently popular epistemic idea of human brain inability to distinguish between the artificial imaginative experiences and the experiences that happen in real life explains the so-called argument ‘brain-in-a-vat’. As long as every evidence person has about the external world seems to become from senses, brain-in-a-vat argumentation supports the idea that this person may experience the same sort of senses that he/she is having in reality. Thus, it proves the fact that the “actual sensory experiences are not evidence against the brain-in-a-vat scenario” (Huemer 2002). In the case that no one has evidence against brain-in-a-vat scenario, no one knows that this scenario actually exists. This form of argument has received a name in the style of science fiction since its main principle lies in distinction between illusions and normal events. Philosophical sceptics try to ‘remove’ human brain from the body while ‘placing it in a vat’ in order to emphasise the important issues concerning “mind/world relationship” (Huemer 2002).
After Descartes, the brain-in-a-vat argument is also called a “Cartesian sceptical argument” (Huemer 2002). This form of argument is regarded to be reality-imagination oriented, as well as the dream argument that questions whether the knowledge is realistic, or it is only the by-product of vast imagination. These arguments obtain a particular scenario, according to which person’s beliefs about the real world appear to be false, though they serve as an explanation of the grounds why everything is happening in the way it is.
Arguments that bear principle of distinguishing from illusion reflect on person’s sensory experience thus proving the fact that our perception is not fairly the same of what we are prone to believe it is. Some scholars in the field of philosophy claim that illusion appears to show that we perceive the world through sense-data and not directly thus creating subjective experiences. Sceptically, if there would be a chance for a human being to perceive the world through sense-data directly, there cannot be a true perception of the physical world. Therefore, there is a clear distinction between reality and appearance. In order to gain knowledge, a person has to ascertain the truth about external world. As long as we are able only to sense what the truth is, sceptical claim for vulnerability to error seems to be relevant.
According to Roderick Chisholm`s perspective, sceptical argument is determined by a principle of “the problem of the criterion” and originates from the ancient Greek philosophers (Huemer 2002). Thus, a person can obtain some knowledge while having a general rule, or as it is called a criterion, in order to define the real time when the sensory experiences happen. Besides, scepticism presupposes not knowing whether this criterion is false or not, as far as a person must verify the correctness of the fact with the help of his/her senses. Chisholm’s vision of sceptical argumentation is distinct from, for instance, Descartes’ one in the way that he points out the possible relation between ordinary sensory judgments and general knowledge that is accessible to everyone.
“It is commonly thought that the traditional sceptical challenge is fatal for epistemic internalism but merely problematic for epistemic externalism” (Reed 2007). Internalism serves the function of inner sceptical scenarios that is a proof of knowledge uncertainty. Dreams cannot be placed by knowledge, as far as a dreamer does not have any knowledge but a set of illusions. However, “if knowledge is grounded in a broader range of facts about the subject, including facts of which a person may be unaware, then the traditional sceptical challenge does not show knowledge to be impossible” (Reed 2007). Externalists worked out a range of theories concerning scepticism since it is easy to answer sceptical questions in the frames of externalism, though proper sceptical challenge is not regarded to be a direct subject of externalist study. There is a tendency that is followed by analysts regarding ancient and modern scepticism, which stands that the previously sceptical achievements focus on belief while modern sceptics are challenging claims to knowledge.
Epistemological doubt is being aroused by reflecting on how a person knows what he/she thinks he/she knows. Besides, philosophical doubting cannot be practically used since it does not make sense in life circumstances. However, a sceptic does not examine these propositions as an everyday reason to doubt. Epistemological doubt does not need to obtain a certain context, as far as it is considered to be a general doubt about justifiability. “Doubt based on challenging us to rule out the possibility of very unlikely situations is called ‘hyperbolic’ doubt” (Lacewing 2008). This kind of doubt aims at helping us realise what is possible for us to know. Therefore, sceptical viewpoint lies in challenge of discovering what a person knows and how he/she knows it. Scepticism is not regarded to be a claim that all our beliefs are uncertain or false; it is more like a claim “that our usual justification for claiming our beliefs amount to knowledge is inadequate” (Lacewing, 2008).
According to Hume, epistemological scepticism reasons a recipient to think that his/her beliefs are not epistemically determined since those beliefs have to be defined by “non-truth-conducive considerations” (Philosophical Quarterly 2000). The question of epistemological challenge embraces the disputable fact of practical VS theoretical reasoning. Therefore, the relation between epistemic and practical reasoning is reflected in reasoning about beliefs and actions. Undoubtedly, belief reasoning may be sceptical while action reasoning has to be credulous. The same consideration is relevant in the case of practice/theory within epistemological scepticism: it is good to have it, though it is not practical.
Nowadays, scholars distinguish two main approaches within contemporary epistemological debates on the topic of scepticism. Those are the “Foil Approach” and “Bypass Approach” correspondingly (Le Morvan 2010). The foil approach is aimed at solving the problem or meeting the sceptical challenge while the bypass approach stands for scepticism. Some philosophers define a “Health Approach” to the study that predetermines scepticism to be a theory of knowledge (Le Morvan 2010).
According to John Greco, “sceptical arguments are useful and important because they drive progress in philosophy… by highlighting plausible but mistaken assumptions about knowledge and evidence, and by showing us that those assumptions have consequences that are unacceptable” (Le Morvan 2010). Health approach aims at motivating contemporary epistemology responding to the problem of scepticism. Thus, the approaches mentioned above have brought a way out from the complicated situation of theory-practical disparities regarding scepticism and practical wisdom. Similarly to the bypass approach, the health approach is not concerned with responding to the challenges but “presupposes that there is much that we know and have good grounds for believing” (Le Morvan 2010). Scepticism seems to be viewed as an attitude in terms of a certain claim denial that is known or believed to be true. Taking into consideration the principle of normativity, epistemological scepticism appears to be useful in the field of philosophy in order to establish a set of determined rules for what can regard to the study and what cannot. Additionally, the health approach aims at perceiving the truth as an objective: something we believe in does not necessarily mean it is real, and the truth is not always the thing we believe in. Certainly, we are human beings and thus are capable of making mistakes.