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The Revival of Skepticism

In the era which is now just past, the era of modernism, it was fashionable to exaggerate how much we knew, and with what degree of certainty. While the leading scientists generally did not share this view the man in the street was led to believe, indeed was quite specifically taught at school and in undergraduate studies at university, that science had essentially explained everything. All that remained was to fill in a few gaps, while driving knowledge into ever remoter depths of time and space.

Recently we have come to realise that all this is not true. While science has provided amazingly clear and simple expositions of some aspects of reality, others, and important ones, remain almost untouched. In addition some of our much loved theories turn out to have been inaccurate and the new ones that are taking their place are far less simple and elegant. Above all it has been realised that the attempts to apply science to human behaviour and the management of human society have not only failed but have done harm, sometimes on a gigantic scale.

Against this background we see a revival of the philosophy known as skepticism, which says that we do not really know anything. This position is very ancient. It is both affirmed (up to a point) and attacked by Plato in different dialogues, and it had a strong following in ancient times, both before and after Plato. It tends to surface in human history from time to time, always in reaction to a period of excessive dogmatism.

The Failings of Skepticism

The trouble with skepticism is that nobody really believes it in the sense (surely the only meaningful sense) of basing his everyday life on it. A good start to any argument with a skeptic is to ask him what his contingency plan is in case the Sun does not rise tomorrow morning or (one can add instances ad nauseam) in case gravity switches off or all the water in the world disappears. Has he provided for his old age in case he lives to be two hundred? If he says you are talking nonsense, you reply, “But how do you know I am talking nonsense?”

There is a famous story along the lines concerning the Italian economist Pareto. He was attending a conference of economists where he became personally friendly with a German economist whom we will call Dr Schmidt. Dr Schmidt belonged to the German Historical School that denied that there are any laws of economics. All an economist can do is to describe what happened in particular situations in the past. Pareto disagreed with this view.

One evening Dr Schmidt suggested that they should go out to dinner. “By all means,” said Pareto. “Let’s find a restaurant where they are giving the food away for nothing.” “Don’t be silly,” said Dr Schmidt. “Restaurants don’t give away food for nothing.” “Oh,” said Pareto. “You mean there are laws of economics?”

There is an additional point to this story that is not often noticed. If Pareto contended that there was a law of nature (like the law of gravity) that restaurants do not give away food for nothing he was wrong. It was perfectly possible that some restaurant was giving food away for nothing as an advertisement or for charity, but the likelihood was so low that searching for it would certainly have been a waste of their time. What Pareto said (or implied) was true enough for practical purposes.

What We Know and What We Don’t Know

Indeed, we have to distinguish very clearly between what was known for certain and what was known to be certain. We can know with a great degree of certainty that something is very improbable but possible (like snow in Johannesburg in October), or very likely but not certain (like a commercial aircraft completing a flight without an accident). Sometimes we can calculate with great accuracy just how probable or improbable the uncertainty is. Insurance and life assurance companies base their whole business on doing this, and generally they are successful.

There are things we know for certain, or so nearly as makes absolutely no difference. We know the Sun will rise tomorrow at a certain time, which can be calculated with great accuracy. We know that we will not live to be two hundred. We know that gravity and electricity and many other things will continue to act according to the laws that we also know. We base our lives on this knowledge. We have no contingency plan in case it proves to be wrong. We bet our lives on it every day. Whatever philosophers say, ordinary people (and that actually includes the philosophers when they are doing anything other than philosophising) know that they know.

There are areas of uncertainty that are still there, this we also know. We know limits and we know probabilities. Although the unpredictability of the weather is notorious, its broad patterns are very predictable. We know the difference between summer and winter. We know the difference between wet seasons and dry seasons. We know the difference between one climate and another. We know for certain (talking about the present time, not the geologically remote past or future) that degrees of cold which are perfectly normal in Russia will never occur in Johannesburg. We know that even in the years of the most acute drought some rain will fall in Johannesburg in December while it is very likely, in any year, that none will fall in July. Living with probability, calculating risks, recognising limits, is very largely what everyday life is about. Science may not be very helpful in these areas, but we know how to do this because we do it every day.

So some things we know for certain, or so nearly certain that it makes no difference to anything. We know that none of us will live to be two hundred; we know when the Sun will rise tomorrow, to the second; we know the melting point of ice and the boiling point of water; and we know that aeroplanes can fly. Other things we know to be unpredictable, but we know with some confidence the limits within which they move, like the weather. Others we know to be totally unpredictable, but we know how they average out over time, like the spin of a coin or the behaviour of the roulette wheel.

There are other things that we know very little about. We have some information and from this we have formulated guesses as to the things which we do not know. These are, or include, the scientific theories which are formulated in the areas where we have little information, like the depth of space and time, and the behaviour of sub-atomic particles (if they exist – or if they do not, whatever does exist in their place). Here our knowledge is so incomplete that it can happen that a single discovery makes it necessary to revise the theory completely, so that a great many things that we formerly thought likely are suddenly discarded altogether.

When this happens it encourages some people to say, “So you see, we know nothing.” This is an unfortunate consequence of a tendency of the popularising of science to fail to draw a distinction between the areas where scientific theories are extremely well grounded and the areas where they are quite tenuous. We may wake up one morning to find that there are no such things as quasars or that black holes are not what we thought, or that the redward shift has quite a new explanation but we will not wake up one morning to find that ice melts at 10°C.

Fact Precedes Theory

It is very important in this connection always to remember that fact precedes theory. We base our theories on the facts that we know. Then we deduce other facts that must also be so if the theory is right, and go out to test whether the secondary facts are so or not. If they are not, we have to revise the theory, but the new theory still has to accommodate the original facts, which have not changed. It is a widespread but fundamental fallacy to think that facts change when theories change. The day before Copernicus published his theory that the Earth moved round the Sun, and the day after, the Earth moved in exactly the same way, the Sun appeared to rise at exactly the predicted time. Nothing changed except what a few (at the time, very few) astronomers believed.

At something about this point a philosopher usually intervenes to say “But how do you know that you know these things?” There is no water-tight answer to this. Since the first skeptics of Ancient Greece (or probably long before) nobody has been able to put skepticism to rest. Yet skepticism suffers from one massive drawback, namely that nobody, not even the declared skeptics, behaves consistently, or even usually, as if it was true.

Assumptions of Reality and Truth

While philosophical debate has swayed back and forth through the ages, all science, and nearly all everyday life, has been based on a set of assumptions about reality and truth. These assumptions cannot be proved, but they can certainly be said to have worked. They are as follows:

  1. There is a reality that is external to us and exists irrespective of us. It is determined neither by what is known of it nor by what may be wished of it. It existed before we did and will exist after we have gone.
  2. This reality works in its own way, not ours. We can, to some extent change or control it but only by doing the right thing, in its terms. Our virtues do not matter. Our good or bad intentions do not matter. What matters is to know what to do, and to do it exactly right.

These two sets of assumptions are not only basic to all modern science and modern everyday behaviour. They are common also to nearly all pre-modern sets of beliefs. It matters not which religion or mythology we look at, we will find these same points in one form or another. God or the gods, or the spirits exist outside us. They are greater than we are and more powerful. They existed before we did (this point is always insisted upon). They act according to their own wills, not ours. They are merciless if we cross them. We can influence them, but in order to do so we have to know exactly what to do, and we have to get it right. Mythology is full of the point that there is no mercy for those who make mistakes, however innocently.

We may recall the myths of Orpheus who was told not to look back, Adam and Eve who were told not to eat the fruit, Pandora who was told not to open the box. Modern people often feel that these myths are unreasonably hard but this is because they think that the myths are about the dealing of human beings among themselves whereas they are in fact about the dealing of human beings with what we call inanimate nature. If you think the myths are ‘hard’ try looking back while you are driving at high speed on a winding road, try eating mushrooms that you have been told not to eat, try opening a box containing high voltage electrical equipment. In the myths the people had been warned, but it does not help if you did not know. In the myth of the Waste Land, the knight struck the ‘blow dolorous which laid waste four countries’ entirely innocently. He had no way of knowing what he was doing. Well, you can trigger an avalanche or start a forest fire entirely innocently, but it will harm/trap/injure you just the same and do the damage that it is going to do just as much as if it had been started with the utmost of calculated malice.

The difference between modern and pre-modern thinking does not turn on any of the points in our two propositions. It turns on the extent to which we believe that day-to-day occurrences are under the control of external beings. In modern thinking either there is no god, or it is believed that God created a world which operates according to objective principles and that God either never intervenes in matters of detail or has done so only on a handful of quite extraordinary occasions. Most pre-modern people believed that god or the gods or the spirits controlled natural events and phenomena in detail and from day to day, but this did not mean, in most systems of belief, that people could not, up to a point and with the permission of the gods or spirits (which had to be obtained in the right way) predict or control natural events. Rain-making rituals are a case in point.

External Truth and its Knowability

There is a third assumption, on which there was much less unanimity, and it remains controversial in modern thinking, and opinions on it vary in earlier sets of beliefs. The assumption is that the external truth is knowable to some extent by human beings. The controversial issue is how far it is knowable. Some of the more elaborate and dogmatic religions and philosophies (such as Platonism) have held that to those who are in the know, who have access to the proper source of knowledge, everything that matters is knowable, and indeed known in the utmost detail. Modernist scientists tended to take a similar view that everything is knowable, and that a great deal is already known.

Other religions and philosophies have emphasised the difficulty of knowing for certain, have questioned how much is knowable, or firmly asserted that all sorts of things are unknowable. God, or the gods are inscrutable and unpredictable. Knowledge is partial and uncertain. Post-modern scientists and philosophers tend to this view.

Your Truth and My Truth

It is in relation to the recognition (which is valid) that some of our knowledge is inexact, and that there are things that, at least for the present, we cannot know, that it is important to hold firm to our basic assumption, even if we cannot know the truth, the truth is still there, and of course, one day we may be able to know it. Before telescopes and microscopes were invented whole worlds of which we now have detailed knowledge were completely closed to our ancestors. They guessed about their theories, about the causes of disease, for example, and about the nature of the universe, and we now know, we know that many of their guesses were very wrong indeed. We also know that, especially in relation to the cause of disease, this mattered very much.

We quite often hear nowadays, “There is your truth and there is my truth. It is all a matter of point of view.” So, is there Pasteur’s truth – that certain diseases are caused by bacteria, and somebody else’s truth – that they are caused by evil spirits? There are not. We know that Pasteur is basically right. Of course we now know still more that Pasteur did not know. Is there Ptolemy’s truth – that the Sun goes round the Earth, and Galileo’s truth – that the Earth goes round the Sun, and you can take your pick? No. We know that Ptolemy was wrong and Galileo essentially right. If we want to send a rocket to Mars this matters. If we based our plan for the rocket on Ptolemy’s model of the solar system it would most assuredly not arrive.

The Limits of Knowledge

What we know is not, in fact, the truth. It is an idea created in our minds from our sense-data and our calculations that approximate, more or less closely to the truth. In some areas our knowledge is probably as near perfect as can make no difference; in others it is very approximate indeed; but in all cases we hold firm to the belief, or the assumption which makes sense of the whole scientific project, as well as of much of everyday life. Even the things that we can never know – or rather that we assume at present that we can never know – are there.

Although post-modernist skepticism is at present being overdone, as skepticism has been overdone in other periods in the past, we must not subject it to blanket condemnation. There are two lines of thought that can have the effect of retarding or even preventing the search for the truth, that is, the project to approximate our ideas more and more closely to the actual truth. The one is indeed exaggerated skepticism – the denial that there is anything to know or that we can ever know it, but that is not the most dangerous. The most dangerous and the one that has in fact been most damaging to the search for truth is the dogmatic claim that we already know everything or that we know all that is possible for us to know or all that is proper for us know. The totalitarian regimes of the twentieth century adopted this attitude in its entirety and actively persecuted the pursuit of truth outside of their own strait-jacket, but even in the relatively free world of modernist thinking went much too far in this direction. A reaction is due, and although like all reactions, it is being overdone, it is better than what preceded it.

As always, we have to accept less than perfection. We know nothing perfectly and we know nothing absolutely for certain. But we know a great deal for as near certain as makes no difference, and a great deal more with sufficient certainty for the knowledge to be useful. In fact it is knowledge and practically nothing else which makes us live so much longer and so much better than our ancestors did. It is our most valuable possession, so to preserve and extend it is one of our most urgent tasks.

Disclaimer: This essay was extracted from O’Dowd’s 1999 occasional paper, “Liberal Reflections”, for the Free Market Foundation. The essay’s name was changed from the original “What is Truth?” and the headings were inserted by Rational Standard editors.

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Michael Conway O'Dowd (1930-2006) was Chairman of the Free Market Foundation from 1978 to 2005, and of the Anglo-American and De Beers Group Chairman's Fund from 1974 to 1997. In the latter capacity, O'Dowd was a pioneer of corporate social investment in South Africa, contributing immensely to the establishment of rural schools and universities of technology for black South Africans in the previous era. A classical liberal philosopher, O'Dowd is known for his 1966 prediction that economic growth and industrialisation would lead to the demise of Apartheid.
  • Tim Crowe

    Thanks for sharing this valuable commentary. It should be required reading for everyone, especially first year university students, AND FALLISTS IN PARTICULAR.

    Sift through the various versions of the truth. Pick the one(s) that make most sense. Test them. Abandon them if the fail tests – time and again. Stay with the ones who fail the least, until you find one that seems to work all the time.

  • Joy Alcock

    We live and learn. Eternal students always in search of perfecting knowledge. It’s a long journey of discovery for the ultimate Truth of existence, within our patch of the Universe. An awesome challenge !