Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Into the Abyss

"We will not be afraid to speculate, but we will be careful to distinguish speculation from fact."
- Carl Sagan, "Cosmos"

Let us take a voyage, shall we, to the dark heart of nihilistic razing. Don't worry; it's not (quite) that scary...

When we talk about knowledge (justified true belief) we are talking about three things: the knower, the known, and the link between them. Skepticism convincingly illustrates that our perceptions are *potentially* flawed. This puts paid to the link between knower and known and turns "knower" into mere believer and the "known" into the merely believed.

Now, really, this post is not about that journey itself, which is pretty much non-controversial (Cogito Ergo Sum aside, which is an analytic truth and needs to be examined separately). An honest, thoroughgoing and dedicated inquiry into what we really know (with certainty) yields a whole lot of nothing. That nothing, however, is instructive. This post is about what we do when we hit ground zero - when we reach the point of epistemological nihilism.

So, what is the result of our voyage? Uncertainty. Nothing more; nothing less. Some run squealing in blind panic away from uncertainty. Others try to tolerate it. A very few embrace it and see the potential in it, the room for growth it gives. Some people just like to pretend that what they believe is certain knowledge.


Well! That was fun. And here we sit on the broken and smoldering debris of our respective houses of cards. Don't look down. We can't even be sure we are sitting on anything!

For your amusement, a couple of links to a conversation with a bomb stuck in its bomb bay as the ship's crew desperately tries to convince it to not explode...

Phenomenology with a bomb...
The bomb blows it...

One thing we have to be careful of is to avoid making the same mistake we were correcting on our way here. It is tempting to think that if we do not know something that we know that something is not. This would be an error, since it would be confusing the subject of the inquiry, which is our knowledge state, with the thing about which we do or do not have knowledge about. To make this mistake, where we are in our journey, would be introduce what is called "metaphysical solipsism." Solipsism in its most favorable reading is cautious, metaphysical solipsism - not so much.

Given an honest skeptical inquiry, we can no more make claims about the non-existence of other minds than we can about the existence of other minds. We can only claim that we don't know with certainty either. Claims about reality are in the same boat. We can no more claim that reality doesn't exist than we can that it does. The argument that the bomb makes from "Dark Star," is a mistake. We cannot conclude that "you are false data" any more than we can conclude that "you are true data." Understanding this is critical to negotiating the treacherous depths of the abyss.

So, the problem with "metaphysical solipsism" is not the inquiry itself; it is the attempt to "resolve" (read: evade) the inquiry in a particular way. It is a refusal to accept the conclusion of the inquiry. It is still desperately seeking certainty and tries to contrive something to be certain about.

Let's assume, for the sake of argument, that there is no certainty (at least with respect to reality). Is this really the, so to speak, end of the world? I intend to post, down the line, about skepticism as a positive philosophy, as potential for growth.

Choices, Choices...

What now? Do we sit and wallow in the angsty, yet smugly comfortable broodiness of nihilism or do we start throwing ideas out there? Well, we can sit and wallow if we wish, but here's the thing: reality is not denied by skepticism, only knowledge of it is. The conclusion that there is no reality has just as little basis as the conclusion that there is a reality (much less a particular one). Don't let the theologians fool you: skepticism is not denial of anything except certain knowledge. The trick is to accept that we don't have certain knowledge, to take it seriously rather than running away from it. Nothing more and nothing less.

So, after spending some time wallowing in existential angst, we finally realize that non-existence is as poorly substantiated as existence is, and that assuming non-existence of reality is getting us nowhere at a glacial pace. We decide, perhaps out of sheer boredom, perhaps in a desire to explore options, to put ideas out there and see what happens.

There are two ways of putting ideas out there for consideration. Now we are getting to the heart of things (and the purpose of this post)...

(1) One is to affirm as truth (which we'd already established is unsubstantiated).
(2) The other is to posit tentatively and see what we can get from it.

Now, the difference in mentality is critical. One is critique-based, exploration-oriented, and open to correction. The other is based on uncritical recapitulation, mistakes building an elaborate story with exploration, and confuses orthodoxy requirements with error-correction. I'll give you two guesses which is which. ;)

Into the Future

Mostly, throughout human history we have tried the former, affirming truth, and that has resulted almost invariably with orthodoxy-based tyranny. Sadly, orthodoxy requirements are not error-correction. Affirmation is not confirmation. One, and only one, philosophy tried the latter approach, tentative positings. That was skepticism. "We may be wrong, but let's try this idea on for size" (compare that with "we are right, make it fit no matter what!"). Well, after skepticism got put to the sword for a couple of thousand years, by the religious, for having the temerity to question dogmatic orthodoxy (indeed dogma itself) and undercutting false certainty, it reappeared in a methodology that had the assumption of potential error (the recognition of uncertainty/fallibility, AKA: skepticism) and hence error-correction at its core. Science. Let the explorations begin! In a few hundred short years, compared to the thousands before it, we have something other than blood to show for our efforts. It is a popular misconception that "pure skepticism" is "sterile and unproductive." We can build with skepticism. We just do so tentatively. Carefully, ever watchful for error.

And this is not as difficult as it sounds on first blush. We all do this every day. Here's an example:
Compare (1) "It may be raining outside" with (2) "It is raining outside."
If you understand the difference between these two propositions, and the mindset involved with each, then you understand the difference between expressing something provisionally (1) and expressing things as affirmations (2). One is a question, an expression of inquiry. The other is an answer, an end to inquiry.


We take the point to heart. Could we be wrong? Sure we could. Does that mean we *are* wrong. Not necessarily, but we will keep the possibility of error (fallibility) firmly in mind, so that we don't repeat the same tired old mistakes of the dogmatic affirmers in the past. More, we will realize that doubt and denial are not the same thing. We may doubt, say, the existence of God, but that doesn't mean we are denying it, because doubting is not actually talking about God at all. It is talking about our knowledge-states.

Reality is a tentative positing (an axiom, if you like), not a dogmatic truth, and we add more tentative positings based on it, and deduce therefrom. "Holy worldwide communication network, moon landing, and tripled lifespans, Batman! This seems to be working!" ;)