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Question Everything



Universal Skepticism

taken from the book Atheism: The Case Against God by George H. Smith

We shall begin our examination of skepticism with a doctrine known as universal skepticism. While few philosophers of theologians explicitly adhere to this position, its basic theme arises in less sweeping varieties of skepticism. By noting the flaws of universal skepticism, we are able to arrive at the general principles with which to answer other skeptical objections to knowledge.

Universal skepticism is usually stated in one of two ways. In its positive form it consists of the doctrine that man can know nothing. This belief can be easily dismissed, because anyone who defends it finds himself immersed in hopeless absurdities. In asserting that there is no knowledge, the skeptic is asserting a knowledge claim-which according to his own theory is impossible. The universal skeptic wishes to claim truth for a theory that denies man's ability to arrive at truth, and this puts the skeptic in the unenviable position of uttering nonsense. Indeed, he cannot even begin to argue for his position, because the "possibility of knowledge is presupposed in the very possibility of argument, in the very possibility of having recourse to reasons.'' As Francis Parker explains:

There is such a thing as knowledge. The assertion of this proposition is necessarily true if there is to be any assertion at all, for its contradictory is self-contradictory. If the assertion ''there is no knowledge'' is true, then it is false, for that assertion itself purports to be an instance of knowledge. Thus the only alternative to the recognition of the existence of knowledge is, as Aristotle said, a return to the vegetative state where no assertions whatever can be made.

The second form of universal skepticism consists of the doctrine that we must doubt every alleged instance of knowledge. Through this negative formulation, the universal skeptic seeks to avoid the contradiction of asserting a knowledge claim while denying the existence of knowledge. But the doctrine that we should doubt every knowledge claim translates into the positive assertion that man can never attain certainty-and this version of skepticism fares no better than the preceding.

We must ask if this "principle of universal doubt" is itself certain, or is it open to doubt as well? If it is known with certainty, at least one thing is beyond doubt, which makes the principle false. If, however, the principle is open to doubt- i.e., if it is not certain-then on what grounds can the skeptic claim greater plausibility for his theory than any other? The logician C. N. Bittle elaborates on this problem:

Skeptics either have valid reasons for their universal doubting, or they have no valid reasons for it. lf they have valid reasons, they surely know something that is valid, and they no longer are real skeptics. If they have no valid reasons, they have no reason to doubt. In the first case their position is inconsistent, and in the second case their position is irrational. Whichever way they turn, their position is untenable.
Why, according to the universal skeptic, should every knowledge claim be doubted? ''Because,'' he will reply, "man is capable of error, and it is possible in any given instance that he has committed an error.'' We must remember, however, that "error'' (or falsehood) is the opposite of "truth''-and the skeptic who appeals to error implicitly admits that a proposition cannot be true and false, correct and incorrect, at the same time and in the same respect. Thus, whether he likes it or not, the skeptic must surrender to the logical principle known as the Law of Contradiction (which states that a proposition cannot be true and false at the same time and in the same respect). As a barest minimum, therefore, the skeptic must concede the validity of the Law of Contradiction and its corollaries: the Law of Identity (A is A, a thing is itself) and the Law of the Excluded Middle (something is either A or not-A).

Here we must note the main source of confusion in the skeptical approach: tbe equation of knowledge and certainty with infallibility. When the skeptic claims that every knowledge claim should be doubted because man is capable of making mistakes, he is simply pointing out the obvious: that man is a fallible being. No one, not even the most resolute antiskeptic, will deny the point that man is fallible. (We must wonder, though, how the skeptic arrived at this knowledge. Is he certain that man is fallible?)

The skeptic fails to realize that it is precisely man's fallibility that generates the need for a science of knowledge. If man were infallible-if all knowledge were given to him without the slightest possibility of error-then the need for epistemological guidelines with which to verify ideas, with which to sort the true from the false, would not arise. Man requires a method to minimize the possibility of error, and this is the function of epistemology. A science of knowledge enables us to discriminate between justified and unjustified beliefs; and since the beliefs of an infallible being would not stand in need of verification, he could have no use for epistemological standards. Where infallibility is involved, concepts such as truth. falsity, certainty and uncertainty are slipped of any possible application.

Consider the basic argument of the skeptic. We have seen that fallibility gives rise to epistemological guidelines used to distinguish truth from falsity, certainty from uncertainty, and so forth. The skeptic, however, starts from the same premise-that man is fallible-and uses it to argue that man can never achieve truth and certainty. It is because man is capable of error that he must distinguish truth from falsehood, certainty from doubt. "But,'' argues the skeptic, "it is because man is capable of error that he can never attain truth and certainty."

The skeptic thus turns epistemology on its head by using the foundation for a science of knowledge-human fallibility-as a weapon to argue, in effect, that a science of knowledge is impossible to man.

Even if the universal skeptic could consistently adhere to his position (which he cannot), his victory would be an empty one. His claim that man cannot acquire knowledge and certainty reduces to the claim that man is fallible-and this tells us nothing new, except that the skeptic prefers to use epistemological terms while totally ignoring their context.

Since man is not infallible, any concepts of "knowledge" or "certainty" that require infallibility are, for that very reason, inapplicable to man and totally irrelevant to human epistemology. Even if the skeptical position made sense, it would fail to tell us anything concerning human knowledge and human certainty-which removes it from the realm of serious consideration.

In summary, we have indicted universal skepticism on two counts: first, because it cannot be maintained without contradiction and, second, because it commits what we shall hereafter refer to as the 'infallibilist failacy''-i.e, the equation of epistemological terms, such as '"knowledge'' and "certainty,'' with a standard of infallibility, which is completely inappropriate to man and to the science of knowledge in general.

The Contextual Nature of Knowledge

The main lesson of the preceding discussion is that man's fallibility does not invalidate his knowledge claims. Man's capability for error is not sufficient reason to suppose that he has committed an error in any specific instance. The skeptic cannot appeal solely to man's fallibility as the grounds for skepticism; further argumentation is required.

This point has been recognized by a number of philosophers. Thomas Reid, an eighteenth-century Scottish philosopher, wrote a brilliant critique of skepticism in which he maintains that man's fallibility does not preclude certainty. When a skeptic objects to a knowledge claim, argues Reid, "He makes no objection to any part of the demonstration, but pleads my fallibility in judging.'' But, continues Reid, "I have made the proper allowance for this already, by being open to conviction."

A wise man who has practised reasoning knows that he is fallible, and carries this conviction along with him in every judgment he forms. He knows likewise, that he is more liable to err in some cases than in others. He has a scale in his mind, by which he estimates his liableness to err, and by this he regulates the degree of his assent in his first judgment upon any point. 12

Reid clearly recognizes the absurdity of the skeptic's attempt to turn reason against itself: "To pretend to prove by reasoning that there is no force in reason, does indeed look like a philosophical delirium. It is like a man's pretending to see clearly, that he himself and all other men are blind." 13

The modern analytic philosopher J. L. Austin argues in a similar vein: the fact that man is "inherently fallible," he writes, "does not entail that he is inveterately so."

Machines are inherently liable to break down, but good machines don't (often). It is futile to embark on a "theory of knowledge'' which denies this liability: such theories constantly end up by admitting the liability after all, and denying the existence of ''knowledge.'' 14

According to Austin, if the skeptic wishes to attack a knowledge claim for which evidence has been provided, he must attack the evidence itself; he cannot merely appeal to human fallibility.
". . . being aware that you may be mistaken doesn't mean merely being aware that you are a fallible human being: it means that vou have some concrete reason to suppose that you may be mistaken in this case." 15

D. W. Hamlyn presents a systematic development of this theme in his recent book, Tbe Theory of Knowledge. Hamlyn rejects universal skepticism on the grounds that the existence of knowledge ''cannot be rationally questioned.'' Therefore,

when someone shows skepticism about certain claims to knowledge, what is required is that the ball be put firmly in his court. He is the one who must produce justification for his position. Skepticism without grounds is empty, and empty suggestions need not be regarded seriously. l6

The above philosophers have a vital point in common: they adopt what may be termed a contextual approach to doubt. Universal doubt is rejected because of its inherent contradiction and presumption of infallibility. Rational doubt arises contextually; that is to say, doubt emerges in specific circumstances when the arguments and evidence offered in support of a proposition are determined to be defective or insufficient. The skeptic cannot bypass the particulars of a knowledge claim and merely assert that, since man is fallible, the knowledge claim deserves to be doubted. To do so is to commit the "infallibilist fallacy."

In order to justify doubt, the skeptic must take issue with the specific argument and evidence offered in support of a knowledge claim. If the proposition in question can withstand scrutiny, it qualifies as knowledge; and if the evidence in favor of the proposition is overwhelming, it rationally qualifies as certain knowledge-man's fallibility notwithstanding.


Smith, George H., Atheism: The Case Against God, Prometheus Book, Buffalo, NY, 1979, pages 130-136



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