Radical Skepticism

I’ve done a lot of philosophical thinking, especially during the time when I was actively trying to figure out if there is a god (and, if so, which one?), but I haven’t really done that much reading of philosophy, aside from taking Philosophy 101 last year (which introduced me to the problem of evil and changed the question from “is there a god?” to “if god(s) exist, why would I want to worship/obey them?”). So, every so often, I run into a name of some philosophy or other and think “Oh, hey, there is a name for my position/a position I used to hold!” This is just what happened when I was reading Jesus and Mo the other day.

Radical Skepticism is at the heart of my own philosophical thinking. In trying to figure out how I could know that god is real, somewhere along the way I started thinking about how I could know that anything is real. My conclusion was that I could not know anything, even including the position that I could not know anything. I certainly can’t trust my senses, since I regularly hallucinate (we usually call it dreaming, though). I can’t trust my memory either; I forget things on a regular basis. How else can I find out anything without the use of my senses and memory? My knowledge of everything is ultimately obtained through use of my senses (even my knowledge of objective research comes to me through my senses, using my eyes to read the research paper). The only thing I can “know” is the state of my own mind (which might or might not be housed in some sort of physical meatsuit).

This position actually kind of comes in handy when trying to have lucid dreams. In order to realize that you are dreaming, you must first be willing to consider that you might be dreaming. Whether awake or dreaming, the implicit assumption is that you are awake. It might seem incredibly obvious, once you wake up, that you were dreaming, but it’s not at all obvious when you are still dreaming. However, already having the idea in my mind that things might not be real makes it much easier for me to seriously consider, while appearing to be awake, whether I might be dreaming.

This is, however, just about the only practical use I’ve ever found for radical skepticism. That’s the problem with radical skepticism. It’s just not very useful. The desk I’m writing at might or might not be “real”, but it’s still going to hurt if I stub my toe on it (unless I’m dreaming, in which case it might still hurt, or my foot might go through it, or it might turn into a pumpkin, or whatever). However, I do think it makes a good cornerstone to my thinking on philosophy and ethics and stuff.

I did eventually decide on a nice practical rule (which I had already been living by, anyway): if it seems real, treat it like it’s real, just in case it is. So yea, small puppies? They might be real. Killing small puppies in a video game might be ok, but killing small puppies in waking life would be bad, because maybe they are real. Even if they aren’t real, I believe they are real (one cannot easily control one’s beliefs, and I find that I am generally inclined to believe in things I experience through sense data), and killing them would still have a bad effect on me, so it’s still bad.

This rule also applies to dreams. Even if I’m dreaming, and I know it’s a dream, this is no excuse to go around shooting people. Really, the only reason that I’m inclined to believe that waking life is real and dreams are not is that I’m inclined to forget dreams (something I have to struggle against on a daily basis just to remember a few scenes or fragments), and dreams tend to make less sense and be less consistent and persistent than waking life (as far as my fallible memory tells me while I am awake, anyway). This does not necessarily mean that I have correctly identified which of the two general states of being that I experience (waking and dreaming) is real, assuming that one, and only one, of these two states is real (and also assuming that these are the only two general states of being that I experience, and also assuming that I have correctly identified which state I am in, and also assuming that waking and dreaming are two different, distinct states, and so on).

This rule does not apply to video games. I have no more reason to think that characters in video games have feelings and can experience pain than I have to think that rocks have feelings and can experience pain. Video games do not seem real. They are a part of waking life, simulated through computers. As a computer science major, I understand even more than most about how video games work. Furthermore, the graphics just aren’t good enough to ever be mistaken for real. If holodecks end up being on the list of nifty Star Trek tech that actually gets invented, though, I might have to reconsider. If a video game is actually realistic enough that it cannot easily be distinguished from reality, I would still have to treat it as though it is real (at least to the point where running around killing people becomes not ok), because it might be possible to be in the real world while thinking I am in the holodeck, which would obviously be very bad if I thought I were playing a first person shooter.

This is about the same reason that it’s a bad idea to point an unloaded gun at a friend and an even worse idea to pull the trigger of an unloaded gun while pointing it at a friend; if you are wrong (and the gun is loaded), someone could die. Which leads right in to another idea which I highly esteem that ties right in with radical skepticism. I could be wrong about stuff.

Ah, but if I am a radical skeptic, if I can’t know anything, isn’t the idea of being right or wrong about things meaningless? In a way, perhaps, but there is a difference between knowing something absolutely for certain, and knowing something with high probability. I maintain that nothing can be known with absolute certainty (or if it can, I can’t see how). But even if I can’t know anything and even if everything I experience might be a lie or an illusion or a dream… well, I haven’t really got anything else to go on, have I? So I might as well just go on what I have and then just remember that I could be wrong, too.

So yea. I could be wrong about stuff. I could, in fact, be wrong about anything or everything that I think I know. I should not disregard a position in opposition to mine just because I don’t want to be (or admit being) wrong. People are wrong about stuff all the time. It’s ok to be wrong about stuff. It’s not ok to cling to an idea and insist that it is right in spite of all evidence to the contrary, without ever fairly considering the possibility that it might be wrong. It’s not ok to hold an idea as being above question. I should also not be afraid to admit when I don’t know something. I don’t know a lot of things. I don’t know anything with absolute certainty. Lots of people don’t know lots of things. When you don’t know stuff, isn’t it better to just say “I don’t know” than to make stuff up or pretend that you know stuff?

Since ideas–any and all ideas–could be wrong, it’s also important to think about what assumptions those ideas are based on. For instance, the idea that the sun rises every morning is (for many people) based on observation and the idea that if something has always been observed to happen in certain circumstances in the past (with no contradictions), it will continue to do so in the future. The idea that observation is good evidence for something is based the assumptions that sense data reflects on some objective reality and that memory (or whatever medium the observation was recorded in) is reliable. If you can’t figure out for certain whether something is true or not (which is true (ha!) of every single thing if you are a radical skeptic), knowing what ideas it is based on and what ideas are based on it will give you a much better idea of how likely it is to be true and what would be different if it were not true. To me, knowing how something is known is as, or more, important than knowing the thing itself. (Besides, the how is often a useful shorthand to remember the thing, like how I never memorized the quadratic formula because whenever I need to use it I can just derive it using the completing the squares method, and then I don’t have to worry if I remembered it right, and I know why it works)

I don’t really bring up the whole radical skepticism position very often (though when I do, it tends to lead to some very fun debates) and, truthfully, I don’t even really think about it very often. Most of the time I just wear my “I’m going to assume that sense data reflects on an objective reality because that makes things easier” hat and go about my business. The thing is, I still know it’s a hat.


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