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PUTTING SCEPTICISM IN ITS PLACE: Has scepticism got completely out of control in Western intellectual culture? And is modern philosophy, going back to Descartes, biased in favour of scepticism? In my opinion (IMO), Yes and Yes.

Suppose you find yourself in a room with a radical sceptic. You look out of the window and you see three houses. You turn back into the room and say “three houses are visible from the window.” The sceptic replies, “you mean three houses were visible.” “But,” you say, “they can’t have vanished in the last few seconds.” You might look again and say “yes, they’re still there.” The sceptic would retort: “I grant you that when you looked again they were there again, but what makes you think they had been there in the interval?” You would only be able to say “because I see them whenever I look.” “Then,” says the sceptic, “you ought to infer that they are caused by your looking.”

Note that the sceptic’s position contains nothing contrary to logic. You can’t deduce that houses or mountains continue to exist when nobody’s observing them. Nor will you ever succeed in getting any empirical evidence against this kind of scepticism, because there is no way to find out if the houses or mountains are there when nobody’s looking at them. Induction is indispensable in science, but it’s powerless in this instance.

Now before you lose patience with this kind of talk and say it’s all a load of rubbish—and you have all my sympathy—consider the orthodox interpretation of quantum theory. This interpretation, known as the Copenhagen interpretation, is the prevailing view of the physics establishment, and it consists of two parts. Part one: There is no deep reality. This is a little vague, but the idea seems to be that as physicists dig down into the structure of matter, things don’t become more solid and intelligible but less so.

Part two: Observation creates reality. This proposition is taken seriously in spite of the fact that physicists have no satisfactory definition of what is meant by “an observation.” Now some people, both scientists and non-scientists, have taken the next step and claimed that consciousness creates reality. But to say that consciousness creates reality would be to go beyond the orthodox view. For one thing it’s too close to idealism, a school of philosophy that holds that all reality is mental; and idealism has been out of fashion for the better part of a century. More to the point, as of this moment consciousness has successfully defied scientific investigation, and I would submit that anything you’ve heard to the contrary is mere conjecture. We have no scientific evidence that we’re conscious—so far.

But, getting back to the Copenhagen interpretation, note just how radical a form of scepticism it is. If you have any doubt about that claim, consider what orthodox physicist N. David Mermin has to say on the matter: ‘We now know that the moon is demonstrably not there when nobody looks.’ He doesn’t see any point in pussyfooting around. His claim seems inescapable given certain undeniable facts about the behaviour of quantum particles, and apparently rational inferences from those facts. So you see, the orthodox physicist is at one with our radical sceptic. And for the physicist, it’s not only houses and mountains that cease to exist in the absence of observation, but something much bigger, the moon.

And yet, do we really believe that the moon isn’t there when nobody’s looking at it? Which has the greater claim to authority, the results of inferential reasoning from a special set of facts, or what someone called “the dumb certainties of experience.” Sir Arthur Eddington, famous for confirming Einstein’s general theory of relativity in 1919, said, ‘In science we sometimes have convictions which we cherish but cannot justify; we are influenced by some innate sense of the fitness of things.’ Where the continued existence of unobserved objects is concerned, perhaps it would be better to speak of ‘an innate sense of the fitness of things.’ Anyhow, I think that if your philosophy or theory veers off into uncommon sense, then you must try to show how it confirms common sense at a deeper level. Thus, the theory that the earth was round rather than flat did, on serious reflection, confirm common sense, even in ancient times when it was first proposed—and proved; whereas Mermin’s assertion about the moon merely outrages common sense.

Now you might say that quantum theory is a special case, as mystifying today and it was when it was discovered—or invented. We can always assume, like Einstein, that the theory is inadequate or, at least, incomplete. Or we can assume that, for some reason we can’t fathom, it’s a mistake to think about the everyday objects of sense experience the same way we think about particles that are unbelievably small, far too tiny to be the objects of sense experience. Or we can suppose that the human mind simply isn’t up to comprehending Nature, that only partial understanding is available to us. Anyway, let’s leave physics behind and move on to scepticism in philosophy, where tempers run much higher because the consequences are much more serious.

Bertrand Russell claimed that ‘people hate sceptics far more than they hate the passionate advocates of opinions hostile to their own.’ If he’s right, and I think he is, why should that be? I don’t think the reason is hard to find. Beliefs make people happy, especially deeply held beliefs. We may not have good enough facts and arguments to convert others—or maybe they just like their beliefs more than they like ours—but we can usually mount some kind of defense for what we believe. Defending against radical scepticism, on the other hand, requires a very different and much rarer set of skills, and most people are intellectually unequipped for this difficult and subtle task—even highly educated people, even highly educated people with a philosophical background.

A famous literary man and the author of the first proper English dictionary, Samuel Johnson, said that ‘Every man who attacks my belief diminishes in some degree my confidence in it, and therefore makes me uneasy, and I am angry with him who makes me uneasy.’ Johnson’s remark is even truer in regard to radical scepticism where we often feel as if the ground is giving way beneath our feet. We experience a diminished confidence not just in our personal beliefs, but in all beliefs. Since a major source of happiness and security is being threatened and we lack the intellectual weapons needed to fight off the attack, we instinctively hate and fear the sceptic. The fact that sceptics are often aggressive in their scepticism and seem to delight in disturbing other people’s peace of mind and undermining their self-confidence only makes matters worse.

There was an aggressively sceptical but short-lived school of philosophy that originated in Vienna in the late 1920s and was introduced into England in 1936 by A. J. Ayer’s book Language Truth and Logic. It was called logical positivism and it tackled the problems of philosophy with a massive emphasis on logic and the methods of science. It held that all metaphysical, moral and aesthetic statements were not only false but meaningless. They were mere sentiments with no intellectual significance because a) they weren’t analytic (for example, all quadrupeds have four feet), and b) they weren’t empirically verifiable (for example, there are fish in the sea). Thus, according to logical positivism the statement, ‘It was wrong for the Nazis to murder six million Jews’ is neither true nor false, but simply meaningless. But the human race thought it far from meaningless, and for this and other reasons this untenable school of thought soon went the way of the dodo—although many naturalists still retain a soft spot for it, probably because of its implacable hostility to religion and metaphysics.

Bryan Magee was a non-professional philosopher with a keen interest in philosophical questions from childhood. In 1978 he interviewed fifteen noted philosophers for BBC television in his Men of Ideas series. When Magee went up to Oxford in 1949, logical positivism was riding high in the saddle. He claimed that, rather like Marxism, logical positivism had seductive appeal because it was clear-cut, easy to grasp, and provided all the answers. Like Marxism too, it constituted a ready-to-hand instrument of intellectual terrorism. He says that ‘there were many who prided themselves on their mastery of it for this purpose. Almost regardless of what anyone said to them on any subject they would run him through with a “How would you go about verifying that statement?’’ Clever young people were exhilarated by the sense of mastery this gave them. . . There was a period in which [even] several of the cleverest philosophers became reluctant to say anything at all, because almost nothing that might be deemed to be worth saying was permissible—unless it was factually provable.’

Well, it turned out to be all a lot of nonsense. Dismissive of the Western philosophical tradition which it claimed to supplant, logical positivism was dismissed in its turn. It remains, however, as one of history’s sterling examples of pseudo-philosophy—IMO. In 1978 Professor A. J. Ayer, himself, publicly repudiated it. When asked by Bryan Magee in the interview, “Now logical positivism must have had some real defects. What do you in retrospect think the main shortcomings of the movement were,” Ayer replied, “I suppose the greatest that nearly all of it was false.” (hearty laughter from the two of them)

Here’s an anecdote that I think supports my view that scepticism has got completely out of control in Western intellectual culture. Probably the two most famous philosophers of the twentieth century in the English speaking world were Bertrand Russell and Ludwig Wittgenstein. In 1911 Russell, who was 39 at the time, tried to get Wittgenstein, who was 22, to consider the proposition: There is no hippopotamus in this room at present. When Wittgenstein refused to believe this Russell looked under all the desks without finding one. Nevertheless, Wittgenstein remained unconvinced. Would you call that irrational scepticism on Wittgenstein’s part? I would. I don’t think it’s sufficiently appreciated that irrational scepticism has been around almost as long as irrational faith, and philosophers have often been the worst offenders.

Unlike Wittgenstein, Russell was usually eminently sensible on the subject of radical scepticism. He was also well aware of its destructive potential, but even he succumbed to it from time to time. For instance, in 1927 he wrote, ‘The hope of understanding the world is itself one of those daydreams which science tends to dissipate. There is little but prejudice and habit to be said for the view that there is a world at all.’ What do you think of that: ‘Little but prejudice and habit to be said for the view that there is a world at all’! The logic-defying aspects of quantum theory must have been getting to him when he said that.

So how did we get ourselves into such a mess and who’s to blame? In as much as philosophers have always shown a tendency to lose their heads and begin to question everything wildly when they discover that logical certainty is not possible in philosophy—does that seem like a reasonable assertion to everyone?—the blame lies with human nature. Thus the mess is as old as philosophy itself. However, I think that modern philosophy is particularly susceptible to irrational scepticism, and for that reason one must learn to take much of it with a pinch of salt. And if we’re looking for the culprit who renewed the habit of irrational scepticism after a thousand years of relative sanity, the obvious candidate is none other than the generally recognized “father” of modern philosophy, Rene Descartes.

For some strange reason, Descartes felt he had to prove or validate his personal existence with an argument. The result of this fool’s errand was his famous formula, ‘I think, therefore I am,’ familiar even to those with no interest in philosophy. It didn’t seem to occur to Descartes that experience comes before thought, and that if you can’t trust any of your experience, starting with your experience of self, then you can’t trust any of your thought. In any case, few, if any, modern philosophers believe the maxim carries the mathematical certainty that he attributed to it. They’ve long discovered that questioning common-place perceptions and the familiar propositions of common sense can’t suddenly be brought to a halt.

In fact, one hundred years later another famous philosopher, David Hume, produced an argument that lead him to a very different conclusion from that of Descartes: ‘What we call a mind,’ he said, ‘is nothing but a heap or collection of different perceptions.’ His argument, in case you’re interested, runs: ‘When I enter most deeply into what I call myself, I always stumble on some particular perception or other, of heat or cold, light or shade, love or hatred, pain or pleasure. I never can catch myself without a perception, and never can observe any thing but the perception.’ Notice that Hume declines to make the instinctive and common sense inference that there’s a self that’s doing the perceiving, not to mention numerous other things that form part of our experience such a liking or disliking, accepting or rejecting, judging or ignoring, etc. All he can see is that we can’t perceive the self in the same way that we perceive heat or pain.

Hume’s inference is logically permissible, but then so is the inference that everyone instinctively makes while still a child, and on which all our practical and social life is based. Logic didn’t force Hume to his sceptical conclusion; he was simply biased in favour of scepticism—irrational scepticism, if you want my opinion. In any case, in the words of one twentieth century commentator, ‘If we follow in Descartes’s footsteps, rigorously demanding absolute certainty, we will end with accepting the reality, not of an enduring thinking subject, but of something far “thinner” and much less satisfying—a moment of isolated sensation, of truncated consciousness.’ At least Hume proved that. . . (to be continued)

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