General Thoughts on Epistemology IV: The Difficulty of “Faith”

A man praying at a Japanese Shintō shrine.

First, I don’t want to step on anybody’s beliefs, but, well, here we go. -Brian Regan

Given an understanding of the world based on the scientific method—what I call the “wager” process—there are some tricky things that happen when we try to reconcile the concept of “faith.” In what follows, I will explain why the term is unintelligible unless it is used to describe a situation in which one believes something while ignoring evidence to the contrary.

To reiterate what I have explained in previous entries, the “wager” theory claims that coming to a belief always involves a kind of wager. When a wager is made in gambling, risk is adopted that the wager will fail. The wager is then confirmed or denied when the cards (or what have you) are revealed. In the same way, holding a belief adopts the risk that it will be disproven, and it is confirmed or denied by physical or logical tests.

The Oxford Dictionary defines “faith” as “complete trust or confidence in someone or something.”  The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy breaks it into three broad categories: affectivecognitive, and volitional. The affective component refers to the psychological state or attitude often denoted in the phrase “losing one’s faith.” The cognitive component gets at the epistemic nature of the concept, suggesting that it is an actual cognitive faculty by which we can come to “know” things. It is perhaps most accurately categorized as a kind of belief. The volitional component adds the notion that one can choose whether or not to have “faith”—to accept this special kind of belief. Most of what I will address here are the linguistic aspects of the cognitive component.

There is a basic definition given by the Hebrew bible that has a number of translations. The English Standard version is as follows: “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” (Hebrews 11.1) Within every translation, two recurring elements of “faith” that appear to be essential components are “hope” and a sense of certainty that goes beyond mere belief. First, combining “hope” with “certainty” does not appear to give us any semantic tool that we don’t already have or refer to some mental state that we cannot pinpoint otherwise. Moreover, the two concepts appear to be at odds. Saying that I hope x will occur usually requires that I am uncertain that x will occur. It is often a conscious hedging away from certainty. As aspects of “faith,” they also run into issues on their own.

“Hope” is primarily a stronger form of “desire”. When we hope for something to be the case, we desire for it to happen. If “faith” is another type of desire—a stronger version of “hope” perhaps—then it wouldn’t serve any epistemic purpose whatsoever. My desire for something to happen or be true has nothing at all to do with attempting to discover the actual outcome.

On the other hand, “certainty” does imply an epistemic relation. Use seems to vacillate between having absolute conviction and having a mere strong conviction. “Faith” does appear to have an absolute quality about it, since having only a strong conviction doesn’t quite cut it as a substitute for having faith in most circles. If “faith” is more of an absolute conviction, however, then it begs a series of questions: By what standard is it absolute? And is it ever logically permissible to have such a conviction? And if/when it is permissible, is “faith” a reasonable vehicle to get there?

I haven’t yet seen an acceptable set of answers that suggests “faith” is a helpful and coherent tool in epistemology. Even if one can muster up an adequate description and justification of “absolute” conviction, we are still left with showing how “faith” works and making the case that it is something reasonable to use.

The problem is that there really is no good explanation for how it works. “Faith” is considered quite mysterious, intentionally so. And because reasonable use is contingent upon there being at least some tenable understanding of its function, the chances that faith and reason coincide are slim at best.

There are some attempts to do this, however. One way would be to identify faith as a component of every belief and that it somehow accounts for the gap between our natural state of ignorance and the actions we take. According to this model, every action we take requires an extra push to get us there from our beliefs. But “faith” doesn’t appear to provide any explanatory power here. And once we add the parts we need to describe the basic epistemic process—placing proposition-based wagers and using actions and “intuition pumps” as tests to confirm or deny them—it becomes unnecessary to add any more components.

We could attempt to identify the concept as the same exact thing as making a wager, but for “faith” proponents, this would probably be undesirable, for the element of certainty would be lost in this case. A bet (much like scientific theory) is something that holds strongly to the assumption that its failure is within the realm of possibility. Unless I am mistaken, it is clearly the opposite for matters of faith.

Another attempt would be to note that “faith” is more applicable when deciding whether or not to trust another human being, the thought being that we are so complex and unpredictable, that the only viable option is to take some “leap.” If so, then it would imply that faith and rationality are quite separate, since the assumption is that we cannot predict what will happen with reason.

However, the “wager” theory still acts as an intelligible substitute for this even if we cannot reasonably “predict” what will happen. One can effectively bet on what someone will do and hope that they do it. Nothing more is needed. To use “faith” as a replacement for these two operations still seems to fly in the face of the  certainty requirement. To tack it on as an extra piece of the puzzle seems to either be unintelligible or create a contradiction (being certain and uncertain simultaneously).

There is still one definition for “faith” that fits neatly into this narrative, and that is “to believe a proposition despite evident contradictions.” In this case, “faith” would not be something that is part of the proper epistemic process. It would describe a decisively irrational function by which one may believe certain propositions to be true while ignoring conflicting test results for reasons external to the epistemic process. Although employing “faith” could not be rational on this account, it may still have some positive psychological effects for various people. And it may even bring more happiness to those lives than “proper epistemology” would. Even so, I would not subscribe to it. But that’s just me.

Cosmic Gambling and Decentralization

Pair of Dice

The success of decentralized power is dependent upon our all being cosmic gamblers. Not only that, but this inherent gambling nature is also the reason that there has never been a better alternative.

In other words, people producing things and trading them free of restriction would not be successful if we didn’t have a process of wager-making to drive the way we analyze everything. This may also be the reason why historical attempts to impose control on production and trade have resulted in disaster. Earlier, I explained how I think this “wager” process works. I submit that whenever we form a belief about p, we are betting that p is confirmed. Simultaneously, we adopt the risk that p is shown to be false. Testing to find out when we are wrong is a crucial component of living life because it serves as the primary method by which we discover what works and what doesn’t.

If this is truly the current state of human beings, then it seems that we should want to have society situated to maximize the benefits of this pseudo-scientific process of testing. I propose that the way to maximize it is to adhere to the principle of decentralization — of limiting the restrictions on and forceful interventions in the lives of the people. This way, we can see more results from more individuals who carry on with their tests, expanding the realm of what we consider possible. And ultimately, the innovation that results from this general state of affairs would bring about the greatest degree of prosperity for society relative to the alternatives.

Suppose that I am an entrepreneur and I want to create a start-up company that sells an online platform with which people can record music. When I develop my idea, every single assumption I make is something that I would (literally) be putting my money on. I assume that my future product will be useful to enough musicians to be profitable. I assume that I will be able to successfully market my product to a wide enough audience. I also assume that I can come up with a cost-structure that enough people will be willing accept in order to use my product. Then I can test all those assumptions by, for instance, polling the opinions of a bunch of musicians with regard to what they think about this kind of product.

Remember, this wager-making process isn’t only applicable when developing a start-up. It is the way we test all our beliefs.  Say I want to go see “Man of Steel 2” in theaters, and I observe online that there is a show-time scheduled for 8:10 PM. Based on this information, I can develop a hypothesis that if I go to the theater, buy a ticket, and sit down in the assigned room, I will be able to watch Ben Affleck‘s performance as Batman on the big screen. Then I can go do all those things, look at my watch as it flips over to “8:10” around the same time the pre-movie trailers are starting, and I will be pretty confident that I was right to bet on my assumption.

A political system that promotes this behavior takes a hands-off approach when it comes to intervention in the lives of people. Using coercion to enforce certain regulations as the norm largely prevents people from placing certain wagers and testing them, which is arguably the most important action that benefits society. The more regulation there is, the more limited regular people are in this capacity.

For example, take the issue of occupational licensing. In essence, this is a piece of paper from a state government that gives one permission to work in a certain field. The reasoning behind such certification is usually related to safety. Lawmakers want to make sure that people are qualified so that they will not bring harm to their customers. This sounds great as far as the intentions are concerned, but in practice, the fact that interior designers, shampooers, florists, home entertainment installers, and more work their craft safely without licenses in plenty of different states is evidence that such licensure is unnecessary. What it effectively does is erect obstacles that delay or block entrepreneurs willing to test their ideas. As a result, there are fewer people in each of these fields that can incentivize one another to innovate through competition.

A more poignant example can be found in public schooling. The evidence is overwhelming that the predominantly public K-12 education system in the United States has been failing hard. While there are attempts at innovation, the structures of control are centralized into bureaucratic school boards. As a result, we have administrators — often with very little experience as educators — developing top-down plans to revamp broken systems. Furthermore, standardization seems to take precedence over models in which power is diffuse. The obsession with standardized tests and common core legislation limits the innovation that can take place at the grassroots level.

The best alternatives in the U.S. can currently be found in school choice initiatives like charter schools. These schools are publicly-funded but typically freer of government regulations. The idea is to allow teachers at these schools more room to test their ideas. Moreover, giving students more options to choose between different educational options provides more incentive for teachers to develop effective methods of teaching in order to attract students. Even in Finland, which has strictly public schools, the suggestion is that teachers need flexibility on the ground as opposed to top-down control: “…the public school system’s teachers are trained to assess children in classrooms using independent tests they create themselves. All children receive a report card at the end of each semester, but these reports are based on individualized grading by each teacher.” This hints that the success is not found necessarily in the method of funding, but in the decentralized structure of planning, which frees teachers from regulatory constraints.

The key point here is that central planning is simply antithetical to the wager-making process that is essential to understanding the world around us and thus, bringing about prosperity in society. People will always go about this process. The goal is to foster the conditions under which it can reach its maximum potential. I am convinced that those conditions involve as much decentralization of power as possible, both economic and otherwise.

Reclaiming the Dream

402px-Martin_Luther_King,_Jr._and_Lyndon_JohnsonWhat follows is a guest post by a good friend of mine. In anticipation of President Obama’s speech today, this piece strives to summarize an accurate picture of Dr. King’s moral beliefs and reveal an important contrast with United States foreign policy.

Today, America commemorates the 50th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, during which civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. delivered the iconic “I Have a Dream” speech. From the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, Dr. King’s words boomed across America, piercing the soul of a torn nation. Racial tensions simmered under the surface of American society for centuries, and in 1963 these wounds tore open. Alabama Governor George Wallace started his term by defiantly declaring, “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, and segregation forever!”; thousands of African-Americans – including Dr. King – were arrested during protests organized by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference; Birmingham Public Safety Commissioner Eugene “Bull” Connor unleashed dogs and fire hoses on demonstrators; Civil rights leader Medgar Evers was murdered. Week after week Americans witnessed the horrors of segregation and discrimination play out on their televisions, broadcasting to the world that our professed values of freedom and justice were being systematically denied to the African-American community.

Central to Dr. King’s philosophy was the powerful tool of non-violent resistance. Inspired by Christ and Gandhi, Dr. King believed lasting equality could only be achieved through non-violent means and that the power of love and dignity would always outweigh hate and bitterness. Most importantly, Dr. King’s living and writing highlighted the fallacy of using violence to overcome violence because he believed that when people imitate the immoral actions of their oppressors, even if in self-defense, all moral standing is lost, and a vicious cycle of injustice is perpetuated. After the Montgomery Bus Boycott, Dr. King reflects on the successful power of non-violent resistance:

True pacifism is not unrealistic submission to evil power…Gandhi resisted evil with as much vigor and power as the violent resister, but he resisted with love instead of hate. It is rather a courageous confrontation of evil by the power of love, in the faith that it is better to be the recipient of violence than the inflicter of it, since the latter only multiplies the existence of violence and bitterness in the universe, while the former may develop a sense of shame in the opponent, and thereby bring about a transformation and change of heart…Non-violence resistance [is] one of the most potent weapons available to oppressed people in their quest for social justice.

Dr. King eventually extended this moral vision even further and joined the anti-war movement. While Dr. King’s struggle against oppression and social injustice began here in America, his moral vision extended beyond our borders and he became an outspoken critic of American aggression in the Vietnam War. He saw no moral difference between police brutality on the streets of Montgomery and the massacre in My Lai—between the torture of African-Americans imprisoned in Mississippi and the torture of Vietnamese civilians in the Mekong Delta.

On April 4, 1967, Dr. King delivered a speech at Riverside Church in New York City entitled “A Time to Break Silence,” in which he decried the indiscriminate violence against the people of Vietnam perpetrated by the United States and called for a radical revolution of values in the hearts of the American citizens and policy makers:

The Nobel Prize for Peace was a commission to work harder than I had ever worked before for the brotherhood of man. This is a calling that takes me beyond national allegiances… Beyond the calling of race or nation or creed is this vocation of sonship and brotherhood… A true revolution of values will lay hands on the world order and say of war, ‘This way of settling differences is not just.’ This business of burning human beings with napalm, of filling our nation’s homes with orphans and widows, of injecting poisonous drugs of hate into the veins of peoples normally humane, of sending men home from dark and bloody battlefields physically handicapped and psychologically deranged, cannot be reconciled with wisdom, justice, and love. A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death…We still have a choice today: nonviolent coexistence or violent co-annihilation. We must move past indecision to action. We must find new ways to speak for peace in Vietnam and justice throughout the developing world, a world that borders on our doors. If we do not act, we shall surely be dragged down the long, dark, and shameful corridors of time reserved for those who possess power without compassion, might without morality, and strength without sight.

When Dr. King was criticized for joining the antiwar movement, particularly because critics saw him solely as a civil rights leader, he replied:

I have worked too long now, and too hard to get rid of segregation in public accommodations to turn back to the point of segregating my moral concern. Justice is indivisible. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. And wherever I see injustice, I’m going to take a stand against it whether it’s in Mississippi or in Vietnam.

In this speech we see Dr. King not as an African-American, but as a citizen of the world; his universal moral vision not reserved for a particular political party, race, religion, or country, but for all humanity; his firm convictions transcending the African-American community and embracing the oppressed around the globe.

This call for a world-wide fellowship that lifts neighborly concern beyond one’s tribe, race, class and nation is in reality a call for an all-embracing and unconditional love for all men. This oft misunderstood and misinterpreted concept — so readily dismissed by the Nietzsches of the world as a weak and cowardly force — has now become an absolute necessity for the survival of man. When I speak of love I am not speaking of some sentimental and weak response. I am speaking of that force which all of the great religions have seen as the supreme unifying principle of life…We can no longer afford to worship the god of hate or bow before the altar of retaliation. The oceans of history are made turbulent by the ever-rising tides of hate. History is cluttered with the wreckage of nations and individuals that pursued this self-defeating path of hate.

As we pause to commemorate Dr. King’s dream, it raises the question: What would he say about our current wars and the state of American foreign policy? Would he support the means we’re using to pursue peace, justice, and democracy at home and abroad?

While many of the realities of The War on Terror have been known for years, the extent to which we have lost our humanity was not fully understood until U.S. Army Pfc. Manning released classified material to the website WikiLeaks in 2010—vivid specifics of a U.S. Army Apache helicopter in Iraq firing on a group of civilian journalists, descriptions of torture and imprisonment in Guantanamo Bay, as well as the grueling details of the large number of Iraqi and Afghani civilian casualties. Before commencing a 35-year prison sentence, Manning wrote a letter to President Obama:

In our efforts to meet the risk posed to us by the enemy, we have forgotten our humanity. We consciously elected to devalue human life both in Iraq and Afghanistan. When we engaged those that we perceived were the enemy, we sometimes killed innocent civilians. Whenever we killed innocent civilians, instead of accepting responsibility for our conduct, we elected to hide behind the veil of national security and classified information in order to avoid any public accountability. In our zeal to kill the enemy, we internally debated the definition of torture. We held individuals at Guantanamo for years without due process. We inexplicably turned a blind eye to torture and executions by the Iraqi government. And we stomached countless other acts in the name of our war on terror.

Last month, Dr. Cornel West, an African-American professor at Union Theological Seminary, author, and civil rights advocate was asked to speculate what Dr. King would say on the 50th Anniversary celebration of the March on Washington. Dr. West said:

The irony is…Brother Martin would not be invited to the very march in his name, because he would talk about drones…Do you think anybody at that march will talk about drones and the drone president?… Bush was the capture-and-torture president. Now we’ve got the targeted killing president, the drone president. That’s not progress. That’s not part of the legacy of Martin King… Will the connection between drones, new Jim Crow, prison-industrial complex, attacks on the working class, escalating profits at the top, be talked about and brought together during that march? I don’t hold my breath. But Brother Martin’s spirit would want somebody to push it.

Dr. King frequently criticized US Presidents in his lifetime, even those championing the cause of civil rights. President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and was an ally for the African-American community, yet Dr. King opposed Johnson’s support of the Vietnam War. Similarly, while I believe Dr. King would be proud of our nation for electing an African-American to the highest office in the land, he would not hesitate to condemn the massive violence the administration has perpetuated. His moral principle of non-violent resistance would compel him to once again join hands with those condemning the War on Terror.

I believe Dr. King would speak out against the force feeding of inmates in Guantanamo Bay; the drones buzzing over Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia, dropping bombs on teachers and children; the thousands of American service members who have died in Afghanistan; the thousands more American and NATO soldiers returning without limbs; the American-made tear gas and weapons used against democratic demonstrators in the Middle East. I believe Dr. King’s words would once again boom across our National Mall and echo through our Capitol dome, calling on our leaders to invest not in weapons of violence but in the wellbeing of humanity. I believe Dr. King’s voice would fill the Oval Office, reminding our President that pursuing peace through war will never, in the end, accomplish what he and others hope. It will only breed hate and bitterness.

Above all, I believe Dr. King would call on us to not let divisions of race, religion, creed or nation force us to abandon our humanity; to not let the seeds of hate grow into jungles of violence. I believe he would unwaveringly declare that injustice anywhere is truly a threat to justice everywhere. I believe he would ask us to see that the bullets killing our children in Newtown and Sanford are the same bullets killing children in Kabul and Baghdad; to see that the tears of the widowed military-wife in Yonkers are the same tears of the widows in Yemen; to see that the hopelessness that races through the mind of the young Afghani in Kandahar who straps a bomb to his chest is the same hopelessness in the mind of the returned soldier in Kansas who puts a gun to his head; to see that the citizens stopped and frisked on the streets of New York are the same citizens frisked at checkpoints in Kunduz.

Fifty years ago today, a dream was planted into the collective conscience of our nation, a dream that spoke to the very core of our social ills and global injustices, a dream founded on the idea of rejecting aggression and courageously confronting evil with the power of love. Once this moral philosophy is applied consistently at home and abroad, we can build a world Dr. King would be proud of.

President Barack Obama tours the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial in Washington, D.C., Oct. 14, 2011. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

General Thoughts on Epistemology III: We Are All Cosmic Gamblers

English: The French Gambling Aristocracy

English: The French Gambling Aristocracy (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As a preface to this post, it is crucial for me to communicate that I am setting aside the discussion about “knowledge” as my primary pursuit. The reason, as I explained in part II, is that the use of the word has become muddled. My position is that philosophical skepticism about “knowledge” of the external (physical) world attempts to solve a presently unsolvable problem, and therefore, “knowledge” may not be the best term to use when attempting to describe how we gather and store data in our brains. Instead, I will focus on the interaction between human beings and the external world on its own terms. Hopefully what follows is indicative of this.

A while ago I wrote about Pascal’s Wager, contending that he removes the essential components from what it takes to justify a belief. His argument was that, when looking at belief in God in a cost-benefit analysis, it is more beneficial to choose to believe in God. I reject his presumption that a person can rationally choose to believe something exists while disregarding all evidence for or against its existence. However, his idea that it is useful to equate believing and wagering is worthy of consideration. My suggestion is that the process of making a wager is the best model to describe what is going on when we are deciding that something is the case. When we claim to have a belief, faith, trust, or even knowledge, what we ultimately have is a form of bet. This does not answer the question of how we ought to come to a belief, but my inclination is to say that this theory will help explain what these kinds of claims are, fundamentally.

There are a few “armchairish” observations sometimes taken for granted that hint at my suggestion being a good one: Assuming that humans all function the same in the following ways, 1) we use observations and cognitive processes to form beliefs; 2) we take action based on our beliefs; 3) sometimes mistakes, ambiguity, and/or external factors outside of our control cause us to be incorrect in/about our beliefs; and 4) replacing the word “belief” with “wager” in (1)-(3) results in a fairly coherent progression of thought.

Put simply, when we decide that P is true given the data we have, we are simultaneously placing a wager on P. In other words, we do not only think it is true now, but we are betting it will continue to be true as time goes on. Then, as we go about life taking action according to the wager, the proposition is tested by observations xy, z, etc. If these observations appear to connect logically and/or causally with P (if everything appears consistent), then we confirm it to some degree, and the wager is not changed. The risk adopted by the bet is that the proposition may be proven to be incorrect, and there may be some undesirable consequence as a result of the action(s) based upon the proposition.

This process is related to Jonathan Haidt’s psychological theory involving processes of the mind. He came to the conclusion that people have an initial reaction to some stimulus that consists of a snap-judgement. Then, what follows are a series of rational thoughts that he says “supports” the initial judgment. I agree with this general theory, but if we also add that it is possible for the rational thought to deny the initial judgment, the theory has an even wider application.

The nature of the game is that whenever we consider some question, we have an open field of possible truths that is narrowed whenever we rule things out based upon testing, observation, and logic. This thought isn’t new. It is reminiscent of the scientific method, which dates back to the Renaissance and early Colonial Era when it began to take shape. Most of the modern iterations of the scientific method assume that any theory is open and liable to change, not only because of more efficient and useful language, but also because the pool of data changes over time. A “wager,” I suppose, could be most analogous to a “hypothesis.” But hypotheses are more consciously contrived, and my goal for the “wager” is to be broad enough to refer to unconscious behavior, in addition to all matter of predictions, theories, and conjectures.

Note that merely “placing a bet” says nothing of my conviction in the outcome, the quality or quantity of information that is taken into account, the level of consciousness with which I make the bet, or the time-frame of my test. I may be unconsciously believing something ridiculous, or I could be making a detailed evaluation of a claim’s plausibility. Both would involve a wager of some form—a decision to hold some proposition to be true or at least to act as if it were true.

One might also point out that there are important distinctions between different kinds of wagers, namely temporal ones. There are wagers about what will happen (predictions), about what has already occurred (beliefs), and about that which is ongoing. Suppose my childhood friend and I see a squirrel darting through street, and he says, “I bet that squirrel will get hit by a car!” Our inclination would be to label this as a prediction, since the event has not yet come to pass. In continuing the story, suppose I were to respond, “I do not believe that squirrel will be hit by a car.” It seems odd at first that I would use the word “belief” for what should be another prediction.

The reason someone might make such a mistake, I think, hints at a deeper underlying theory like the one I have proposed. If both beliefs and predictions are forms of a wager, then there is an inherent predictive aspect in both of these terms. The substitution of “belief” for “prediction” is made because the character of “belief” has an inherent predictive quality about it, which makes it easily mistaken for a prediction. However, it still does not have the same set of qualities that “prediction” has. There is still room for distinction.

And the distinction is this: A prediction is a consideration of what has not yet come to pass; a belief considers what is ongoing or has passed. In my theory, they both still fall into the “wager” category. I can still comfortably replace both “I believe” and “I predict” with “I bet.”

The immediate worry that should arise is that it seems like I would be committed to saying that predictions, wagers, and beliefs are all the same thing. In response, I would say my claim is that wagers are broad enough to encompass all of these kinds of terms, and there is a predictive element to a wager. However, that element refers to a “first-order” qualification that beliefs, predictions, propositions, and the like contain in common an expectation of continued confirmation. And confirmation can only occur at points in time after a wager is made, regardless of its kind. Note that because people are continuously acting or not acting, each action must carry with it an implicit set of bets. Since this is always the case, it doesn’t seem that “beliefs” can be abstracted from “wagers.”

Secondary qualifications would make up the distinctions between the different kinds of wagers. For instance, expanding upon the distinction I made earlier: the content of a belief must be considering an ongoing or past phenomenon; the content of a prediction considers a future phenomenon.

To conclude, when we form beliefs and predictions, we are making bets on what we think is accurate. The discussion about whether we can verify knowledge globally is a bunch of bunk. It is pretty clear that sometimes we make mistakes, but our goal is to seek truth regardless. And ultimately, we all play the game. We are all cosmic gamblers.

General Thoughts on Epistemology II: Global Philosophical Skepticism

nihilism

nihilism (Photo credit: stungeye)

The various forms of philosophical (p.) skepticism in the study of epistemology seek to question, deny, or limit the categories of what is possible to know. While it is useful to point out that we don’t have the data to confirm or deny some claims, many skeptics go so far that they would be forced to live a lifestyle that is inconsistent with their beliefs. I argue that questioning the “existence” of knowledge as a whole probably serves no purpose, since either answer will have no bearing on the everyday criteria for making decisions and taking action.

General p. skepticism questions the prospect of “knowledge.” There are several schools of thought that can be found on the family tree of p. skepticism. The extreme form is called epistemological nihilism, in which all “knowledge” is denied. There is also epistemological solipsism, a theory stating that “knowledge” about the external world is impossible, but “knowledge” about the agent’s mind is possible. ‘Global’ p. skeptics claim that they hold no “absolute knowledge,” while ‘local’ p. skeptics question specific types of knowledge. My target is the multifarious forms of global (g.) p. skepticism including nihilism and solipsism, and there are three main issues with these positions that I will touch upon.

First, this debate has been prolonged by a failure to give proper attention to semantics. The quotations around the word “knowledge” in my explanation are present because I have difficulty pinpointing exactly to what g.p. skeptics are referring when they use the term. It wouldn’t be just to completely fault the deceased thinkers who would have benefitted from access to modern advances in neuroscience. Nevertheless, “knowledge” remains ambiguous even without modern scientific perspectives.

It could be that “knowledge” really is “Justified True Belief.” Or it could be some abstract thing we achieve when we fully “understand” such and such. Perhaps it could be as simple as a subconscious observation that we sense in our environment. Ever walk into a room with, say, blue wallpaper, but hardly pay it any mind? How conscious does one have to be in order to know that the wallpaper is blue?

A g.p. skeptic might respond, “Exactly. The point is that we have no clear idea of what knowledge is.”

But they forget that human beings are the authors of language. We get to decide exactly to what “knowledge” refers. Any label without a referent is a floating abstraction. The question should not be, “What is knowledge?”, but rather, “How should ‘knowledge’ be defined?” The question should not be “Does knowledge exist?”, but rather, “Is ‘knowledge’ a useful term, given its definition?”

The second issue is that some skeptics must act inconsistently with their beliefs in order to interact with their environment. Nihilists believe that there can be no “knowledge” about the external world, and therefore, it cannot be verified. Yet, if they want to do anything, they must act upon information they receive through their senses. If they believe nothing they receive should be characterized as “knowledge,” then fine. The discussion becomes semantic. Otherwise, unless the nihilist sits quietly until death (or is deaf, dumb, blind, etc.), then the beliefs he/she holds will be violated.

As justification, I propose this thought experiment: Try to think of just one instance in which a normal, conscious human being can act physically without being aware of something in the physical realm.

Finally, there is an almost comical response to g.p. skeptics from a philosopher named G.E. Moore. He essentially says (not an actual quote), “Look. Here is my hand. I am perceiving a human hand right now. That is a fact that I ‘know.’ If you do not think I know it, then let’s say that I am acquiring sense-data. One sense-datum that I perceive is the surface of my hand.”

Although he employs an intriguing way of engaging g.p. skepticism, if we take the analysis one step further, we arrive at an important point. It is that perception of the so-called “external world” is the default state of human beings. There are all these lights and sounds and feels going on that we report on and verify through language. “Stuff” happens with such frequency that there is not really any reason to deny knowledge of the external world, especially on the basis that we could be wrong about individual bits of knowledge. (Proving something false logically necessitates the truth of the falsehood). The burden of proof is on the denier of clear and obvious evidence that literally surrounds us at all times.

To reiterate, challenging “knowledge” as a useful term is not a poor challenge, but questioning the concept while presupposing an ambiguous meaning is problematic. Going too far with g.p. skepticism will result in an inconsistent lifestyle. Acting in accordance with one’s sense-data regularly, while globally denying that very same data is an incoherent position. Therefore, the only option by default is to accept the external world as a given. Even settling for an agnostic position, abstaining from belief in the external world, may conflict somewhat with taking action. As I like to say, half-seriously, in all its Objectivist glory, “Reality doesn’t care about your nuanced opinion.”