“The Gorgon Medusa would, no doubt, approve.”

I’ve just finished reading Coral: A Pessimist in Paradise. It was very much like the other two books from Steve Jones that I’ve read: that is to say, enjoyable and informative. Jones has a gentle yet expert delivery of scientific information, peppered with lots of facts and comparisons for scale. It’s approachable science writing without any dumbing down.

It’s hard to believe, but in this book he ties coral into geology, genetics, evolution, ecology, industrial development, meteorology, and much more. Coral is, it seems, a much better indicator of global warming than arctic ice retreat, and ancient, dead corals show us we’ve been here before. He covers everything from the history of coral study by Cook and Darwin to the details of polyp evolution.

It’s not lousy or crumby at all

I finished reading The Catcher In The Rye last weekend. Wow, that’s some goddam book. I mean, the way Salinger tells a story and all, it made me fell all depressed and sad. But it was really good too, I mean it really killed me. The thing is, I found the voice so consistent and moving. I’m not kidding, this book is really good. I bet it’s caused all sorts of goddam controversy and analysis.

The Stone in Keldo Woods

I just finished reading The Testament of Gideon Mack. I liked it. It’s a novel from Scottish author James Robertson, about the life of a faithless priest who may have met the Devil. It takes a long time to get to that climactic point, and the protagonist isn’t always a likable guy, but I found it to be an interesting look at faith, death, mental illness, and the Church of Scotland.

It also happens to be a selection of Richard & Judy’s Book Club, if daytime chat show recommendations are what floats your boat. Irvine Welsh liked it, too.

Lifehacker rocks

I’ve glanced at the web page Lifehacker.com before. It has some interesting tips on a wide range of things, from how to tweak your PC to how to get stains out of things.

It was not until I got the book Lifehacker: 88 Tech Tips To Turbocharge YourDay for Christmas that I realised how powerful some of these tweaks could be. The book excellently compiles and organises the tips that are most useful to someone who uses a computer a lot, either for business or just for personal productivity.

What’s really neat is that since the book is only a collection of things that are posted for free on Lifehacker.comanyway, you can get most of the book’s content (albeit without most of Gina Trapani’s gentle humour) here, chapter by chapter.

I found that I already employed some of the tips, such as:

But there’s tons of new stuff that I’ve implemented in the last few weeks that honestly is making a difference in my productivity at work. The most important for me have been:

Obviously I don’t care for (or need) all 88 tips. Different things work for different people. The book’s got everything from how to setup your own web server to access your own Wiki on your home PC when you’re on the road, to keyboard shortcuts like Windows-D to show your desktop or Ctrl-L to go to your Firefox address bar. So it’s guaranteed that there’s something in here you’ll find useful.

Take a look through the link, and see what might help you out. Or wait for the next edition of the book, which I think comes out soon.

Sweet and Low

Last night I finished reading Sweet and Low: A Family Story. It was excellent.

Author Rich Cohen is part of a family who were successful in the sugar business in Brooklyn in the ’60s and ’70s, but who shot to wealth when they introduced Sweet and Low sugar substitute when dieting became an American way of life. This book discusses how his family arrived in the US, made their way by the determination of his grandfather and some good timing, and how it came to pass that his mother’s relationship with the rest of her family – plus the general nuttiness of her sisters and bothers – led to them being almost completely disinherited from the family fortune.

It’s both very funny and very interesting.

The origins of art, religion and science

I finished a good book today, one the Aussie lent me. It’s called The Prehistory of the Mind.

Most studies of the minds of early humans are done by neuroscientists or psychologists who work backwards. This book is written by an archaeologist who then works forwards. He looks at the prehistorical evidence in all the phases of primate development – bones, burial sites, art, tools, etc. – and infers from these remnants how the creatures that created them were thinking when they did so.

The author uses two analogies. One is of the development of modern humans as a play: there are several acts, each with a couple of scenes, each differently lit and with different actors and amounts of action. The other is of the mind as a church: sometimes a simple single room, sometimes with chapels.

It’s the latter analogy that I find most interesting, and most convincing. He describes how, through different phases of generalised and specialised intelligence, primates, early humans, and modern humans developed. For instance, there’s evidence of specialised knowledge of technology (making stone tools), the natural world (hunting), and social groups (communities).

Most importantly, though, he discusses cognitive fluidity, which is his term for when knowledge can be shared between these specialised areas of knowledge. For instance, you can’t make specialised tools for hunting a particular type of animal, or develop agricutlure, unless you can share ideas between your technical and natural world knowledge. You can’t make animal totems or art or found a religion until you can share ideas between your social and natural world knowledge. He believes that homo sapiens sapiens were the first to develop this fluidity, and although the neanderthals started to show a bit of it later on, we had already spread across the world and out-competed them by that point.

I won’t tell you what he believeswere the triggers for the changes in brain size and cognitive fluidity: you should read the book yourself.

Writing

You know, blogging about my paper and my grade reminded me of difficulties I had with writing during the transition from high school to university.

I studied engineering at uni. The technical coursework was easy for me: I was accustomed to maths and scientific reporting. Arts courses required proper essays, though. However, I thought that I was pretty good at writing, too. I always wrote a lot, and was fairly creative. I’d done quite well in English in high school, and we’d had a pretty demanding teacher. He pushed us hard to dig into the symbolism of things, and to develop our thoughts and express them on pretty complicated topics.

In my first year at uni, English Literature was the only arts course I was required to take. The first essay I submitted, though, was returned without a grade and with a note: “See me.” The prof said that my paper was garbage. It was confused. It was jargon, written in such a high-handed pseudo-intellectual manner as to be totally unreadable. “Who taught you to write like this?” he asked.

I quickly learned that my high school English teacher had gone over the top. He’d thought that he was preparing us to be top-notch intellectuals, but in fact he’d taught us to be pompous and incomprehensible. I’d bumped that up yet another notch, thinking that at university you really had to pull out all the stops.

The prof told me to re-write my paper. “Keep it simple,” he said. I did. I’ve been trying to write more simply ever since.

That tendency for clarity was given another boost when I was writing my Master’s thesis. My first drafts were a bit wordy. My boss at the time introduced me to that Bible of simple writing, The Elements of Style. I absorbed it. Twelve years later, it still sits on my desk at work.

I’ve since developed a short training session on the importance of simplicity in written communication, and delivered it to some of the groups I’ve worked in.

And now you readers are the benefactors of my learning and my skill. Aren’t you lucky?

Can scepticism be refuted by writing it ‘skepticism’?

This is a copy of the paper I’m handing in tonight for my epistemology course. This is the only work required for submission. There’s still two classes left (tonight and next week) but it’s been a pretty interesting first dip into epistemology.

Can Scepticism Be Refuted?

by

Tim Dickinson

It is clear that humans seek knowledge. We know this about ourselves and we see it in others, to some degree or other. At minimum, we want to know things because of evolutionary selection, since animals that seek reusable knowledge and reason inductively are more likely to survive than those that do not. There may be less utilitarian reasons for this seeking as well: a desire for self-growth, for example, or an intrinsic value on truth. In light of this apparent importance, the question of scepticism – whether we can in fact ever really know anything – is therefore due some consideration. Can scepticism be refuted?

In this paper I will describe how scepticism can be broadly separated into Agrippan and Cartesian forms, and how these forms cast doubt on our ability to acquire knowledge. I will show that sceptical doubt is powerful because it seems basic and intuitively grasped, and is not so esoteric as to appear dubious. I will then demonstrate how these forms of scepticism can be refuted with theories of coherence and contextualism that are equally intuitive.

Forms of Scepticism

There is a form of scepticism more properly identified as incredulity. This is what I mean when I describe the viewpoint of someone who tends to reject ideas which lack supporting evidence; this is the opposite of dogmatism. I will not consider this form of scepticism here, since it is not general. This casual scepticism does not exclude any knowledge for which I do have evidence (and is, in fact, generally regarded as a good and important part of any analytical viewpoint). What I will examine is philosophical scepticism: the claim that acquiring knowledge is inherently impossible.

I will discuss two forms of philosophical scepticism: Agrippan and Cartesian. I will not include fallibilism because it is not radical scepticism: it is simply the view that I may be mistaken about some things and can probably not be certain of much, not that it is impossible for me to know things to be true. In fact, if we know anything, it seems likely to me that the fallibilist view is the right one, and that we can be absolutely certain about very little (if anything at all).

Agrippan scepticism is an ancient form that developed from earlier Greek scepticism[1]. It implies that beliefs always rely upon an unfounded assumption, circularity, or an infinite regress[2]. That is, every attempt I make at justifying why I have knowledge must end up at some fundamental assumption upon which I build the rest of my knowledge; or my reasoning ends up in a loop where my justifications all rely on one another; or my justification can always be met with another request for justification. These are simple, yet powerful, obstacles. Since, according to the Agrippan view, all attempts at justification must fall into one of these traps, no knowledge is possible. To refute Agrippan scepticism, I will thus have to demonstrate that justification does not always fall afoul of these traps.

Cartesian scepticism derives from the philosophy of Descrates[3], who questioned the possibility of asserting that we have reliable knowledge of the external world. Others have built upon this viewpoint, and what is now called Cartesian scepticism may be regarded as the claim that – given all the evidence I will ever have to make some claim about the world – an alternative explanation that makes my claim false is just as likely to be true. This form of scepticism implies that justified beliefs must be either direct knowledge or inferred (deductively or inductively) from direct knowledge. This is sometimes expressed as a problem of underdetermination (i.e., I have inadequate evidence necessary to decide that my belief counts as knowledge). To refute Cartesian scepticism, I will thus have to show that I may sometimes have sufficient justification for knowledge.

Refuting Agrippan Scepticism

As discussed above, to refute Agrippan scepticism I will have to show that unfounded assumptions, circularity, and infinite regress do not block all claims to knowledge. I will consider the first two problems by examining existing models of knowledge that claim to overcome them. I will then go on to propose that a model might exist that circumvents the third problem.

Foundationalism – the model that I have certain fundamental, directly knowable true beliefs, upon which others can be built – claims to refute to Agrippa’s problem of assumptions. Foundationalism would say that these basic beliefs are neither unfounded nor assumed: they, at least, are justified. I find foundationalism unconvincing. What special knowledge requires no justification? Some level of assumption seems difficult to avoid, at least for anything beyond self-awareness. Foundationalism does not appear to be a theory that defeats Agrippan scepticism.

Coherence – the model that our knowledge is a network of mutually supporting true beliefs – claims to refute the second Agrippan problem, that of circularity. A coherence view would imply that circularity of justification is not an obstacle to knowledge. A complex, non-contradictory network of knowledge implies a tested, reliable system of knowledge in much the same way that the subsets of knowledge we are more familiar with (e.g., physics) do. As such, a coherence system of knowledge gains force as it becomes more comprehensive and increases in accuracy. To maintain sceptical doubt in the face of such force requires an increasingly infallibilist position (that our justification and knowledge must be free of the chance of error). I note that Williams[4] claims that coherence requires me to make assumptions about the validity of my whole system of my knowledge, and is therefore simply another form of foundationalism. I disagree with this view. The modularity of my knowledge, or my inability to hold the entirety of it at all times in my mind, does not threaten my justification: only a poor standard of justification does. Coherence therefore appears to be a strong possibility for refuting the Agrippan assertion that circularity should make us sceptical about our knowledge.

A similar line of argument holds for theories of knowledge that are part of an infinite regress, Agrippa’s third sceptical challenge. I recognize that this position is not commonly given credit. In fact, Agrippa’s scepticism is usually described as a ‘twin-horned’ dilemma – comprised of assumption and circularity – upon which the non-sceptic impales himself whilst attempting to avoid the infinite regress of justification. However, I see nothing inherently impossible about an infinite chain of justification. Infinite series are commonly used in mathematics and are both understood and applied practically. I believe that our distaste for infinite regression lies in our perception of a direction of time. Few people have difficulty imagining an infinite progression into the future. Modern physics has shown that time is in fact a dimension more similar to the spatial ones that we had previously supposed[5]. I will not claim that this is strong evidence that an infinite regress refutes Agrippan scepticism in the same way that a coherence system does. I will here simply assert that a system of knowledge justified on an infinite regress cannot be rejected out of hand.

Refuting Cartesian Scepticism

Cartesian scepticism is sometimes illustrated by Descartes’ ‘Evil Deceiver’ or ‘dreaming’ scenarios; or, more recently, by the ‘Brain in a Vat’ scenario. Putnam claims to refute this sceptical view by using semantic externalism to claim that if I am a brain in a vat, then the statement ‘I am a brain in a vat,’ is incoherent, and therefore false[6]. I reject this argument as unconvincing; Putnam simply points out that some things that may be possible areconceptually impossible.

Phenomenalists claim to refute Cartesian scepticism by stating that all I can ever know is my experience, my sense-data. This sense world, they claim, is the only one that can exist for me. They believe that they thus defuse the problem of scepticism because there is nothing for me to be deceived about. This view strikes me as an unsatisfactory cheat. Everything about my experience seems to imply an objective world where things take place without me, and so it seems right that I should give that world credit and attempt to know it.

Grayling[7] stages an elaborate refutation of scepticism. As discussed above, however, the problem of scepticism is significant not only because of its implications about the truth of our knowledge, but also because it is so intuitive (themes in popular culture support this). Grayling’s position requires transcendental arguments and a discussion of realism that, I feel, are not sufficiently intuitive to combat such fundamental doubts.

To refute Cartesian scepticism I will therefore need to show that the evidence I am able to collect does not always underdetermine my justification of my beliefs about the external world. My first problem is then how I am to decide what constitutes sufficient justification. I have previously rejected an infallibilist requirement for certain justification as needlessly prohibitive. What lesser level of justification will do?

My approach is rooted in my everyday experience. How do I typically decide what constitutes sound justification in my day-to-day life? I judge the circumstances. I assess what I know of the source of the information; I try to consider my own frame of mind; I take into account the urgency attending the knowing and the importance of the outcome. The type of justification I might require to know that I smell my dinner cooking is likely to be quite different than that I might require from someone who is explaining a mathematical proof to me.

This view is the contextualist theory. I believe that it offers the best way to refute the sceptical position. The contextualist position is broadly that the level of justification required to be epistemically responsible depends on the circumstances. I can recognise the contextualism of semantics (e.g., we all use the words ‘I’ or ‘my brother’ in the same way, but refer to different people when we do so). Similarly, I recognise that I apply different levels of justification in my everyday decisions about knowledge (as above, I adjust my justification requirements depending on what I’m being asked to believe, who’s doing the telling, etc.). Contextualism says that there is an appropriate epistemological standard of justification depending on the context of what it is that I am being confronted with. If I am consistent and intelligible with my application of these standards, then there seems little reason to believe that contextualism is failing as a system for justification (even if I sometimes make errors).

Williams claims that, in addition to being a reliable view of knowing the external world, the contextualist view attacks hidden premises of scepticism[8]. Cartesian scepticism, he claims, inherently imposes a priority of experiential knowledge over direct knowledge of the world[9]. For the contextualist, there is no reason to grant that this context-invariant assumption is true. Cartesian scepticism amounts, he says, to a form of foundationalism. This undermines the sceptical claims, since they now depend on more complex theoretical assumptions and are not as basic and intuitive as before. I find this argument convincing. There are many instances of successful thought experiments predicting nature, for instance, which implies that sense-data may not always automatically supersede other knowledge about the world. Contextualism therefore seems to not only provide a reasonable system of justification within the framework of coherence, it challenges scepticism at its root.

Conclusion

I believe that coherence theory has the best chance of avoiding Agrippan scepticism (and that a theory of knowledge based on infinite regress might also do), since it shows how a justified system of knowledge can exist, self-contained, without supposition to support it. With that basic structure in place, I believe that contextualism then provides a means for the justified acquisition of knowledge.

[1] Hamlyn, D.W. (1990), The Penguin History of Western Philosophy, 85-86.

[2] Williams, M. (2001), Problems of Knowledge: A Critical Introduction to Epistemology, 61-63.

[3] Hamlyn, 138.

[4] Williams, 137.

[5] Hawking, S.W. (1988), A Brief History of Time, 143-153.

[6] Putnam, H. (1992), ‘Brains in a Vat’, in K. DeRose and T.A. Warfield (eds.),Scepticism: a Contemporary Reader, 385-399.

[7] Grayling, A.C. (1985), The Refutation of Scepticism.

[8] Williams, 187.

[9] Williams, 189.

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