Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Can the Skeptic Suspend All Belief?

I keep bumping into this question. Casey Perin gave a talk on it at UCR; Daniel Greco has a forthcoming paper on it in Phil Review. Benj Hellie launched an extended Facebook conversation about it. Can the radical skeptic live his skepticism? I submit the following for your consideration.

First, a bit about belief. I've argued that to believe some proposition P is nothing more or less than to be disposed to act and react in a broadly belief-that-P-ish way -- that is, to be disposed, circumstances to being right, to say things like "P", to build one's plans on the likelihood of P's truth, to feel surprised should P prove false, etc. Among the relevant dispositions is the disposition to consciously judge that P is the case, that is, to momentarily explicitly regard P as true, to endorse P intellectually (though not necessarily in language). Dispositions to judge that P often pull apart from the other dispositions constitutive of belief, for example in self-deception, implicit bias, conceptual confusion, and momentary forgetting. (See here and here.) To believe that P is to steer one's way through the world as though P were the case. One important part of the steering, but not the only part, is being disposed to explicitly judge that P is the case.

Okay, now skepticism. My paradigm radical skeptics are Sextus Empiricus, Montaigne (of the Apology), and Zhuangzi (of Inner Chapter 2). When such radical skeptics say they aim to suspend all belief, I recommend that we interpret them as really endorsing two goals: (a.) suspending all judgment, and (b.) standing openly ready, with equanimity, for alternative possibilities.

Arguments that it's impossible to suspend all belief tend to be, at root, arguments that it's impossible to refrain from action and that action requires belief. Perhaps it is impossible to refrain from all action. No skeptic advises sitting all day in bed (as though that weren't itself an action). Sextus advises acting from habit; Zhuangzi seems to endorse well-trained spontaneity. (Of course, they can't insist dogmatically on this, and Zhuangzi actively undermines himself.) If the runaway carriage is speeding toward the skeptic, the skeptic will leap aside. On my account of belief, such a disposition is partly constitutive of believing that the carriage is heading your way. So the skeptic will have at least part of the dispositional profile constitutive of that belief. This much I accept.

But it's not clear that the skeptic needs to match the entire dispositional profile constitutive of believing the carriage is coming. In particular, it's not clear that the skeptic needs to consciously judge that the carriage is coming. Maybe most of us would in fact reach such a judgment, but spontaneous skillful action without conscious judgment is sometimes thought to be characteristic of "flow" states of peak performance; and Heidegger seems to have valued them and regarded them as prevalent; and perhaps certain types of meditative practice aim at them. Suspension of judgment seems consistent with action, perhaps even highly skilled action. Though suspension of judgment isn't suspension of the entirety of the dispositional profile characteristic of belief, it's suspension of an important part of the profile -- perhaps enough so that the skeptic achieves what I call a state of in-between believing, in which there's enough deviation from the relevant dispositional profile that it's neither quite right to say he believes nor quite right to say he fails to believe.

The skeptic will also, I suggest, stand openly ready, with equanimity, for alternative possibilities. The skeptic will leap away from the carriage, but she won't be as much surprised as the non-skeptic would be if the carriage suddenly turns into a rooster. The skeptic will utter affirmations -- Zhuangzi compares our utterances to the cheeping of baby birds -- but with an openness to the opposing view. The skeptic will be less perturbed by apparent misfortune (for maybe it's really good fortune in disguise) and thus perhaps achieve a certain tranquility unavailable to dogmatists (as emphasized by both Sextus and Zhuangzi). The skeptic stands humbly aware, before God or the universe, of his flawed, infinitesmal perspective (as expressed by Montaigne).

Judgment is stoppered; action still flows; there's a humility, openness, tranquility, lack of surprise. None of this seems psychologically impossible to me. In certain moods, I even find it an appealing prospect.


Benj Hellie said...

Hi Eric,

Intriguing proposal. Two discussion-nodes: one in regard to the stance your skeptics advocate and one in regard to the dialectic of skepticism in the modern philosophy.

1. What is 'judgement'? Is that something like advancing a stage in a course of reasoning? If we are to refrain from that then we are to refrain from reasoning, which would significantly limit our more 'publicly manifest' actions.

2. I like to distinguish 'certainty in principle' and 'certainty in practice': the former is something like that which is entailed by evidence and pure reason; the latter is something like that which is entailed by certainty in principle together with (much less-entrenched) assumptions about what is normal. The latter is I think what today's philosophers mean by 'belief'. That is also the representational state we use in action; it is accordingly suceptible to variation due to 'stakes' and the like.

We could then distinguish two sorts of skeptic: about certainty in principle and about certainty in practice. Hume is a skeptic about each at different bits of the treatise: in the stuff on proof-checking, about the former; in the stuff on induction, about the latter.

Other modern skeptics fall out neatly along this line as well: internalist skeptics about perception, memory, testimony are skeptics about certainty in practice; externalist skeptics about these phenomena (eg beginning-of-Meditations Descartes) are skeptics about certainty in principle. Goodman's grue-worries prompt skeptiism about certainty in principle, as do worries about 'peer disagreement'; van Fraassen's attacks on IBE and Hawthorne's lottery worries are skeptical about certainty in practice.

So, OK. (a) These sorts of skeptics are not the mild-mannered types you have in mind; whether modern skeptics can live with the position remains open after your discussion. (b) I think I understand to some degree what the arguments motivating the modern skeptics are. But I'm less familiar with arguments that would support only your mild-mannered skepticism and not lead to full-blown modern skepticism.

aaron zimmerman said...

Suppose you know that half the time you're leaping from carriages and half the time you're playing in virtual reality but on any given occassion you don't know which. Can the skeptic achieve the doxastic state the rational man enters in such special circumstances in a run of the mill dodge-the-carriage scenario? Can he really suspend belief in externality throughout the course of a calm walk in the woods? I suspect it's never been done by dint of argument? Delusions have a different etiology.

Unknown said...

All beliefs are to some extents subject to subconscious doubts. So that in the end we should accept that we believe, overall, in degrees of probability, and probably should relax and accept that. Skepticism in itself is a false belief in doubt as a reliable principle. (Try optimism as more to the psychological point.)
The best road to take is the one that at the time seems logically, and feels "gutfully," as the most probable way to the short and/or long term destination. Forget certainty but assume that reliability will have in the end more value.

Anonymous said...

I'm sort of surprised sceptics have historically been so keen on habit. Maybe it's because their main targets were dogmatist/platonist/rationalist philosophers rather than everyday irrationalities. Or because in the really radical cases, they want to show that making firm judgments is irrational, not just that they can't lead to knowledge. So they have to show how making judgments isn't in a rational being's best interests, and since they can't lay any importance on interests derived from having made certain judgments, they have to determine what's in someone's rational best interest by what that person's habits are instead.

Whatever the reason, it strikes me that habits, at least intellectual habits, are the sorts of thing sceptics should be attacking, because some of them are reliable causes of error. I think that when Descartes is pretending to be a sceptic (and even when he isn't), conclusions from habit are among the things he's attacking.

I suppose, though, that if you're a really radical sceptic who thinks you can't avoid error whatever you try, this won't be a priority for you. And maybe say Hume (or Nietzsche?) would suggest that all reasoning/most reasoning/the relevant form of reasoning is itself a manifestation of habit of some kind. There have been lots of sceptics; it seems fair to let them disagree over this stuff.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the thoughtful comments, folks!

@ Benj: A lot to say here! As I mentioned before, beverages will probably be necessary to straighten all this out. A few thoughts:

* I regard a judgment as a momentary conscious taking-as-true or taking-as-the-case. I need to work on articulating the concept better, especially since the current argument turns on it. It seems that one can argue without judging. For example, I might suppose that P and that P -> Q and then conclude Q, without taking P, P -> Q, or Q as true. Now maybe I do take it as true that if (P & P -> Q) then Q. But it's not *clear* that I have to do so. Maybe I can assert it spontaneously or habitually or like the peeping of a baby bird. That issue needs more work!

* Interesting principle/practice distinction, but I'm not sure I get it yet. Why is grue-skepticism principle but Humean doubt about induction practice? And I thought peer disagreement would be both.

* On your final paragraph: Sextus, Zhuangzi, and Montaigne are in some sense "mild mannered", but in another sense they are very radical. And they use the same types of arguments as the skeptics you tend to be thinking about. Zhuangzi uses dream doubt, for example. Montaigne uses the regress of justification. All three use peer disagreement. All three can arguably be interpreted as saying that we should suspend judgment/belief about every single claim -- or at least a *very* broad sweep of claims. (There are substantial interpretative issues here, e.g., whether Sextus allows us to accept the truth of claims about how things appear.) One big difference, though -- perhaps the essential one for current purposes -- is that while Hume and Descartes seem to have found skepticism crippling, Sextus, Zhuangzi, and Montaigne all seem to find it in some way ennobling.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

@ Aaron: One thing to bear in mind here is that the belief that it's about 50-50 whether the carriage is coming is itself a belief that should be suspended. We can't go from radical skepticism via an indifference principle to equiprobability. Or at least I don't think the skeptic should do so (though Sextus sometimes talks that way). So it's unclear *what* to do -- but probably not the same thing as a rational person would do faced with a 50-50 chance.

I'm inclined to think that people who are drawn to skepticism have a certain predisposition that direction, but that argument is generally necessary to activate that predisposition. Those people *are* in some sense won over by argument. They read Hume's Treatise or whatever, and they are momentarily won over, or cast into confusion. But, as with Hume himself at the end of the Treatise, it doesn't stick -- and probably all along they only half accept it. I'm inclined to think that Zhuangzi and Montaigne, too, only half accept their skepticism -- that it's partly a pose. That's the thrust of my 1996 article on Zhuangzi. (I'm not as sure about Sextus.) But maybe there's still an aspiration toward the type of state I gesture at here.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Roy: I sometimes distinguish between "uncertainty skepticism", which is rejection of knowledge because we lack certainty about the topic, and "epoche skepticism", which is a more robust suspension of belief, a sense that one can't even assess probability. The latter kind of skepticism is, I think, the most interesting, and I think it's what Sextus, Montaigne, and Zhuangzi are aiming at.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Anon 05:05: Interesting point! I agree that Sextus, especially, seems overly sanguine about habit or acting on the basis of appearance. Montaigne and Zhuangzi are much more critical of convention. But when you aren't trying to build a system and don't have judgment and don't trust your ability to make positive intellectual progress, what else do you have but habit and/or spontaneous unreflective responsiveness to go on? So it's a problem.

Benj Hellie said...

Hi Eric,

** Judgement

* Kind of seems like reasoning inside of hypothesis and reasoning outside of hypothesis are the same thing, one going on inside of hypothesis and the other going on outside of hypothesis.

* I'm not sure whether 'momentary conscious taking-as-true' could describe anything other than reasoning to a conclusion (or perhaps introduction as a premiss). Momentary aspects of consciousness seem to be, if anything, achievements: moments of culmination of accomplishments (or perhaps onset of accomplishments). Reasoning to a conclusion is an accomplishment, and involves acceptance, which is maybe a broader category than 'taking as true' as you intend it. I'm not sure whether there are any other accomplishments that involve as onset or culmination affirmation of the sort you seem to have in mind.

* Surely the peeping of a baby bird is a different sort of speech act than assertion!

** Principle/practice

* I think about things in a fairly Stalnakean way: start with modal space; content of evidence intersects with prior worlds-taken-seriously to yield posterior worlds-taken-seriously. Evidence is too weak to get to belief, because we believe a lot more than is evident: what is evident is (perhaps) only about the past, but I have beliefs about the future; it is not evident that there is no leprechaun around who is exceedingly good at hiding from me, but I believe that there is not one.

More generally, to get to belief from evidence, you need assumptions about what is normal. These are a lot more fungible than evidence, are tied to the pragmatic domain (and are therefore 'stakes-sensitive'), and are relatively or perhaps entirely unconstrained by epistemic rationality.

Humean skepticism about induction is a variety of skepticism about certainty in practice -- better, /empirical skepticism/ -- because it recommends not setting your beliefs any more specifically than your evidence.

I'm inclined to think I should probably distinguish two varieties of skepticism about certainty in principle. /Metacognitive/ skeptics agree with us about what evidence or good reasoning is like but challenge us as follows: those guys think they have it but don't; you should error-check to assure you aren't one of them (and error-check the error-check, and so forth). /Structural/ skeptics try to undermine our view of what evidence or good reasoning would be like: Graham Priest is a pretty smart guy; maybe he's right. Perhaps structural skepticism is an extreme version of metacognitive skepticism: each grants that *doing things properly* would give you the right to certainty in principle but advises you to doubt that you have *done things properly*.

Benj Hellie said...

** Mild-mannered v modern

Examples aren't (by themselves) arguments.

* BIVs can be used variously by empirical and metacognitive skeptics, depending on whether we are internalists or externalists about perceptual evidence: if it's all sense-data, BIVs are guys who go dangerously beyond evidence to false beliefs; if some people have facts about hands as evidence, BIVs are guys who are mistaken about what their evidence is. Empirical and metacognitive skeptical argument frames raise different issues and need to be addressed differently.

* Peer disagreement can be used variously by metacognitive and structural skeptics, depending on whether the skeptic is willing to concede some specific claim about what it would be to *do things properly* and on how the peer is described.

* Maybe your mild-mannered skeptics used frames that didn't require us to get rid of all of our beliefs. Maybe your mild-mannered skeptics didn't understand that their arguments required us to get rid of all of our beliefs. Or maybe they thought they required us to get rid of our 'judgements', and they had some false view in psychology about the significance of reasoning. Or maybe they had a false view in the philosophy of mind about the connection of judgement to belief. Or maybe they didn't understand how bad it would be to get rid of all of our beliefs!

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Benj, it looks like it might take more than one round of drinks to get to the bottom of this! A few thoughts:

* "Reasoning to a conclusion" sounds pretty intellectualistic. Judgments seem to leap spontaneously to mind without any *conscious* reasoning. As to whether they are preceded by unconscious reasoning, I suppose that depends on what we should say about the nature of cognition in general. My own inclinations are associationistic, dynamic systems, juicy squishy chaosish, and not robustly realistic about representational kinematics, and consequently I'm inclined to think "reasoning to a conclusion" has the wrong flavor.

* On the distinction that you seem to propose between what we can conclude based on evidence and what we can conclude based on evidence-plus-assumptions-about-normality. I'm not so sure about this distinction. Isn't the assessment of "evidence" itself permeated with assumptions about normality? -- for example, that my senses are working normally? Or is "evidence" just the stimulation of sensory surfaces? Or "the given"? Or...? I fear a retreat into vapor.

* I like your distinction between structural and metacognitive skepticism (as well as your thought that they collapse into each other in the extreme).

* That's a nice catalog of possibilities at the end. My own inclination is to think that in a certain way they would be better served by a more nuanced approach to the relationship between judgment, belief, and behavior. But in another way, to endorse any such approach risks the kind of theory building that they would reject, so ultimately they are probably best served by the kind of gesturing and exemplifying that they do in fact do.

Benj Hellie said...

Eric, if we get to the bottom of the bottle before we get to the bottom of the issue it's probably time to call it a night -- or at least to move to karaoke. Some random reactions:

* The microsociology literature suggests that a really sizeable chunk of thought is dialogical. Obviously not all of it is, but I'm inclined to think that bewitchment by the 'cognitive revolution' has led a lot of philosophers and psychologists to underplay the truth in intellectualism. Even Ryle thought that intellectualism was part right.

* You're right to press the certainty/belief distinction. I'm inclined to think that at the margins what goes where becomes exceedingly blurry: after all, some of my idea-space titles are to rather inhospitable regions of debates you fear vaporous. But I'm also inclined to doubt that we can do rational psychology or epistemology without it -- putting things with more bombast than fairness, I might say that when I read anyone other than Stalnaker on these issues, I have no idea what they are talking about. It would not trouble me too much if someone decided to just stipulate that this or that sharp alternative was the right one.

* Note also that metacognitive and empirical skepticism blur into one another.

* Nuance is great. But of course we start with Duplo, then move on to Lego, and only eventually do we get to ships in bottles.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks, Benj, for the very helpful discussion! I'm looking forward to chatting with you more about this in the future.