The Case For Positive Skepticism

In the comments on my last NYU Local post, Chris Kennedy wonders how I got from laying out a case that we live in a world completely absent of any concrete meaning and value to arguing that, “the ceaseless search for one is the fundamental worthwhile human endeavor.” I didn’t have the time or space over there to fully connect the dots, but I would argue that the latter conclusion is an inevitable consequence of the former.

Once you’ve come to the conclusion that nobody has conclusively demonstrated the existence of a set of concrete values you can buy into unreflectively, that leaves you with pretty much two options which I outlined in that post: unreflective skepticism and positive skepticism. Unreflective skepticism is the philosophical position that value is either inherently unknowable or nonexistent, so there’s no point in seeking it out, and we might as well just live our lives.

I’ve already talked at length about the problems with that attitude, but here’s a recap: it’s profoundly lonely and unsatisfying, because it means that all that’s left for us is transitory, corporeal pleasures. I’m profoundly skeptical that anyone can live on that stuff alone and be happy. It reduces us to the level of mean-spirited, self-involved children.

Of course, arguing the psychological costs isn’t very persuasive if the unreflective skeptic still happens to think he is factually correct. So here’s something else to chew on: because it is, as I’ve said, unreflective, it’s a position that hobbles your ability to critically assess your own beliefs in a similar with that fundamentalist religion does. The only significant difference is that religion promises spiritual fulfillment, while all unreflective skepticism promises is a smug sense of rationalized self-satisfaction.

Besides which, any unreflective position leaves you fundamentally unfree and chained to that position. I’ve written before about the idea that we don’t “choose” our unreflective beliefs in any meaningful sense, which means that the only way to really make a choice on your own is to derive it from values and goals you’ve reached only after a long period of agonized introspection.

This introspection is the position that I call–oxymoronically, probably–positive skepticism. It’s the belief that we don’t know anything about values for now, and that even if we never do, we should make a project out of continually searching/trying to construct and deconstruct those values. Kant argues that skepticism is “no dwelling place for permanent settlement”–I argue that, barring a profound, life-shattering insight of the kind I can’t even imagine right now, we should never be satisfied with any permanent dwelling place.

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11 Responses

  1. And what if you find, upon reflection, that skepticism of any “truth” is a well-founded and defensible, if not a totally correct, position to take?

    Think along the lines of scientific determinism—maybe.

    Is the “ceaseless search” still a “worthwhile human endeavor”? Is it still at a worthwhile individual endeavor?

    • I’m not sure if I understand what you mean when you reference scientific determinism. Could you elaborate?

      To be clear, I think skepticism about any concept of value or truth is a defensible position. But I don’t think defensibility is really a satisfying endpoint. And if there’s no such thing as objective value, that still opens up a whole can of worms about what it’s right for you individually to value, since I can’t really conceive of a sentient being existing without valuing something.

  2. I’m not sure if you’re familiar with determinism itself so I’ll just copy the wiki definition first:

    “Determinism is the philosophical view that every event, including human cognition, behavior, decision, and action, is causally determined by prior events. If there is a predetermined unbroken chain of prior occurrences back to the origin of the universe, free will is impossible.”

    By “scientific” I’m just trying to refer to some efforts by philosophically minded scientists recently to “prove” determinism by showing how even our thoughts (and ‘logically’ our decisions) are entirely predictable by mapping neurological impulses and biological reactions of chemicals and electricity.

    So then if we could prove there is no free will then it essentially makes everything about life pointless, including the value we place on anything, or any discoverable “truth”

    Hopefully that works as an example of reflective “negative skepticism” as an alternative to “positive skepticism” when moving from an unreflective state?

    • Right, I’m familiar with determinism–I consider myself a soft determinist. But I would be extremely skeptical of any attempts to “prove” determinism.

      I think what positive skepticism has which the negative skepticism you’re referring to lacks is perpetual intense skepticism about one’s own views–in other words, not only being open to criticism of those views but continually seeking out alternatives and requiring that you defend your own views against those.

  3. But is believing that there is no philosophical truth out there a legitimate view to you? (for someone else to hold)

    Because then, logically, it seems that if we have reflectively accepted that any ideas currently available are incomplete (at best), then how or why could we even honestly defend our own incomplete views and ideas from the criticisms of others? Much less preach our own set of incomplete views to other people?

    Certainly we could if we thought it might help be a step in the right direction. But if we legitimately believe there is no such thing as a step in the right direction, then why should we be anything but reflectively apathetic?

  4. Or maybe a better way to put would be… why should be anything but subjectively concerned? We should figure out what makes us happiest, and forget about trying to discover anything for anyone else.

    • The claim about why it’s important for society for all of us to be positive skeptics is one I actually think is easier to defend than on the individual level. It’s connected to the Platonic idea of virtue. Here’s a simplified version:

      1.) As argued in The Republic, the rules of society should be philosophers (I’m taking that metaphorically to mean positive skeptics–people who are concerned with discovering or constructing meaningful values and goals for the society.)

      2.) In a democratic society, legitimacy and power ultimately rests with all of us.

      3.) Therefore, we should all, in a sense, be philosophers.

  5. […] how much any of you have been following the back and forth between Chris and I in the comments for this post, but I think it’s a pretty good example of why blogging is a really interesting medium for […]

  6. “Besides which, any unreflective position leaves you fundamentally unfree and chained to that position”

    This, to me, is the heart of the issue. The only alternative to “being reflective” is being ignorant, is it not?

    To me, being a philosopher is like being an artist. It means yourself from the crowd and getting rid all intrusions on your personal consciousness, and making sense of the world from your own perspective.

    This, I think, is the ultimate human endeavor. Living a life without philosophy is like living life as an artist versus living life as someone who merely hopes to occasionally glance the art of someone else. The philosopher’s-or, in the language of the OP, a “reflective” individual’s-journey is one that everyone will benefit from taking. Whatever conclusion it leads you to, you’ll be better off from it.

    The idea of simply “enjoying pleasures” and not reflecting on anything does sound that great to me. If you reflect upon your life and the “pleasures” you enjoy, you’ll probably enjoy them more when you understand just why you like things and how they connect with your inner consciousness.

  7. The greater point that is driving much of what I was saying, is this:

    If we realize that no set of comprehensive truths has been ‘discovered’ yet, then we first need to be able to discern whether or not there actually is a set of truths out there to be ‘discovered’.

    It seems to me that there is no evidence that suggests anything in philosophy will lead to much more than a intellectual stalemate. And whatever truths we think we discover, are sooner or late shown to have serious flaws.

    In the absence of any real ‘proof’ in support of the positive claim that there are ‘truths’ to be discovered, shouldn’t we instead accept the negative claim that there are no truths? One is never called upon to prove a negative, right? But we also shouldn’t accept or assume the positive claim without good indication.

    So then, tying this all in. It seems to me the “negative skepticism” is the more valid position?

    Of course, this is entirely on the scale of societal endeavors. If you want to ceaselessly search for yourself, and it makes you happy, more power to you.

    • But I think you’re missing my point: in the absence of those truths, they need to be constructed. On the societal level, we can’t function properly together without some common normative claims, and on the personal level I just don’t think a total disregard for value of any kind beyond self-gratification is sufficient to sustain a healthy mind.

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