Know-Nothing Universal Skepticism: Positive & Negative Forms

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Aug 25, 2006, 2:27:32 PM8/25/06
Universal skepticism is usually stated in one of two ways.

[1] - Positive Universal Skepticism:

In its positive form it consists
of the doctrine that man
can know nothing.

This belief can be easily dismissed, because anyone who defends it
finds himself immersed in hopeless absurdities.

In asserting that there is no knowledge, the skeptic is asserting a
knowledge claim-which according to his own theory is impossible.

The universal skeptic wishes to
claim truth for a theory that
denies man's ability to arrive
at truth, and this puts the
skeptic in the unenviable
position of uttering

...he cannot even begin to argue for his position, because the
"possibility of knowledge is presupposed in the very possibility of
argument, in the very possibility of having recourse to reasons." [8]
As Francis Parker explains:

There is such a
thing as knowledge.

The assertion of this proposition is necessarily true if there is to be
any assertion at all, for its contradictory is self-contradictory.

If the assertion
"There is no knowledge"
is true, then it is false

...for that assertion itself purports to be an instance of knowledge.
Thus the only alternative to the recognition of the existence of
knowledge is, as Aristotle said, a return to the vegetative state where
no assertions whatever can be made.

[2] - Negative Universal Skepticism:

The second form of universal skepticism
consists of the doctrine that we must
doubt every alleged instance
of knowledge.

Through this negative formulation,

the universal skeptic seeks to avoid
the contradiction of asserting a
knowledge claim while denying
the existence of knowledge.

But the doctrine that we should doubt every knowledge claim
translates_into the positive assertion that man can never attain
certainty-and this version of skepticism fares no better than the

We must ask if this "principle of
universal doubt" is itself certain,
or is it open to doubt as well?

If it is known with certainty, at
least one thing is beyond doubt,
which makes the principle false.

If, however, the principle is
open to doubt-i.e., if it
is not certain-then on what
grounds can the skeptic claim
greater plausibility for his
theory than any other?

The logician C. N. Bittle elaborates on this problem:

Skeptics either have valid reasons for their universal doubting, or
they have no valid reasons for it.

If they have valid reasons, they
surely know something that is
valid, and they no longer
are real skeptics.

If they have no valid reasons,
they have no reason to doubt.

In the first case their position is inconsistent, and in the second
case their position is irrational. Whichever way they turn, their
position is untenable.

Why, according to the universal skeptic, should every knowledge claim
be doubted? "Because," he will reply, "man is capable of error, and it
is possible in any given instance that he has committed an error." We
must remember, however, that

"error" (or falsehood) is the
opposite of "truth"-and the
skeptic who appeals to error
implicitly admits that a
proposition cannot be true
and false, correct and
incorrect, at the same
time and in the same

Thus, whether he likes it or
not, the skeptic must surrender
to the logical principle known
as the Law of Contradiction (which
states that a proposition cannot
be true and false at the same
time and in the same respect).

...therefore, the skeptic must
concede the validity of the Law
of Contradiction and its corollaries:

the Law of Identity (A is A,
a thing is itself) and

the Law of the Excluded Middle
(something is either A or not-A).

...the main source of confusion in the skeptical approach: the equation
of knowledge and certainty with infallibility.

When the skeptic claims that every knowledge claim should be doubted
because man is capable of making mistakes, he is simply pointing out
the obvious: that man is a fallible being.

No one, not even the most resolute
antiskeptic, will deny the point
that man is fallible. (We must
wonder, though, how the skeptic
arrived at this knowledge. Is
he certain that man is fallible?)

The skeptic fails to realize that it is precisely man's fallibility
that generates the need for a science of knowledge. If man were
infallible-if all knowledge were given to him without the slightest
possibility of error-then the need for epistemological guidelines
with which to verify ideas, with which to sort the true from the false,
would not arise. Man requires a method to minimize the possibility of
error, and this is the function of epistemology. A science of knowledge
enables us to discriminate between justified and unjustified beliefs;
and since the beliefs of an infallible being would not stand in need of
verification, he could have no use for epistemological standards. Where
infallibility is involved, concepts such as truth, falsity, certainty
and uncertainty are stripped of any possible application.

Consider the basic argument of the skeptic. We have seen that
fallibility gives rise to epistemological guidelines used to
distinguish truth from falsity, certainty from uncertainty, and so
forth. The skeptic, however, starts from the same premise-that man is
fallible-and uses it to argue that man can never achieve truth and
certainty. It is because man is capable of error that he must
distinguish truth from falsehood, certainty from doubt. "But," argues
the skeptic, "it is because man is capable of error that he can never
attain truth and certainty."

The skeptic thus turns epistemology
on its head by using the foundation
for a science of knowledge-human
fallibility-as a weapon to argue,
in effect, that a science of
knowledge is impossible
to man.

Even if the universal skeptic could consistently adhere to his position
(which he cannot), his victory would be an empty one. His claim that
man cannot acquire knowledge and certainty reduces to the claim that
man is fallible-and this tells us nothing new, except that the
skeptic prefers to use epistemological terms while totally ignoring
their context.

Since man is not infallible, any
concepts of "knowledge" or "certainty"
that require infallibility are, for
that very reason, inapplicable to man
and totally irrelevant to
human epistemology.

Even if the skeptical position made sense, it would fail to tell us
anything concerning human knowledge and human certainty-which removes
it from the realm of serious consideration.

In summary, we have indicted universal skepticism on two counts: first,
because it cannot be maintained without contradiction and, second,
because it commits what we shall hereafter refer to as

The Infallibilist Fallacy;

the equation of episte-mological
terms, such as "knowledge" and
"certainty," with a standard of
infallibility, which is completely
inappropriate to man and to the
science of knowledge in general.

Atheism: The Case Against God
George H. Smith


Aug 25, 2006, 4:59:32 PM8/25/06

i found this quote in one of the review's interesting.


This is were faith fills the gap.


Aug 25, 2006, 7:05:13 PM8/25/06

thepossibilities wrote:
> Immortalist wrote:

<snip topic data on universal sceptisism>

> > Atheism: The Case Against God
> > George H. Smith
> >
> i found this quote in one of the review's interesting.
> This is were faith fills the gap.

The idea of certain knowledge may be unattainable is not proof that it
does not exist, instead rationalism, or the idea that certain knowledge
is attainable, does not provide an adequate proof of the existen of
certain knowledge.

This is where faith in the possibility of certain knowledge fills the

(1) It is possible that the certain knowledge exists and it is possible
that the certain knowledge does not exist.

(2) If one believes in certain knowledge then if it exists then one
receives truth and if he does not exist then one loses little or
nothing but faith in certain knowledge.

(3) If one does not believe in certain knowledge then if it exists then
one receives falsehood and if he does not exist then one gains little
or nothing but the lack of faith in certain knowledge.

(4) It is better to either receive truth or lose little or nothing than
it is to either receive falsehood and gain little or nothing.


(5) It is better to believe in certain knowledge than it is to
disbelieve in certain knowledge.'s_Wager

A new theory of cognitive biases, called error management theory (EMT),
proposes that psychological mechanisms are designed to be predictably
biased when the costs of false-positive and false-negative errors were
asymmetrical over evolutionary history. This theory explains known
phenomena such as men's overperception of women's sexual intent, and it
predicts new biases in social inference such as women's underestimation
of men's commitment.

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