A Refutation of Skepticism

Philosophical skepticism is notoriously difficult to refute. I am not speaking of popular skepticism, as defined by magazines such as Skeptical Inquirer and Skeptic. These are only skeptical of certain things, generally are not skeptical of the issues they support, and hold that knowledge is possible. 

Philosophical skepticism is more rigorous, holding that ultimately we can’t know anything. Ancient Greeks such as Pyrrho of Ellis took skepticism to a rigorous level, doubting whether we can know anything, including whether or not we are doubting. Radical skepticism presents questions such as “It might be that we are a brain in a vat, being fed sensory data by an alien via a complex machine.”  Or “it could be that we are halucinating” or “It could be we are being deceived by an evil demon.”  We can’t just say that this is absurd, for the mental game here is to logically refute it, which is notoriously difficult. All the skeptic has to do is say “It could be an illusion” and leaves us with the problem of positively refuting it beyond all doubt. As silly as this may seem at first glance, otherwise intelligent people have based their lives on the basis that no one can be sure of any meaning. The comedian Steve Martin went into comedy because he could not find anything meaningful in life, and felt that no one is able to be sure of anything meaningful in life.  

So we are presented with a gnarly problem, similar to the Buddhist pantheist, who says that all sensory data is an illusion.

But there are some good refutations. First, all claims that we can’t know ultimately are self-refuting, saying that we know we can’t know. Any attempts to show this self-refutation wrong ends in either another self-refutation or nonsense.  And nonsensical claims cannot be responded to, for they make no claim.
Second, all skeptics appeal to sensory data to claim that we can’t trust sensory data, which is another self-refuting claim. Skeptics say we can’t trust sense data, yet they use sense data to try to prove their case that we can’t trust sense data.
Third, author Peter Klein in his book Certainty claims skepticism can be absolutely refuted if the following can be proven: 1) There is no good reason for believing that knowledge of p is always false, and 2) there is good reason for believing that knowledge of p is sometimes true. Thus, meaning is established, at least some of the time. Fourth, all claims that we might be deceived due to dreaming or by halucinating imply that we cannot tell the difference between those things and reality. But there is a fundamental sense difference between dreams and reality, or else we wouldn’t have two words to name them. If we can’t tell the difference between dreaming and reality, how is it that we have made a distinction enough to use two different names?  There must be some fundamental distinction between them, and we must be able to tell them apart, or else we wouldn’t have two names with two meanings.

Ultimately, the radical skeptic cannot make a claim that holds up. Skepticism is refuted, and absolute knowledge is established.

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About humblesmith

Christian Apologist & Philosopher
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4 Responses to A Refutation of Skepticism

  1. dark says:

    I think you have done a good job of refuting absolute skepticism but I don’t think that alone proves absolute knowledge is true. Are there other possibilities?

    The radical skeptic would claim even the truth of whether his own belief, that truth cannot be know, cannot be known. It is a paradoxical position to be sure.

    You’re arguments seem to agree that we can know truth but we can’t necessarily be absolutely certain that which we know is the truth.

    Is it possible there is truth but we can only be ever more sure of it’s likely hood not that it is absolute?

    • humblesmith says:

      Absolute knowledge of truth can be established, at least in some cases. We may not be able to determine truth in all cases, but we can in some.

      We can know that it is true that the laws of logic apply to all meaningful statements. Laws of thought, such as the law of identify (A is A) and the law of noncontradiction (A is not non-A) hold true in all meaningful statements, for anyone who tries to deny them must use them in their denial.

      You are correct that the severest of skeptics, such as some of the ancient Greeks (followers of Pyrrho), held to such a radical skepticism as you describe. But their claims are absurdity. Trying to say that we cannot know that we cannot know, and make any sort of conclusion, is on the level with trying to say “blue april non-banana.” It’s just meaningless, and certainly does not prove anything or make a truth statement which could be refuted or affirmed.

      That we cannot know some things is a truth that we can know for certain. This does not mean that all things are unknowable….in fact, it is a statement that we know for certain is true.

      As to your last question, look at it this way. If we were to conclude that “There is truth, but we cannot be absolutely certain of it. We can only be ever more sure of its liklinood.” Such a statement is either true or not. Whether we affirm it or deny it, we know something for certain (that it is true or false.) Therefore in an absolute sense, we affirm that we can indeed know some things for certain.

  2. Diogenes says:

    I disagree. The statement a = a is only 100 percent true if its referring to itself. (a IS a). thus, the statement “A=A” depends on our conception of a universe in which things such as matter and reality, existence and reflections of events are real. IF, for example, the universe is such that nothing (thoughts, items, etc) are REAL, in our sense of the word, even the statement a=a is incorrect. remember, a skeptic is free to reduce the claim that knowledge is possible to the absurd using a = a type arguments. if she can show that they lead to a contradiction, then a = a reasoning is invalid.

    • humblesmith says:

      You either hold your statements to be true, or not. This exhausts the possibilities. If you hold the statement you just made to be true, then you have stated something that we can know, and philosophical skepticism is refuted. If you hold that the statement you just made is not true, then “a is a” logic holds, and we can know something.

      Strictly speaking, Aristotle’s law of identity, a is a, does not depend on a real world existing. The concept applies in pure analytic logic. If the number 4 is not the number 4, we can have nothing meaningful. This is true regardless of whether four of anything actually exists anywhere. If you are suggesting that thoughts do not have to identify with themselves, then the skeptic cannot make any claims, let alone the claim that we cannot know anything. Again, if the statements you just made are not the statements you just made, you’ve said nothing. If the statements you just made are themselves and have any meaning, then skepticism is refuted.

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