Preservation of Truth as a Methodology

I’m pretty nervous and excited about this. Whatever this thing is, it’s my first one. It’s too broad- each section could be two or three books, I’m sure. Nevertheless, here it is. I’d be eager for any and all comments!

[b]The Assumption of Doubt [/b]

It is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone to believe anything upon insuffecient evidence. -W. K. Clifford

The value of getting truth can differ significantly from the disvalue of getting falsehood
. - Linda Zagzebski

 The Allegory of Plato's Cave presents what some might call a bleak view of human knowledge.  According to him, the things of the world that are easiest to percieve- physical things and their most obvious qualities- are the merest, most distorted representations of the Truth.  Men- almost all men- sit chained to this false reality, able only to percieve a reflection of a reflection. The glimmer of hope that Plato presents through this is that the wise man, the scholar, can come and free us of these shackles, and begin the painful, fearful process of showing us to the light.  Plato is the beginning of my examination, and as such, his allegory takes on the air of prediction, hinting at a possible future world and society in which people have been risen up by those who came before them, and in which more and more people can be freed from their chains, if they want to undertake the process. Those free men would be us, the philosophers.  Has this come to pass?
 It certainly had not by the time of DesCartes.  He writes in his First Meditation:

But since reason already convinces us that we should withhold assent just as carefully from whatever is not completely certain and indubitable as from what is clearly
false, if I find some reason for doubt in each of my beliefs, that will be enough to reject all of them.

 It is DesCartes who says earliest and most clearly that notion which I wish to examine in this paper- that notion that has driven much of philosophy from the time of Plato through to the present- the notion that philosophy is primarily about the quest for certainty, and that this quest begins with a stance of skepticism towards all that which can be doubted.  I will argue for an alternative- a process that hopefully puts skepticism in  it's proper place as one more tool in the philosopher's toolbox, and not as   some sort of default. 
 Why does DesCartes begin this quest in the first place? Thankfully, he has included this in his first Meditation.  It is disguised as an anecdote about his childhood, but in fact reveals something very important. 

Some years ago I noticed how many false things I had accepted as true in my childhood, and how doubtful where the things I had subsequently built upon them.

 Descartes is pointing out here that his driving goal is the avoidance of false beliefs. This seems like a good enough reason to get started, but it is only half of the picture. A person may devote their energy to avoiding false beliefs, but they may instead (or in addition) devote themselves to gaining true beliefs. It is easy to make the mistake that this amounts to two ways of saying the same thing, but in fact this is not the case.  The differences are the key to what I'm writing about in this paper. 
 In order to avoid all false beliefs, a person can technically succeed by trying to  believe as little as possible.  Now, I think it's clear that most philosophers don't procede with the goal of believing nothing at all firmly in mind.  However, the fact remains that believing very little, or nothing at all, is not in any way a failure if one's only goal is to avoid falsehood.  I think this attitude has crept in and affected much of philosophy since Descartes' time.  The skeptic is certainly regarded as more noble, more 

thoughtful than the diehard true-believer. I think they are both equal mistakes rising from opposite assumptions.
In contrast, in order to gain as many true beliefs as possible, a person can succeed by trying to believe every single thing they are exposed to. This simply won’t do either- it’s not a good way to build a philosophical system, since many potential beliefs contradict, and further, it’s probably impossible anyway. Once one firmly believes something, they have no choice but to disbelieve everything that contradicts it- so a person has no rational choice but to be selective about what they believe. Even still, I think an approach that values gaining and maintaining truths as primary (tempered with a milder desire to avoid falsehood) is a markedly different approach than what I see dominating in philosopher, and it’s also a better approach in many ways.

 Let us return to Descartes, then.  He has begun his examinations with a heavy leaning towards avoiding false beliefs. He carries along Plato's presumption that the mental life of the child (and by extention, the unexamined life of the adult) is characterized primarily by believing a great many false things that must be set right. By eliminating all about which he cannot be certain, he is attempting to escape the world of Plato's design- the world in which almost everybody is wrong about almost every 

thing. He views the elimination of all non-certain beliefs to be key, because above all else, he fears that he will be building falsehoods upon falsehoods if he does not do this. DesCartes’ process of eliminatation leaves him with almost nothing at all- no belief in his senses, his memory, the more complex deliverances of his reason. Since he has been mistaken at least once in his usage of all of things, he is left with only the thing about which it seems to him he can never be mistaken- that he is something thinking these thoughts. The Cogito- a starting point. What he has done is made Plato’s flexible allegory concrete by tying it to the analytic process- how many thinkers have began with a tiny foundation of one or two hopefully undeniable axioms (the Cogito or something else) and tried to work their way back from there into the full, robust
collection of truths that the common man takes themselves to have to begin with? Too many to name, indeed, many who’s names were never recorded.
Hume was the first clear sign that there was something wrong with this process. He has given us two more notions that have endured the test of time for the most part- first, that certainty is only a characteristic of analytic truths, and second, that analytic truths tell us nothing real about the world. This reaffirms the truth of Plato’s allegory, with some adjustments- yes, we are stuck in a world of half-truths and falsehoods, but no, there is nobody that can pull us out of it again. Kant offered a solution, the synthetic a priori statement, showing that deductively true propositions could be linked to actual useful claims about the world. However, this has only cemented the role of deduction as primary in philosophy- certainty is only a quality of deduction, so therefore only deduction can save us from falsehood. There have been detractors and
critics of this metholodolgy, but this in a nutshell has framed the dominant views of today’s analytic thinkers- skepticism remains a powerful force, and not only that, but an accepted, if not the accepted default position to any unexamined idea.
In summary, then, much dominant philosophy begins with the assumption that the unexamined life is defined primarily by falsehood, which means the truth seeker ought to be skeptical towards everything they believe, until it can be shown to be certain through deductive process. One begins his investigation from a position of skepticism, in which the truth vs. the non-truth of a position are considered of equal standing, until certainty is reached. It is against this dynamic that I wish to propose an alternate approach.

The Credibility of First Beliefs

 I will begin as Descartes did- looking back upon my younger life. Now, I am a rational, critical person who seeks to find truth. As a child, I was not capable of such things.  Whether this change occured at a definitive point, or was a gradual development is besides the point- noetically, I behave differently now than I did then.  Before my age of reason, I came by my beliefs in all manner of inappropriate ways- I trusted the words of family, friends and strangers, with no examination of my own. I came to wild conclusions based on observation alone- with no interest or capability in thinking things through.  There are also beliefs, such as my belief in external, material reality, that I could not say at all where they came from- I had them as far back as I can remember, far before I was able to 'earn' my beliefs through any proper philosophical process. 
 However, let me also make an observation that Descartes did not.  I survived this period. More than survived, even-  I thrived. If I am capable of philosophy today, that can be traced back in large part to the life I led before today, including my ignorant childhood. I took myself to be learning, developing, and the end result is the person I am today - for better or for worse, if I consider myself capable of criticizing the beliefs of my past, I must also admit that the beliefs of my past have at least allowed me that capability. If I do not at least admit this, then there is no point in proceding- the beliefs of my past have doomed me to be irrational and wrong no matter what I do from here. 
 This leads me down a different path than Descartes.  I have no special reason to fear the falsehoods of my youth.  For while there are doubtless things I believe that will turn out false under examination, I have no reason to believe that any of them are so catastrophic that they will keep me from that discovery.  So then, let me not procede   with the disvalue of falsehood as my dominant drive. Instead, let me procede with a desire to discover true things. I will not discard everything about which I am not certain-   or rather, I will not equate certainty with justification.  My belief in math, in my own free will, of the Cogito, and that there is a material substantial world exists in  accordance with   the way my senses present it to me, I will take as true. Why? Because my aim is to discover important truths, and these truths are all among the most important there could ever be. I will not cast myself into doubt about them without cause. What is a good cause?  Since I am operating from a position of desire to 

learn rather than fear of error, the best cause will be when it is likely that doubting something I believe presently will open the way for me to discover a greater truth than I possessed before. Now, I am ahead of the game- I can put to rest examining things that have been obvious to me since infancy, and get to work straight away on investigating, and discovery of new truths.
Now, there is a place for the avoidance of false beliefs, but I want to put it as subservient to the goal of believing truth. Believing something false is undesirable, so we ought not do it when we see an easy opportunity to avoid doing so- we especially can seek to root out false beliefs if it seems there is one impeding us from aquiring some new truth. So, the proper method, I submit, is to aim primarily at gaining new truths, with the avoidance of falsehood only as a consideration to that end.

The Proper Role of Skepticism

 It will be said that I am advocating naivety over philosophy. I'm aware that that's probably the strongest argument against my position- that it's simply an attempt to skip philosophy and to believe without evidence or proper examination.  I don't consider this to be true at all, and so I must devote considerable time and detail to explaining what, exactly the proper role of skepticism is, and where it's limitations are when improperly applied. 
 Let me say first that skepticism is welcome in my house. Skepticism may introduce itself, show off what it's selling, and plead it's case the same as any of my other guests.  What it cannot do, however, is play the role of bouncer. When something that I believe is beginning to show an ugly side- when loyalty to a belief is making it hard to discover the solution to some other problem, or when many wise people present arguments and evidence that counter what I believe, then all the fullness of the logical process should be applied- scruntiny, deduction, intuition, everything in the usual bag of tricks. Skepticism and investigation definitely have their place in my system. 
 One of the most important roles of skepticism is that it allows a person to see other perspectives.  Suppose I want to be able to convince people that God exists. In order to do this effectively, I have to examine theism critically, I have to treat it as though it were not true, and anticipate what an actual critic is likely to say.  I must have evidence, and proper argument- and developing those things involves researching an issue. In my investigations, I may even come across some alternative to theism that has greater explanatory power or greater appeal of another sort, and then I could investigate in earnest- not just to learn how to argue for what I believe, but because there may actually be a good reason not to believe it anymore. 
 Also, from time to time I will be presented with new ideas with which I disagree, and want to argue against. Of course in that case I'm using skepticism as well- treating a belief as though it's not true, because indeed I don't think it is true, and  tabulating all the evidence and argument in it's favor to see how certain of a case for the position can be made. 
 The argument will be made that this is not intellectually honest- to choose first what one wishes to believe, and apply skepticism to either attack other positions or defend one's own instead of using it fairly and universally as a tool to find the truth of things. First let me say that I am not meaning to apply this process to those rare situations when we are presented with an opportunity to believe something we would like to believe- but only those situations in which we quite accidentally find ourselves with a belief- either from childhood, or from some sudden presentation of sense or reason that makes denial impossible for us.  For example, suppose the idea is put to me that Tom would make the best president.  Suppose further that it would be quite beneficial for me if Tom were the president.  I am not arguing that I am in my epistemological rights to treat "Tom would make the best president" as true, and defend it from all detraction.  For my goal is still to gain as many truths as possible- not to believe whatever I like. All else being equal, "Tom would make the best president" is as likely to be false as it is true (at best). Furthermore, believing that Tom would make the best president would prevent me from having a true belief about who the best president would be, in the case that it was someone else. So in a case like this, the claim that "Tom would make the best president" should me met with the sort of skepticism that considers it as likely to be true as false- evidence and argument should be taken into account. 
 Also, the universal application of skepticism can be abused as well. If a philosopher claims that there is no material world, or that our faculty of memory is not reliable, and looks for his shoes in the morning right where he took them off the night before, is he not being intellectually dishonest? Isn't a hard determinist that calls for the arrest of a criminal or the punishment of a child being intellectually dishonest?  I submit that there is an intellectual dishonesty rampant in the institution of philosophy 

that is so wide-spread that it’s taken to be inevitable. Anyone who cannot live as though the world is just as they claim it to be in their philosophy is being intellectually dishonest. My system seeks to eliminate this- a truth so great that we cannot help but live in it’s shadow is truly great, and it would take the presentation of an equally great truth to give us cause to doubt it.

The Bias of Questions

 Consider the familiar situation of being asked a question by a philosophy professor.  We can think of many seemingly innocent questions such as "Is this table really here?"  "Is anything really immoral?" "Do you freely choose your own actions?" These are questions that have simple, obvious answers in our day to day lives, but they become deep, perplexing associations through the magical context of philosophy. Under the popular view of skepticism as the default, the very asking of these questions becomes something full of treacherous bias.  
 Let me use the example of the Free Will debate. If one is asked, in the context of a philosophical discussion, whether or not he has free will, I believe an interesting thing occurs.  If one has the assumption that unexamined beliefs are likely to be false beliefs, then they will be compelled to hold free will and determinism as equal options- both respectable sides in a controversy. The fact that one has most likely believed in their own free will before thinking about the issue very much may even put one in a position of feeling obligated to be skeptical of free will, for no reason other than the ease of it's acceptance. And here is where I will get speculative- I believe that people ignore evidence unconsciously in order to make the sides feel equal, because of this false obligation.  
 In the case of free will, the strongest, most present evidence for it's existence is our own present and constant awareness of ourselves making choices.  This evidence is so basic and powerful that I believe that anybody who reflects upon it as I have should be compelled by it- I do not believe the free will debate is a fair one.  So compelling is this evidence, that when one is asked "What is the evidence for free will?" I believe the implied question is "Other than your constant perception of your own 

choice, what is the evidence to free will?" The answer to that implied question is “Not very much, I’m afraid”, and it is upon that fact that the whole argument revolves. Return to my original question “How do you know this table is really here?” If a philosopher asks you this, isn’t the impulse to actually respond to “Other than the fact that it appears to your senses, how do you know this table is really here?” Without that implication, the question is so easy a baby could answer it- and answer it correctly. So then, asking a question in philosophy implies that the question is difficult, and the implication that a philosophical question must be an unanswerable question leads us to ignore the very greatest sources we could go to get that answer.
All of this, because of the basic assumption that the unexamined belief is probably wrong, and that avoiding falsehood is the point of philosophy. I believe that if the staring desire is instead to gain and preserve truths, and one accepts that the things they currently believe are at least good enough to let them reflect, things become much simpler. With these new assumptions in mind, the answer to the Free Will question becomes “Yes, of course I believe in free will, for I choose things all the time.” The table: “Yes, of course that table is really there, I know because I see it.” Once the presumption that a philosophical question must ba a hard question is lifted, and once we are motivated by a desire to keep our old truths and gain new ones, rather than a primary desire to root out all potential of error, the logical possibility of incorrectness in these matters becomes just as irrelevant as the possibility that the Moon has a caramel center. Acknowledging that it is logically possible for something to be the case does not lead us to properly consider it as the case, or even as a live option. Without fear of falsehood as our center, we can also say that acknowledging that something may logically be false does not lead us to properly consider it as though it is probably false, or even as-likely-as-not false.
Again, let me point out that I am not being anti-philosophical, or advocating belief disproportionate to the evidence. To the contrary, I am trying to bring things back into proportion. I think that the fact of our choices IS a set of very strong evidence for the existence of free will, and is underestimated in part because of the natural reactions to asking the question, combined with a methodology that seeks to avoid falsehood more than it seeks to obtain truth. If keeping an gaining truth were our
starting point, questioning the existence of material objects and free will would be the result of some conclusion or discovery- it would be discovered that these things are not only in doubt, but that there is some plausible, consistant alternative to them (that explains the illusion on their presence). In other words, the potential of a new truth would be discovered first, and it would be shown that the old ways of free-will and a material world are in the way of it. Instead, we have a situation where these things can be question purely on the basis of the individuals ability to defend their belief with logical argument- which is a subjective capability that differs across individuals.

The Methodology in Action

  The last thing I would like to cover is a particular problem that I believe my approach is best in helping us solve. It is the problem of the evaluation of our faculties.  Hume is the most notable example of a philosopher that has argued that things like memory, perception, and so on cannot be proven using the one tool of certain knowledge he admits to- deductive argument.  Even with Kant's granting of the synthetic a priori, this issue remains controversial enough that it would be reasonable to say 

that there probably is no deductive argument that shows the reliability of sight, or memory, for example. This problem is compounded by the fact that we can know little or nothing important about the world without reliance on these seemingly-irrational faculties; without seeing, hearing, memory and so on, we would have very little to reason about.

 The methodology that aims at certainty requires us first to account for why we believe in the reliability of our faculties.  Greco does a good job giving a reason for this through his application of virtue ethics, pointing out that there it's not necessary for our reasons to be grounded in some general or particular principal that connects sense experience to reason.  I would back it up a step further than that, even, and suggest that the actual reasons for our belief are a secondary consideration altogether, and that emphasizing them is in fact a mistake.  
 The common application of reason goes directly to the reason for our beliefs, and examines these reasons to determine likelihood of truth. If the reasons do not meet some criteria of justification, then  it is improper to continue holding the belief, or so we have been taught. But notice the emphasis here- the belief is assumed guilty until it can be proven innocent. This wouldn't be a bad thing necessarily, except that the brute fact is, most things that we believe, we don't believe for what would be considered logically valid reasons.  I cannot tell you when I started believing my memory, hearing, and so on were reliable- it certainly happened before I was capable of applying logic to the beliefs.  Even if I devised some elaborate justification like Greco, it would be incorrect to say that this is the reason for my belief.  Even worse, if my argument for the reliability of my senses was defeated, I cannot say I would thusly abandon my faith in my senses- so my arguments do not even serve the auxillary purpose of support.  They are purely rhetorical, and create a level of seperation between how I operate in reality, and how I must claim to operate to satisfy the skeptic- in other words, it is disingenuous. 

 But before we give up on sense experience and 'consign it to the flames', let me apply my methodology of the persuit and maintenence of the truth.  We have seen that we must assume the beliefs I got from my childhood must be mainly true, or at least close enough to true that they do not hamper my ability to reason.  Thus, there are likely to be truths in my pre-rational noetic structure worth hanging on to.  The reliability of sense perception (RSP) comes from such a time. The first consideration 

through my methodology is this: If true, is belief in RSP a great truth? Is it useful, does it tell me something important about universe, does it serve as a tool through which I can aquire many other truths? I think it’s clear that RSP is a very great truth (if true) indeed. In fact, by the criterion I just gave, it is no doubt one of the greatest truths we could possibly attain. So then, RSP is gravely important to maintain- ceasing to believe in it would be the loss of a great truth, and would negatively impact my ability to discover new truths.
The next step would be to ascertain what other truths we stand to gain through the rejection of RSP. Is there some great statement about reality, great tool for discovering more about reality, that the skeptic offers in place of the rejection of RSP? If so, I have never been told of it. The skeptic asks us to reject RSP, and offers nothing at all in it’s place- the contradiction to RSP “sense perception is not reliable” tells only something infinitely small about the universe, since it is a negative. It does not provide any tool or route through which to obtain new truths. So, it seems when it comes to the rejection of RSP, we have everything to lose and nothing at all to gain.
The final step is to look at the best arguments against RSP. To date, as far as I know there are no such arguments. That is, there is no good argument that concludes “Sense perception in fact gives mostly false conclusions”. The arguments that deal with RSP address the issue of certainty- they do not show that RSP is false, but only that we cannot know for certain that it is true. The proper response to this reality through my methodology is simply to acknowledge it and move on.
Yes, I cannot be certain that my sense perceptions are reliable. However, belief that the world is basically the way I percieve it is an incredibly important truth, through which I can discover many other important truths. Furthermore, there is apparently no similarly great truth that I am missing out on through believing the deliverances of my senses, so belief in the reliability of my senses is not hampering my ability to discover new great truths. Finally, there is no good argument for an alternative to the reliability of my sense perception, and no obvious incoherency implied by believing it. Thus, I am justified in believing in the reliability of my sense perception. The question of certainty is irrelevant, and the reasons for my belief are irrelevant as well. I propose that my methology as demonstrated in this paper is a more useful, more intellectually honest way of discovering great truths about the world than common, skepticism-centric philosophy, and will be particularly useful in
setting to rest some of the perennial problems of philosophy.

Would you mind reformatting this? It’s hard on my eyes to skip between the staggered lines.

EDIT: that’s better. will take a look now…

I’d love to, I’d really love to. Any idea what I should do?

EDIT: I reformatted once. I’ll do it again, too.
EDIT 2: I think that’s the best I can do.

An interesting read. Were you influenced by Locke? I think he would agree with your approach.

It’s funny you should say that. The answer is not directly. BUT I’m very heavily influenced by Thomas Reid, and Locke is one of the three major players Reid was responding to in his stuff (along with Berkeley and Hume).

So you think Locke has some stuff that I could use for this position? I was also thinking of looking into William James. Thanks a lot for the reply, by the way.

I don’t think you’ll want to trot out Locke in this day and age. Not to anyone who’s read Dennett. I think your arguement is a bit more refined and updated vs Locke’s. I only mean that you have some of the same type of ideas as Locke re ‘common sense’ without (for the most part) falling into his fallacies.

The more I wrote, the more I realized I wasn’t addressing epistemology per se, yet, but I think my next step would be to argue for a developmental epistemology- I’ve often wondered if we could take foundational beliefs to be just those beliefs we had when we reached our ‘age of reason’, and haven’t happened to find any reason to question yet. That combined with what I’ve set up here could really go places, I think.

  I think I'll check out Locke for my own personal amusement.  So then Dennet would disagree with a lot of what I wrote, then?

That’s interesting… I had assumed that William James was one of your primary influences. He emphasizes the importance of a psychological balance between desiring truth and fearing error in The Will to Believe, for example. He develops his position as an alternative to the dictum of W. K. Clifford (which he references frequently in the essay).

To a Jamesian pragmatist (such as myself and probably yourself), skepticism, credulity, and everything in between must be submitted to the tribunal of What Works. It is quite clear that total skepticism doesn’t Work, for it places us in suspended animation without beliefs upon which to deliberate and act; on the other hand, total credulity doesn’t Work very well either because we know that believing the false can impede the pursuit of truth. Similar arguments can be made about Humean skepticism, Greek skepticism, etc. This position must accord some degree of respect to accepted opinions and traditions, since if nothing else their persistence must be explained; yet on the other hand they do not hold absolute power. There is a balance that must be struck on a case-by-case basis.

I was going to comment on the free will stuff but I don’t want to get into that mess.

As for reliability of sense perceptions, I basically agree with your “pascal’s wager” style assessment of belief versus nonbelief in reliability of sense perceptions. A still-more-pragmatist way to look at it is the following: there is no practical content or consequence to the assertion that my senses are unreliable. It is for practical purposes a meaningless statement. It does not tell us whether or not we should act on sense data anyway, or whether we should try to avoid any action at all, or anything like that. Thus a true pragmatist does not even bother with believing or not believing in the reliability of his senses. The belief makes no difference, so it has no pull for him either way. The same probably goes for ‘free will’ depending on how that is defined.

Well, mostly Dennett speaks of Locke in examining the paradigm shift created by Darwin. He constrasts Locke’s view of God and common sense, the challenge to that worldview halfheartedly attempted by Hume, then the demolishion of that worldview by the Darwin’s “dangerous idea.” It’s more Locke’s teleological view of the things that Dennett feels Darwin swept away, not any one idea about reality, per se.

I consider Locke an important political thinker, though. Much of his mode of thinking is dated where teleology and epistomology are concerned, but much of the US Constitution is based upon his writings. His ideas on the rights of man may lack a grounding in common sense based upon J/C religion, in the eyes of “modern” men, but they are very useful.

Btw, I claim no expertise in the works of Locke nor of Hume. I’ve read them but lack scholarly understanding of them at a core level.

Yeah, I knew I’d have to address pragmatism at some point. I have some things in common, some things where I disagree.
Let me say first of all that I’m not trying to make any metaphysical claims about the nature of truth. I think that’s where a pragmatic is most likely to go wrong- to say that what’s useful or what works is what’s true. When it comes to the nature of truth, I’m afraid I’m still a boring old Corrospondence theory kind of guy. What I’m trying to address isn’t epistemology so much as methodology- difference being, I’m concerned with how we select what things to investigate, and how we know when the investigation is over, not so much the process of the investigation itself.
So for example, religion. I have no initial reason to be skeptical of my religion- if I believe it for less than ideal reasons, or even no reasons at all that I could describe, that alone is not just cause for me to take a skeptical stance. However, once I realize that my belief in Christianity (say) is preventing me from believing the potential truth of reincarnation (say), then I do have a good reason to begin my investigation. Note two things:
1.) Each individual has to actually be presented with these potential truths before they have cause to investigate- the fact that these potential truths are ‘out there’ does not obligate us all.
2.) Atheism or skepticism for it’s own sake has no authority to spark an investigation when presented. In fact, a complete absence of a belief one way or the other in an area becomes less like a position, and more like a condition. One of the consequences of my view is that moving from one positive belief to another is the ideal. Complete uncertainty is a sign of disfunction.
Once that condition is met, and the person is in a spot where they ought to question their beliefs, then I would adovate things procede in a pretty traditional way- arguments, evidence, and so on. The only real difference in that process is that I would say the reasons for a person’s belief up to that point in time can only add, and never subtract, from their case.

 Yeah, that's where me and a real pragmatist would disagree, I think.  Statements like "Our senses are unreliable" are meaningful to me. They have to be meaningful in my system, because my point is that statements like that have dire consequences if believed, and because of those consequences, they should only be accepted if proven, and never [i]ever[/i] taken as a default position that one has to argue their way out of. 


OK.  When I think of Locke (having read very little), I think of his notion that [i]ideas[/i] are the objects of perception, and not external things. That's not something I agree with, and the acceptance of it has lead to a lot of the skeptical attitudes I'm countering in my essay- so I had thought that I would be disagreeing with Locke in this stuff for the most part.

I more-or-less agree with what you’ve written, that skepticism for skepticisms sake isn’t a philosophy it’s lunacy.

However, I do think that you didn’t clearly seperate beliefs whose origins you can’t remember (i.e. that the material world is real) vs. beliefs whose origins you picked up along the way (i.e. things my mother taught me).

Do you see those two types of beliefs as being fundamentally the same, since that was the feeling I got from your essay.


  When I use the example of things my mother taught me, I'm thinking of things she taught me before I was capable of reasoning on my own- that is, I was too young to be held accountable for believing things for the 'right reasons', whatever those reasons are.  So in that sense, I am treating them the same.  All beliefs from before my Age of Reason I think are realisitically 'grandfathered in' if they seem useful, and if nothing comes along to challenge them. If I grew up thinking that Venus was further from the Sun than the Earth because I read it in a Superman comic, then I am justified in that belief so long as I'm not presented with a defeater, and it's not seriously hampering my ability to learn something else. In other words, there is no [i]de facto[/i] obligation on me to prove what I believe, or believe only those things I've proven.  Specific occaisions bring that obligation about with respect to specific beliefs- and that was Descartes' mistake; "Some of the things I believe are probably false" is not a good enough reason to doubt any particular thing we believe, much less everything.  
 This all revolves around a proposition that if I throw out everything I came to believe before reason, I would be throwing out mostly important truths, and mostly irrelevant falsehoods, as evidenced by the fact that my unreasoned beliefs were suffecient to get me to this point. 

  Now, once one is in the proper occaision to question a belief that was 'grandfathered in', the examination process for a belief taken on testimony would probably be different than the process for a belief that came from I-know-not-where.

And that’s just it.

I see there as being a very fundamental difference between the two. You, too, seem to think there is based on the end of your reply. So, how to deal with this?

Is one less trustworthy than the other? Where to go from here?

I agree with your point about not seriously hampering, but that is devoid of fallout. The fallout of adopting a materialistic vs. idealistic viewpoint is, in practice, minimal. The fallout of adopting something taken on testimony can be quite extreme. If you were told to believe in Google and, as a side-effect Google orders that you hate widgets . . . if the economy suddenly becomes widget based, you’re screwed unless you either 1) discard the widget-taboo based on a purely utilitarian motive or 2) examine why widgets are so deeply hated by Google.

And while I support a normative system, I think that there needs to be reflection based on why that normative system is correct or worthwhile.


 No, I really don't, and I think that one can easily be mistaken for the other- a belief that one got from a comic book when he was 2 could easily become a belief that comes from 'I know not where' by the time he's 22. 
 Are beliefs that seem to come from our nature (reliability of perception, and so on) more reliable than beliefs that come from our mothers? Sure, I have no problem agreeing with that- but again, that comes down to a general statement that applies to an indefinite number of beliefs we hold, and I don't think that kind of abstraction can be applied to how we ought to treat [i]this[/i] belief.
 Still though, I do see what you mean. There is a difference there, and this essay was primarily designed to provide a defense for the natural beliefs and not the childish-testimony based stuff. I could winnow that stuff out, but I think they're similar in an important enough way- that neither of them ought to be questioned 'by default'- that they ought to be included.  If and when I revise this paper, I think I'll add a section on the distinction, so thanks a lot for that. 
Sure, but isn't that a necessary part of the process? Don't we have to get to that point where suddenly, there are bad consequences for our belief in Google, before we have just cause to examine it? I mean, the fact is, belief in Google is just one of a long, long list of things we were told to believe back in the day, and there simply isn't enough time to examine them all.  So like it or not, [i]we are[/i] being selective in our beliefs and our examinations. That's my biggest argument against the presumption of skepticism, that I mentioned but should have gone into more- that nobody is [i]actually[/i] capable of it.

The thing you said about reflecting on the importance of a normative system sounds important, but I don’t get what you mean yet. Is my system both normative and pragmatic? Is that possible?
EDIT: Just to be clear, I don’t consider my view particularly pragmatic.

Still though, I do see what you mean. There is a difference there, and this essay was primarily designed to provide a defense for the natural beliefs and not the childish-testimony based stuff. I could winnow that stuff out, but I think they’re similar in an important enough way- that neither of them ought to be questioned ‘by default’- that they ought to be included. If and when I revise this paper, I think I’ll add a section on the distinction, so thanks a lot for that.[/quote]

And that is an important area that we need to consider. While I do agree that beliefs that seem to be ‘default’ ought be taken at face value (until it becomes obvious that they are wrong because of non-obvious considerations – see, the world is not flat, d’oh).

Sure, but isn't that a necessary part of the process? Don't we have to get to that point where suddenly, there are bad consequences for our belief in Google, before we have just cause to examine it? I mean, the fact is, belief in Google is just one of a long, long list of things we were told to believe back in the day, and there simply isn't enough time to examine them all.  So like it or not, [i]we are[/i] being selective in our beliefs and our examinations. That's my biggest argument against the presumption of skepticism, that I mentioned but should have gone into more- that nobody is [i]actually[/i] capable of it.

The thing you said about reflecting on the importance of a normative system sounds important, but I don’t get what you mean yet. Is my system both normative and pragmatic? Is that possible?
EDIT: Just to be clear, I don’t consider my view particularly pragmatic.

See, this ties into my idea of testimony. Let’s suppose that Old Gobbo tells us that the Bush administration destroyed the world trade center with pop rocks. Does that become more correct when he tells it to a second grader that trusts him versus when he tells it to an adult? Your philosophy right now suggests that such a situation is true since the belief in the validity of the events surrounding 9/11 has very little direct impact on our lives right now. But . . . the fallout from such a belief is extreme. If someone does believe that the WTC was destroyed with pop rocks planted by Rumsfeld and Co., one’s view of the Iraq war, the war against the Taliban, ect. all take on a whole new tone. Moreso, that new tone (let’s call it sepia – it’s not black and white, just shades of brown) can be made totally consistant with the actions taken by the Bush administration post-9/11 even though it is clearly out-to-lunch.

If you were told that six years ago and acheived the age of majority today, there would be no reason to say it was false. It can be fitted to everything that has happened. In my mind this is very, very different from seeing a piano dropping towards your head from the sky – Realist or idealist, materialist or radical dualist, you jump the heck out of the way! That is because of the difference between real fallout, which directly impacts your physical well-being vs. intellectual fallout which it totally harmless but can colour a variety of actions.

This becomes a very different situation when some who has, say, academic credentials in a field says something. If a ballistics expert says that the official 9/11 story makes sense, it trumps Gobbo’s testimonial, correct? Furthermore, any fallout from the situation of 9/11 ought be coloured by this expert testimony as opposed to inexpert testimony, correct?

As for a viewpoint being both normative and pragmatic, I am unsure. I don’t know whether normative values can be derived pragmatically – but it is certainly pragmatic to follow normative values. I ask because you have show strong support of normative values in the past, if they are justified because of beliefs that were derived from testimonial as opposed to non-normative beliefs which could be equally derived from the same testimonial source. While I understand the inductive fallacy (wrong once doesn’t mean wrong twice) I also feel that ‘wrong once’ does have strong implications towards the soundness of the source of a testimonial which ought be considered. I might be colourblind, but I’ve yet to mis-identify a rock coming towards my face as something I ought flinch away from. Contrarywise, a quick glimps at your average spaghetti package tells me that High Fructose Corn Syrup is not an ingredient, despite what a friend of mine insists is true because his mother told him.

Working on a response, had a late night last night.


Specifically, very little impact on our ability to discover important truths about the world. I'm not arguing for a general utilitarian approach- beliefs could be useful for non-intellectual reasons, and I'm not sure how my principal would apply to those yet, if at all. 
But yes, the difference between a 2nd grader hearing Gobbo's claim, and an adult, is that the adult (hopefully) already has things they believe that would serve as defeaters for it.  Relatedly, the 2nd grader is in a position where it is [i]best[/i] for them (in terms of learning truths!) to generally accept whatever an adult tells them history, politics, and so on, whereas another adult is not in that position. I am reminded of talks you an I have had about religion, discussing the risks and responsibilities associated with striking out on one's own in defiance of the communities traditions.  A 2nd grader can't handle those things, and we don't expect them to. 

Yes, exactly. I think that’s a bald fact that cannot be avoided. I think demands to have proof for the things we believe tend to forget this fact, and end up pushing us into dishonest situations. “Well, I can’t say that I believe it because that guy in 2nd grade told me so, so I better go look on the internet and find a website that backs up what I believe”. That’s why so much research, isn’t.

I'm still turning this over in my head. Let me give you a couple situations that are making it difficult for me. 
Have you thrown a beach ball or balloon at a dog? They generally react by leaping away, because all they know is that the object is large, and heading towards their face. They have no experience that the object is actually very small.  Are we prepared that to say that the dog is making a complex inference from the size and shape of the balloon, to the size and shape of other things that have come flying at them in the past, coming to a conclusion that they may be injured, and thus avoiding the balloon?  I can see a very sheltered human being put in this same position. 
 Suppose today you gained the resilience of Superman. Suppose that this has been demonstrated to you, and you have no doubt of it's effectiveness. I [i]suspect[/i] that you would still flinch or leap to avoid thrown rocks or falling pianos for some time, until you'd trained your responses in line with your new beliefs. 
  My point is that while beliefs are involved in these cases, I'm not sure beliefs play a large part in the kinds of reactions you're talking about.  In fact it's possible that we actually learn our initial beliefs from those reactions, and not the other way around, but now I'm just guessing. In any event, I would say that the actual [i]belief[/i] in things like  the physical reality of stones and pianos isn't that much different from academic beliefs about things like free will or morality, [i]once it is abstracted[/i] from the reactions. I guess the ability to make that abstraction is why people are able to believe things like Berkeley's Immaterialism in the first place. 
What do you think? Is what makes us jump from a falling piano our belief about material reality, some other unspoken belief, or not a belief at all?
 It would for me, because of how I stand in relation to ballistics experts and Old Gobbo.  It might be a different story for Gobbo's hypothetical son.  If that sounds like relativism, what I'm saying is that Gobbo's son might have rationally sound, demonstrable reasons for letting his father's word overrule that of an expert stranger, not that it's a matter of personal preference. I'm also definitely not saying that Gobbo's theory is 'true for his son' while being 'false for me'.  
   The idea that the word of the ballistics expert should be trusted over Old Gobbo must be based on an abstract principal, as far as I can tell.  Something like "Trust the word of an expert over that of some guy on the internet".  The presumption of skepticism seems to take the view that there are a relatively small number of these principals, that apply over a relatively large variety of situations and people.  I suppose I would say that Gobbo's son has another principal "Trust your father, because he's always looking out for your best interests" that overrules it. 
 The other big error of skepticism (I'm thinking of Hume) is to assume that there [i]must always be[/i] an abstract principal at work, even with things like believing sense experience. 
  I think testimony feels more appropriate with regards to normative statements because so many normative statements deal with how we interact with other people in the first place. 
  The more I read, the more I become convinced that normative statements are foundational- it is certain normative statements that form the basis of reasoning, and they come before reasoning (while there may be others that come after it, like precise moral claims). 
Yes, I would agree with that.  The mistake of skepticism, which I tried to address, is the idea that 'wrong once' has strong implications to the nature of testimony [i]simpliciter[/i]*. One also has to consider what source is injured from bad testimony, as well. The speaker? The type of person the speaker is? The institution or system the speaker stands for?  Someone aiming at truth (and not avoidence of falsehood) will come to see skepticism as a regrettable [i]condition[/i], and not a position (I hope I used that clause in the essay, I liked it), remember. 

*- It seems odd to call it the ‘faculty of testimony’, since testimony decribes the source and not the perciever. But I think think believing testimony is a faculty.

I’m just quickly darting into work so I’ll have a more fleshed out point-by-point on monday, but the biggest thing for me is the distinction that you just mentioned!

There are things that we ‘know not from where’ that are simply imprinted on us, that are intractably part of the human psyche. Now, for those I think that skepticism is sheer lunacy. But I do see a fundamental difference between those things that we were born knowing and those things we picked up along the way.

Cool, I’ll await your response. Something I’d like to point out is that admitting that we believe things ‘from the beginning’ put us between a rock and a hard place when asked to justify our beliefs. If we say “I don’t know why I believe it, I just can’t help it”, then we seem irrational. If we put forward some argument to defend our belief, then we’re being dishonest, knowing full well that if the argument is defeated, our belief will persist. In that sense, I think beliefs that come from our nature, and beliefs our Mom gives us when we are 7 are the same.
I guess what it comes down to is this- if I believe in something because I read it in a comic when I was little, do you think that fact alone is cause enough for me to reject that belief, or take a skeptical stance towards it? I think something more is required- positive reasons to suppose the belief is false.

   Now, I do very much agree that it is important to submit ourselves to a body of authority.  We've had that discussion elsewhere; however, I think that which authority is very important.  What an authority figure teaches isn't necessarily true, or even related to the truth.  To me, this is probably the single most important use for skepticism, the question of "is this authority worth listening to?".  Now, I don't think a child has much of a choice in the matter, but I don't feel that the system you described allows for 'bad teachers'.  As adults, I think it is important to examine the teachers we have had and see whether we judge them to be worth listening to.  

You say that it is a fact that cannot be avoided – I think that, through moderate use of skepticism, that situation can be and ought be avoided.

So, I partially addressed this on Sunday. Now, you say that simply placing them as intractably part of the human psyche places us in a hard place and I do agree with that. But, let’s flesh the situation out a little. First off, we know that one can (very, very rationally) build off of terribly mistaken premises. We’ve all seen logical pretzles like that. To me the best rebuttal to a highly logical argument for why reality is an illusion is to try and punch the speaker. Despite their idealistic views, they will flinch meaning that they do still feel stuck in material reality, or the illusion is so convincing as to render any distinction between it being real or unreal becomes irrelevant.
On top of that, I think that those ideas that we hold as ‘self-so’ can be descibed by looking at our genetic history. Since I believe that these concepts are intractably part of our humanity and we are born knowing them, then they have to be part of our genetic heritage. Many of the things that we just ‘know’ such as a material reality, can be explained as being selective as well as manifest in other creatures. If it cannot be explained by both those criteria, then you’ve got some ‘splainin’ to do.

While I am highly sympathetic towards the idea of trusting one’s parents out of loyalty, I think that there is a very powerful dividing line between being loyal and being blind. True loyalty, in my mind, demands the role of the remonstrator. Above all else, it becomes an issue of context – the son’s principle is a good one for many situations it very much fails in this situation. Skepticism makes the mistake of forcing Gobbo’s son to question that principle at every turn, but I think that your system makes the mistake of making Gobbo’s son question that principle too little.

To me that is where the crux of authority lies. You have to make sure that your authority is not just a ‘good authority’ in general, but also a ‘good authority’ in specific. Just because Shaq is a very good basketball player, that doesn’t mean that Shaq is also a good actor, musician, martial artist, ect. It is not skepticisms job (IMHO) to question these principles, but rather to divide one’s authorities into spheres of influence as well as keeping an eye on the authority making sure that 1) they remain an authority worth paying attention to 2) they remain within their sphere of influence and (most importantly) to help weigh and decide when spheres of influence do overlap.

I agree with what you’ve written here. I just didn’t think that you went far enough in explaining it in the essay.