What Is Skepticism?

When one admits that nothing is certain one must, I think, also admit that some things are much more nearly certain than others. It is much more nearly certain that we are assembled here tonight than it is that this or that political party is in the right. Certainly there are degrees of certainty, and one should be very careful to emphasize that fact, because otherwise one is landed in an utter skepticism, and complete skepticism would, of course, be totally barren and completely useless.

- Bertrand Russell, Am I An Atheist Or An Agnostic?

Podcast of the Day

Melvyn Bragg and his guests discuss Scepticism, the idea that it may be impossible to know anything with complete certainty. Scepticism was first outlined by ancient Greek philosophers: Socrates is reported to have said that the only thing he knew for certain was that he knew nothing. Later, Scepticism was taught at the Academy founded by Plato, and learnt by students who included the Roman statesman Cicero. The central ideas of Scepticism were taken up by later philosophers and came to the fore during the Renaissance, when thinkers including Rene Descartes and Michel de Montaigne took up its challenge. A central plank of the philosophical system of David Hume, Scepticism had a powerful influence on the religious and scientific debates of the Enlightenment.

Listen to Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss Skepticism on the In Our Time Podcast

Video of the Day

Short Article of the Day

...we need to be able to tell when we believe or disbelieve in something based on high standards of evidence and when we are just engaging in a bit of motivated reasoning and letting our opinions take over. When we withhold belief because the evidence does not live up to the standards of science, we are skeptical. When we refuse to believe something, even in the face of what most others would take to be compelling evidence, we are engaging in denial. In most cases, we do this because at some level it upsets us to think that the theory is true...

Continue reading Lee McIntyre's article: The Price of Denialism

Further Reading

...To clarify the distinction between ordinary incredulity and philosophical doubt, let us consider two movies: The Truman Show and The Matrix. In the former, Truman is placed, without his knowledge, in a contrived environment so that his “life” can be broadcast on television. But he begins to wonder whether the world surrounding him is, in fact, what it appears to be. Some events seem to happen too regularly and many other things are just not quite as they should be. Eventually, Truman obtains convincing evidence that all his world is a stage and all the men and women are merely players. The crucial point is that even had he not developed any doubts, there is, in principle, a way to resolve them had they arisen. Such doubts, though quite general, are examples of ordinary incredulity.

Contrast this with the deception depicted in The Matrix. When everything is running as programmed by the machines, there is no possible way for the “people” in the matrix to determine that the world as experienced is only a “dream world” and not the real world (the world of causes and effects). The only “reality” that it is possible to investigate is a computer generated one. (See Irwin 2002, 2005 for collections of articles on The Matrix.)

The Truman Show is a depiction of a case of ordinary incredulity because there is some evidence that is, in principle, available to Truman for determining what's really the case; whereas The Matrix depicts a situation similar to that imagined by a typical philosophical skeptic in which it is not possible for the Matrix-bound characters to obtain evidence for determining that things are not as they seem (whenever the virtual reality is perfectly created)...

Continue reading the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on Skepticism by Peter Klein

Related Topics

 Ignorance | Intuition | Montaigne

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