Tuesday, May 08, 2012

Dissecting the skeptics VIII

In the previous section of To Unknow Our Knowing, Delavagus managed to avoid committing any new errors, mostly due to the fact that he wandered off into an irrelevant tangent in such a nebulous manner that it was impossible to pin down any actual claims, much less examine their veracity. However, he does return from his contemplation of contextualism to the topic at hand on the home stretch, and in doing so, commits an error so fundamental and easily proven that it is hard to imagine it not being a willful and knowing deception:
The obvious problem with this sort of contextualism is that it seems to sever the link between knowledge and truth, focusing instead on assertability conditions (which amount to answering the question, “When do we consider it okay to claim to know x?”, as opposed to answering the question, “When are we justified in claiming to know x?”). The Pyrrhonian’s contextualism is different. It accepts the variability of assertability conditions, namely, that common life introduces uses of ‘to know’ that fail to satisfy the philosophical constraints on justification. In an everyday sense, then, Pyrrhonians think they know all sorts of things, the same as anyone else. But, unlike a contextualist such as Lewis, Pyrrhonians will maintain that this sort of knowing is, as Thompson Clarke put it in an influential paper, knowing in a manner of speaking only. As a human being in the world, thrust into a family, a culture, an environment, Pyrrhonians will believe all sorts of things—in an everyday way. And, in an everyday way, they will claim to know all sorts of things. But they will not mistake the degree of their doxastic commitment to x for the degree of x’s objective justification. They will not believe that their everyday beliefs are justified—except with reference to the presuppositions (the brute assumptions) that frame their communal epistemic practices. Like their ‘knowledge,’ the Pyrrhonians’ ‘justifications’ have a merely local force, as do (by their lights) everyone else’s—though non-Pyrrhonians are by and large too stubborn or conceited to admit as much.

Pyrrhonians, in other words, will live adoxastōs—free of the second-order belief that their first-order beliefs are (ultimately) justified.

This might sound like a trivial accomplishment, but I don’t think it is. The desire—the felt need—for objective justification is what leads people to claim to possess it (or at least to act as though they possess it), and I would argue that it is this myopic privileging of one’s own prejudices—the baseless elevation of the parochial to the universal—that has underwritten history’s greatest atrocities and that continually threatens to give rise to any number of fresh horrors.

To unknow our knowing, in the Pyrrhonian sense, is not to rob us of our everyday certainties, to deprive us of something substantial we previously possessed. Rather, it is to adopt a particular attitude toward ourselves, one that opens up a critical distance between what we believe to be true (often what we cannot help but believe to be true) and what we believe we know, a critical distance that allows us to live on the basis of an understanding of ourselves as reflective beings caught in a whirlwind of culture and biology, as consciousnesses at least partly shaped by forces whose power and scope we neither fully understand nor fully control.
As I previously observed, the contextualism tangent is irrelevant and is shown to be so by Delavagus's assertion that Pyrrhonian contextualism is different. It is both fascinating and a little amusing to see that finally, at the end of his second post, Delavagus abruptly admits that he has been ignoring "uses of ‘to know’ that fail to satisfy the philosophical constraints" long after claiming that no one can know anything. And this leads him to commit his ninth error, a bait-and-switch even more substantial, and even more shameless, than the one he utilized with regards to the definition of knowledge. For what he does is attempt to substitute "first-order belief" for phenomena, "second-order belief" for "belief", and "free of the second-order belief that their first-order beliefs are (ultimately) justified" for "suspension of judgment".

Either Delavagus truly does not understand Pyrrhonian skepticism on a fundamental level or he is blatantly misrepresenting it in order to provide a false foundation for his own dogmatic opinions. It is simply wrong to say "Pyrrhonians will believe all sorts of things—in an everyday way" or that "they will claim to know all sorts of things". The genuine Pyrrhonian absolutely will not do this! Sextus is very clear on the distinction between the acceptance of phenomena and the suspension of judgment concerning first-order belief, as can be seen in Chapter VII:

"We say that the Sceptic does not dogmatise. We do not say this, meaning by the word dogma the popular assent to certain things rather than others (for the Sceptic does assent to feelings that are a necessary result of sensation, as for example, when he is warm or cold, he cannot say that he thinks he is not warm or cold), but we say this, meaning by dogma the acceptance of any opinion in regard to the unknown things investigated by science. For the Pyrrhonean assents to nothing that is unknown.... The principal thing in uttering these formulae is that he says what appears to him, and communicates his own feelings in an unprejudiced way, without asserting anything in regard to external objects."

From this, Delavagus proceeds to his tenth, and overtly anti-Pyrrhonian, error. He rephrases the baseless assertions of Sam Harris and R. Scott Bakker in claiming that the "privileging of one's own prejudices... has underwritten history’s greatest atrocities", which is no more than the very claim about the material dangers of certainty that Bakker has been unable to address for eight months and counting. Instead of taking the Pyrrhonian position that certainty is neither good nor bad in itself and neither seeking nor avoiding certainty, Delavagus attempts to contort the Sceptical philosophy into support for his first-order, dogmatic belief in the evils of self-privileged prejudices.

His conclusion simply underlines his ninth error. The entire purpose of Pyrrhonian scepticism is to rob us of our judgment, to suspend it, in the interest of our tranquility. It is not to adopt a particular attitude towards ourselves, but rather to adopt a balanced attitude towards matters of opinion. How Delavagus could show such little understanding of his own supposed area of expertise nearly defies reason, but we are given a clue in his final paragraph. When he describes Pyrrhonianism as "the basis of an understanding of ourselves as reflective beings" rather than a practical method for achieving psychological tranquility, he offers us a reason to suspect that it may only be the common philosopher's inability to pull himself out of his customary navel-gazing that is responsible for his misunderstanding and consequent misrepresentation of the philosophy. Or, alternatively, he may be simply another shameless and intellectually dishonest academic taking a "by any means necessary" approach to pushing his conventional left-wing dogma. We can harbor our suspicions, but we really cannot express a meaningful opinion on the basis of the information provided.

In any case, I will conclude by observing that I have, as requested, given Delavagus's posts a fair and detailed reading. I have considered his attempt to defend Pyrrhonism against the charge of peritropē and found it wanting, I have identified no less than 10 specific errors in the arguments he presented, and finally, I have demonstrated that he has either not understood Pyrrhonism or has shamelessly misrepresented it for his own purposes. I leave it to the reader to determine the validity of those four observations.

In the end, Delavagus leaves one feeling rather like Jaime Lee Curtis in A Fish Called Wanda, given that the central message of Pyrrhonism is no more that second-order belief in justified first-order belief is bad by nature than the central message of Buddhism is every man for himself.

Now, some may have forgotten that fourth question I mentioned at the very beginning. What is the author trying to prove? Having finished the reading, it's easy to see that Delavagus was trying to prove that ancient scepticism supports the modern notion that belief is bad and uncertainty is good. We can further observe that the actual argument was not the one he was purporting to prove in his title or in the introduction.

Previous sections
Dissecting the skeptics I
Dissecting the skeptics II
Dissecting the skeptics III
Dissecting the skeptics IV
Dissecting the skeptics V
Dissecting the skeptics VI
Dissecting the skeptics VII

Exposing the False Skeptic
The "Skeptic" Confesses



Anonymous Koanic May 08, 2012 6:01 AM  

Delavagus has provided yet another highly convoluted yet ultimately cliched example of r-selection motivated reasoning.

Vox, I think you didn't look closely enough at r/K theory. You mentioned that you didn't fit into either category because you rejected the conservative War Party. If you'd read deeper into the pdfs, you'd have found that K's are isolationist unless they have an overwhelming military advantage, ala European colonialism or the Mongol hordes. American Republican Socialist Fascism is simply a coat of K-rhetoric paint over a fundamentally r-driven social movement.

Furthermore, you also dismissed r/K theory because it was founded on evolutionary fairy tales. This ignores the sociobiological underpinnings (rabbits and wolves are not imaginary), and also ignores that two out of three of the major mechanisms for shifts in r/K expression in a society have nothing to do with either genes or evolution.

Blogger Vox May 08, 2012 6:08 AM  

I think you didn't look closely enough at r/K theory.

That is surely true. I barely looked at it. I'm curious, how is Delavagus's reasoning an example of r-selection motivation?

Blogger Crude May 08, 2012 6:42 AM  

I don't think I've ever seen you focus on someone this long, Vox. Especially someone who's at best trying to claim a pretty obscure position - you don't run into many people pretending to be Pyrhonnian skeptics.

Blogger Vox May 08, 2012 7:02 AM  

That's just how long it took to go through the two posts in minimum level of detail required. I suppose you were not here for Japanese Invasion Month. Besides, the very obscurity of the subject made it interesting, and remember, I happened to have read Sextus Empiricus last October. So, the issue arose at a fortuitous moment.

Anonymous Koanic May 08, 2012 7:05 AM  

"how is Delavagus's reasoning an example of r-selection motivation?"

*Settles back in ornately overstuffed Viennese armchair*

r's are traitors by nature. When finding themselves in a K dominated group, their existence is threatened, because K's try to punish r's for failing to abide by the expectations of honorable conduct. r's fight back by a desperate strategy of betrayal, aligning with the Other in hopes that after conquest, they will be permitted to survive. If the strategy works, the r's will likely receive promotion while the local K's will be wiped out.

Hence the innate liberal tendency to attack the historically superior Christian European heritage. Delavagus' philosophy is nothing more than an elaborate justification for this drive.

Furthermore, concepts of justice, absolute truth, right and wrong, superiority and inferiority, all belong to the K mind. They are antithetical to r psychology, which instead prefers fairness, equality, imposition of rules to reduce interpersonal uncertainty, and a strategy of personal opportunistic rule-breaking.

Thus Delavagus' philosophy is an attempt to justify his innate biological distaste for hierarchy, justice and inflexible truth - in the social sense. This is why supposedly science fetishizing skeptics are so loath to embrace racism, one of the world's most self-evident empirical truths.

In general, liberal r's are terrified of K rhetoric not because it is actually more lethal, but because it is a major threat signal to their reproductive strategy. When K's become dominant, they punish cheaters, shirkers, traitors, etc., and enforce a merit based system. The r fundamentally believes he can never win in a direct competition, so this represents an existential threat.

r Fascism works by reversing this insecurity into extreme overconfidence, and usually is a response to a deep insult to national pride that mobilizes the nation. Even so, over time r's will begin to rebel against the meritocratic rhetoric and reality, to whatever extent it exists.

Well, anyway, that's the best I can toss off at the moment.

Anonymous Koanic May 08, 2012 7:07 AM  

No more quote buttons?

I thought the delavagas exercise an impressive lesson in the level of effort required to fully dismantle a brief dialogue from a moderately sophisticated sophist.

Perhaps in the far future we will employ such disingenuous minds in the forced production of AI firewalls.

Anonymous Koanic May 08, 2012 7:13 AM  

Skepticism is one of the most popular poses of the left cognitive elite, and they will borrow whatever abstruse legitimacy is available, having no actual commitment to intellectual integrity. Thus K's must keep shooting down every new variant of the same lie.

Anonymous MendoScot May 08, 2012 7:58 AM  

Or, alternatively, he may be simply another shameless and intellectually dishonest academic taking a "by any means necessary" approach to pushing his conventional left-wing dogma.

I think I saw him twitch. Kick him again.

Anonymous Salt May 08, 2012 8:06 AM  

When finding themselves in a K dominated group, their existence is threatened

I wouldn't say it necessitates a K dominated group, as just one K, by argument, demolishes an army of r. Put another way, the survival of K is not predicated on r's existence, but r cannot survive without K. And r knows it.

Blogger Nate May 08, 2012 8:39 AM  

Its interesting how his pace seems to pick up at the end. Its almost like he knows he's finally at the point where he can jam his ideology down the reader's throat and he just can't wait.

Anonymous Koanic May 08, 2012 9:03 AM  

Much like the r Giant Australian Cuttlefish.

Anonymous WaterBoy May 08, 2012 12:26 PM  

Now that the series is wrapped up, I just want to say, "Well done, Vox". It was interesting and, dare I say, enlightening, and following your methodology was quite educational.

Anonymous Anonymous May 08, 2012 12:37 PM  

It really is a strange experience picking through these posts, Vox. Like watching someone try to rescue bad theory with outright nonsense.

V: "I have these controversial claims."
D: "You should suspend judgement."
V: "Here's some more contentious claims about you and your so-called 'suspending judgement.'"
D: "You should suspend judgement."
V: "I win!"

Bonkers, but entertaining.

Anonymous VD May 08, 2012 12:48 PM  

Let me correct that for you:

V: "I have these controversial claims."
D: "My controversial claims are better because I suspend judgment!"
V: "You're not suspending judgment, you're providing competing claims."
D: "No, I'm suspending judgment because apples are oranges."
V: "Apples are not oranges. Ergo, I win."

More to the point, what claims have I made in these eight posts beyond citing the dictionary definition of knowledge and claiming certain quotes by Sextus Empiricus were definitive of Pyrrhonism?

Anonymous Anonymous May 08, 2012 1:08 PM  

In other words, your controversial claims WIN!

Why would that be again?

Anonymous Koanic May 08, 2012 1:31 PM  

Anon's damaged amygdala is on an infinite loop.

Controversial bad. Relativism good. (repeat)

Anonymous Koanic May 08, 2012 1:33 PM  

Just be glad he's not passionately trying to have sex with you.

Blogger Nate May 08, 2012 1:45 PM  

Ok then...

One down... Now lets take a breather then deal with Dominic... so we can lace them up.

Blogger Nate May 08, 2012 1:46 PM  

"Why would that be again?"

Oh look! There's my bellybutton!

Anonymous Noah B. May 08, 2012 2:33 PM  

I'd say the dissection was over long ago, and now you're just running what's left of the frog through the blender. Not that it hasn't been fun, though.

Anonymous VD May 08, 2012 2:50 PM  

Why would that be again?

Because no one has been able to successfully raise a substantial objection to them. Do you not realize that even the Sceptics accept a belief or a phenomenon when a countering belief or phenomenon cannot be raised in opposition to it?

Anonymous Anonymous May 08, 2012 3:55 PM  

Successful? Who says? Substantial? Who says?

I'm guessing YOU. Must make life easy, being both the kicker and goalposts!

You assertion regarding the Skeptics is actually controversial.

You should suspend judgement.

Anonymous VD May 08, 2012 4:10 PM  

Successful? Who says? Substantial? Who says?

Something that is nonexistent is obviously neither successful nor substantial. There aren't ANY objections to my identification of the ten errors.

You assertion regarding the Skeptics is actually controversial.

No, it's right there in Outlines of Pyrrhonism. Unless you want to attack the source, you can't reasonably object to it. The physical text that Sextus wrote is phenomena, not opinion.

Anonymous Shild May 08, 2012 4:16 PM  

It really is a strange experience picking through these posts, Vox. Like watching someone try to rescue bad theory with outright nonsense.

V: "I have these controversial claims."
D: "You should suspend judgement."

I thought this exchange began with VD challenging Bakker/Delvagus' claims about uncertainty and Skepticism, not with Delvagus challenging any of VD's claims. Did I miss somthing?

Anonymous NorthernHamlet May 08, 2012 6:18 PM  

Whilst you said this exchange was partly fortouis, consider writing more rhetorical and philosophical dissections here. Rather fun, I dare say.

Anonymous Earl May 08, 2012 10:06 PM  

Vox, thank you for the hard work on this. I have noticed "scepticism" running rampant on the left and the militant atheist side. This series is going into my favorites for any discussions about scepticism that come up in the future. I've had many thoughts about and desires to study the topic lately, but you've now done a great deal of the work for me. Thanks again.

Anonymous Toby Temple May 08, 2012 10:29 PM  


Aren't you suppose to nuke the Anonymouses?

Anonymous Suomynona May 08, 2012 11:07 PM  

Rabbit hunting.

This philosophical exercise, or more appropriately, this methodical destruction of faux philosophy, prompted me to do some reading on my own on this subject matter, so I looked over my collection and revisited a book that made my little head spin as a child - one of the few that I could never get through. To my happy surprise, my neural hooks grasped it with ease this time around. I've only gotten into the first 60 pages, but it's quite interesting, especially when considered in the context of the events of the time it was written - 1937.

Vox, if you haven't read the book, and have a few minutes to spare, I'd like your take on it. Huxley gets into some of these same concepts you've been discussing. The book is Ends and Means : An Enquiry into the Nature of Ideals and into the Methods Employed for their Realization by Aldous Huxley. That link is to the complete book.

From these very limited encounters and from what I've read so far, it appears the overriding mentality of these types is singular in their goal - they all seriously expect that Man ultimately has the capacity to transform himself into god and create a utopia by his own means. They eschew all forms of the supernatural but expect Man to transcend the natural - and himself to become super-natural.

Anonymous Suomynona May 08, 2012 11:31 PM  

To what, exactly, is Man aspiring? And once he gets there, then what? I'm envisioning the perfect Man sitting there, thinking to himself, "Is this all there is?"

The reality is that Man can never be God. And for this we should be extremely grateful. We are created beings. We have a Creator whose glory our little minds simply cannot fathom. Philosophers are peddling very cheap plastic trinkets as gold.

Anonymous Russell May 09, 2012 1:17 AM  


Thank you for this series; I was both educated and amused.

Anonymous VD May 09, 2012 3:26 AM  

Aren't you suppose to nuke the Anonymouses?

See Rule 29.

Anonymous Toby Temple May 09, 2012 4:00 AM  

I think I remember you made a blog post about shooting down Anonymous comments on sight. Something to do with tracking them...

These dissecting the skeptics series would have been more fun if Delavagus was debating you from I to VIII.

Now it is safe to say that Delavagus would never ever dare to debate you until the day he dies....

Anonymous VD May 09, 2012 4:57 AM  

Now it is safe to say that Delavagus would never ever dare to debate you until the day he dies....

It seems unlikely. I have to confess that I found it very amusing how he described my reading of his work as "uncharitable". He was really too kind, as I would have thought "merciless" would have been a perfectly reasonable description.

Anonymous philip May 10, 2012 8:20 AM  

Thoroughly enjoyed the series.

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