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



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