My aim in this essay will be to prove and convince the reader that this radical Sceptical way of thinking appears to be logical but only when you look at it at face value, as it is deeply flawed. The flaw does not necessarily make the claim untrue but does bring it further into question. I will explain and point out how I myself have come to such a conclusion. I will expand on the argument presented in the essay title and try to clarify it, providing an analysis of the argument.
So to begin with, if indeed you do know you have hands then you would naturally conclude that you’re not a brain in a vat but a human with a body, but you have to also suppose that you have no way of proving that you’re not a brain in a vat, which means that you cannot conclude that you actually do have hands. Another way to simply illustrate this point is to consider if you’re sat on a chair, then you also know you’re not riding a bike or lying on the floor, but if your senses and perceptions were somehow under an illusion then how could you possibly state how things are and that they are based on reality and not deception? And this is exactly the point that radical Scepticism tries to make. You may be sat on a chair, you may be a brain being fed the experiences, or you may be both at the same time or you may even be sat on something you believe to be a chair but is in fact something altogether different, how could we possibly be certain of such a thing? Never mind be sure of what we are perceiving as being objective.
Doubting the evidence provided by our senses is no new thing. In the Theaetetus, Plato presents the view of Protagoras expressed via Socrates: ‘Then my perception is true to me, being inseparable from my own being, as Protagoras says, to myself, I am judge of what is and what is not to me.’ (1) This illustrates that perception is personal and that reality is a subjective experience. What we do and say is always subjective because we are experiencing this reality subjectively, and if for example this reality is the true one, then we are still experiencing objectivity subjectively, which makes it almost impossible to refute the claim as we conclude that it is impossible not to doubt everything and equally as impossible to hold anything as concretely true.
Therefore we commonly think that we cannot achieve certainty. Certainty is a concept much like the one of perfection, in that it is a thing that we should strive towards and always try to achieve, even if impossible. Both perfection and certainty are not achievable ends, but more a scale, although imperfect would be zero and perfect would be one, with no in between. Certainty is not the same; we can be 99.99% certain of something and accept that as truth/knowledge/fact, but the 0.01% chance of it being incorrect always remains. It could later be disproved and no longer be accepted as truth/knowledge/fact. That small chance means that we can accept things as knowledge, but should never accept them as indubitable, and we should also never take our doubt out of them and stop questioning their accepted validity. So we should take our ‘knowledge’ and accept what we know, but never consider what we know as concretely set and unchangeable, whatever your belief or knowledge. Some things should be accepted with the assumption that they could be wrong and may be proven to be so.
To further the sceptic’s point consider; when (If not always) we go about the aim of trying to define and clarify things, we often add more doubt and obscurity to it, because upon reflection, we realise how vague all of our descriptions are, that we don’t get to the truth of it, if there even is one. We are subjectively experiencing this reality, to state anything as fact or truth in the absolute term with the tools we have is ridiculous, but also to be that brutally honest leaves us with nothing or very little, but at least we then know one thing: I know that the only thing I know, is that I do not know anything, thus, I hold one piece of knowledge and one only.
So using these ways of thinking and doing things, we conclude that the Sceptical view is useful in filtering out gullibility and accepting incorrectness. I have stated why the radical Sceptical argument appears to be logical. I will now attempt to point out its flaws and why it is not entirely acceptable to just assume that the radical Sceptical argument makes sense and thus try to prove why it is not a good position to take.
Concerning the statement of ‘I know that the only thing that I know, is that I do not know anything, thus, I hold one piece of knowledge and only one’. Does this make logical sense? It is in fact a contradiction (which does not mean it is untrue, but makes it far harder to accept as indubitable), for if we know that we know nothing, we have achieved a certainty. Plus in order to make such a statement I needed to have prior knowledge, I needed to know language at the very least. Therefore the Sceptical argument while admirable for its merciless use of doubt, is only capable because we know something in the first place, even if that is just language and the certainty of everything’s uncertainty.
To go back to the chair: If you say “I am sat on a chair”, you’re using language, chair being a sound attached to a symbol meaning exactly what you’re sat on. Reality is the rules we have to play by, the laws we have to follow, if indeed our reality is not truth becomes irrelevant while we are trapped here and unaware of this ‘truth’. We live in this reality, whether true or false, we have no choice but to abide by this reality.
Another argument against the sceptic’s view is Gilbert Ryle’s coin argument:
“A country which had no coinage would offer the counterfeiters nothing to pass off as counterfeit. They could make coins and give them out, but those would not be false coins. In a country that does have coinage, the counterfeit could be so accurate the people begin to question the genuineness of every coin they receive, but however great his suspicions might be, there remains one proposition which he cannot entertain; that it is possible that all coins are counterfeit.”(2)
Using this argument it would be illogical to conclude that what we are experiencing is an illusion that is based on the truth, which would also make it illogical to say reality is a counterfeit of the true reality. To say such a thing would be incorrect. What we experience cannot be called an illusion as it has nothing to contrast against. Until proven that we are indeed a brain in a vat we cannot accept the view that our experiences are an illusion. If we did we would be quite simply calling out counterfeits where there is nothing to contrast it with in the first place. Making it impossible to be an illusion, this makes it reality.
To put it into clearer words: An illusion is not an illusion if that is how everything in your world works and will continue to do so. If all reality is deception, then that deception is reality. It has nothing to contrast against, therefore that deception is the way the world is and that would be reality. So therefore, my conclusion is while the Sceptical argument appears to be logically sound, it is actually paradoxical, as in order to state such a thing you needed to know something in the first place. While I hold that everything should be doubted and that the Sceptical argument could be possible (as could anything), although it is logical, it is also evidently illogical to just assume these things are the way the radical Sceptical argument states rather than to be Sceptical about the Sceptical view itself, as to be unsceptical about Scepticism is in fact a contradiction. You cannot hold onto such a view, without questioning it, it is a paradox and un-logical when you look deeper into it, and of course to call yourself a Sceptic would also be a contradiction. This argument does point out a good point, that the Sceptical view should be used as a tool for guiding us towards knowledge, rather than a view to be accepted and untouched by Scepticism itself. It must be subjected to itself in order to become an accepted position, and exactly because it is a contradiction and a paradoxical stance means that it will not and should not be taken as a legitimate stance. I also conclude that either way this is ‘our’ reality and what we have to live in, whatever is ‘real’ to us is far more important to us than anything else, even if deluded or deceived, it is only the laws and rules that we have to obey and live by which make our reality in the first place.
1. The public-domain translation of Plato’s Theaetetus, translated by Benjamin Jewett, accessed at: http://classics.mit.edu/Plato/theatu.html, on 17/11/13.
2. Gilbert Ryle, Dilemmas: The tarner lectures, 1954 (Cambridge: Cambridge university press, 1954), Ch.7, pp.94-95
– Plato, The Theaetetus, The public-domain translation of Plato’s Theaetetus, translated by Benjamin Jewett, accessed at: http://classics.mit.edu/Plato/theatu.html, on 17/11/13.
– Gilbert Ryle, Dilemmas: The tarner lectures, 1954 (Cambridge: Cambridge university press, 1954)