Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Ordinary skepticism

Skepticism holds that some set of claims is unknown or unknowable. I'll draw a rough distinction between philosophical skepticism and ordinary skepticism. Generally, philosophical skepticism operates against a broad set of claims, and leaves open the question of knowing anything at all. On the other hand, ordinary skepticism applies to a more narrow domain such as metaphysics, theology, or non-empirical science. It assumes that we already know something.[1]

At the philosophical level, the debate is anything but settled over what constitutes knowledge, and more interestingly how beliefs are justified. On the other hand, the ordinary skeptic speaks from an epistemological framework to which he is already committed. Thus, if something is not known (let's fold knowledge and justification together for now): it doesn't measure up to whatever standard his framework demands. Likewise, if something is unknowable: it is outside of the bounds of his framework.

So if a skeptic says, "skepticism is the default position," we might simply grant it. Why? Because it doesn't immediately pose a threat to anyone but the skeptic, should he wish to acquire a new belief.  What he really intends to say is, "given my epistemology, skepticism is the default position." It seems at least three types of response are possible:

1. Yes, but granted my epistemology, skepticism is not the default position
2. Actually no, your epistemology does not grant that position [2]
3. I can fulfill your epistemic requirements and thus persuade you to repeal your skepticism

[2] The first and second responses might involve some specific claim (aliens exist) or a branch of claims (supernatural events)


shiningwhiffle said...

It seems to me that the idea of a default position requires a foundationalist epistemology.

I know I've already stated my position on the first post on this topic, but now that I think of it, I'm honestly confused about how a coherentist could even begin to answer the question of what the default position about some claim is, except to ask, "Well, what do you believe about it right now?"

That is, look not only at whether you actually believe, doubt, or deny the claim, but at the other beliefs you have that affect its justification. Is your confidence in the belief proportional to the support it receives from other beliefs? Does it flatly contradict something else?

In other words, the only way to even assess what the default position should be is to assess the claim itself. Then you don't need a default position, because you'll already have a tentative conclusion.

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