Knowledge and Contemporary Skepticism: Modern Trends and their Dilemma

To know is to better yourself. But what is it to know? Is sensing something the same as knowing it or does knowing depends on something more profound?

From the days of antiquity and even earlier man has been asking similar questions and trying to answer them. A consensus has never been reached but that does not mean that whatever is said in regards to the matter is mere fancy. There is much truth but that truth is shrouded. It is like patches of known terrain mixed in with the unknown territories of what we don't know.

Philosophy is always like that: a puzzle with no beginnings and endings. It starts from nowhere and leads nowhere but in its labyrinthine passages, and gardens we learn much. Each time we come out of its depths, we see the world a little more sagely and wisely.

Table of Contents

Basic Definition

According to the classical definition, to know or to have knowledge is to have justified true belief. But what does that mean?

In short for something to be considered as knowledge:

  • It should be true

  • It should be believed

  • It should have a justification

Justification is the most important part of this definition. It is on the basis of a justification that something is deemed true and then believed. If the justification for some knowledge is compromised it automatically becomes untrue and the belief is in turn shattered.

Skepticism and Knowledge

With the rise of skeptical trends in Western philosophy, the basis of everything was questioned. It all started with Hume, but with the passage of time, this skepticism became more and more acute. Figures like Schopenhauer and Nietzsche added fuel to the fire and then everything exploded in the 20th century with existentialism, absurdism, and post-modernism, etc. Right now we are living in the ruins of the old philosophical ideas. New ideas which can provide a solid foundation are yet to be found.

The Gettier Problem

The Gettier Problem in the 20th century is yet another permutation of this skepticism. It states that the three conditions i.e truth, belief, and justification are not sufficient for knowledge. For example, a clock stopped working at 12:00. A person who sees the clock after 12 hours will know the exact time. His justification is good(he has no reason to doubt that the clock has stopped working) and so he forms a belief that is true (the time is indeed 12:00). Yet he does not know that the time is 12:00 because if he had walked a little later or earlier he would have ended up with a false belief.

The Gettier Problem questions the basis of our knowledge. Its apparent aim is to widen our perspective on knowledge but it has acted as a double-edged weapon and has destroyed the old foundation of knowledge. Maybe we all are smiling at our achievement that we have questioned the unquestionable. We might be proud in our deeper selves that we have acted as free spirits and cut another grand and ancient anchor to the boats of the past. But what is the result? Have we found another meadow yet or are we still toiling in the wasteland? Has this all-out skeptical approach led us somewhere or are we all bound into a stupor by our own folly?: Our free spirits wandering in an intellectual stasis and a coma.

The irony is, that the Gettier problems are not new. As far back as Plato's Theaetetus, there are traces of it. In other traditions of World philosophy such as Indian tradition etc., the problems have been present since antiquity.

The Infinite Regress

Even if we take the classical definition of knowledge at face value, we are confronted with many problems. The problems arise with the kind of justification that would be sufficient for true belief. When we base our justification on evidence i.e. we base our belief on evidence for it to be true we face several problems. One of them is that the evidence for justification of a belief is in turn based on another belief, which in turn is based on some evidence and so on to infinity. The problem is called infinite regress and it is one of the bases of skepticism from the days of antiquity.

The Problem of Induction

Another argument against evidence-based judgments is the Problem of Induction. The problem was first proposed by David Hume. In simple terms, it means that from particular observations we cannot draw general conclusions in absolute terms. For example, If all swans seen up till now are black, there is no guarantee that a white swan is not present. If we take the problem of induction in absolute terms, it means that there is no guarantee whatsoever that the sun will rise from the east tomorrow (Really). Similarly, we have always seen apples falling from trees but there is no absolute certainty that they will keep falling from trees in the future.

Of course, we can't be that much skeptical about everything in our life. Otherwise, life would not be possible.

The Problem with Skepticism

In fact, all of these skeptical arguments like the Gettier problem, the infinite regress, and the problem of induction have nothing to do with real life. We have to believe in things in order to function. Skepticism helps us in questioning our notions of reality and correcting them from time to time but it can never be defended as a practical position to live a life.

But man is stubborn if nothing else. The Greek skeptics used the term "suspended judgment" to express their idea of practical skepticism. But what was this "suspended judgment"? It was the idea to live as other people around you live and never make a judgment or belief about anything, especially metaphysical things. The modern idea of skepticism is similar. Modern skepticism which is called agnosticism suspends judgment by saying we do not know and moves on with life as before.

But is this idea of skepticism really practical? At first, it seems so. But if we look a little deeper there are many problems. Whenever someone starts to reach for some higher goal in life, he must believe in something and provide justification for it. Otherwise, he will not be able to will himself to succeed. In order to do something difficult, we need lots of motivation and mental energy. And where does this mental and emotional energy comes from? It comes from our beliefs and how much we really believe in them.

Man and Civilization

Nietzsche and his ilk have tried to tackle this problem by calling every human being to make his own values and beliefs. He calls such people free spirits. Free spirits Will their values and beliefs. They create their own reality. From one perspective this looks very attractive and alluring. But man is not an all-powerful metaphysical existence. Of course, we hit great heights of creativity and genius in some moments of our life. We see the greater beauty and almost touch the higher existence but only for a few moments. For most of our lives, we are animals bound to this earth and its base desires. We need food, water, and company to live. We are social animals. We are dependent on too much around us to even function properly and if we take a little closer look at ourselves we realize that we are very weak.

In order to combat this weakness, we live in groups, tribes, societies, and civilizations. We develop language, we make myths. We epitomize our heroes and we develop a common religious outlook. In short, we build an entire Worldview in which individuals of a certain society or civilization exist. This Worldview, this perspective, this outlook tells us as individuals, who we are. Man is nothing but an animal without civilization. With civilization, he is many things and sometimes even beyond things.

So this is our dilemma. At one extreme we want complete freedom to create our own existence and reality but on the other extreme, we are so weak and dependent on things and people around us to even exist as we are.

We want to shatter every notion of reality and belief. We feel suffocated by dogma. We find authority repugnant. But at the same time, we need those beliefs, those dogmas, those moral values, those concepts of right and wrong to exist in a society.

The Problem with Individualism and Freedom

Modern trends in skepticism are a wider expression of this dilemma. The ideas of individualism and personal freedom desire absolute choice. Any idea that propounds a shared experience restricts that choice. The common definition of knowledge is one such idea. And although there is much that is agreed upon by almost all of us due to its utility like science etc. we are hesitant to extrapolate this definition to other questions of life. Why? Because such definitions when extrapolated to the realms of metaphysics provide a basis for dogma (religious or otherwise). And so we call everyone to skepticism in order to safeguard our personal freedom and individuation.

But the common definition of things is how society functions. Common language, common terms, common references, common ideas, common values and beliefs, and yes common goals. That is how civilization moves forward. That is how new realms of human achievement are explored and conquered. Without this collectivism and a sense of shared action and feeling, there is no society and no civilization.

Skepticism makes an individual weak

The ideas of skepticism make an individual weaker. When an individual loses his shared identity with a group due to a lack of belief, he is like an untethered boat without a sail that can go anywhere and yet is nowhere. Skepticism makes us directionless and without a goal. A thousand choices confront a skeptic but he can't make a solid choice because he has suspended his belief. He does not commit to anything and so he goes nowhere. This may seem like nothing but for a living, thinking human being this is akin to overthrow of life and complete stasis. Life is change and skepticism kills this change. Change only occurs when you move somewhere. When you move everywhere, you are going nowhere. This makes an individual weak and lifeless and forces him to make some fast choices in order to survive. So he laps on to the first idea or choice that attracts him and then latches on to it with his complete Will. In other words, he becomes a complete dogmatist.

This does not specifically mean that he starts adhering to some religion. It can be an ideology or a creative personal philosophy. But whatever it is, it is dogmatic.

The recent trends in our civilization towards individuality and freedom are moving individuals to skepticism which is making them weak. When this weakness will cross a critical point, a kind of mass mental panic will occur. The individual will cry out for dear life and whichever idea will provide that dogmatic and sweet oxygen of life will rule the individual and our civilization for the next millennia.

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