Skepticism and Authority

December 29th, 2007

G.K. Chesterton, The Hole in the Wall

In the village or suburb outside there’s an inn with the sign of St. George and the Dragon. Now suppose I went about telling everybody that this was only a corruption of King George and the Dragoon. Scores of people would believe it, without any inquiry, from a vague feeling that it’s probable because it’s prosaic. It turns something romantic and legendary into something recent and ordinary. And that somehow makes it sound rational, though it is unsupported by reason. Of course, some people would have the sense to remember having seen St. George in old Italian pictures and French romances; but a good many wouldn’t think about it at all. They would just swallow the scepticism because it was scepticism. Modern intelligence won’t accept anything on authority. But it will accept anything without authority.

Hypothetical Skepticism

December 9th, 2007

G.K. Chesterton, “About Relativity”, As I Was Saying

A somewhat similar use has been made lately of the word “hypothesis.” There has been a correspondence in The Times about the nature of belief, or unbelief, or incidentally of make-believe. This was enriched by a somewhat pompous letter from a very superior person, who said he was entirely Modern; and proceeded to set forth as much as he could understand of the early sceptical sages of ancient Hellas, to whom I have referred; and proceeded to adorn the theme with things so exclusively modern as the exact meaning of dialectic in the dialogues of Plato. But his scepticism was much more archaic than Plato; indeed it was the sort of nihilistic nonsense that Socrates existed largely in order to chaff out of existence. The form it took here was the repeated suggestion that a Modern person cannot believe in anything except as a hypothesis. In other words, that he cannot believe in anything at all. For you cannot believe in a hypothesis; you can only give it a fair chance to prove itself a thesis that can be believed.

Now, even the Modern Man is not necessarily a madman; and this would hopelessly ruin and destroy every modern use of hypothesis; especially the whole scientific idea of a hypothesis holding the field. It would merely mean ensuring that what is called a working hypothesis would not work. For a man could not even construct a hypothesis if he could only construct it out of hypothetical things. There can be no hypothesis if there is nothing but hypothesis. Anybody can see that, if he will merely consider any actual example. For instance, the Darwinian theory of Natural Selection was a hypothesis; and it is still only a hypothesis. Popular science insists on repeating that it is a hypothesis that has been confirmed; with the result that responsible science is more and more treating it as a hypothesis which has been abandoned. But it can be quite rightly treated as a reasonable hypothesis, by anybody who believes in it, if he can support it with other things in which he believes; or preferably things in which everybody believes. He is quite entitled to say, “We suggest that a monkey, probably living in a tree, became the ancestor of a man, apparently living in a cave, by a process of adaptations beginning with slight varieties of features in his family, by which it survived only in those cases where the features favoured the finding of food. It may not yet be finally confirmed by the fossils found in the rocks or the habits of the monkeys still found in the tress; but we still think it the most probable hypothesis and confidently await proof.” But he could not even say that, if he were compelled to explain his suggestion in some such form as this: “We suggest that a monkey (if there are any monkeys) living in a tree (if there are any trees) became the ancestor of a man (if we may risk the speculative supposition that there is such a thing as a man) through certain variations enabling certain types to find food (granted the truth of the traditional dogma that food is favourable to life), and we look to the hypothetical fossils which may or may not be found in the hypothetical rocks which may or may not be found in the world; or to the behaviour of monkeys we cannot actually believe in, in trees we cannot actually believe in, and faintly trust to a larger hope that something may somehow make some sense out of the whole caboodle. But even if something does happen, by which this hypothesis seems to fit in better with all the other hypotheses, we can never believe it even at the end as anything except the hypothesis that it was at the beginning; because the good kind gentleman in The Times tells us it would not be Modern.”

Folly of Skepticism

December 9th, 2007

Augustine: Enchiridion, Chapter 20

Nor do I now undertake to solve a very knotty question, which perplexed those very acute thinkers, the Academic philosophers: whether a wise man ought to give his assent to anything, seeing that he may fall into error by assenting to falsehood: for all things, as they assert, are either unknown or uncertain. Now I wrote three volumes shortly after my conversion, to remove out of my way the objections which lie, as it were, on the very threshold of faith. And assuredly it was necessary at the very outset to remove this utter despair of reaching truth, which seems to be strengthened by the arguments of these philosophers. Now in their eyes every error is regarded as a sin, and they think that error can only be avoided by entirely suspending belief. For they say that the man who assents to what is uncertain falls into error; and they strive by the most acute, but most audacious arguments, to show that, even though a man’s opinion should by chance be true, yet that there is no certainty of its truth, owing to the impossibility of distinguishing truth from falsehood. But with us, “the just shall live by faith.” Now, if assent be taken away, faith goes too; for without assent there can be no belief. And there are truths, whether we know them or not, which must be believed if we would attain to a happy life, that is, to eternal life. But I am not sure whether one ought to argue with men who not only do not know that there is an eternal life before them, but do not know whether they are living at the present moment; nay, say that they do not know what it is impossible they can be ignorant of. For it is impossible that any one should be ignorant that he is alive, seeing that if he be not alive it is impossible for him to be ignorant; for not knowledge merely, but ignorance too, can be an attribute only of the living. But, forsooth, they think that by not acknowledging that they are alive they avoid error, when even their very error proves that they are alive, since one who is not alive cannot err. As, then, it is not only true, but certain, that we are alive, so there are many other things both true and certain; and God forbid that it should ever be called wisdom, and not the height of folly, to refuse assent to these.

The Credulity of Skeptics

December 5th, 2007

From Cicero, The Nature of the Gods

We of the Academy are not people who will accept nothing as true. But we do hold that every true perception has in it an admixture of falsehood so similar to the truth that we have no certain criteria of judgment and assent. It follows that we can attain only to a number of probable truths, which although they cannot be proved as certainties, yet may appear so clear and convincing that a wise man may well adopt them as a rule of life.

But here is the problem: is the position that every true perception has in it an admixture of falsehood so similar to the truth that we have no certain criteria of judgment and assent itself afflicted with the difficulty attending upon every true perception? In other words, is Cicero’s point of view subject to the limitation applied by him to all points of view? If so, if every true perception has such an admixture of falsehood that it cannot be certainly, but only probably, judged and assented to, then this true perception also has in it an admixture of falsehood –and then we have arrived precisely nowhere. Nothing can be certainly known to be true, but only probable: but it is only probable, not certain, that nothing can be certainly, but only probably, known to be true. The only way out of the dilemma seems to be that this is not a true perception –but in that case we can stop worrying about it. Apart from its self-undercutting nature, it is a hard position to maintain; earlier Cicero had stated: “But in this medley of conflicting opinions, one thing is certain. Though it is possible that they are all of them false, it is impossible that more than one of them is true.” Again, is this true perception only probably distinguishable from error? If so, how is it then certain? But if not, how is it then that every true perception has in it such an admixture of falsehood so similar to the truth that we have no certain criteria of judgment and assent?