From an epistemological standpoint, what is scepticism as such and how does it differ from certainty? This is the problématique I want to explore.
Definitions of certainty
Let us consider a positive and a negative definition of certainty:
- the state of knowing completely (or else the presence of full confidence in the verity of a proposition);
- the absence of doubt (or else the lack of possible arguments against the verity of a proposition).
Either definition provides for an absolute. It does not account for the temporality of knowing: for knowing in the present, in the given circumstances. Certainty is, in this regard, an ideal.
To the sceptic, learning and knowing occurs in time and space. Under specific circumstances. There is the method to account for, as well as the adequacy of the available tools, implements, instruments that enable —and perhaps frame—the research.
In short, the experience of learning and the accumulation of knowledge has to be contextualised. We need a more precise reformulation of certainty. The ideal must inform the actual.
CONTEXT == given the stock of available information. Proceed
CONTEXT to the aforementioned definitions.
CONTEXT, the state of knowing completely (or else
CONTEXT, the presence of full confidence in the verity of a proposition);
CONTEXT, the absence of doubt (or else
CONTEXT, the lack of possible arguments against the verity of a proposition).
Which, for the sake of proper presentation, expand into the following formulations:
- given the stock of available information, the state of knowing completely;
- given the stock of available information, the presence of full confidence in the verity of a proposition;
- given the stock of available information, absence of doubt;
- given the stock of available information, the lack of possible arguments against the verity of a proposition.
Or less verbose:
- given the stock of available information:
- the state of knowing completely;
- the presence of full confidence in the verity of a proposition;
- the absence of doubt;
- the lack of possible arguments against the verity of a proposition.
The stock of available information must, in this case, encompass everything from input data to all that is known about the methods used and the theories applied.
The sceptic’s proviso
When speaking of being certain we do not purport to know for sure that which we have partial understanding of. Rather, we admit that we have no doubt right now or under the prevailing conditions, with the proviso that we could revise our position if new information would demand as much.
The work of the sceptic is to insist on this realisation of the contextuality of learning. To remind their peers that whatever knowledge they may have attained, however robust and seemingly irrefutable, could be subject to further scrutiny. A review does not necessarily entail an altogether new conception. It can just as well lead to marginal refinements.
The sceptic employs three modes of abstract thinking to arrive at their suggestions:
- the mode of instantiation;
- the mode of contextualisation;
- the mode of application.
Three modes of scepticism
The first pertains to the actuality of the item being studied. How it is. In what ways it is made manifest. What does its existence represent or reveal. Its instantiation is two-fold: (i) with regard to the form it extends (such as how a particular canine extends the notion of “dog”), and (ii) in its relation to other presences, other instances of the form being extended (such as how a given dog extends its breed, how do breeds compare to each other, and how this reflects on the notion of “dog”).
The mode of instantiation is a reminder of the inherent differentiation
in things that are not abstract. For abstractions are a product of
thought and can thus be striped of all those factors that contribute to
their variability. Put differently, the midpoint for assessing the
propriety of abstractions is their correspondence to the patterns from
which they have been derived. The form of
dog can only be correct if
it accurately captures the common in the multitude of all possible dogs.
Conversely, it is erroneous when it fails to account for qualities that
are common to all its instances. It does not correspond to them.
Whereas the mode of contextualisation refers to the contributing factors to an item’s instantiation, or else to its environment. It is about discerning the forces that influence the object of inquiry. How external stimuli contribute to internal processes, what feedback loop may exist between the two magnitudes, which qualities are a direct result of the context and which remain constant regardless.
To appreciate the context is to account both for its factors and their interplay. Consider this the constitution or the composition of the case at hand.
Which in turn raises the problem of assessing the factors of a case at the given level of abstraction. This is where the mode of application comes into effect. The notion of the “case” or of the “environment” does not necessarily refer to a uniform reality. It can be a multitude of orders of abstraction, parts of the abstract structure, each weighted accordingly depending on the scope of the research programme.
The physicist sees a flying bird as an accelerating object. Whereas the ornithologist observes in the given bird all those unique features that contribute to the way it behaves, the way it lives, and the like. While both are studying the ‘same thing’, their method has profoundly different scopes of application, due to the varying degrees of abstraction involved. Given the different scopes, the notion of studying the ‘same thing’ is erroneous. The fields of research apply to different orders of abstraction. Different aspects of what would colloquially be described as one and the same.
It does not matter how many degrees of abstraction there are, or if one can always think of something more/less abstract to refute a given claim, such as arguing that the ornithologist’s task is in vein because birds are ‘basically’ nothing but a set of chemical relations, processes, reactions. What matters is that one recognises the application of their method at the given level of abstraction and operates accordingly.
Interim vs final certainty
The sceptic brings these three modes into the research programme in a manner that is not dogmatic. This is not about inventing things or imagining scenaria just for the sake of preserving the sceptical disposition. Nor does it mean that the claims of scepticism are absolute, final judgements to the effect that it is impossible to ever attain knowledge. Dogma of that sort can be disguised as scepticism, but it essentially is not. And this has to do with a subtle distinction that needs to be introduced to the concept of “certainty”: that of an interim and of a final type.
Final certainty is the equivalent of its ideal. It is another way of saying that we are absolutely assured of the verity of the claim being considered. While interim certainty refers to the approach presented herein: of knowledge and learning that can be known to be true given the stock of available information.
Interim certainty is the one we have in practice. It is the most common type of the two. At one point in time, scientifically-minded humanity was certain that apples were pulled to the ground because of gravity. With the ushering in of the theory of relativity this has been reviewed so that the effect of gravity is treated as the epiphenomenon of varying accelerations between the planet and the apple. What has led to the change is a reappraisal of the frame of reference or, more generally, of the constitution of the case, where more factors have been accounted for.
Without a degree of scepticism, the actually interim certainty of gravity would have been thought of as final certainty. Thus depriving us of a more refined understanding of things. Scepticism has enabled continued research, leading to further refinements in our understanding of things.
Scepticism is not recursive
What does that tell us about scepticism itself? Because it seems that the sceptic speaks with certainty when they are propounding a sceptical position, to the extent that it is accurate. They are, in fact, assured that the statement they are countering is not complete or it is, at best, granting us an interim type of certitude.
Scepticism is not inwardly sceptical. It does not challenge everything including itself. It may not be a dogma, or at least that is the intention. But the sceptical proposition is touted as being actually the case, as being true. And that entails certainty, which raises two problems:
- Is scepticism the finality or an ad hoc measure towards that end?
- How to differentiate between different expressions of certainty, provided such distinctions are possible?
If scepticism were to be classified as final certainty then it would necessarily be devoid of doubt. Which would mean that scepticism is the same as certitude. Doubting equivalent to knowing. And so on. It would be impossible to preserve the meaning of scepticism in the sense of a disposition towards learning that recognises the possibility of knowledge being a function of the stock of available information, with the corresponding realisation that a broadening of knowledge may be possible following an expansion of the stock of available information. Scepticism cannot be that if it is tantamount to certainty. Put differently and in absolute terms, being certain of one’s ignorance is the absence of ignorance.
Substantive differences between expressions of certitude
Scepticism must therefore be an expression of interim certainty. A sceptical proposition, to the extent that it is accurate, expresses firm belief (certainty of the interim sort) that some statement does not grant absolute knowledge and/or is in need of review courtesy of its incompleteness.
In formal terms, scepticism is an expression of certainty that is identical to the statement it contradicts qua expression. They both are perceived as expressions of certainty. Which means that choosing one of the other, say, the sceptical position, implies a method for arriving at that decision. It cannot be arbitrary.
Perhaps then, expressions of certainty cannot be distinguished at the formal level, but only at the substantive one. The content of scepticism is not the same as that of non-scepticism, of a given belief in the truthfulness of a certain claim. The gist of the distinction lies in the very definition of certainty we discussed earlier, namely, the need to account for the stock of available information.
Scepticism can provide a conduit to further study, a means of keeping our options open, whenever it can be reasonably believed that no perfect knowledge of the object of inquiry has been acquired. Scepticism insists on the need to prepend to the definition of “certainty” the proviso presented above. Scepticism is about contextualising the findings of the research programme, so as not to delude ourselves, thinking that what we have learned cannot be refined any further, conflating interim certainty with final certainty.
Other propositions that purport to grant certain knowledge about the object of inquiry do not permit deviations. Their purported finality is not to be disputed. Which means that the knowledge they yield is not contextualised. It is treated as perfect, subject to no further revisions. The research programme comes to an end. Continuing it is pointless.
Such are the substantive features that can distinguish various expressions of certainty.
Scepticism as interim certainty
Scepticism is an expression of interim certainty, which in formal terms makes it equivalent to the statements it seeks to refute. Yet scepticism cannot be mistaken for dogmatism precisely due to their substantive differences.
Treating scepticism as a kind of certitude, as interim certainty, is an epistemological way of understanding exactly what a sceptic’s position is. It also is about realising that scepticism cannot be inward or, more generally, that doubt cannot recursively apply to each and every area of the research programme. Doubting that which is about doubting would require being certain of it, otherwise the objection cannot hold. The doubt of doubt (and of doubt, etc) engenders an infinite cycle of untenable propositions. Recursion must be stopped for reasonable doubt to be expressed as a type of certainty.
Again, the key is to distinguish final certainty from interim certainty, which furnishes the means of differentiating between the form and the substance of propositions.