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A clear, comprehensive and concise definition of skepticism.

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bluegray
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« on: November 05, 2007, 09:18:11 AM »

To answer steveweiss, I thought it best to start a new thread. I would like some input from other members as well please. My definition will surely be different from others'.

My definition, as it is on the main page:
Quote
Modern skepticism is the method of using scientific principles to evaluate claims or ideas. This is a positive action, to separate sense from nonsense. Skepticism is therefore not to be confused with cynicism.

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steveweiss
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« Reply #1 on: November 05, 2007, 09:49:30 AM »

Skepticism, as I understand it, as a philosophical position (or non-position) is "the theory that knowldege of reality is impossible by any means."  In other word, there is no certainty, facts are provisional, and truth is impossible.  The equivalent in the religious realm would be agnosticism.  Comments?
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steveweiss
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« Reply #2 on: November 05, 2007, 10:19:06 AM »

There seems to be some confusion between the terms cynicism and skepticism.  I have indicated that skepticism questions the possibility of truth, while cynicism questions the honesty of motives (deceit).  That both emphasise doubt may be the cause of the confusion, but the distinction is clear and fundamental.
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bluegray
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« Reply #3 on: November 05, 2007, 10:30:30 AM »

I'm sure that most people would agree that in theory, our knowledge of reality will never be 100% or that we will never grasp the "truth" entirely. Science by definition also does not claim to know all the answers. Religion often does.

The best we can do is to try and get as close to the truth as possible. To do this we need a way to evaluate claims and ideas. Science is the best and most reliable tool we have to do this.

I would say it's reasonable to say knowledge of reality is impossible, especially in the short time we are alive. But impossible is a big word, and forever is a long time, so even that statement might prove to be wrong eventually. I try to stay away from absolute statements like that Wink It would be more honest to say that we just don't know (yet?)

The word 'skeptic' has a lot of negative connotations for some people. Which is why I like to point out the difference between skepticism and cynicism. I will also say, that as a skeptic, I would question a claim, not doubt it. Doubt for me, indicates some sort of certainty of it's invalidity. Of course, after proper evaluation and question, you are certainly  entitled to doubt the truth of that claim.
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steveweiss
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« Reply #4 on: November 05, 2007, 11:40:56 AM »

Your response confirms your skeptical viewpoint.  The funny thing is that you have no problem making absolute statements in defense of skepticism.  What could the terms truth and reality mean in the skeptical lexicon?  

What skeptics fail to grasp is that truth is determined in a specified context.  Of course, if one drops or is sloppy about context, no truth or facts can be known, but that does not mean that given the necessary and sufficient information that truth is impossible as you allege.

What skepticism amounts to is a negation of facts, cause and effect, and cognition itself.  That makes skeptics the allies of mystics like those who toute religion as the ultimate truth because skeptics do not differentiate beween the valid and the arbitrary, just as agnostics do not.
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« Reply #5 on: November 05, 2007, 11:47:46 AM »

Hello steveweiss, and welcome to the forum.

This article might clear up some of your questions regarding scepticism.

Briefly, I think you might be confusing two different kinds of scepticism.  The original, ancient Greek sceptics indeed held the view that nothing about reality could be known with absolute certainty, and to an extent that view persists in modern scepticism.  However, the original sceptics used this view to justify a kind of fatalism about the whole enterprise of trying to learn or to know something.

Today, the sceptical approach is rather more practical.  We could call it "Functional Scepticism" to distinguish it from the "Philosophical" variety practised by some ancient Greek schools.  The modern practice essentially comes down to evaluating the plausibility or likelihood of a given claim by examining it against what we do know with much certainty.  Modern scepticism doesn't usually go so far as to examine epistemology, i.e. the foundations of knowledge and what they might mean, itself.  That is the domain of philosophers.

If one remembers that science itself does not deal in absolute certainties and/or eternal "truths," and how results are plausible or implausible only to the extent that there is good or bad evidence for them, it becomes clear how the scientific method is just that kind of functional scepticism in action.

And fostering similar habits of thought is what this forum aims to achieve.

'Luthon64
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« Reply #6 on: November 05, 2007, 13:05:00 PM »

The funny thing is that you have no problem making absolute statements in defense of skepticism.
Which statements are you referring to?

What skeptics fail to grasp is that truth is determined in a specified context.  Of course, if one drops or is sloppy about context, no truth or facts can be known, but that does not mean that given the necessary and sufficient information that truth is impossible as you allege.
Agreed, supply context and boundaries, and truth is indeed possible. But absolute truth will perhaps need too much information to be practically known. As I alluded to in my previous post, it might not be impossible, but probably never 100%.
What skepticism amounts to is a negation of facts, cause and effect, and cognition itself.  That makes skeptics the allies of mystics like those who toute religion as the ultimate truth because skeptics do not differentiate beween the valid and the arbitrary, just as agnostics do not.
I would disagree here. Speaking for myself, that would not be my goal. The goal is to weed out ideas that are not supported by facts. Those ideas that remain will further the truth and contribute to our understanding.

I agree with Anacoluthon64, "Functional Scepticism" and scientific method is what we aim for.
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steveweiss
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« Reply #7 on: November 05, 2007, 14:28:31 PM »

As I may have indicated, there is no problem with being skeptical of a given statement or claim if the claim has not been validated, but the position of skeptics (respondents above included) is that 100% certainty is not possible.  I would just point out that there are three levels of knowledge (a dubious term for skeptics I know): the possible, the probable, and the certain.  Science is no exception to this hierarchy of proof. The possible is not the arbitrary as at least some evidence that does not contradict already established "facts" must be presented.  "Anything is possible" is an oft repeated and erroneous concept.  Only those events consistent with reason and reality are possible.  Elephants can't fly, the moon isn't a giant pizza, etc. The probable denotes that a lot of evidence supports a claim but that the necessary and sufficient amount to prove the case is lacking.  Finally, the certain indicates that all of the evidence supports a conclusion within a specified context and that it is necessary and sufficient in quality and quantity to validate the claim.  For example, pure water boils at 100 C at STP, the speed of light is 186,000 miles per second, etc.

Certainty is not contradicted by the discovery of new information because the new information establishes a new context.  Omniscience is not a requirement of certainty contrary to what skeptics would assert.  Facts remain facts, the true remains true within the specified context, and that is true 100% of the time.  

"Functional" vs "philosophical" skepticism is a distinction without a difference.  Terms used by skeptics like "much certainty" give the game away.  There is either certainty or no certainty, not degrees of certainty. Another example of a misnomer is "absolute certainty."  The separation of philosophy from science is an artificial one both historically and fundamentally.  A valid epistemology must underlie the facts and is, in fact, the means by which the facts are established.  What is "good evidence" in the skeptical universe?  Again I say, skeptics are the equivalent of agnostics.  They are sure of uncertainty and reduce knowledge to the arbitrary through context dropping and by relying upon the very concepts that they seek to deny.                  
« Last Edit: November 05, 2007, 14:30:52 PM by steveweiss » Logged
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« Reply #8 on: November 05, 2007, 15:18:06 PM »

I must confess that I am having trouble following what you are trying to convey, steveweiss.  As far as I can tell it's your argument that scepticism is somehow untenable because it is based on certain arguments that are wrong.  Is that assessment correct?

So before addressing your most recent post (which contains some distortions, if not downright errors, in respect of the sceptical position), it would help if you spelled out clearly what it is that you're actually arguing for or against.

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« Reply #9 on: November 05, 2007, 15:39:04 PM »

Finally, the certain indicates that all of the evidence supports a conclusion within a specified context and that it is necessary and sufficient in quality and quantity to validate the claim.  For example, pure water boils at 100 C at STP, the speed of light is 186,000 miles per second, etc.
I would rather call these examples of constants defined by scientists. And even these are negotiable. For a certain set of conditions this is true now, but pending any evidence in the future, it might change. Even if it is by so little that it practically won't make a difference.
Certainty is not contradicted by the discovery of new information because the new information establishes a new context.
If you are referreing to the above examples, no, it's not contradicted, because it's redefined.

"Functional" vs "philosophical" skepticism is a distinction without a difference.  Terms used by skeptics like "much certainty" give the game away.  There is either certainty or no certainty, not degrees of certainty. Another example of a misnomer is "absolute certainty."
Yes, if you are not certain, you are uncertain. But if there is a high probability of something being true, I would certainly not use 'uncertain' to describe it.
Again I say, skeptics are the equivalent of agnostics.  They are sure of uncertainty and reduce knowledge to the arbitrary through context dropping and by relying upon the very concepts that they seek to deny.                 
As I said before, modern skepticism is not about 'reducing knowledge to the arbitrary'. If that is what you believe, you are mistaken.

Can you give a few other examples of truths that you are certain of?
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steveweiss
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« Reply #10 on: November 05, 2007, 16:15:41 PM »

I have defined skepticism already.  Examples of what is true?  There are many.  Today is the fifth of November 2007 in Cape Town, South Africa.  George Bush is the American president. A is A.  

I have also gone through the importance of establishing context, the necessary and sufficient conditions for establishing the truth (the truth being that which conforms to the facts of reality as perceived through the rational faculty utilising reason, the art of noncontradictory identification).

All reason proceeds from the basic axioms: existence, consciousness and the law of identity.  These axioms are not proved, they are validated through observation and are implicit in any discussion.

Water boiling as cited below may not be true in the future pending new evidence?  Wrong!  The evidence has been specified.  The skeptical position drops context in order to evade certainty.  

I also gave the progression of steps in determining truth or knowledge.  What was so difficult or unclear about that? I am not mistaken about skepticism advocating the arbitrary; you explicitly have said so, examples of which I have already enumerated.

Finally, science is a methodology, and the results are facts and valid conclusions, but science itself, and every field of activity, rests fundamentally upon philosophy.  First one must identify one's metaphysics and epistemology, and only then may one proceed to the derivative disciplines.  That is the source of our conflict.
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« Reply #11 on: November 05, 2007, 16:35:11 PM »

I would rather call these examples of constants defined by scientists. And even these are negotiable. For a certain set of conditions this is true now, but pending any evidence in the future, it might change. Even if it is by so little that it practically won't make a difference.
Actually, it goes quite a bit further than that: There's a rather technical book by Richard Feynman called QED which deals with quantum electrodynamics, a theory Feynman himself contributed to extensively.  In the book, Feynman makes the point that, like everything at the quantum level, the speed of photons covers a range or distribution of expected values, rather than one uniform value, and photons change their velocity as they travel.  This means that the speed of light is not a constant when considering individual photons; it is only meaningful as the average value of the velocity of lots of photons.

Moreover, even if each and every photon travelled at exactly the same constant speed in vacuo, there is still a small uncertainty regarding the exact value of said speed, not just because of practical measurement limitations, but also because the Uncertainty Principle of Quantum Mechanics places in-principle limits on measurement accuracy of complementary pairs (e.g. position and momentum) and repeatability.

With regard to the boiling point (of water), there is a phenomenon called "superheating" that allows a substance to be heated under carefully controlled conditions well beyond its usual boiling point before it explosively changes to a vaporous state.  In the case of water, the Wits University alumni magazine reported some years ago that temperatures in excess of 200 °C have been achieved.

In themselves, these observations strongly suggest that caution is always warranted when attempting to assert "universal truths."

On the flipside, it is of course true that any sceptic undermines his/her own position if s/he confidently and beyond any doubt asserts that there is always at least some residual doubt about anything.  Maybe there are things that can be known with absolute certainty (e.g. Descartes' dictum "Cogito, ergo sum.")  However, unlike his/her ancient Greek precursors who declared all attempts at acquiring knowledge futile because some doubt always remains, the modern sceptic nevertheless recognises this position as sterile because some things can be known with sufficient assurance that it would be foolish to doubt them, while still allowing a minuscule possibility that they might actually be otherwise or even wrong.  There is nothing self-contradictory in such a conception, just as the "beyond reasonable doubt" requirement in legal proceedings is not self-contradictory, and so it is specious to declare both forms of scepticism, i.e. "Philosophical" and "Functional," equivalent to one another.

And you haven't answered my question, steveweiss: please speak clearly if you expect to be taken seriously.

'Luthon64
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bluegray
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« Reply #12 on: November 05, 2007, 16:47:15 PM »

Examples of what is true?  There are many.  Today is the fifth of November 2007 in Cape Town, South Africa.  George Bush is the American president. A is A.
Today is the 5th as defined by the calendar we all chose to use. It's very probable that George Bush is president - but have you actually been to the white house to make sure? It's remotely possible that your sources are mistaken (of course I don't really believe that, but for the sake of argument, you can't exclude that possibility). And of course A is A. But I was thinking more in the line of what you believe to be true which maybe me as a skeptic would find hard to believe.

Water boiling as cited below may not be true in the future pending new evidence?  Wrong!  The evidence has been specified.  The skeptical position drops context in order to evade certainty.
I did not say water won't boil in the context you specified above, I agreed with you. The point I tried to make was that it is a defined truth. Which can be redefined later.
I am not mistaken about skepticism advocating the arbitrary; you explicitly have said so, examples of which I have already enumerated.
Please point those out explicitly again if you don't mind. I don't know what you are referring to.
Finally, science is a methodology, and the results are facts and valid conclusions, but science itself, and every field of activity, rests fundamentally upon philosophy.  First one must identify one's metaphysics and epistemology, and only then may one proceed to the derivative disciplines.  That is the source of our conflict.
A shot in the dark. Please forgive me if I'm mistaken. I would guess you have a problem with some ideas that have been proven false by skeptics. By showing that skepticism is flawed, you can somehow still believe that idea to be possible. If that is the case please bring up the subject in a separate thread - I'll be happy to discuss it. Again, if I'm wrong, I apologize.
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steveweiss
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« Reply #13 on: November 05, 2007, 17:20:23 PM »

Superheating at STP?  Please explain to a simple layman.  Answer what questions?  Be specific, and clear.  I am no expert in quantum physics though I did read the book "Genius" about Richard Feynman.  I even saw a story on TV about his life.  But, on the other hand, we do not live on the subatomic level.  Our knowledge about the world is in terms of our senses and the perceptual universe.  There are many esoteric theories floating around in science today that could be interesting to discuss, but they do not negate A=A.

The insistence that a new truth will emerge in a new context (visa a vis boiling water)ignores that a context has been specified.  Once the essential facts are identified the truth does not vary. How many times must I allude to the terms employed by skeptics before my point is grasped?  Bush is "probably" the president?  Come now.  Is it incumbent upon me to visit the White House and meet George W. in order to know that he is the president.  If that is your standard, then we can have no meaningful discussion. How do I know that you are a human being?  You might be a machine or an alien.  Such assertions are arbitrary and gratuitous, the standard fare of skeptics.

And by the way, the term science is of relatively recent usage.  Prior to that the term used was philosophy.  Philosophy is still the most fundamental discipline, as I have already pointed out.  Please specify your epistemological assumptions.  
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« Reply #14 on: November 05, 2007, 19:45:09 PM »

Superheating at STP?  Please explain to a simple layman.
Yes, at STP.  In the post in which I mention it, the word "superheating" is also a hyperlink to an appropriate article on the subject.  In essence, the method entails gentle and uniform heating of pure water that is not disturbed during the heating process.  It can happen in microwave ovens and has done so, resulting in injuries.



Answer what questions?  Be specific, and clear.
Why, the one I posed in Reply #8, at 14:18:06 today.  Is the wording giving you trouble?



But, on the other hand, we do not live on the subatomic level.
Which observation, if you examine its implications, reveals why the sceptical position demands that we are cautious in putting forward any "absolute truths."



Our knowledge about the world is in terms of our senses and the perceptual universe.
Indeed, and that goes to the very heart of the problem, namely this dilemma: we have no sense- and/or perception-independent means of validating our sense- and perception-derived understanding of the world.  In fact, we know that sense and perception can mislead us.  Hence, there is always room for doubt, tiny though it may be.



There are many esoteric theories floating around in science today that could be interesting to discuss, but they do not negate A=A.
Yes, because you're conflating a necessary (or definitional) truth with knowledge: the statement "A=A" is a tautology and, as such, is meaningless.  Such definitional truth cannot satisfactorily justify a belief because it just a fancy way of saying, "It’s true because I define it to be true."



The insistence that a new truth will emerge in a new context (visa a vis boiling water)ignores that a context has been specified.
Not necessarily because to be useful, any contextual specification must have room for some variability otherwise we could only ever speak of specific instances, and never of general rules, let alone laws of nature.  There may exist within your specified context an obscure and extremely rare exception or configuration in which your expectation is not met, and you can never rule such a possibility out entirely.  Consequently, you cannot rightfully claim to have absolute knowledge.  As an aside, the study of phase spaces in the context of quantum mechanics suggests that "what is not expressly forbidden by the laws of nature, must occur at some point, given sufficient time."  If valid, this would mean that an apparent impossibility, like a smashed bottle spontaneously reassembling itself and jumping back up onto the table off which it fell, can actually happen.



Once the essential facts are identified the truth does not vary.
Really?  You may wish to examine that statement against the background of, say, Newtonian mechanics versus Relativity.



How many times must I allude to the terms employed by skeptics before my point is grasped?  Bush is "probably" the president?  …  Such assertions are arbitrary and gratuitous, the standard fare of skeptics.
Your straw man is showing: as pointed out earlier, for reasons of consistency the sceptical position demands an acknowledgement that there is always and everywhere room for residual doubt re alleged facts about the world, and even this tenet itself is not immune.  However, it seems to me that you feel the sceptic's necessary admission in this regard automatically translates to "everything must be doubted."  Wrong.  The fact that there is always room for doubt does not exclude us having overwhelming certainty about some things that it would be downright foolish to challenge, just as there are extremely dark shades of grey that are practically indistinguishable from black, yet for all that aren't black.



Philosophy is still the most fundamental discipline, as I have already pointed out.
Debatable: if that was so, philosophy would be the final court of appeal for any undecided questions.  However, that rarely, if ever, happens in practice.



Please specify your epistemological assumptions.
In simple terms, that the world is to some degree knowable through our senses and reason, while at all times having the humility to acknowledge that I may be wrong.  The question to what degree the world is thus knowable is one that takes into account the coherence and weight of different evidentiary lines.

'Luthon64
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