My Skeptical Epistemology

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Do not believe in anything simply because you have heard it. Do not believe in anything simply because it is spoken and rumoured by many. Do not believe in anything because it is found written in your religious books. Do not believe in anything merely on the authority of your teachers and elders. Do not believe in traditions because they have been handed down for many generations. But after observation and analysis, when you find anything that agrees with reason and is conducive to the good and benefit of one and all, then accept it and live up to it.
-Siddhartha Gautama - the Buddha, 563-483 B.C.

Anything is possible, or so goes the common phrase, but how many people actually mean that when they say it? How many actually claim that it is true? I sure do not, but not for the reasons most people do not. Most people would probably tell you they disagree with the assertion that anything is possible because certain things are impossible. However, I do not claim that is the case either. As a matter of fact, I am not sure either way on the issue.

When people find out I do not believe in their god, I am sometimes asked how I know that that deity of theirs does not exist. My simple answer is that I do not know that, not one-hundred percent for sure at least. I see the probability as extremely low; I see a dramatic lack of evidence in support of it and usually at least some evidence against.

However, I must leave open the possibility that that god does exist, that its existence or properties transcend logic and the laws of physics and other parts of human knowledge. Even for those gods for which there is logical proof (by contradiction, say) that they cannot exist, I leave open the possibility that logic itself may be flawed or may not apply. I leave open the possibility that the world may be a deception, may be one of many completely separated universes with different laws, may be just my own mind, or may not exist at all. I can dream up so many ways in which things could be different than how they appear to be, different than even the strongest of scientific laws.

Do not get me wrong, though. I do not claim that anything is possible, that these alternate 'possibilities' are in fact possible. Such a claim would itself be a metaphysical statement, a statement of 'how things are', in that it asserts a universe in which X is a possibility. So to get really technical, I do not claim that anything is possible, but I do not discount the possibility of anything. No matter how any proof offered for 'how things are' is justified, there remains a need to justify that justification. This further justification must itself be justified, and so on ad infinitum.

A circular justification (for example, accepting a holy book because some a passage in the book tells me the book is a reliable source) seems no more justified than an infinite regress. Self-justification (more often called self-evidence) does not seem to work either - for how do we determine (justify) our choice of what is considered self-evident and what not (any justification must itself be justified)? So no matter how I try, I seem unable to come up with a truly complete justification for any assertion, for any claim as to 'how things are'.

This position seems to lead to a pretty strange life though. For if one cannot be completely justified in accepting the conclusion that the taxi cab racing this way actually exists and works under the laws of physics people usually claim it does, then there is no reason to jump out of the way. However, when it comes to living my life I do jump out of the way, I do act a certain way; I act based around a loosely defined and constantly changing system of 'how things are'. Or rather, a system of 'how things seem'.

I decide my actions based on my past experiences, on what I have learned, on probabilities that are based on those previous things, and so on. I do so not because I have some absolute justification for the system I use. In fact, I'm not really sure why I accept the system I do. Were I to claim it was because it worked in the past, I would have trouble justifying my idea of what constitutes what worked and what did not; and I would have to justify the inductive conclusion that it would work again in the future the same way (which requires justifying induction). I can do neither of these things completely. I could claim I accept the system because it feels right to me, because it seems to sit well with my reason and my mind, but again I would lack justification for these things. I simply do not seem able to find a way to justify the system of 'how things seem' around which I generally base my choice of actions.

Perhaps the heart of the dilemma lies in the attempt to find some complete justification, some absolute justification. If these restrictions are lifted, the problem disappears, or at least becomes more manageable. Unfortunately, this leads down the slippery road that is 'religious faith' and arguments from authority, things which I often sharply criticize. I am forced to admit, though, that if I drop the need for absolute justification of my system, it is hardly reasonable to require such justification from those who get their system out of their holy book of choice.

At the same time, my system, my 'limited system' as it were, is in direct contradiction to many of the principles of these other systems, and pursuing the goals and conclusions of my own system leads to working against the goals and conclusions of many other systems. In the end it all comes down to this: to each his own, but I will continue to follow and adapt my own system for as long as it works for me and feels right to me, for as long as it sits well with my reason and my mind.

Originally Written: 02-03-01
Last Updated: 03-15-05