Rebirth of Reason


Philosophy as Doubt
by Joseph Rowlands

What is the purpose of philosophy? Many people will say that it teaches you to question everything. Are your senses reliable? Are we capable of understanding the world as it really is? Do we actually make choices and direct our own thinking, or are we mere automatons reacting mechanically to inputs?


The function of philosophy is to cast doubt on all of the things that we just assume are true. In this view of things, philosophy is a necessary remedy for dogmatism and faith. Instead of just taking everything for granted and marching blindly to our baseless assumptions, philosophy casts doubt on everything. The more doubt, the better.


There are significant problems with this view. The first problem is that it promotes a false dichotomy. It takes dogmatism and faith, on one hand, and provides doubt and skepticism on the other. It creates a false understanding of certainty. It provides you the choice of irrational certainty on one-hand, and rational doubt on the other. If you are convinced of something, you are simply ignorant of how baseless your assumptions are. If you refuse to believe anything, then you are enlightened.


Saying that you shouldn't take things on faith or blindly accept dogma is not very useful. It doesn't provide a real alternative. It doesn't tell you how to arrive at correct conclusions, or when you should be confident in your beliefs. It doesn't even offer an alternative way of dealing with the world. You can't really live without acting on knowledge or beliefs. The only thing skepticism offers is a kind of moral posturing where you can claim superiority over others by claiming you don't really believe anything, even while you run around acting as if you do.


What's needed is a way of objectively determining whether your beliefs about the world are justified. You need a theory of knowledge that connect ideas to perception. You need a theory of perception that makes sense of how we understand the world, and what kind of conclusions are justified or unjustified accordingly. You need a system of inductive logic. You need a method of integration. You need a method of judging the validity of an idea, or the case for a conclusion.


None of this is offered by a philosophy aimed at casting doubt on every conclusion, every idea, and even the possibility of knowledge. Questioning the validity of your assumptions is not a value in itself. It is only valuable when combined with a method of determining that validity. Doubt on its own is purely destructive. To be constructive, philosophy needs a method to arrive at conclusions.


A different problems with this approach to philosophy is that it treats certainty as an emotional quality instead of as a cognitive quality. In this view, the problem with faith and dogmatism is beliefs that are held too strongly, meaning with too much emotion. The solution offered is to cast doubt on it in order to lessen the emotional support. It is this emotional view of certainty that makes this approach to philosophy make sense. By mixing some doubt into that dogmatism, you get a more 'balanced' view. You will be less strident in your positions.


The idea that certainty is an emotional state is all wrong. It treats reason as a mere exercise for appearances, and treats emotion as the true foundation of belief. It elevates emotion, whether by saying that emotion should be the test of belief, or by saying that it usually is and we should just accept that fact. And in the process, it promotes the view that reason is incapable of justifying beliefs and is at best a form of rationalization.


A cognitive view of certainty treats is as evaluation of facts instead of a projection of feelings. Certainty is a measure of the actual justification of the belief. Is it well supported by the evidence? Are there counterexamples? Are there borderline cases? Are there any specific reasons to think it might be false? Is there significant data we don't have access to that could change our minds? Was the chain of deduction valid? Does it integrate well with everything else we know? Are there equally plausible alternatives?


Certainty as a function of cognition is concerned with whether an idea is justified or not. Doubt isn't a substitute, because it has no way of saying that an idea is justified, or that one is more justified than another. Doubt just invalidates everything. It tears it all down, unable to distinguish between what's true and what's false.


Faith and doubt are very similar in that respect. Faith can't distinguish between what's true and what's false, and neither can doubt. Both invalidate all knowledge, and make everything equally plausible or implausible. They do this by attacking the foundation of knowledge, which is justification. Without a method of justification, anything goes.


So philosophy as a method of teaching people to question there assumptions or to cast doubt on their certainties is not productive. It may appear useful, but this is based on faulty assumptions. It can appear useful by pointing to the irrationality of dogma and offering doubt as a way of tearing down the dogma. But this approach cannot be selective, and tears down the truth along with it.


It can also appear useful by treating certainty as a kind of emotional conviction, and offering to restrain the dogmatic convictions. But again, it offers nothing of any real value in terms of determining what is true or false. And by focusing on emotions, it promotes the fatal flaw of dogmatism in the first place. It elevates emotions over justification in the process of judging conclusions.

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