Certain Skepticism

In the last two posts, I shared a few disparaging remarks regarding positivism and historicism, respectively. The philosophical positivists have a naïve faith in the ability of the empirical to accrue palpable progress for mankind, whereas such progress, to the extent that it is progress at all and not a mere repetition of previous cycles, is far more dependent on scientific and economic rather than philosophical advancement. The historicists, on the other hand, go too far in the other extreme in rejecting any possible philosophical understanding as conditioned by the time and place in which it arose, thus refuting any claim to truth as a result of the particular prejudices that existed at the time. This is obviously a dangerous attitude, as I discussed in the previous post, and the amusing thing is also that the historicists always exclude themselves from the charge of historical prejudice that they level against earlier thinkers, even though their own attitude is so clearly in line with the general anti-heroic, postmodern, and relativist adage of our own age. This is also typical of today’s self-flattering academics: Whereas they are certain that earlier philosophers thought what they did for particular reasons (elitism, economic superiority etc.), we are meant to believe that there are no external reasons for their own thinking, which is supposedly pure, free, and unconstrained by any economic, social, or historical factors. They believe they are establishing a value-free social science, even though such a science is neither possible nor desirable.

Although both of these positions – positivism and historicism – are to be rejected, each contains some useful notion, in the former case the belief that philosophical truth and understanding are at least possible, in the latter a healthy skepticism toward ourselves and the ideas we cherish. What remains after we have rejected what is worst in each, and preserved what is best, does not really have a proper name, but the thought and method of Plato is what comes closest to it. (I am actually anything but a Platonist, but I do not think he is wrong about everything.) Plato believes that there are absolute truths, things that hold for any culture and person at any time. But he does not know, or does not say, what these truths are. That is to say that he accepts the methodological posture that seems quite scientific: I can believe to have discovered the truth about a particular issue, but I am open to the possibility that one single experiment might suddenly prove me wrong, and then I must revise my original position. So, to use a very banal example, if I believe to have discovered the truth of the proposition “It is wrong to kill,” but a new social situation shows killing in self-defense or for the sake of a putative greater good, then the proposition must be changed to “It is usually wrong to kill” or some such thing. This, too, is open to future revision. We thus reject the historicist notion that all values and truths are expressions of times and places, but we also reject the positivist notion that we can empirically derive with definitive certainty the ideas that guide our behavior. So even though the methodology is quite scientific – one “experiment” can prove us wrong – we reject the possibility of definitive scientific proof. This is, I believe, the most open philosophical posture that one can possibly have, a posture that is neither dogmatic in its insistence on the highest truth having been acquired, nor intellectually flimsy in believing that anything or nothing goes and that values are just social constructs. One value is in fact better than another.

Plato points to the higher truth, but is skeptical of our ability to acquire it.

In terms of our actual behavior, the guide to which Plato comes closest and of which he planted the seeds (though some of the pre-Socratics, like Empedocles and Heraclitus, may also be said to have done so), is often called the natural law. But this natural law was more fully developed by the Stoics, and even later by Thomas Aquinas. By positing the ideal forms, Plato suggests that the universe is orderly governed, and by so doing lays some of the groundwork for later Stoic dogma. This natural law states that we may derive through reason certain core principles to follow, and that reason is a reliable guide in this endeavor because reason itself is divine. If something is divine it is also legislative, since it has a higher power than we, and reason does stake this claim. As I briefly mentioned in the post of June 5, 2014, according to the Stoics, pneuma, which is divine breath and reason, permeates all things and must thus guide us. Since the divine breath is in all things, there are laws that hold for all people, regardless of the times and cultures in which they live. The guide that reason provides, that tells us how to act with one another, is, to the Stoics, not only real and legislative, but also knowable by human beings, and this knowledge is the beginning of many social contracts that form much of the foundation of political science. A historicist might charge the Stoics with devising such an all-encompassing system at a time when various lands of the ancient world were coalescing into all-encompassing empires, specifically those of the successors of Alexander the so-called Great, and later on the Roman Empire. This historicist charge is to be rejected because, even though there may be and usually are some causal relation between historical events and the thoughts of philosophers, establishing such a relation is not enough to discredit the thought. The thought, rather, must be rejected or accepted on its own terms.

The natural law does not, in and of itself, require belief in God in the conventional sense. It simply requires a belief that there is something higher which human agency is powerless to change, such as the truth of the syllogism or of the simple statement that 2+2=4. This, in fact, was a sign of the divine in the eyes of Plato. It is only in later times, in the Christian era and with such thinkers as Kant, that the divine has come to be associated with the mysterious and unexplainable, which is in fact the precise opposite of the Greek belief in the divinity of reason, logos.

In short, I am a Skeptic, but a Skeptic who is certain that there are such things as higher truths and better values that transcend time and space.