The Münchhausen Trilemma

There are many forms of radical skepticism: skepticism of the external world, skepticism of other minds, and skepticism of rationality, to name just a few. They arrive at skepticism via different channels, some more successful than others.

Agrippan skepticism is an ancient Greek variety. It is perhaps the hardest-hitting attack on the possibility of knowledge in the history of philosophy. I don’t know of any satisfactory solution.

Epistemologists agree on this much: in order for a belief to count as knowledge, it needs to be at least a justified true belief. What does it mean for a belief to be justified? It means we have a reason for believing it. If this reason will work as justification, it must be a reason that we know.

Of course, if we know this reason, it must be a justified true belief. So what is its justification? It has to be some other reason that we know. And we’re off on a regress.

The problem can be put this way: justification can only happen in three ways:

  • Regress argument: belief A is justified by belief B, which is justified by belief C, which is justified by belief D, and so on.
  • Circular argument: belief A is justified by belief B, which is justified by belief A.
  • Dogmatic argument: belief A is axiomatic. It requires no justification.

None of these options succeed in justifying a belief. Regress arguments fail to justify because they never bottom out at some belief that is already justified.…

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Train of Thought #87

I love following trains of thought.

I was staring at a fireplace listening to music. I had the following progression of thoughts:

  1. The bass line in this song is really awesome.
  2. It’s a very active bass line. I don’t know much about music and almost nothing about good bass playing. Any active bass line is going to sound good to me.
  3. Does that mean that, since I don’t know much about music, none of my opinions about music matter?
  4. I have strong opinions about music. Favorite albums, artists, songs, instrumentalists. To someone who knows a lot about music, those opinions must seem superficial and misguided.
  5. This is true even if we agree that taste is subjective. Even among matters of subjective taste, some taste is refined and some misses all the nuances of the form. Some is based on understanding the medium and some is based on irrelevant associations.
  6. Does this mean that all of our opinions about subjects in which we are not experts are misguided?
  7. Actually, even if we’re experts, we can always assume that there’s another expert who knows the subject more, or we can imagine one in the future who will. That person’s opinion is based on more and better evidence than mine. Shouldn’t I just automatically adopt his position?
  8. Does this mean we shouldn’t believe any of our beliefs? Should we assume all our beliefs are wrong? Should we just believe what the most knowledgeable expert beliefs?

My train of thought took me to radical skepticism, as they often do.…

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The Epistemological Skyhook

“It’s raining, but I don’t believe it.”

That sentence – called “Moore’s problem,” after its creator G.E. Moore – is interesting because it is a case of something which can be true and yet is impossible to believe. It’s perfectly possible for it to be raining and for me not to believe that it is raining. In fact, it’s happened many times. Yet, I can never believe it as it is happening.

Moore’s problem is not a very serious one. Fully accounting for it is a tricky logical exercise, but it is obvious that there is no real problem. You can’t both believe that it’s raining and believe that you don’t believe that it’s raining. Beliefs just don’t work that way.

Moore’s problem points to a broader issue, however: philosophical positions that can be true but cannot be believed.

Consider Freudianism: the belief that it is our primal, unconscious desires that govern our rationality. If this is, in fact, true, then whatever reasoning we used in order to reach the conclusion of Freudianism must have been an expression of our primal, unconscious desires. This means we have no reason to trust that reasoning in the first place. Our belief in Freudianism undercuts itself.

Or Marxism: the belief that class superstructures govern our rationality. If this is true, then whatever reasoning we use to come to Marxism is an expression of whatever class superstructures we are governed by. We have no reason to think that reasoning reliable. As with Freudianism, belief in Marxism becomes self-defeating.…

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