In this interview with epistemologist Jim Slagle, we discuss the Epistemological Skyhook. That is, the argument that certain philosophical positions (such as naturalism and determinism) give us a reason to believe in skepticism, which in turn, gives us a reason to doubt the reasoning that got us to the position in the first place. If the argument is correct, then while it is possible that naturalism or determinism might be true, it is impossible for us to believe in them. In this first part of our two-part discussion, we focus on Alvin Plantinga’s version of the argument.
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.…
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.…