Academical skepticism

2012-06-18

There's not a single fact I know for sure, except the fact that I know nothing is irrefutable. Anything I do think I know is based on assumptions. A tower of belief systems. This is the basis of my philosophy and it's called "skepticism".

There are two (main) flavors of skepticism here; Pyrrhic and academic.

Pyrrhic skepticism is pretty much a head-in-the-sand kind of philosophy. Nothing is certain, not even that, and there's no way around this. While pretty solid, it serves you no practical purpose. In the end one could argue that Pyrrhic skepticism is still the basis for academic skepticism, but I'm not too interested in those semantics.

Academic skepticism is also believing that you can't believe anything at all, but instead assuming that which is most likely to be true. This is what I do. In fact, this is what we all do. We all assume things, constantly. We assume that our brains report proper truths to us, even though there's the whole science of psychology to prove us differently. This is called empirical knowledge. Knowledge gained through our senses. It is easy to prove that this kind of knowledge is not to be trusted.

Thinking "nothing can be certain" is a tricky business. It won't help you much in life. I don't really know whether you, the reader, actually exists. I don't even know for sure that this world exists. Why can't this be a dream? Maybe I've been lying on a bed in a coma for the past twenty years. Maybe I'm actually just dreaming this thing for the past five minutes and I'll be waking up in a few seconds. Maybe what I think is my past has actually been implanted in my brain by aliens, or even just humans in some future. Too many maybes and no certainties.

So I have to assume. I must assume that this world is the real world. I have to ignore the possibility of a fake world being implanted into my brain (a la Matrix) or just some kind of dream (a la Inception). Gotta let that go and assume the worst; this is it and there's nothing I can do about it.

Side note: Interestingly enough, this might actually be a clue to the solution of the "frame problem". It's a philosophical problem in the world of AI: a robot that has to make a choice has to first decide which real world environment variables to include in the decision process. Does it really matter whether there's a plane nearly above you when crossing the street? Probably not. Would it matter for a car? Very probable. It's an interesting problem that won't go away easily. It is said that humans are very good at solving this frame problem. I think we're just good at assumptions.

As it goes in philosophy, you have to be very specific about your terminology. What is truth? In this piece I make the distinction between two kinds of truths. Synthetic and analytical truths. Analytical truths are pretty much "agreements". One plus one is two because we agree it is. Related are (circular) dictionary definitions of terms. Synthetic truths is pretty much any other truth. Real world truths that have no "artificial" agreement between humans. Like "when I throw a rock straight up in the air, it will fall down". This is the other part of science.

Now, of course, analytical truths are irrefutable. You agree that something is, therefore it is (see also circular dictionary definitions and fallacies). One might be tempted to label this as an assumption, but there's a small difference; an agreement might have no bearing on the real world and might not be related to any kind of assumption. If you and I agree that our bird is called Bob, then by that agreement; it is. No assumption comes into play. The assumption of that object being a bird and us actually being in this world and so able to make the agreement in the first place is a kind of meta philosophy I don't really want to deal with right now.

So here we are. We're living in a world as a skeptic, what do we do now. Stick our head in the sand like a Pyrrhic skeptic and wait to die? Or live your life to the fullest and then die, like an academic skeptic? I pick door number two. We all do. Even the solipsists amongst us (including myself) have to some degree agree to the rules of society. Or perish. Sounds harsh but that's pretty much how this world works.

A solipsist believes he's the only real conscience in existence. Anything else is a figment of his imagination. As you might have inferred from the previous paragraph; I am one of them. But note that I think this on a philosophical level. It will come out in philosophical discussions. But being a solipsist has no bearing on how I live my life. I think anyone that has spent some time thinking about skepticism would deem himself to be a solipsist as well. You kind of have to. It's the only thing you can be almost certain of. Descartes had it right; "Cogito ergo sum" or "I think therefore I am".

So there you have it. Even though I don't think I can know anything for certain, there are a few questions that beg to be answered. What's this existence, what am I, and what does this mean for skepticism? Unfortunately I don't have those answers either, nor do I think I could ever accept any kind of answer anyone would give me.

I know I think. Or is this just an assumption? It could very well be. The mind is a mere collection of brain cells. They adhere to the basic rules of physics. The conscience is just a by-product of its processing data. Yes, that makes me a materialist (although I'm actually an epiphenomenalist, if you want to get technical). I think, therefore I am, therefore I must assume that I exist at least on some level. Whether that level is the world I think I live in is not important right now.

There's another interesting tidbit to be resolved. A question I have no real answer to. It's about existence in general. In plain terms I would say that there's existence ("the something") and non-existence ("the nothing"). Either the physical exists or it doesn't. I would also say that one can not come from the other. I can not phantom a way for the "something" to come out of the "nothing" at some point. However, it is also hard to believe that there was't any kind of starting point of existence. I mean, anything has a starting point, right? Well that puts me in a tough spot. Either I have to assert that the "something" has always been there, whatever it is. Or I have to accept that the "something" perpetuated from the "nothing". I can't really imagine either being true so I have to assume the most likely; either the "something" has always existed or there's another way. One I haven't thought about. For now I'm going with the assertion that the something has always existed.

Together with the strong believe that this world is deterministic (another assumption that I find most likely based on my world knowledge) implies that there's either an infinitely sized world where we go in endless states of the universe, much like we at least think that pi is endless. Or the world is finite, meaning that at some point we arrive at a state which we've seen before and we loop. The latter is actually something I can wrap my brain around so that's what I'm going with for now. Does it help me in any way? Nope. But it's a nice philosophy.

So how does that philosophy affect my real life anyways? Not a whole lot I'm afraid :) It makes me enjoy my life to the fullest. Not be encumbered by rules of believe systems that I don't think are true anyways. That means religion is quite lost on me. I do the things I want to do because in the end, it really doesn't matter. And I don't even know for sure whether it will even affect anything. Or that I have a choice, for that matter (in an out-of-the-box view). But you won't hear me using the latter as an excuse, ever.

If you ever see me at a conf or a drink or a meetup or whatever, and you have no idea what to talk to me about, and you dig philosophy... this might be a good starting point :) Although I'd strongly urge you from not doing so if you have strong religious believes of any kind. I don't care for that kind of discussion. It's so pointless :)

Ok, back to life!