True Enough to Act Upon

Since the expression ‘know’ is context-sensitive, someone’s claim to know something can be true in the context of ordinary talk and false in the context of a discussion of scepticism. Discuss.

The ability to be skeptical is a powerful potentiality of the human mind. Throughout history there has been an ongoing struggle between the presentation of proof, evidence, and justification for beliefs, and the denial of the foundations of those beliefs. In an academic setting these are important things to study and investigate. Outside of the academic setting we see the resulting effects upon people's perspectives and behaviors with real consequences.

Doubt and skepticism offer learning potential, in that we may further inspect the supports of our ideas. For instance, if we take a simple notion like "grass is green" there are a series of levels of which we may be skeptical. There's the definition of grass. Where's the dividing line between a grass, or a grain, or another type of plant? There's the definition of green. Where exactly is the line on the color wheel that designates green?

This issue of vagueness is its own class of problem, often presented as the sorites paradox. For instance, if you have a heap of sand and take away a single grain, you still have a heap of sand. Take away another, and another, and another. Eventually you no longer have a heap. When did that occur exactly? It's a difficult question to answer. This problem can be used to attack many of our definitions.

Once we're questioning the definitions that we're using there naturally arises a problem with our communication. If the definition has a lack of clarity, especially if to any extent that lack of clarity cannot be fully solved, then it's possible that we're not talking about the same thing, even if we're using the same term. The equivocation fallacy is a common error. If we're not sure we're talking about the same thing, then communication isn't truly possible.

In addition to this we can demonstrate that human perception can be deceived. Something as simple as looking through water distorts an image. A curved mirror can do it even more so. If it's so easy to show inadequacies in our perception, is it not reasonable to then doubt everything we have perceived, and therefore all that we may think we know?

And people often have dreams that seem real at the time. We wake up and think that we're in the real world. But, how can we be sure that we haven't awakened into another dream?

We all know that brains can be manipulated with electricity. Could it not be that I'm really just a brain in a vat that's been connected to a computer that generates the correct electrical signals to make it seem to me that I'm living this life?

These are some of the skeptical arguments given that generate doubt in definitions, attributes, communication, perception, and even existence itself. There are responses to such skeptical arguments. The most famous is Moore's "This is a hand." For, if the skeptic admits this they are no longer a skeptic. They admit the world exists, that existents are correctly perceived, that we have a shared reference frame, and a shared referent. Thus, a strong skeptical argument must remain committed to skepticism.
If a skeptic will allow no foundational element. If no instance of truth, existence, or reality is admitted by the skeptic, then it's an undefeatable argument. If, however, the skeptic allows a given truth or existent then it's possible to build a structure of justified true belief from that foundation. The foundation can be a single thing, or a group of interrelated things that reinforce each other. In either measure a foundational base of shared reality is established.

Whichever way this argument may go in an academic context, ordinary language is and must be utilized in such a way that allows people to act and to live. An absolute standpoint of skepticism is anathema to this. If you can never trust perception, or if you're always in a dream, or if you're a brain in a vat, why would you do anything? What meaning is there to capture in life? What's the difference between being and non-being? If the answer is that the value lies in the experienced and phenomenological reality within the false perceptions, or the dream state, or the electrical signals of the brain in the vat, then you have a solution to the skeptical argument very similar to if such unknowable oddities are dismissed outright. Essentially, that such things are irrelevant factors to valuation and action within the phenomenologically experienced reality as it is. That the skeptical possibility is irrelevant to the context of life as it is lived.

Even if such possibilities are admitted, there is still a need to decide and act within the given world context. A possible solution to this is the incorporation of the word nevertheless as an irrelevance equivalency. For instance, "I could be a brain in a vat and therefore it makes no difference if I put gas in my car." becomes "I could be a brain in a vat, nevertheless I need to put gas in my car for it to run." The use of nevertheless signifies the irrelevance of the skeptical possibility to the necessary actions within the phenomenal field.

Another response to the skeptical propositions is a reversal of the burden of proof. The skeptic begins with the assumption that the experienced world is not real and asks for proof that it is. Yet, since there is a shared direct perception of the world then the real burden of proof would be with the proposal that contradicts perception. Thus, it is the skeptic who must answer the question of how they came to a conclusion that contradicts the obvious and generally accepted notion of reality.

Along a similar vein, it may be pointed out that the conceptual ideas of a brain in a vat or a dream are abstractions. They are abstractions that must have been conceptually built from experience of such attributes of existents. Thus, the possibility of having the idea of a brain in a vat or a dream implies a phenomenologically experienced world of reality, and the skeptical argument defeats itself. This could be termed the skeptical impossibility.

As has been shown, there is a difference between an operative truth in experienced reality versus skeptical possibilities in an academic context. Although there are strong skeptical arguments, there are equally strong responses. In everyday language the level of truth needed for a given situation is that which is true enough to act upon, and the skeptic is left to their own burdens.



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