Shayne Wissler
Imagine a world where we figured out the right direction to push, and then we pushed in that right direction…

Dialog with a Skeptic

March 16 2014

I recently have been having a dialog with a skeptic, whose skepticism takes him as far as rejecting a belief (or non-belief) in a world that exists independently from himself.

In the below, I consolidate my experience with him here. To my knowledge, these replies match what he might say, if he were really having this dialog, but they are not him speaking; this is a purely fictionalized account:

I believe that natural rights, rightly understood, are a species of moral truth.

I don’t believe in objective moral truth, but I’m open to the idea. I’m open to all ideas, at least if they are logically possible. So, how do you prove it?

The basis of moral truth is following reason, which I define as: 1) root beliefs in evidence, not mere imagination; 2) be logical; 3) examine things from a variety of perspectives, reconciling them.

So, if we are to have a discussion of rights, we need to first settle the matter of moral or ethical truth, but to do that we must agree on a certain view of reason and its means of knowing truth.

Well, I don’t personally believe we can know any truths about external reality, if there even is one. The problem of induction proved, to me at least, that we can’t. But I am open to a contrary argument, take your best shot.

What do you mean, you don’t believe in reality? Are we not talking to one another? Doesn’t that entail that we believe each other exists?

No. All I have access to is phenomenological experience. I have no access to an external reality that is causing this experience.

As it happens, I certainly agree with David Hume, namely that our means of knowing anything whatsoever is through experience, but to have a means of knowing something is not to say we can’t know it.

That’s not what David Hume said, he refuted the idea that you can know anything about external reality.

Let’s save that debate for later.


Well, from my standpoint, the phenomenon is ambiguous. It might be that I’m a brain in a vat. It might be that there really is an external reality, just as you say. It might be that all that exists is me and my personal phenomenon, that you don’t really exist, nor anyone or anything else. Since the phenomenon is all I can really know with certainty, then that is the limit of my beliefs, at least for now, though in believing that I’m not saying that these other things don’t exist, just that I have absolutely no reason to believe that they do. After all, all of these things are logically possible.

Just because something is “logically possible” doesn’t give you license to believe it. After all, it’s “logically possible” that there is a pink unicorn standing behind you; it’s also “logically possible” that elephants don’t really exist. But surely you’d agree that you don’t believe you have any reason to believe the former, whereas you have a lot of evidence that elephants really do exist.

In other words, whenever several things are “logically possible”, but where we have evidence for only one of those things, then we are rationally obligated to follow the evidence we have or can find, not to whimsically generate counterfactuals ad nauseam (this is essentially Issac Newton’s Fourth Rule of Reasoning). And that’s the only basis of your skepticism: you think that because you can imagine “logically possible” alternatives, then these count as evidence, but really, they don’t count at all.

I don’t think there is any evidence that elephants exist.

But sure, if you have several logically possible alternatives, then you should pick the one that has evidence, but there is no evidence that existence exists, therefore your points are irrelevant.

In fact, your point that “given several logically possible alternatives, you should pick the one that has evidence over those that don’t” isn’t highly relevant either, since the very root of empirical knowledge has no rational basis. Put simply, there is zero evidence coming from phenomenological experience – at least, as far as I have been able to tell. As ever and always, I remain open to new ideas that may prove mine to be wrong.

Of course you have evidence that elephants exist, a rich array of it in fact.

And, in fact, I have reason to not believe that you believe what you’re saying. You are having a conversation with me. That implies to me that you recognize that I exist. You do things every day that imply that you believe in a causal existence. If you didn’t do these things, you’d suffer and die. So all of my experience regarding you implies that you think you exist, and that things other than you exist, that they have a nature and behave in various ways.

So, I don’t believe you when you say you have no evidence of a causal reality behind the phenomenon you experience. You receive and act on it daily.

I certainly have and act on expectations, but that’s not the same thing as saying I believe there is a rational basis for those expectations.

I think you haven’t been a very good student of human nature. You seem to think that others always have good reasons to behave as they do, when really we just act on instinct. You seem to have a particular fixation on justifying and tracing your behavior back to external reality, but I find that superfluous. I can think and act just fine without any such justification or belief.

You see, right there you are referring to human nature. This implies that you recognize a commonality among all the “phenomenon” that seem to you to be “human”. Furthermore, you are making an argument that my view of human nature is wrong, which implies that you think there is a right way to divine the truths that transcend particular phenomenological experiences (of the behavior of humans) from these very experiences, i.e., you are acting as if you believe that knowable things exist, that you can argue with others about their nature. So, not only do I not believe your metaphysical doubt is justified, I don’t believe that you believe it either.

It is interesting that, when I started to appeal to a common reality in order to explain why I believe in natural rights, that is when you brought your metaphysical doubt to bear against my view. But just now you lapsed into speaking in precisely the same terms, namely, that there was a human nature we could both reach agreement about – a common reality. So, whereas you are presenting your skepticism as if it is stemming from lack of bias on your part, it certainly seems that you use it as an intellectual weapon in a very one-sided way: to attack others’ ideas, but not your own.

Furthermore, the very fact that you are communicating with me implies that you think you and I share a common mode of understanding, since you are trying to recreate whatever it is you think you understand about how things are in my mind, such that we have a common understanding about them. If you can cause your understanding to be shared to me, then regardless of what particular mode existence consists in, you at least recognize for all practical purposes that I exist, and that the subjects about which we are talking exist, and that there is a common method of discourse for resolving disagreements about their nature.

In light of this, when you engage in metaphysical speculations that contradict your real behavior, it has the same significance to me of wind issuing from your various orifices (to borrow a phrase from Leonardo da Vinci); i.e., it has no significance.

I don’t like your manner here.

This discussion started out fun, but it’s becoming less fun for me, so maybe we should just end it. I realize I can’t tell you in a fundamental sense why your behavior is wrong, since I don’t believe in ethical truth, so this is just an expression of personal distaste with your accusations of bias and so on.

I think the truth is more important than “fun.” Being chastised isn’t the end of the world, it’s the beginning of understanding why you may want to change your behavior. Of course, I understand that you don’t believe that, ultimately, there are reasons why you should behave one way or another, but that is more your problem than mine.

I am not a mere phenomenon to be molded into a pleasurable shape, so I will continue to state the relevant truth as I see it, for the sake of expressing complete clarity of my position, and in spite of a possibility of being perceived as being “rude.” I think philosophical discourse requires this. Furthermore, I am of the opinion that, while we can afford those with mistaken views a measure of respect, this should not stretch so far as to fail to condemn bad ideas for what they are. For example, your skeptical view, if adopted universally, leads to the impossibility of creating any sensible strategy for reforming institutions to be harmonious with rational principles of justice, and is therefore dangerous to society. Those who have slipped into the error of skepticism should certainly not be congratulated for the social mayhem they are party to causing and sustaining.

To resume: Since doubt is easier to manufacture than authentic knowledge is to obtain, I have no doubt that you can manufacture skeptical assaults ad nauseam. However, in the end, I think it all comes down to a choice: to trust that which has never betrayed you – namely, Nature, the universe, that which you owe your existence to and which produces all of your experience – or to continue manufacturing doubt after doubt. This trust is not without a foundation: if you act in one way, you find success; if you act in another, you find failure. This is a form of evidence that there is a causal reality, and that you can discern its nature, i.e. that you can inductively reach truth about reality.

Perhaps something in the above has been non-responsive to a point you have made, or has misrepresented something you have said or think, and if so, I invite you to correct me. If not, perhaps we can resume our discussion of natural rights, rational ethics, and how we discern objective truths through our experience with a mind-independent reality.

You are missing the point. Yes I act as if you exist. Yes I evaluate your behavior as if I have justifiable ethical standards. Yes I argue when I think it might serve some purpose of mine. None of that implies a belief in an external world.

Let me object to something you keep saying, but that I’ve let pass until now. You keep mentioning the “external world”, as if I think that consciousness is physically separate from the “external world.” But I don’t believe that. Perhaps I used the phrase too at some point, as I think it’s fine in an imprecise way, but we can’t afford to be imprecise at this point.

What I think, precisely, is that “existence exists.” Consciousness is taking part in the whole of existence, it isn’t “outside”, so there is no “external vs. internal reality”; there is only “reality.” And consciousness isn’t even a “thing”; it’s a process. So it’s a category mistake to compare consciousness to things; it can’t really be “outside” or “inside” except in a sloppy metaphorical sense. So, your overall view, at least taking you literally, is confused in the sense that it’s a category mistake. Can you restate it such that it doesn’t seem to commit this error?

I have read over this blog post of yours, and I find that when you are speaking for me, you have gotten my position mostly wrong. So really you are just missing my point.

Regardless of whether my post has your position mostly wrong, it reflects my main concerns with your position as I understand it. I invite you to correct me.

To summarize my chief concern:

On the one hand you claim to not have a rational basis for believing anything empirical, on the other, you make claims and arguments about empirical things (such as human nature). It seems to me your position doesn’t entitle you to make claims and arguments, least of all that contradict the claims and arguments I put forth.

And while you can sort of make logical/hypothetical arguments, the second you try to apply this reasoning to experience, the argument is null and void (in the sense that it has no logical applicability given your assumptions), so you shouldn’t do that either.

Now, you can reply that “In ultimate terms, everything I say or do is rooted in inclination; I don’t feel inclined to have reasons for everything.” The trouble with this reply is you’re saying “Here’s my argument, I don’t feel a need to have reasons for it.” Well that is like attacking your own argument before you start. And sure, you can say that, but no one can ever really make any sense of it. And sure, you may be OK with that, given that you don’t see how anyone can, in an ultimate way, make sense of anything.

If you think I have reflected your view accurately above, this may be all we can say on the matter because there is a fundamental impasse. From my point of view you’re just babbling about nonsense, and the only difference between our views is that you think that everyone is, in an ultimate sense, babbling about nonsense, whereas I only think some people are.