Skepticism is the belief that human knowledge is fundamentally lacking in some way, which in turn undermines the conclusions people reach. As Vaughn notes, there are multiple schools of thought that adhere to this view, differentiated based on the reason for the purported lack of knowledge (276). Some question the reality of knowledge versus illusions such as dreams, others doubt human senses, and a third category believes that truth is dependent on one’s perspective. Regardless of the specific cause, these beliefs still give skeptics cause to question their and others’ opinions on truth.
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Sources of Knowledge
Perception is the foremost way for people to obtain information about the world around them. With that said, all of these senses are fallible in various ways, whether through deprivation, inability to perceive aspects of the world such as non-visible lights, or deceptive sensory inputs such as mirages. What a person sees, hears, smells, or touches does not necessarily correspond to the truth of the object being perceived. It is possible to reduce the possibility of deception through tools and in-depth investigation, but eliminating it is impossible.
Human knowledge is stored in their memories, which themselves are also highly prone to failure. People often forget what they used to know, recalling it either with substantial difficulty or not at all. Moreover, the distortion of memories to emphasize particular aspects at the expense of others is a well-known psychological phenomenon. Lastly, memories disappear with a person’s death, and none of the methods created for storing or transferring them, such as verbal or written communication, can relay them with even an approximation of their full extent and accuracy.
Introspection, the reflection of a person upon themselves and their internal emotional state, fails because people struggle to comprehend their emotions most of the time. They try to dispassionately dissect and analyze their emotions with a mind affected by those same emotions, which is a futile endeavor by definition. Introspective reflection on the past also fails because it is dependent on one’s memory, which, as described above, is not accurate. As a result, a lot of the time, introspection results in self-deception, where a person reaches conclusions that are inaccurate but convenient for them at the moment.
Finally, reasoning is possibly the most flawed of the four sources of knowledge, and its inherent flaws have spurred the creation of the science of logic. There is a massive number of logical fallacies that can impede one’s thinking and lead one to reach inaccurate conclusions. Some of them, such as arithmetic errors, can emerge due to carelessness, while others, such as circular reasoning, are often signs of a troubled mind. The final issue with reasoning is that it relies on premises that, coming from the three sources discussed above, are not necessarily accurate themselves.
Skepticism and Being Wrong
It follows from the idea of skepticism that none of the conclusions reached by humanity can be trusted to be accurate. I agree with the claim that it is necessary to admit that we might never be correct. There are many propositions, such as solipsism, which, if true, would overturn humanity’s understanding of reality but which are also impossible to confirm or deny conclusively. When it is possible that every single assumption that has ever been made by every person is wrong, the validity of the conclusions reached must also be in doubt.
Vaughn, Lewis. Philosophy Here and Now: Powerful Ideas in Everyday Life. 3rd ed., Oxford University Press, 2018.
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