Essay on skepticism
It is impossible to gain knowledge by trusting an authority, however reliable that authority might be. I claim no empirical discovery or novel philosophical view with this pronouncement; what follows is no defense of any claim to truth. It is something more urgent, less articulate, a cry. It is an insistence on a certain standard I have found I require—my cry is ethical in nature. ‘Knowledge’ is a success term, and the success entailed by its application is not easily attained. To the one content with lower standards, who considers knowledge much that I regard as mere belief, I have little to offer by way of persuasion, for my insistence takes at bottom this form: this is who I am, this is what I require. What follows is a confession. Allow me to explain myself.
I resist mistaking the scaffolding for the building. The acquisition of knowledge requires much trust, but this trust provides only tools useful for action, including the action of seeking knowledge. It provides no knowledge itself. And what, in any event, is trusted when one is a student? A jumble of useful errors and half-truths—only rarely does a genuine truth show its face among them, and then mostly by mistake. Even these out of place truths, the pupil cannot distinguish from the falsehoods. All he knows is that they are useful. Let him, then, be an instrumentalist. I do not, then, detest learning. I merely claim that it may have but two positive outcomes: first, it may make new actions possible, and second, it may teach one how to seek knowledge. Surely this is praise enough for tutelage.
Seneca’s 59th letter details for Lucilius the dangers of reputation. To possess a good reputation is to be at risk for complacency, to take oneself as finished when one is but a work in progress. The man of good repute risks taking flattery for truth, to the point of believing his virtue is adequate where it is lacking. But what is the application of ‘knowledge’ to cases of mere trust but a form of self-flattery? To believe myself to possess knowledge, to believe myself capable of attaining knowledge with such a minimum of movement—with the turning of a page—is to submit myself to unpardonable lethargy. It is to prostrate myself before the leering face that promises rest.
The days are past when the solitary individual could claim knowledge across vast domains. The benefit of specialization is the explosion of knowledge possessed, collectively, by humanity. The price is individual skepticism, the restriction of any given individual’s knowledge to a region whose size is nothing next to the vastness of the universe. It is the irony of the rapid growth of humanity’s knowledge that the human’s knowledge becomes ever less and less. What knowledge is now generated, is known to one or only a few, and in increasingly common cases, to none. Every evidential step in a large, collaborative research project may be perfectly justified, but if the ability to traverse these steps is spread across many individuals, if no one individual may follow them all, there is no one who possesses the knowledge that results. It was said that knowledge was justified true belief, until Gettier showed the identity to be inexact. I propose to take a step further: most justified true belief is not knowledge, and most knowledge is not belief of any kind, because it does not reside in any mind.
I do not mean to fetishize experts as those who know, as some privileged class who, in some small domain, become thus untouchable. Rather, if trust does not yield knowledge, there is less incentive to trust, and more to challenge, said experts. No doubt that strange human ritual, in which one is required to display his party membership credentials, will never be eradicated—a lamentable, but ineluctable, situation. This will always favor acquiring beliefs through trust, but for the sake of reputation, not of knowledge. It is still a victory, if a small one, to remove one incentive to trust. It eases the path to that enlightened state in which one prefers critical thought to truth.
The fear of death, in one of its manifestations, is the fear of never understanding this strange universe into which I was thrust. The desire for oneness with this universe likewise becomes the desire to etch in my mind the perfect representation thereof. And the cruelty of death is to strip me of this possibility. All movements in this direction are converted by the fact of death into so much scurrying. The low curiosity that knowing to discovering becomes a failure to face up to my own mortality. Better, then, a skepticism that forbids me any illusion about the length of my reach. Better a skepticism that forces me to select, to be particular and partial. Better a skepticism that dissipates all dreams of universality, all attempts to be all, which is to say, all attempts to be nothing. I confess: I need my skepticism.