As long as philosophy as been around, skepticism has been an ongoing contender with epistemological philosophy. It challenges theories of knowledge with paradoxes that cause us to question whether knowledge is actually obtainable. These challenges come in many forms: the Agrippan Trilema seeks to reveal how one can never truly be justified in believing anything, due to infinite regress in justification, dogmatism, or circular reasoning. The Cartesian Skeptic attempts to prod our justification of the external world, through paradoxes similar to the ones seen in popular movies such as “the Matrix” or “Inception.” Because of the simplicity of the skeptic’s paradoxes and the intuitiveness seen in the challenges, the skeptical idea that knowledge is impossible looks believable. It is my goal to reveal that by giving a diagnostic response to skepticism, skeptical paradoxes like these can be rejected by denying both the prior grounding requirement and epistemological realism.
There are two ways in which we can diagnostically evaluating the skeptic’s tactics and arguments, therapeutically or theoretically. By evaluating the challenges therapeutically, we attempt to see how the skeptic misuses language and creates confusing arguments. When examining the arguments theoretically, we seek to discover how the skeptic tries to sneak in their own beliefs. By using these forms of investigation, we can tactically reveal how the skeptic can be rightfully refuted.
First, when in a debate about knowledge with a skeptic, it seems to be the case that they assume they can always posit the question “What is your reasoning for that? or “Why?” when you pose a knowledge statement. This comes from what Michael Williams calls the Prior Grounding Requirement. This requirement hast two parts two it. First, is the idea that Evidential Justification succeeds Personal Justification; this is called the dependence thesis, which essentially means that we must justify reasonable evidences before we can justify our beliefs. Second, is the idea that one must have a strong understanding of the groundedness of their evidence; this is internalism, which appears like an impossible request because for the skeptic, just because a belief is true doesn't make it a grounded belief. Furthermore, internalism declares that justification must not come from some outside source, hence the name. With these conditions, who would want to debate a skeptic? Let’s take our defense step by step and see how we can get around this.
Every theory of knowledge deals with justification. If a belief cannot be justified we have no reason to believe it, unless upon merit alone. However, the word justification itself is not descriptive. What does justification mean? What should we care about when answering the skeptic? It appears that we need two types of requirements for justification; when justifying a belief we needs to have put some thought into it, also known as being epistemically responsible (Personal Justification), and the justification needs to have adequate grounds for belief (Evidential Justification). For us to have knowledge we need both of these, and they are mutually related.
Because of this connection, many philosophers have concluded that the connection works in this way: one is epistemically responsible if their beliefs are always based on the grounds of adequate evidence. How can one be epistemically responsible then if, as we have seen, due to the Prior Grounding Requirement and the Agrippan Trilema, we cannot have a belief that is justified? Let’s take a closer look at what is going on here.
Justification must exist conceptually for the Agrippan Trilema to have any strength; if justification is an illusion, the Trilema means nothing. The conclusion thus far, from the skeptic can be that no particular justification can be stronger or weaker than another. Furthermore, as we have seen there are limits to how we may give justifications. So what then does the skeptic want? By looking at the Prior Grounding Requirement again we can see that our justification must be reasonable, due to the dependence thesis, and, because of internalism, we must be completely aware of the evidence that we possess.
There is another tool that the skeptic hides from us called the “default and challenge structure.” The skeptic always insist that the opponent reveal justification for there claims, just as if they we guilty until proven innocent. What they do not submit to is the opposite; an innocent until proven guilty argument. And if by chance they do end up in this situation, they have a multitude of defeaters, counter examples, at their disposal. For example, the skeptic could say that we cannot induce an external world from experience because we could be a brain in a vat, such as in “the Matrix."
What we can see from the idea of the default and challenge structure is that we are not limited to how we prove our beliefs. Furthermore, just as the opponent of the skeptic was forced into a Defense Commitment, or requirement to justify ones beliefs in a reasonable manner, by way of the Prior Grounding Requirement, so now does the skeptic.
This then puts the skeptic in a pickle. For the radical skeptic, if truly a skeptic should have no conviction stronger than another. And if they wish to challenge the knowledge claimer, they must have adequate evidence for their challenge and should be able to back up their reasoning. But this seems unlikely for them to do. Therefore, we have grounds to, and should, dispose of the Prior Grounding Requirement.
By Rejecting the Prior Grounding Requirement the Agrippan Trilema is no longer scary, because there is no longer the concept that one may infinitely ask for justification. Because of this, we will eventually end up at a default entitlement, which is justified because it is genuine in the fact that it need not have grounds for belief.
This very case of default entitlements can always be challenged. However, it strictly deters the skeptic from challenges at this level. For the skeptic will have to have their own default entitlements, which is not possible for a skeptic to have.
Now lets change our focus to another shifty method of the skeptic. The skeptic is quick to ask for answers to extreme general concepts. How is it possible to answer such questions? One dominant challenge is that, again, of proof of an external world. How can it be possible to answer about a vast majority of what we believe we know in one argument? As Williams states, this method of “blanket explanations . . . looks misplaced, if it is even intelligible."
The skeptic might have foundation for refuting this statement with the idea that everything besides are minds are external, falling into the same category, and therefore being answerable.
This inherently takes us to Foundationalism, where we can have fundamental beliefs that cannot be proven wrong: beliefs about our experiences, but not of anything actually tangible, just the idea that they correspond to real objects. However, there is a problem with Foundationalism. Just because we can say that I am having a white wall experience, doesn't mean that there is a wall in front of me. Furthermore, even if a wall was in front of me there is no way to bridge the gap of my experiences to an external world. Therefore, Williams believes we should take the alternative belief that refutes skepticism, Contextualism.
What other options does the skeptic then have left? They can, instead of trying to refute general claim, aim for counter examples that destroy our ideas of knowledge. These would be “best cases,” again such as “the Matrix” or “Inception” (Inception being a film of never knowing if you are in a dream).
However, because we have the default entitlements we can make anything we like a default entitlement, as long as we have enough evidence to support it over other theories. Because in the end, Williams believes it comes down to which belief seems the most reasonable and justified. For example, I have more evidence that I am typing this paper on my laptop that I do of me sleeping and dreaming this up.
Now having seen how we can refute the skeptic and their paradoxes through diagnostic analysis and by rejecting both the Prior Grounding Theory and Epistemological Realism, we can take some time to think of an objection to this argument.
The most difficult appears to be that Williams idea of default entitlements appear to be like the foundations upon which the Foundationalists believe. This is a very serious idea because if it is the case that they are in essence the same thing, Williams then cannot justify any idea over another, causing his theory to spiral back to the concept of the skeptic.
However, I would postulate that they are not the same thing. For one reason, Williams denies the skeptic the right to question him infinitely without reason. And by the time the skeptic gets deep into the evidences of some claim, Williams believes that the skeptic will have their own beliefs. For example, the skeptic seems to think that the idea of justification exists or that we can always question our evidences. I’m sure that skeptic would not call them “foundations for proof” or “foundations” at all. Also, Williams entitlements are not restricted to experiential evidences. They can be anything as long as there is evidence to support it and no one else can summon a good enough defeater. Furthermore, Williams is open to the concept of change as long as the evidence to reject the claim is adequate enough to support it.
In conclusion, Williams’ argument appears to deface the skeptics arguments and helps to stand as a beacon of hope for Epistimology.