concepts section: copyright Robert Ellis 2011


Scepticism (spelt 'skepticism' by Americans) was originally a philosophical movement from Hellenistic (i.e. later Greek) times, and is used today loosely to refer to any doubting position. However, here we are concerned with philosophical scepticism. The insights of classical scepticism as to the limitations of our knowledge are important ones, shared with Hindu and Buddhist thought, and stimulating much later Western philosophy by issuing a profound challenge to it. One important aspect of Middle Way philosophy is to take scepticism seriously and accept its insights rather than ignoring it or unsuccessfully attempting to refute it.

Scepticism puts forward arguments like the following:

In judging these arguments it's important to distinguish between agnostic scepticism and negative metaphysics. None of these arguments justify a negative metaphysical response of claiming that our beliefs about reality are necessarily false. They justify only metaphysical agnosticism, because they leave us without justification for either definite positive or definite negative assertions about how things actually are. Nihilistic philosophies often begin with arguments that justify agnosticism but use them to try to justify negative metaphysics: the process of sceptical slippage (q.v.). Dualistic philosophies are often identifiable by their selective use of sceptical arguments that suit their purposes, but their ignoring of other ones that undermine their assumptions.

In the Western tradition of philosophy there have been many false assumptions about the implications of scepticism. One of these is that if we take it seriously it stops us from holding beliefs or making claims altogether. This is not an implication of scepticism, because all it undermines is claims about reality. It does not prevent us from making statements about our experience, nor does it prevent us making justifiable provisional statements about what appears to be the case based on that experience. Scepticism is not a threat to science or to human understanding, only to dogmatism. All our claims are subject to revision. Nor does scepticism deprive us of justification for our claims, given that objectivity can be based, not on metaphysics, but on our degree of avoidance of limiting assumptions that prevent us from engaging with conditions in our experience.

Scepticism is not a threat to be defended against, but a welcome support for the Middle Way. It continually challenges us not to settle down into truth-claims but to recognise their lack of justification, and thus is the basis for the skill of critical thinking. Since objectivity (including moral objectivity) requires an avoidance of the truth-claims of metaphysics, scepticism used consistently and rigorously is a force for good.

Links to related discussion:

Truth on the Edge (Chapter 1 begins with scepticism)

Critical thinking (introductory page)

Dogmatism and scepticism (from thesis)

Classical scepticism (from thesis)

Hellenistic philosophy (academic paper)

Justification of belief in Buddhism (from The Trouble with Buddhism)


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