Tag Archives: Metaphysics

On being skeptical of skeptics

Freddie DeBoer on his blog L’Hote posts an interesting response to Sam Harris’s TED talk, which I wrote about here.

The entire post, titled “Skepticism and the Last Dogma,” is worth reading, as are the readers’ comments that follow. I think he makes an excellent point about the need for a “true” skepticism — one that guards against the arrogance of unwarranted certainty — but also seriously misapprehends Harris’s argument. Here are some of the salient points:

This is the kind of skeptic that Sam Harris is: he is skeptical of competing claims of truth and accuracy, but not of his own capacity to judge, nor of the human capacity to create intellectual structures that make that judging correct. Certainly, this is what the edifice of modern skepticism represents: a skepticism that first flatters the intellect of the skeptic in question, and the human mind in general.

I’ve always felt that the kind of skepticism that is most valuable, that is to our pragmatic benefit, is the skepticism that begins the skeptical enterprise at the human mind, the classical Greek skepticism that regarded any real certainty as dogmatism. Not because it is true, or even because it is superior, but because epistemological modesty seems to me to be an entirely under appreciated tool for the practical prosecution of our lives and our arguments. You can of course read a vast array of literature making this same point, from people far smarter and better argued than I am. You can read people like Sextus Empiricus, the Buddha, David Hume, George Berkeley, Nietzsche, Jacques Derrida, Richard Rorty…. Not because they are gurus who will point you towards truth, but because what they have to say may help you along your way.

For me, I would merely put it this way: that we do not encounter the physical universe unmediated but through a consciousness mechanism and sensory inputs that seem to be the products of evolution. And the belief (however you want to define a belief) in evolution makes the idea of those consciousness and sensory mechanism being capable, no matter how long the time scale, of perfectly or non-contingently ordering the universe around us seem quite low. Evolution does not produce perfectly fit systems, it only eliminates those systems so unfit that they prevent survival and the propagation of genetic material. A chimpanzee’s intellect is a near-miracle, capable of incredible things, but it will never understand calculus. I could never and would never say this with deductive certainty, but it seems likely to me that our consciousness has similar limitations.


All of history’s greatest villains were people who were certain. From Pol Pot to Hitler to Stalin to the Spanish Inquisition, the conquistadors, the progenitors of the Rwandan genocide, the Ku Klux Klan…. They all had it all figured out. […] What the world needs isn’t yet another muscular certainty that seeks to impose itself on all. What it needs is doubt, I think.


Among the few necessary social functions that religion performed, and that we now are lacking in a post-theistic world, is the enforcement of a certain humility. There is no god, but you and I are still dust, we always were.

First, here’s where I disagree. Continue reading

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Born again

Andrew Sullivan alerts us to a fascinating conversation going on at Positive Liberty. The post is titled “Atheism, Reincarnation, and Immortality,” and the claim that gets the ball rolling is this:

If time is infinite on both ends, then we have infinite rolls of the dice of probability. That means, however infinitesimally small the probabilities that brought “you” into existence, with enough rolls of dice, “you” will come into existence again, and again and again forever. And if time is infinite in reverse, “now” isn’t the only time “you” existed.

Accordingly, “you” have always existed and always will.

The debate soon settles into the familiar (if still stimulating) “why God does/doesn’t exist” groove, but it was the idea of reincarnation as a mathematical probability that caught me.

I’d thought about this myself a few years ago, scribbling half-nonsensical thoughts into my notebook. The idea I was grasping after isn’t exactly the same one above — of the probability of an exact copy of me coming into existence again and again, given infinite time — but something a little different. Okay, maybe a lot different.

Let me quote myself at length; this may get weird. Continue reading

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