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In Our Time: Scepticism

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Melvyn Bragg Melvyn Bragg 14:49, Friday, 6 July 2012

Editor's note: In Thursday's programme Melvyn Bragg and his guests discussed Scepticism. As always the programme is available to listen to online or to download and keep - AI

Michel de Montaigne



I am sitting in St James's Park, overlooking the pond, after lunch with a pal. Before that there was a stroll in Green Park - in the sun for a change - with the usual green and white-striped deckchairs full and the attendants moseying from one clump of people to another with nobody noticeably retreating, past the new war memorial for Bomber Command, which was absolutely crowded with people looking eagerly and intently at the content of the monument itself and at the information inside the monument.

And I've just received a message from Tom Morris, the producer of In Our Time as you all know, who tells me that the Higgs Boson programme which we did in 2004, "long before anybody else", is currently the second most listened-to programme on the In Our Time website, which is going some. This was undoubtedly the big news of the day and only one of the newspapers caught on to that; in other papers we had the usual - how can I put this politely - fiddling bankers, flapping politicians, futile policy makers, the usual depressing flannel of a country which really needs to get hold of its past and pull itself up to the future.

But enough of that. Let us be cheerful. What about? Well, the programme on Scepticism made me realise that I had become a sceptic. I was born naïve and grew up naïve and was ridiculously naïve, even through Oxford and into the BBC. Quite comic this, looking back. I did things like believed that people meant what they said and said what I thought was the truth to people who thought that I must be joking. Possibly because I had a problem with communication. But scepticism has now lowered itself on me like a mountain mist and I welcome it.

The world is not as it seems, alas. How could I have thought otherwise? But I was young and foolish and it is not only the prerogative but perhaps the duty of the young and foolish to think otherwise. Scepticism as a stratum of philosophy in the Western tradition is fascinating, and I thought that the brilliant array of professors this morning examined it with such skill and speed and care that no-one could be in any doubt of its range, its relevance and its - I think I've run out of alliteration - significance to everybody who thinks about thinking.

Now off to the Lords and then to St Mary's Church in Barnes. I'll be talking to the former Bishop of Oxford, Richard Harries, about art and religion. He has written several books on this subject and is immensely articulate and convincing. He is a hero of Richard Dawkins, who unfortunately in his wild attacks on religion doesn't quote him, preferring to refer to American religious right-wing jocks, which is a shame because Dawkins is such an intelligent man.

I think that's about it. I'm a bit tired already and it's mid-afternoon, despite looking over the calm waters of St James's and being passed by the extraordinary mix which is the new country of London. Or perhaps it's the old country of London. Perhaps London always was a separate state. Always, in the sense of post-Tudor. Perhaps even before then. Chaucer speaks of it in terms which make it seem like a separate entity.

Anyway, never mind all that. St James's is still managing to survive, despite being totally invaded by Olympic preparations which even exceed the Jubilee preparations - tents, scaffolding, goodness knows what - in order that the marathon can finish splendidly down the Mall. It's a great thing to be happening to the city, but now and then I think it will be very nice to wander round in the city as a city and not the city as a spectacle provider. Is that curmudgeonly? If so, I apologise.

Don't quite know how to end this, so I'll just say cheerio. It's sunny here, which is a change. I was up North last week and will be going North again tomorrow where it is slashing down, pouring down, hailstoning down. The parnee is everywhere.

Best wishes

Melvyn Bragg

PS: I'm still sitting on a bench in St James's Park. A free bench in a free park in a free country. What a treat. At my feet are six of the fattest pigeons imaginable, pecking away at the ground. There must be something there, but I can't see it.


  • Comment number 1.

    It is unfortunate when a credulous soul, like me, is deceived by an adored icon, like the BBC. This engenders scepticism, your topic.

    BBC’s WORLD DEBATE with Stephen Sacker was a disappointing show, rather than a debate. It featured the French Henri-Levy and various Syrian opposition voices.
    Henri-Levy repeatedly uttered assertions but did not defend them when challenged, except to deny one woman’s claim that he was “working for Israel”. Two different women in the audience pointed out that Assad had majoritarian support within Syria and that much of the killing was done by the rebels. Sacker ignored them.
    The opposition representatives could, seemingly, agree on nothing and fought each other. Although Afghanistan and Libya were mentioned as examples of “intervention”, there was disagreement as to the consequences thereof. The opposition wanted more arms, so that the Syrians could kill each other more quickly and thus avoid a Sunni/non-Sunni bloodbath. Such is the reasoning of the cats that Hillary would herd.
    The fact that Syria is but one of seven nations targeted by the Israeli-inspired Neocon plan adopted by the Pentagon in 2001 was not mentioned. We thus see what happens when state media, under Foreign Office funding, present facts to the public.

  • Comment number 2.

    Lord Bragg says, "Scepticism has lowered itself on me like a mountain mist, and I welcome it." However, the rationality of this statement is contingent on a certainty that the mountain mist will eventually be lifted, for who loves to be lost and disoriented in a mountain mist? Your program did not discuss as a respectable alternative, its nemesis, that is, dogmatism. The latter view (also called "authoritarianism" by the philosopher Susan Stebbing) is closer to most people's perception of reality. If I grade a student paper with an 'A,' I must be prepared to defend that choice to colleagues, who may ask, "Are you certain it's deserved?" Only, "Yes," in such circumstances seems an acceptable answer! If my wife asks me "Do you love me?" any positive answer given with less than certainty will be suspect to her, useless and deceptive. If I, as a 'religious person', offer a prayer to Jesus Christ - Jesus, I believe is God - then any doubt that He exists at the moment of my prayer characterises the exercise as unhelpful psychological confusion. If a jury reaches a unanimous agreement as to the criminal guilt of an accused, the Judge sympathetic to scepticism must find himself in a cul-de-sac, should he ask the jury foreman, once the guilty verdict had been pronounced, "Now are you sure of that, beyond all reasonable doubt?" Integrity would require a conscientious judge to step down from his place of high authority if he had such a sceptical approach to the claims of justice. A doctor who told his patient (or her relatives) she had pancreatic cancer, would be held irresponsible and insensitive if he spoke with less than certainty about the diagnosis. If civil engineers were not certain of their mathematical calculations in drawing up plans, no one would cross a single large bridge in the country, however fine the materials used. If scientists were not certain that they had discovered the so-called 'god article' of Higgs boson, no one would have recommended Prof. Higgs for the nobel physics prize yet - but it's already floated! We all exercise dogmatism every day in our dealings with one another. Without certainty, the wheels of industry would not turn, educational centres would close, and we would not make any plans for tomorrow, for who knows that the sun will actually come up in the morning? 'Ah, you say, you only think you know it will!' No, I actually know it will, I am dogmatic about it. And if I did not know it will come up, I would not believe it will, and neither would you. So, what makes a man a thoroughgoing sceptic? Reasonable certainty, on the other hand, is a blessed gift of God.

  • Comment number 3.

    By playing ignorant, Socrates, who opposed the Sophists,the natural sceptics of their day,forced the people he met to use their common sense.Using Socratic irony exposed the weaknesses in people’s thinking, getting them to realize what was right and what wrong.The Sophists thought there was no absolute norms for what was right and wrong. Descartes’s contemporaries expressed a total philosophical scepticism about certain knowledge:this parallels Socrates with the Sophists.In Descartes’s time the new natural sciences were developing a method by which to provide certain and exact descriptions of natural processes.He developed his method of doubt to put knowledge on a sure foundation by suspending judgement on any proposition whose truth could be doubted,until one can be found.This secure point was “ I thinktherefore I am”.He toppled Aristotelean supremacy. As for Plato what we grasp with our reason is more real than what we grasp with our senses.

    Montaigne:I suspend judgement,I examine evenly balanced scales.Que sais je?What do I know?He lived through brutal wars of religion,which he stayed out of.Dogmatising does not allow us not to know what we do not know,forces us to take sides. Pyrrhonists show man naked.Makes man take inspiration from on high,why valuable:” Our human reasonings are like matter,heavy and barren:God’s grace is their form,giving them shape and worth”.Opinion is not knowledge,reason gets shaken,so do the senses.Protagoras,the arch sophist(trounced by Sextus,Plato and Aristotle) said ‘Man was the measure of all things’.Man who does not know himself.There is no universal standard of truth.All is opinion,and all opinions equally true and false.To Montaigne this is ‘laughable’’vanity’.
    To Montaigne faith and reason operated in separate spheres.He paid formal tribute to the 1st and concentrated his attention on the 2nd,in which he found his own spiritual attainment.

    Hume is influenced by Pierre Bayle,a fideist,in whom scepticism makes way for faith,but in Hume,who is atheist,they make way for emotions at the centre being aided by reason.Hume rebelled in the area ofrationalist thought in the area of ethics.He was the most powerful sceptical thinker of modern times.”A wise man proportions his belief to the evidence”.As Jaggers says in Great Expectations:” Take nothing on looks,take everything on evidence”.Eh Pip!

  • Comment number 4.

    On the subject of skepticism, there's an interesting critique of capitalism and the principle of competition here. Finally there is something genuinely dangerous on the internet! https://wp.me/p2zDWj-4

  • Comment number 5.

    Through 'In Our Time' on 'scepticism', I came to a conclusion about every philosophy that has ever existed! The programme seemed to imply that it's a matter of choosing between the merits of various intellectual arguments, aided by influential philosophers such as Socrates, Cisero, Pyro, Sextus, Augustine, Descartes, Montaigne, Hume & Bayle. But it dawned on me that a deeper choice is made when a person decides upon their approach to 'knowledge'. The following thoughts seem to me to lead to a conclusion which is inescapable in terms of pure, rational, logical argument.

    Many people don't know what to conclude about all sorts of things, so they often 'follow the crowd' or the loudest voice in their social circles. Everyone is influenced by someone, including those who are 'free thinkers' in many or all matters, whilst others consciously choose to follow a particular religion, or favour the ideas of this or that person or school of philosophical thought. But what is reliable 'knowledge'? Any suggested criteria for what we can know for certain, and any estimated limits of human knowledge, and any claim that we can't prove anything with absolute certainty, all depends on two underlying foundational layers: beliefs and authority. I say, it's only true knowledge, linked to actual reality, that leads to reliable, lasting tranquillity. But whatever we conclude about reality, that depends on our personal BELIEFS about what is true. This includes people who believe we can't know any absolute 'truth', and people whose beliefs are far removed from actual reality. Also, beneath every philosophical viewpoint, and every religious or secular view of 'knowledge', is a subjective, moral choice: 'who do you or I believe has the AUTHORITY to declare that this or that is true, reliable knowledge?'

    Therefore, your/ my highest authority might be ourselves – vaunting 'I' as the final arbiter of all the opinions and beliefs of others; or your/ my authority might be God, or a god, or another human being, alive or dead; including, perhaps, the unknown historical founder/s of a religion or school of philosophical thought which a person chooses to follow. This is a moral choice, because the implication is that the authority I put above all others is worthy to be put there, and all others are not. That choice will be either right or wrong about who is, in reality, morally worthy to be put in such a position. This means that all our beliefs about what we 'know for sure' are either right or wrong, when it comes to any definitive answers about life and the universe (not merely opinions about what we 'like or dislike') – such as why we exist, what philosophy or religion we believe in, and what is the best course of action in any relationship or any situation that will affect another person's life. All knowledge that we actually take on board and live by, is NEVER merely an academic exercise; it is morally related to the authority we look to.

    So, is this conclusion logically 'inescapable'? Or is it flawed? And by what highest authority do you come to your own conclusions? Does that bring you tranquility/ peace? And is that peace based on true knowledge of reality?

  • Comment number 6.

    Wittgenstein handled this problem of skepticism by the last work he wrote ‘On Certainty’where he took Moore’s basic propositions like ‘this is a hand’holding out his hand and claiming with certainty it was his hand, proving the existence of an external world.Our basic certaintiesmanifest themselves in our actions,forged out of a primitive trust that bridges our beliefs and our actions. Propositions may seem to say something factual about the world, and hence be open to doubt, but really the function they serve in language is to serve as a kind of framework within which empirical propositions can make sense. Wittgenstein compares these sorts of propositions to a riverbed, which must remain in place for the river of language to flow smoothly, and at another, he compares them to the hinges of a door, which must remain fixed for the door of language to serve any purpose. The key, then, is not to claim certain knowledge of propositions like “here is a hand” but rather to recognize that these sorts of propositions lie beyond questions of knowledge or doubt. By suggesting that certain fundamental propositions are logical in nature, Wittgenstein gives them a structural role in language: they define how language, and hence thought, works. If we begin to doubt these sorts of propositions, then the whole structure of language, and hence thought, comes apart. Skeptical doubts purport to take place within a framework of rational debate, but by doubting too much, they undermine rationality itself, and so undermine the very basis for doubt.Doubt presupposes certainty.In essence, skepticism only has a foothold when we abstract it from the activity of everyday life.Only by removing language from all possible contexts, and hence rendering language useless, can skepticism function. Over time what we do builds up into what we "know" - what seems obvious. This obviousness removes doubt from certain portions of our lives. And then we may act. The book's concerns are largely epistemological, its main theme being that there are some things which must be exempt from doubt in order for human practices to be possible. Scepticism is answered by appeal to the fact that beliefs inhere in a system, and the second of which is that this system of beliefs rests on foundations which give those beliefs their content.

  • Comment number 7.

    I have a world picture. Is it true or false? Above all it is the substratum of all my enquiring and asserting. Skepticism gets no purchase because our beliefs inhere in a system (the first component) which rests upon foundations (the second component), which latter non-negotiably constitute the conditions upon which our beliefs have content Ñ and which therefore constitute the conditions even for doubting, which, therefore again, cannot take the foundations for their target.There is always the problem of relativism,that truth or knowledge are not absolute or invariable,dependent upon viewpoint,circumstances, historical conditions,time,because it challenges us to justify, as a whole, the scheme within which mundane judgments get their content and have their life.Somethings must be taken without question for us to function as goal-directed human beings, sharing a common ground.
    Skepticism is thus a self-detonating position. skepticism uses an argument against logic and experience that requires logic and experience. To doubt, one must have a foundation from which to doubt. He must have a position of truth to which he can retreat when he spots a falsehood. The skeptic wishes to criticize this position and any such positions, while still maintaining a meaningful existence as a humanbeing who uses language and takes action. To question claims requires that one hold at least a few prior claims as certain. That is, the human condition is such that it begins with non-doubting. This presupposed certainty involves the meaning of words in use, "If you are not certain of any fact, you cannot be certain of the meaning of your words either.The certainty of words depends upon particul;ar facts of life.Doubt has meaning only in a language game.I think this frames the
    question of scepticism more fruitfully.


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