Reality and Radical Skepticism

radical skepticism

There was a time when notions of the obvious were so simply eloquent that there was no need to meddle with its argumentation. In fact, there was no argumentation needed since the obvious was so, well obvious. Then came the postmodernist, deconstructionist ideologies that aimed to topple the towers of fundamental knowledge and question the nature of truth itself. Radical skepticism opened the door to the unknown and the unknown became all things to all people in all ways. From the perilous skepticism of Satan in the garden of Eden questioning God’s command, “Has God really said?” to the prevailing cultural redefinition of words and ideas in the latter half of the 20th century onward, skepticism about the known world has found safe harbor in the arms of the culture that embraces it for the tolerance of its misguidedness.

By eliminating reality, postmodernists takes aim at knowable truth and quickly demolishes the understanding of right and wrong paving the way for a culture that seeks this freedom to overthrow what is thought to be “the totalitarian regime” that has reigned over it. Quickly, ideas are made relative, truths are redefined as preferences and wrongs are rationalized by deconstruction. But how can we doubt things that are so obvious? We can do it only after a slow deterioration of the fabric of reality, only after we’ve slowly amputated descriptions from facts, and only on the heels of the movement which gradually alters our perception of the world.

Naturally, radical skepticism steps forward and proclaims that we can not have accurate knowledge about the physical reality that exists outside our minds. But what evidence could possibly be presented for this? Is it not merely an imagined doubt of reality and not really anything practical that we have to answer to? After all imagining a doubt isn’t the same as actually doubting. Just because there is no logical contradiction in doubting reality does not mean we have adequate justification for doubting it. The mere possibility of doubt does not give us sufficient grounds for it.

When such a possibility is asserted that reality is imagined, all we really have is the skeptic’s mere assertion of a mere logical possibility. The claim, however, must not be allowed to move forward without first understanding that it must shoulder the burden of proof. Additionally, we have to be mindful that embracing the skepticism causes a denial of many of the prior beliefs which have contended for knowledge through their epistemic weight.

Logical possibilities cannot replace good old-fashioned warrant for belief. If they were allowed to be sufficient grounds for truth, nothing would stop us from claiming all mere logical assertions as true. All logical possibilities would be true, which is plainly absurd.

If we go on to doubt reality on account that our senses deceive us, we must concede that many times our senses do not. It’s true that what we perceive when we put a pencil in a glass of water is not necessarily as true as we see it to be. The pencil is not really bent or broken as we may perceive. However, to know that our senses sometimes deceive us is to know that sometimes they do not. In other words sometimes does not mean always. In fact, doubting reality is self-refuting since it requires as true what it tries to show is not true. If we can not know true reality but claim to prove it using knowledge of that uncertainty, our hypothesis is already dead in the water. One can not borrow from what he claims does not exist to prove a case against it. Furthermore, this level of radical skepticism undermines the most basic levels of scientific progress as a means to understand the reality that is around us. Also, the success of the scientific methodology is a strong argument against this skepticism, especially since it very well corresponds with the majority of our perceptions of this world.

This barrage of skepticism has also found its way to undercut reality by appealing to language as the relative understanding of conceptual thought. Language is seen as a distortion of reality since there is no reference to an extra-linguistic world. Language is said to only refer to other languages unable to understand objective reality. This. however, is not true. Ostensive definitions, which are things we define by simply physically pointing to them, help us see that. We do use words to communicate information about the extralinguistic world. Is there no objective reality, no objective truth? As Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) famously wrote,

“What then is truth? A movable host of metaphors, metonymies, and anthropomorphism; in short, a sum of human relations which have been poetically and rhetorically intensified, transferred and embellished, and which after long usage, seem to a people to be fixed, canonical and binding. Truths are illusions we have forgotten are illusions; they are metaphors that have been worn out and have been drained of sensuous force, coins which have lost their embossing and are now considered as metal and no longer as coins.” INietzsche, Friedrich, On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense (unpublished) 1873.

The simple fact is that if truths are metaphors or illusions, then Nietzsche’s claims are also metaphors and illusions and can’t be trusted. If truths are not metaphors or illusions then Nietzsche was simply wrong. In either case, it does not take long to understand the logical quandary. Simple truths make it easy for us to proclaim things true without having to worry about such philosophical musings. It is true that the Earth has only one moon. Standards of rationality are not relative to a community as proved by the principle of non-contradiction, which states that something cannot both be and not be at the same time in the same respect. This fundamental principle of logic to applies to all.


I Nietzsche, Friedrich, On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense (unpublished) 1873.