A Skepticism Which is a Genuine Antidote to Nihilism

This post reflects the thesis of an earlier post We Cannot Know that We Know

In the fifthteen and sixteenth centuries skepticism supported nihilism by undercutting religious beliefs. Twentieth and twenty first century nihilism is supported by dogmatic adherence to scientism. Traditionally skepticism removes knowledge to make room for faith. Skepticism can resume its traditional role by undercutting nihilism with skepticism about scientism.

Scientism is the faith that there is nothing but that whose order and connection is uncovered by the methods of natural science. The “stuff” of science is the “stuff” of reality. I characterize scientism as a faith to avoid distractions from attacking the roots of scientism with superficial attacks upon scientism as a knowledge claim or faith in a successful practice. Scientism is easily refuted as self-referentially inconsistent when characterized as the theory that we can know nothing but that which is known by the methods of natural science. Science does not address the truth or falsity of scientism.

Scientism is a temptation. Despite the critiques of scientism as a doctrine, I am tormented by a thought that if I were honest, I would not hope that reality be such that religious claims be true of it. A man betrays his wife if he hopes for a love with a woman which is higher, better, etc., than any love he can ever has with his wife.

What is that to which I ought to be faithful by not seeking more than scientism? It is not any scientific theory. For a principle of science is proposing all theories as in principle refutable. Science, so to speak, is not married to any theories. There actually is not any scientific community to which one can owe any deep loyalty.

I fear that I am betraying truth by hoping that more than what can be discovered by science is true. How might I be betraying truth? I have a picture of reality as that which provides truth conditions for what we think and say. This picture is of an immense plurality of separate things spread out in some spatial temporal order. It is a very fuzzy picture. Even fuzzier than my picture of the cosmos with galaxy upon galaxy. Nonetheless it is a significant aspect of my realism that there is a reality apart from sensing or thinking. As a beginning student of philosophy Wittgenstein’s Tractatus articulated this picture for me. It seemed to me to go to the heart of what philosophy should say.

I write “significant aspect” because my aim here is to use skepticism to separate a picture of truth conditions from belief in truth conditions. I do not betray truth by setting aside pictures of truth conditions. Indeed, I betray truth by fantasizing something else as showing me the truth about truth.

As fuzzy as this picture may be, it leaves no place for whatever it would be that makes religious accounts, such as Luke’s account of the Annunciation, true. Whatever makes claims true in this fuzzy picture is composed of, constructed from, stuff – the separate things. Reality, if such there be, that makes religious claims true is not built up from simpler components.

According to the picture underlying scientism the only real possibilities are those which are compositional. Thus on the realism which underlies scientism, God is not possible. And whether they admit or not, millions of educated people are realists about science and also hold something like that fuzzy pluralist picture of truth conditions. It is “the facts out there which show science gives the truth.” Thus for millions, nihilism threatens because of what I have called “modal atheism.” A modal atheist holds that God is not a real possibility. See my A Kantian Condemnation of Atheistic Despair, New York 1998

The faith I aim to undercut is faith in human thought as representing reality only if it represents reality as constructed from elements. Human thinking, though, is compositional. I do not want to cast total doubt about human thinking. I aim to cast doubt upon the associated belief that reality is structured as thought is structured. The scepticism which undercuts deep scientism is skepticism that the order and connection of reality is the order and connection of human thinking. I have called this the Parmenidean Postulate.

The standard philosophical problems provide enough evidence to cast doubt on this picture of truth conditions. An old, but classic, dismissal of this picture is the Appearance part of F. H. Bradley’s Appearance and Reality. A more recent critique is Richard Rorty’s Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1979.

I do not want to cast doubt on one picture of reality to make room for faith in another picture of reality. The target of my skepticism is pictures of reality. I can have faith that there are truth conditions without any picture of truth conditions. I will not choose between pluralism and monism. I only cast doubt on the pluralistic compositional picture.

A corollary of dismissing attempts at an account of how descriptions are true of reality is that there is no epistemology that tells us how truth is attained from reality. Such an epistemology would be a theory about truth.