This is a sample of the sort of multi-part essay question you will be required to answer for this class. Note how it conforms to the writing guidelines. You should be sure to copy this format exactly. Specifically:
- Paste the original question into the text.
- Divide your answer into subsections corresponding to the subquestions.
- Label the subsections with subheadings.
- Use short, well-organized paragraphs.
- Follow all other writing guidelines.
Summarize the problem of skepticism from a
traditional and contemporary point of view, being explicit about how they
differ. Summarize the traditional problem of induction, and the new problem (or
"riddle") of induction. Explain why the traditional problem can be dealt with
by adopting the contemporary point of view on skepticism. Explain why the new
problem can not.
Answer to Question 1
A. The problem of skepticism from a traditional point of view.
From a traditional point of view, the problem of skepticism raises doubts
about whether any knowledge based on our beliefs about the external world
is justified. Concerned with understanding how humans create knowledge, philosophers
like Descartes employ skeptical arguments to demonstrate that we cannot trust
the evidence of our senses. Illustrative of the skeptical argument is the
brain-in-a-vat example, which asks us to consider that the world might be
vastly different than we presume: we might all be brains in vats. No sensory
experience could count as evidence against this possibility, for we would
be unable to distinguish it from evidence supporting the opposite conclusion.
The argument from skepticism proceeds as follows:
1. It is possible that I am a brain in a vat.
2. If (1) is possible, then it is possible that everything
I now believe about the world is false.
3. If it is possible that everything is false, then it
is possible that I know nothing.
4. Therefore, it is possible that I know nothing.
Unable to rule out the possibility that we are brains in vats, skepticism
argues that we cannot trust the evidence of our senses, and that it is reasonable
to doubt whether we know anything at all. Skepticism does not claim that
we are brains in vats, but argues that merely raising the doubt about the
trustworthiness of our senses is sufficient reason to doubt any beliefs based
on sensory experience. Embracing the skeptical stance is to conclude that
none of our beliefs—even those based on multitudinous and consistent sensory
experiences—is justified, nor any more reasonable to hold than its denial.
Few philosophers embrace the skeptical conclusion. A traditional approach
to the problem begins by considering whether it might be possible to defend
the rationality of at least a limited set of beliefs by appealing to other,
incontrovertible beliefs. Yet skepticism calls into question every one of
our beliefs, making it impossible to gain any foothold from which to refute
it. The problem of skepticism cannot be answered via the traditional approach;
therefore, by definition, it is not a real problem.
B. The contemporary approach to the problem of skepticism, and how it differs
from the historical approach.
Contemporary epistemology is concerned with how it is possible to acquire
knowledge from perception. It begins with the assumption that we do, in fact,
know things: we have a set of beliefs which we regard as knowledge. Reflection
may reveal inconsistency in our beliefs, in which case not every belief can
be true. Whereas adopting the skeptical conclusion would have us abandon
the entire set of our beliefs and conclude that knowledge is not possible,
the contemporary approach treats the skeptical argument as a reductio ad
absurdum of its premises. This approach acknowledges that the conclusion
of a skeptical argument is often more confidently held than the supporting
premises. In order to preserve the consistency of our beliefs, contemporary
epistemology considers it reasonable to treat the conclusion of the skeptical
argument as false while rejecting one of the premises, recognizing that the
form of a deductively valid argument merely prevents one from accepting the
premises and the negation of the conclusion.
C. The traditional problem of induction.
David Hume, in the Treatise on Human Nature, argues that the problem with
induction is, essentially, that it is not deduction. Given that the premises
of an inductive argument do not logically entail the conclusion—that is,
it is possible to have true premises and a false conclusion—it is always
possible, despite overwhelming and consistent evidence to the contrary, to
find counterevidence that will render our conclusion false. Despite the fact
that every A we have ever observed is also a B, we are never justified in
using this evidence to support the claim that all As are Bs, for it would
take but a single instance of an A not being a B to undermine the inductive
inference drawn from the entire body of evidence we have accumulated to the
contrary. Skepticism posits that a person is not justified in deriving general
claims from a finite number of empirical observations. Even if one attempts
to strengthen the inductive argument by adding a premise such as the principle
of the uniformity of nature (i.e., that the future will resemble the past),
the inductive argument can never be turned into a deductive argument, for
the principle itself must appeal to an inductive argument to establish the
consistency of nature. Hume concludes that no form of reasoning in which
the premises of an argument can be true and the conclusion false (i.e., any
form other than deduction) is a reliable source of knowledge.
D. The new problem (or “riddle”) of induction.
Nelson Goodman offers what is called the “new riddle of induction”. Goodman
accepts that perfectly good conclusions can be derived from induction, and
he posits that philosophers must give an account of the principles of induction
so that we may distinguish good inductive arguments from bad ones.
An example will illuminate the problem that concerns Goodman. Suppose after
having observed some ravens that we hypothesize, using induction, that all
ravens we have observed have been observed. Using inductive inference, it
seems that we are justified to conclude that all ravens have been observed.
That this conclusion is false is not the issue, for we know that induction
from true premises can lead to false conclusions; rather, it is that we are
utterly unjustified in basing our conclusion on the stated premises. That
the form of our argument is identical to (and indistinguishable from) the
form used in perfectly good inductive arguments is Goodman’s new problem
of induction. Goodman’s work in this area is with the problem of projectibility,
which refers to the distinction between a property being either projectible
or unprojectible. In our example, “having been observed” is the type of unprojectible
property that Goodman argues cannot be legitimately used in induction.
E. Why the traditional problem of induction can be dealt with by adopting
the contemporary point of view on skepticism.
As with the problem of skepticism, the contemporary point of view regarding
induction contends that answering the skeptic is, by definition, impossible.
Nor is there even a need to prove the skeptic wrong. We know induction to
be a reliable method for drawing general conclusions about the world. Contemporary
epistemology justifies inductive reasoning by leaving open the possibility
that counterevidence may subsequently invalidate the inductive argument.
F. Why adopting the contemporary point of view on skepticism does not deal
with the new problem of induction.
While a contemporary treatment of the skeptical argument as a reductio ad
absurdum serves to shift the problem of skepticism away from whether knowledge
is possible, the same treatment applied to the new problem of induction will
not suffice. Goodman’s new riddle of induction shows that a conclusion drawn
from inductive inference may be not only false but also unjustified; hence,
a reductio ad absurdum rejection of a premise in favor of a (seemingly) more
certain conclusion is patently unjustified. No matter how strongly we hold
the conclusion to be true, it may be wholly unsubstantiated by our premises.
Goodman argues that philosophers must formulate rules for inductive reasoning
to address such things as the problem of projectibility, only one of a host
of difficulties raised by the new problem of induction. This task has thus
far proven to be exceedingly difficult.