Sample Essay Question for Philosophy180

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.

Question 1

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.