Skepticism About a Refutation of Skepticism

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“Skepticism about a Refutation of Skepticism”

In “The Refutation of Skepticism”, Jonathan Vogel establishes an “Inference to the Best Explanation” (hereafter, “IBE”) as a means to refute skepticism about the external world. In this refutation, Vogel acknowledges that skepticism about IBE still remains a possibility, but that this kind of skepticism would be rather outlandish in character and thus could be ignored. This paper shall both establish and evaluate Vogel’s reasoning as to why he confidently dismisses any skepticism pertaining to his IBE, and furthermore will illuminate some points as to why Vogel may have mischaracterized potential threats to his method, leaving his refutation of skepticism vulnerable to doubt that is not as unorthodox as he believes it to be.

IBE is a method for promoting our ordinary, everyday beliefs about the external world (referred to as “mundane propositions”) into knowledge in the face of equally plausible skeptical competitors, which aim to deny that we have such knowledge. It is founded upon the underdetermination principle, which governs knowledge by evaluating competing hypotheses for whichever has the most epistemic merit compared to the alternatives. However, the question of “what factors add to or subtract from epistemic merit is a crucial, but controversial, matter” (Vogel, 73) that leaves the criteria for knowledge in a susceptible state. The issue that IBE sets out to solve is that both mundane propositions and their competing skeptical arguments have equal epistemic merit in virtue of the underdetermination principle – giving skeptics the ability to use a form of the deceiver argument to “show…by our own lights, we lack knowledge of the world we think we have” (Vogel, 73). Vogel identifies this position as “domestic skepticism” because it aims to challenge our ordinary knowledge claims by use of accepted epistemic principles (thus not challenging these principles as well) – and he targets this as the skepticism that is inimical to our knowledge of the world, in need of refutation by IBE.

Vogel considers a belief of epistemic merit to be the hypothesis that achieves the most explanatory success for a relevant body of facts – so according to IBE, one has good reason to accept a belief that is able to provide the best explanation pertaining to our mental lives compared to any alternative views. Yet still we are faced with the same conundrum – both ordinary claims and those motivated by the deceiver argument could effectively explain our mental lives, and we have no means to assess which is better – leaving them equal in explanatory success. With this being so, IBE holds that simplicity follows as the next criterion. So when faced with two explanations that are equally as plausible, the simpler account would be considered the better one, and thereby justified as “known” courtesy of IBE.

Why does Vogel consider simplicity to be the guide to truth for IBE? As previously mentioned, our mental lives are what need to be best explained by a belief. Vogel takes it that “we are committed to a body of epistemic principles that govern what we count as knowledge, justified belief, and the like” (Vogel, 73) and believes that inductive confirmation is an inherent part of how our mental lives function. For example, if we have experienced the sun rise every day and assume that it will rise again tomorrow, we are using induction to reach this conclusion. Induction is a generally accepted principle by philosophers and non-philosophers alike, which presupposes the observed serves as a guide to the unobserved; our knowledge of the past and present can guide our predictions for the future – giving us the impression that the world has a tendency to be simply “nice and neat”; that there is a general sense of order to things. Non-entailed beliefs are also justified by induction, which leaves us “room for error” in these mere assumptions we make by hypothesizing from what we know. Vogel claims...
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