Philosophical skepticism  

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"It still remains a scandal to philosophy . . . that the existence of things outside of us ... must be accepted merely on faith, and that, if anyone thinks good to doubt their existence, we are unable to counter his doubts by any satisfactory proof." --Kant, Critique of Pure Reason (1781)

"I do not believe that any proof of the existence of external things is possible." --"Proof of an External World" (1939) by G. E. Moore

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

Philosophical skepticism (UK spelling scepticism; from Greek σκέψις skepsis, "inquiry") is both a philosophical school of thought and a method that crosses disciplines and cultures.

It is generally agreed that knowledge requires justification. It is not enough to have a true belief: one must also have good reasons for that belief. Skeptics claim that it is not possible to have an adequate justification.

Skepticism is not a single position but covers a range of different positions. In the ancient world there were two main skeptical traditions. Academic skepticism took the dogmatic position that knowledge was not possible; Pyrrhonian skeptics refused to take a dogmatic position on any issue—including skepticism. Radical skepticism ends in the paradoxical claim that one cannot know anything—including that one cannot know anything.

Skepticism can be classified according to its scope. Local skepticism involves being skeptical about particular areas of knowledge, e.g. moral skepticism, skepticism about the external world, or skepticism about other minds, whereas global skepticism is skeptical about the possibility of any knowledge at all.

Skepticism can also be classified according to its method. In the Western tradition there are two basic approaches to skepticism. Cartesian skepticism, named somewhat misleadingly after René Descartes who was not a skeptic but used some traditional skeptical arguments in his Meditations to help establish his rationalist approach to knowledge, attempts to show that any proposed knowledge claim can be doubted. Agrippan skepticism focuses on the process of justification rather than the possibility of doubt. According to this view there are three ways in which one might attempt to justify a claim but none of them are adequate. One can keep on providing further justification but this leads to an infinite regress; one can stop at a dogmatic assertion; or one can argue in a circle.

Philosophical skepticism is distinguished from methodological skepticism in that philosophical skepticism is an approach that questions the possibility of certainty in knowledge, whereas methodological skepticism is an approach that subjects all knowledge claims to scrutiny with the goal of sorting out true from false claims.

Medieval Arabic philosophy

In Islamic theology and Islamic philosophy, the scholar Al-Ghazali (1058–1111) is considered a pioneer of methodic doubt and skepticism. His 11th century book titled The Incoherence of the Philosophers marks a major turn in Islamic epistemology, as Ghazali effectively discovered a methodic form of philosophical skepticism that would not be commonly seen in the West until René Descartes, George Berkeley and David Hume. The encounter with skepticism led Ghazali to embrace a form of theological occasionalism, or the belief that all causal events and interactions are not the product of material conjunctions but rather the immediate and present will of God. While he himself was a critic of the philosophers, Ghazali was a master in the art of philosophy and had immensely studied the field. After such a long education in philosophy, as well as a long process of reflection, he had criticized the philosophical method.

The autobiography Ghazali wrote towards the end of his life, The Deliverance From Error (Al-munqidh min al-ḍalāl; several English translations) is considered a work of major importance. In it, Ghazali recounts how, once a crisis of epistemological skepticism was resolved by "a light which God Most High cast into my breast...the key to most knowledge," he studied and mastered the arguments of Kalam, Islamic philosophy, and Ismailism. Though appreciating what was valid in the first two of these, at least, he determined that all three approaches were inadequate and found ultimate value only in the mystical experience and spiritual insight (Spiritual intuitive thought – Firasa and Nur) he attained as a result of following Sufi practices. William James, in Varieties of Religious Experience, considered the autobiography an important document for "the purely literary student who would like to become acquainted with the inwardness of religions other than the Christian", comparing it to recorded personal religious confessions and autobiographical literature in the Christian tradition.

Scholars have noted the similarities between Descartes' Discourse on Method and Ghazali's work and the writer George Henry Lewes went even further by claiming that "had any translation of it [The Revival of Religious Sciences] in the days of Descartes existed, everyone would have cried out against the plagiarism."

See also

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Philosophical skepticism" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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