firmest hand in England
writing on behalf of classical liberal ideas belongs to Dr. Sean Gabb.
Only when he wandered near philosophy proper did I find something to
disagree with him about. Below is my
reply to his "On Being Uncertain: A Case for
Scepticism," Free Life Commentary, No. 105, 26 May 2003. He
graciously published this criticism in his Free Life: A Journal of
Classical Liberal and Libertarian Thought, Issue 47, 4 August 2003.
[For either article, go to his
home page, click on
the appropriate title in the left column (or the title's keywords in a
search), and then "frame" it.] See also his
From Disaster to
Catastrophe: A British Libertarian’s View of the World Wars
elsewhere on this site.
conviction” are the last words of Sean Gabb’s odd rhetorical exercise, but
we must begin with them to understand what precedes them.
argues that if no one knows anything for certain, then that’s true of
agents of the State. Having no convictions at all, one can have no
murderous convictions. For those who value their lives and property,
utter lack of conviction is therefore a mental state it would be good for
everyone to be in.
At first this reminded
me of Jackie Mason’s comic observation that if there weren’t any food,
there wouldn’t be any garbage. Upon reflection I noticed more serious
difficulties. For one, lack of knowledge and lack of conviction do not
correlate. One may be full of conviction on matters of which one has the
weakest grasp, and cautious to the point of immobility where one is
expert. Nescience is therefore no sure impediment to conviction,
murderous or otherwise.
There are other problems
with Mr. Gabb’s deduction. For one, he cannot, except arbitrarily,
restrict nescience to agents of the State. If the State’s victims are
equally ignorant, then they cannot ever hope to learn that the State
exploits them. He may, of course, retort that while they may not know
with certainty that they are victims of the State, they can come to
know it, and many other things, “as surely as they need to.” The qualifier
“with certainty” now becomes a false knot, and the slightest tug undoes
the whole modern “problem” of knowledge and its latent skepticism. And
into this crevice pours all that we normally count as knowledge, namely,
fallible, probable judgment.
Mr. Gabb implicitly
believes that we leap beyond the evidence when we claim to know with
certainty the things he claims to doubt. The implicit norm, of course, is
that one ought not leap beyond the evidence, but rather proportion one’s
belief to it. That is, he values the exigent mind, but unfortunately
conceives it according to the modern fixation with theoretical doubt. Of
course, he never lets that doubt immobilize him, any more than Hume’s
philosophy ever caused him to miss his appointment with the gaming room.
Gabb’s excruciatingly subjective, personal position, to the effect that he
is cognitively holed up in his mind, intends a real world in which things
are what they are, and wishing them otherwise will not make them so. This
dynamic of self-transcendence is a homing device that orients us toward
reality. It is as inescapably his as it is ours. It marks us as human.
But he has ideas that lead him to misinterpret that inner compass’s
The word “skepticism”
has broader and narrower meanings. A self-proclaimed skeptic may only
reject Received Opinion about a given matter (e.g., ESP, the Warren
Commission report, Iraq’s WMDs, etc.). To champion a radically negative
position on epistemology is the furthest thing from such a person’s mind.
Indeed, it is only in accordance with common epistemological standards
that he mounts his case against Received Opinion. He expects others to
judge that case by them.
skeptic, whom Mr. Gabb impersonates, may opine as promiscuously as
many people do, but never regards his opinions as ascending to the glory
of knowledge, which must be infallible and certain. Of course, the
very effort to express this opinion requires a fatal exception to
his pretense at general skepticism. For concerning what he believes about
the exigencies of mind he is nothing less than certain. His attitude
toward this immanent demandingness, as he misinterprets it, is a matter of
unalterable conviction. Unfortunately for the pretense, his view of what
the mind demands installs the very thing he believes it must disestablish.
Mr. Gabb spontaneously
knows things, just as we all do. We are all in causal relationship to all
other things, and knowledge is one effect of that metaphysical situation.
We must presuppose this fact in any attempt to deny it, and that makes the
effort to make the denial “stick” an exercise in futility. We feel our
relationship to a world that we make and that makes us. Only on the basis
of this presupposition can we meaningfully examine particular methods of
knowledge and particular knowledge claims.
Mr. Gabb’s regard for
infallibility, however, unnaturally deprives him of the use of a perfectly
serviceable word, namely, “knowledge.” And against such deprivation he
naturally rebels, a reaction that should have alerted him to the error of
his presupposition about knowledge. For our claims to know are
mostly, but not exclusively, fallible and probable. Our claim to know the
proposition in the immediately preceding sentence, for example, is
infallibly certain. It is therefore is a necessary exception to the
general rule of fallibility, which utterly requires that exception to be
true. About particular matters of fact we might be mistaken, but we cannot be mistaken about that and certain other reflections on our
cognitive relationship to the world. Ironically, Mr. Gabb shows no
indication that he regards his skepticism as anything less than a dogma
about which he cannot be mistaken. And his fixation deprives him of the
enjoyment of the irony.
So the labor of his
“case for skepticism,” with its resultant non credo,1
comes to naught. Why he feels it is important to announce his lack of
conviction regarding these matters he never makes clear (apart from
suggesting, almost in a postscript, that affirming them fits the profile
of a statist monster).
Gabb negotiates his cognitive business pretty much as everyone else does.
For no apparent purpose, however, practical or theoretical, he makes a
show of epistemological gloom-and-doom. Yes, rational certainty about
matters of fact is impossible, but acknowledging that fact does not affect
the successful conduct of that business. Our fallibility is one thing we
are certain about. Our fallibility’s being no impediment to action is
another. Between omniscience and nescience are degrees of fallible,
probable, adjustable belief. To regard them as knowledge is to satisfy
rather than flout the exigent mind.
do not believe rational certainty to be possible in any of these
subjects.” “I cannot know for sure if these [sensory] impressions are in
any sense related to an external reality independent of my perceiving
it.” “It is not inconceivable that I am now dreaming.” “I have no means
of knowing anything for sure about the world.” “Even assuming that the
world does exist, I cannot know that I perceive it as you do.” “Even
assuming further, that the world exists and that we all perceive it in
much the same way, we cannot be sure why it behaves as it does, or how
long it will continue so to behave.” “I cannot know these things [i.e.,
simple arithmetic] for sure.” “I cannot know them because I cannot know to
what degree I exist.” It seems to me that “cannot” implies certitude,
the very attitude Mr. Gabb disowns.