From Skepticism to Inquiry

One of the hazards of teaching philosophers like Descartes and Hume is that some students are too willing to embrace the skeptical claims and sit content with not being able to know. The idea that “It’s all just a matter of the individual’s subjective opinion” can be powerfully appealing to people who haven’t yet figured many things out and feel a bit overwhelmed with competing claims to truth. It also feeds into our society’s hyper-individualism and distorted conceptions of liberty. Many people feel they are in familiar and comfortable territory when what to believe can be reduced to nothing more than a consumer choice, a matter of personal taste, 

But this uncritical skepticism or subjectivism is not reasonable. That is, it serves as a way of not taking reasons seriously. It amounts to rejecting the project of inquiry, which unavoidably comes with the perilous risk of getting things wrong and finding reasons to change your mind. 

If we are going to take inquiry seriously, we might start by noting that while we have some clever arguments for skeptical claims from Hume, we also have some very impressive examples of successfully figuring things out in the recent history of science and technology. This means we have problems. And this is exactly how most philosophers regard skeptical arguments in epistemology. Hume gives us the problem of induction, that is, the problem of figuring out why and how empirical inquiry works (in a way that is responsive to the worries Hume raises). Problems are not points where we give up, they are points where we look for new ways to frame issues, new arguments to consider, or previously unnoticed problems in arguments we’ve found persuasive. Problems in philosophy are data points, not resting places.

So at the outset of this chapter I offer one way of approaching philosophy of science: Let’s look at our most successful knowledge producing practices and see just how we gain knowledge using these practices. This has the potential to explain how we can know in a way that isn’t as vulnerable to our prior skeptical worries. So, in this chapter, we’ll see Carl Popper answering Hume in just such a manner. And then Kuhn offering a more sophisticated development of Popper’s approach in a way that is sensitive to the historical development of science.

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