The Roots of Skepticism?

Posted on January 31, 2012


How do we deal with the fact that morals find their basis not outside of but within small communities?

The history of the modern West à la MacIntyre’s After Virtue:

  1. Sensing, perhaps, the encultured and less-than-absolute nature of the dominant ethical system (and philosophy as a whole), Descartes jumps off the Aristotlean ship and, floating alone in the sea, attempts to construct an island underneath himself (i.e. a rationalistic foundation for virtue).
  2. Enlightenment philosophers, flailing about, scan the horizon for a suitable alternative to Aristotlean ethics (all the while clinging to its side). A few apparitions appear but none can board passengers.
  3. Nietzsche pronounces that no other ship is coming and, in fact, Aristotleanism wasn’t a ship in the first place–just a series of men with a strong will to power. Only the will matters, so man-up and tread water.

What’s interesting about MacIntyre’s account is that he does not claim that we can find absolute certainty (as Descartes had hoped), and he does not seem to believe in the existence of a priori knowledge. He contends that we’re all on the open sea and the only ship that appears to float is Aristotlean.

As an aside, I see very little difference between the method MacIntyre uses and the methods of naturalism. The true naturalist is not trying to create a unified system of knowledge based on one irreducible element (e.g. physicalism). Instead, the true naturalist is exploring what we know in each discipline separately and derives knowledge from his interaction with phenomena. This person is kin with MacIntyre. The gene they have in common manifests itself as a commitment to internal goods.

But let me return to MacIntyre. I appreciate the way in which he undermines those who search for ground zero. I appreciate his contention that morals only make sense within a system of cultural mores, which themselves cannot be justified. How should I live my life? What matters? Answers to these questions are the domain of families and small communities. And the answers come in the form of cultural mores (of both religious and secular origin) passed on from generation to generation. They are part of the fabric of one’s society. Lest anyone accuse him of naive multiculturalism, MacIntyre is clear that those mores can be improved upon as communities examine themselves and come into contact with other, very different communities.

This insight is troubling for the undergraduate college student who is suddenly meeting people from radically different cultures and is committed to providing a basis for his own community’s morals. Inasmuch as he tries to look outside the community or culture for an external justification, he runs into problems. Your morals are the standard by which you judge. If you are examining the morals given to you, you are inevitably taking up a different standard and different morals. This can be useful if you recognize what you are doing and eventually return to your engendered mores. But the experience and subtlety of an 18 year old are not up to the task. The critical mindset–question everything–promiscuous on every college campus, coupled with the culture of mobility, both social and literal, breeds a generation of skeptics. Suddenly you find yourself asking unanswerable questions such as How should I live my life? and What matters? Suddenly you are in the position of having to choose your own culture, of having to choose something that in its most useful form is subconscious.

Finding yourself in this position, you might be tempted to throw up your hands and conform dispassionately to the faith of those around you; that’s what the earliest skeptics did. Here in America, that means you’d probably settle into one of the varieties of naturalism. Begin with your sensory experience, posit the simplest explanations for the appearance of things around you, and then cull all the imperfect explanations by a process of falsification.

Like MacIntyre’s Aristotleanism, naturalism in its best forms is a type of soft skepticism. We may not be able to know everything, but we can know, with reasonable probability, a lot about this circumscribed area of study, be it physics or chemistry, or biology, or psychology. But naturalism also leads one to the conclusion that positing something beyond our bodily experience (e.g. God) is not necessary. And if God is not necessary to our system of knowledge, why posit him in the first place?

I wish I were able to mount a direct assault on naturalism at this point. But the only way forward to God that I can see at this point, while still acknowledging some coherence between the physical world and a life of faith, is to submit to a more fundamental skepticism, the kind I found compelling in my immature college days. This type of skepticism would require that faith be reasonable but would acknowledge at the same time that no faith can find its basis in a purely materialistic system of knowledge. That would be like trying to build a boat on top of a boat on the open sea.

Posted in: Culture