Tag: Epistemology

Cotter on Epistemology and Skepticism: Part 1

Cotter on Epistemology and Skepticism: Part 1

In this post I will be doing a study on the Epistemological section of the book “The ABC of Scholastic Philosophy”. The preliminary remarks are full of  definitions of certitude (which he defines as “unhesitating, firm assent (or dissent), without fear of error”), and the particular end one should aim at while doing epistemology. Cotter thinks this end will be, “Formal Certitude or Objective Certitude”, the attaining of which is the most perfect of the hierarchy of certainty. Cotter defines Formal Certitude as that  “firm assent (or dissent) which is necessarily true and known to be true”. He strengthens this definition by giving an obvious example of the equation 2+2+4. This is something know to be true, which also has a corresponding object in reality.  He contrasts this with a weaker form of certitude, one in which the first definition can possibly be in direct opposition to, “Subjective Certitude”. Cotter defines subjective Certitude as that “assent (or dissent) which is indeed firm, but really should not be firm”. Cotter, again uses obvious examples, mentioning the absurd belief of our ancestors, who once held that the earth was flat. Obviously this was held firmly, and yet there was too limited data available and it certainty did not correspond to reality. Cotter also briefly mentions respective and practical certitude, but only practical certitude will need mention in this essay. Practical Certitude is that which “is an assent (or dissent) which is firm merely for practical reasons, viz. because otherwise life would be impossible.”. An example of this would be the belief that the world will not be subject to a black hole, something practical but ultimately out of our control.

To begin, Cotter defines the views of several types of skeptics, a group of people who would obviously disagree with the philosophical enterprise he is seeking to establish. He starts by defining the views of an individual who would identify as a universal skeptic, a person who believes in no such object as a truth known with formal certitude. For the purpose of this article, we will leave his defense against the universal skeptic as the only one mentioned, but there will surely be other posts on the topic (he does mention the partial skeptic as well, but that is not entirely relevant to this work). Cotter then divides the universal skeptics into two sub groups, those of the objective and subjective skeptics. The objective skeptic believes that we do hold truths with a certain firmness, and yet we should never do so. The subjective skeptic in contrast holds that we both should not hold to any position with firmness, as indubitable, and that we, absurdly, never do hold to such a belief with a complete assent. That is to say, that we literally are never sure of anything, and we never should think or hold any position with such commitment. This will do with the definitions for now as we continue into the juice of his analysis.

Cotter after defining his terms seeks to give a lesson in the history of this skepticism, noting the Sophists held no belief in the Law of Contradiction, thinking they could prove every proposition to be a truth and a falsehood. Now, Cotter being a Thomist, thinks Aristotle solved this, but for now we will withhold judgement (plus it is outside the current area of study). After this, Cotter presents a number of arguments against Skepticism we will mention below. Here is the first argument:

  1. That statement is absurd which denies implicitly what
    it affirms explicitly.
  2. Now universal skepticism may be expressed in such a
    statement. (namely that skepticism holds to the proposition ‘skepticism is true’ implicitly while denying such a proposition can in principle hold such a value).
  3. Therefore universal skepticism is absurd.

Now this first argument looks very promising. Cotter pins the skeptic using a powerful (and quite common modernly) retorsion argument to the effect that the skeptic is committed to formal certainty even if outwardly denying it, which is obviously fallacious. Now Cotter does anticipate the charge of question begging (because you have to admit the certainty of the premises to accept the conclusion) and answers with the following: “This is not a proof in the strict sense of the word.  This is not directly addressed to the skeptics, but to such as are not yet infected with this extreme form of intellectual despair. To the ordinary sane individual the absurdity of skepticism is manifest enough.”

Perhaps this could be charged as ad hom in nature, but I do not think it needs to be. Cotter shows the absurdity of skepticism on the basis of a first principle he thinks is immediately apprehended and there is no reason to doubt. Not directly addressed to Skeptics, perhaps he could treat this as a Moorean fact, one that shows, at least the one not “infected by skepticism” , the reasonableness of accepting every day truths (like the truism that some things are held with certainty and are known factual), thus shifting the burden off the Dogmatist. It is true to the one simply looking at this argument without any prior commitments to US, any claim of skepticism has been issued a powerful defeater in the form of an argument such as Cotter’s. Thus, this would at least show the unappealingness of it. Given that this was the goal, it can be supposed Cotter is successful in achieving it.

Cotter gives a second argument appealing to pragmatic considerations. This will be displayed in the following:

  1. A doctrine is practically impossible, which cannot be carried out in practice.
  2. Now universal skepticism cannot be carried out in practice.
  3.  Therefore universal skepticism is practically impossible.

At first glance this would not appear obvious. Why ought the universal skeptic have any harder of a time living than the every man? Cotter again ahead of the critic, anticipating this objection, issues out a clear and convincing example, once again illustrating his masterful rhetorical skills. Cotter gives out a powerful set of criterion, which the universal skeptic does not follow. To quote:

“To carry out practically the doctrine of universal skepticism, one should (a) really doubt everything and (b) live accordingly. But this is impossible, nor has any skeptic ever attempted it. For (a) no one can honestly doubt in his mind about his own existence, about the existence of the world around us, about the principle of contradiction etc., though one may, of course, deny them externally. (b) Imagine the life of a consistent skeptic: Why does he get up in the morning ? Why does he eat ? Why does he breathe ?
Why does he dodge autos? If nothing is certain or if he is not sure of anything, he should do none of these things.”

This argument, which by his own earlier admission, is not a proof, but an appeal to pragmatic considerations that should speak to the lay person and the epistemic pragmatist. Cotter makes the case that, why ought a huge part of our daily experience be thrown out, when even the Skeptic doesn’t follow suit? The warrant for skepticism considerably weakens if you understand common place considerations. Hence, the epistemological skeptic is shown to be sure of at least the pragmatic value of formal certainty, and hence should see his error, follow suit in abandoning his position.

Cotter, showing the absurdity of this level of skepticism to the lay man, then seeks to wield off objections (these objections are the best part of the book). He fends off the charge of ad hominem, that he is calling the skeptics liars, by noting that the skeptic is simply inconsistent, not necessarily to be participating in purposeful deception. This appears defensible in the face of this charge, considerably softening the blow. The second objection is a bit better in gradation, which is to state that the basis on which the skeptic holds her position is found in practical certainty of the calamities that would ensue if one is not cautious of  “dodging an auto”, noting that an error merely probably will happen. Yet as Cotter notes, we cannot simply say that our belief is merely probabilistic in all of these cases. For example, the reason for dodging an automobile is because we have certainty of the disposition of our bodies in relation to the causal powers of an automobile. To say this is merely probabilistic is patently absurd. The third objection raised against Cotter is similar to the former, saying that the “rule of life” is probability, not formal certainty. While Cotter agrees that there are many cases in which we have to rely on probabilities, our certitude is only based on this. The belief that we will not get food poisoning is a practical consideration, while the fear we have in relation to a car is obviously more than this. It then follows from both these arguments that Universal Skepticism is false.

Now Cotter thinks two corollaries follow out of the defeat of universal skepticism. The first one is that we can have formal certitude of at least something. He notes in relation to the first point that while the failure of US does not entail universal assent, formal certainty is more certain that one would think, which he seeks to prove later. Secondly, he argues that it follows not everything is a two sided debate, the skeptics are simply wrong here.

We will not look with any tedious study upon Cotter’s closing objections and answers, because they are largely similar in nature and flow from eachother. Cotter simply states that things like 2+2=4 are formally certain even in the midst of errors. He also notes that the variety of errors in the world do not lead to a universal doubt, but rational skepticism, simply forcing us to make our judgments with a bit more apprehension. Most forcefully, he argues that contradictions obviously do occur among men, and yet this does not lead to any universal doubt. He also notes that it simply isn’t true that all men contradict their fellow man in every event, although in what manner we don’t he does not clarify. The first point is key because he notes later the reason for this doubt is not in the general unreliability of our faculties (which he defines later) but a missed judgment, that we simply did not fully apprehend the object of our mind.

Overall, Cotter has some powerful considerations contra skepticism, which I think have bearing still today. Cotter’s style and precision help convey this argument even clearer than the vast majority of thinkers in his tradition who have thought about this question, hammering home the absurdity of his opponents position quite artfully. Yet he does this with considerable charity, presenting understandable and well thought out arguments against his position, for the purpose of enlightening the reader.