Epistemological Skepticism A Scientific Perspective

We used to think that if we knew one, we knew two, because one and one are two. We are finding that we must learn a great deal more about and.

Arthur Eddington

All these fifty years of conscious brooding have brought me no nearer to the answer to the question, What are light quanta Nowadays every Tom, Dick and Harry thinks he knows it, but he is mistaken.

Albert Einstein

Epistemological skepticism is motivated by the same quest for truth that motivates all science and philosophy. Science is a form of organized and systematic knowledge of the world, and philosophy studies the broader basis and validity of our knowledge. The branch of philosophy that specifically concerns itself with issues related to knowledge and belief is called epistemology. Epistemology means epistemological skepticism, i.e., questioning and scrutinizing the grounds of our knowledge however, the need to differentiate between epistemology as a branch of philosophy and epistemological skepticism as a particular stance in it arises because though all lines of epistemological thought begin with skepticism, some of them apparently overcome it and posit a basis of certainty on which our knowledge of the world can be founded. In pure epistemological skepticism, on the contrary, the enquiry begins with vigorous doubting but usually fails to reach any position of indubitable certainty. Epistemological skepticism simply extends the spirit of scientific questioning and philosophical doubting to their logical extreme.

1. The courage to doubt

Human beings deeply yearn for certainty and the security afforded by it to be able to embrace epistemological skepticism one needs the moral and intellectual courage to go all the way, to pursue the truth and stick to it to the very end, without yielding to the temptations of surrounding oneself with a pile of false beliefs and illusory perceptions and being happily sheltered by them. For instance, Ren Descartes was one of the leading figures of epistemological skepticism, he had the courage to doubt almost everything, yet he finally took recourse in a flimsy shelter, the I-ness. He said, I cannot doubt myself because even to doubt myself the I is needed, otherwise who is doubting Descartes argument may sound reasonable, but involves erroneous logic. It is certain that the I exists just as it is certain that the world exists what is not certain is the nature of the world, whether it is real as we normally think it is or just a dream or some other kind of mistaken perception, and similarly though the I exists for sure  what we do not know is what kind of an existence it has, whether it is just an illusory one or a mere transient epiphenomenon and so on. The I in fact has a very amorphous being, it would be ridiculous to make it the basis of our knowledge of the world. Descartes could have easily seen the fallacy of his logic had he been more honest with his own method, but it could have simply proved too much for him and he had to abandon it after a point. More than logical acumen, therefore, epistemological skepticism needs the courage of mind which can go with the process of questioning and doubting to however far it takes, in the interests of truth  and this can be the case with mainstream science too sometimes.

2. Science and epistemology

The relation between epistemology and science can be illustrated by a simple example. The scientific method is based on observation. And to carry out observations, one needs senses, most importantly eyes. Lets now imagine a country of blind (as in H.G. Wells famous story)  is it ever possible for any kind of sophisticated science to emerge from a whole society of blind people These blind people would not be even aware that they are blind, and would carry on with their lives as if everything was normal. They may run their society and manage their affairs well, perhaps better than we do in some ways, and intellectual geniuses would be born among them too, great minds who would discover many interesting and intriguing things about the nature of their world. Consequently the blind people may have some degree of scientific understanding of the world, though many mysteries would need to be solved yet, and they may have passably good technology. As incredible as it may seem, they too can have a coherent, orderly picture of the world. The point here is that though we may normally think of blindness as an acutely disabling kind of handicap, it could be astonishing to realize to what extent an entire race of blind people could adjust to their world without even realizing that they have a serious handicap. Similarly, could it not be possible that we are blind in some ways and do not even realize our blindness We approach the world with our senses, but can there be a guarantee that the five senses we possess are all that are needed to create a fully effective interface with the world

Animals of course have not only sharper senses but sometimes these senses may qualitatively differ from those at our disposal. We obviously do not have certain sensory abilities some animals possess, but could we be not lacking in some basic form of sensory perception, which if we had we could have developed a totally different outlook of the world and our science would have been vastly different from what it is today This kind of questioning is the domain of philosophy and epistemology. In pursuing science, people make keen observations of the world with the aid of their senses and there is nothing wrong in this, but deeper philosophical enquiry is needed to undergird our scientific efforts so that we do not grow complacent in the certainty of the  knowledge obtained through our senses, in the way the men of the country of blind may tend to be, and we are always open to greater possibilities of scientific exploration. For example, the philosophical thought of the limitation of our senses may make us interested in various paranormal phenomena where people claim to see many things that are normally invisible to our eyes. The same search for truth and certainty that motivates science also motivates epistemology, but it is the job of epistemology to ensure that whatever certainty we have in the outlook of our world is not reduced to a kind of complacency and we keep advancing in our search without settling anywhere prematurely, taking mere beliefs for knowledge. Hence, science and philosophy need to go hand in hand.

3. Modern physics and epistemology

When science first originated in Ancient Greece, science and philosophy were not differentiated. Science was an integral part of philosophy  a serious effort to understand the nature of the world. Even as late as the 17th century, during the times of Galileo and Newton, science was simply known as natural philosophy, philosophical questions were still part of science and vice versa. However, since then science and philosophy separated because science was on a rapid rise and it needed to narrow down its focus and extricate itself from the broader philosophical problems in order to push ahead at an accelerating pace. For the past four centuries our knowledge of the world has made enormous strides. And just in the past few decades we have been verging toward a point of culmination of in our scientific understanding of the world. For our present purposes, it may be noted that science means physics, because physics is the fundamental science and it is the one area of knowledge that can give us most direct insights into the nature and scope of our cosmos. Although the rate of discoveries in physics continues to be as high as ever, and many more fundamental discoveries are expected to be made in the next few decades, discoveries which can radically alter our worldview  we have reached a point in our scientific quest of truth where science does not seem to make much sense in itself and once again needs to be integrated with philosophy to be able to really further our understanding.

Epistemology is no more a luxury in which philosophers tend to indulge in. Even during the first decades of the twentieth century, with the advent of quantum physics the study of epistemology assumed considerable prominence, but then was again pushed to sidelines as philosophical issues, especially those dealing with the observer-observed dichotomy, appeared intractable and most of the attention of the scientists was consumed by the need to expand the new science. At the present time science offers us a reasonably comprehensive view of the universe, but one that is so wild and vast that it craves to be put into a more meaningful philosophical framework. Today science needs philosophy more than ever, and philosophy needs science just as much. Philosophy needs to be informed more and more by science, while science needs to be greatly transformed by the touch of philosophy. What motivates the study of epistemology today is exactly the same impulse that motivates the study of cosmology or quantum mechanics or other cutting edge area of physics which explore the fundamental nature of reality. And the stance of epistemological skepticism can today be most strongly underpinned by findings, discoveries and speculations that teem at the forefront of contemporary physics.

4. Infusing science into philosophy

Modern epistemological skepticism originated with Descartes, Hume, Berkeley and other philosophers of the 18th century. However, these great philosophers could not be benefitted by the 20th century scientific understanding of the world. As we have seen, areas of philosophy mature into sciences as they develop, and even when they do not actually turn into science, they would increasingly rely on findings garnered from investigations carried out in relevant scientific fields. For example, the nature of consciousness is one of the deepest philosophical problems, one that has been discussed by so many philosophers down through the centuries. The enquiry into the nature of consciousness continues in the modern times, but now there is a difference it cannot be purely logical, speculative and philosophical anymore, it tries to take the support of various brain-related hard sciences. Similarly, the question of nature vs. nurture is a big question in philosophy and psychology, but today this question is increasingly studied in the light of findings of modern genetics which clearly bring out the specific roles played by specific genes. Even very complicated philosophical questions like free will vs. determinism can be studied much better with the aid of relevant scientific research, because the science of today is vastly more advanced than that of a hundred or two hundred years ago. Its present level of sophistication enables to us peer very deep into the secrets of nature and existence. As such, the study of epistemology needs to be revolutionized by our current scientific understanding of the world.

5. Increasing knowledge, decreasing clarity

It is possible to conceive that the nature of consciousness would be scientifically determined one day, thereby ending all debate on the subject. This is highly unlikely but perhaps not outside the realm of possibility. And when the nature of consciousness is clearly understood in scientific terms, we would have reached a point of certainty, but even that certainty would be limited to a certain context. Epistemological skepticism cries out that whatever knowledge and certainty achieved by science is only tentative, valid for theoretical and practical purposes, but need not relate to the heart of reality or correspond to the exact nature of things as they are. And mainstream science rather tends to agree with this view. Certainty is a thing of past in science (i.e., physics). Perhaps the last scientist that basked in the warmth of certainty was Lord Raleigh when he declared in the 1890s that modern physics has come to an end, all things that needed to be discovered have already been discovered, and we have a near complete picture of the universe which would become perfected in the next several years. In the following years, however, the whole Newtonian edifice of physics was shattered, first by the theory of relativity and then by quantum mechanics. Newtonian science continues to be valid, but only within a certain context. In the 20th century, every major discovery in physics that expanded our mental horizons has, instead of bringing us closer to certainty, led us to more puzzlement and bewilderment. This trend has become particularly accentuated in the past one or two decades.

Epistemological skepticism simply states that we are not, and in the final analysis cannot ever be, certain of what is really out there. And this is more or less a common perception among many deep-thinking theoretical physicists of today. What physicist Arthur Eddington referred to as and seems to go on forever and forever. We can know about one for sure, but the whole problem comes when we try to put one and one together and try to make it into two. Facts are known but conclusions cannot be reached. Our increasing knowledge is only exposing an increasing ignorance. The stronger our certainty has grown in certain matters, the deeper is the abyss of uncertainty opening just beyond them. Most theoretical physicists commonly acknowledge the lack of clarity and comprehensiveness in our current picture of the world. On the question of whether this picture would be more consolidated or more diffuse a hundred years from now, scientists could be divided though. But if we consider the fact that a hundred years ago our understanding of the universe though vastly much more limited was significantly more consolidated than it is today, it would seem like the trend will continue. A hundred years from now, our knowledge of the universe would be incredibly greater than it is today, and so could be the levels of our confusion when we try to form a coherent and comprehensive picture out of our existing knowledge.

Why does this happen

6. Difficulties in conceiving

A basic problem about of our knowledge of the world, which the traditional epistemologists did not properly consider, is that the nature of reality may simply be vastly more complex than anything the human intelligence can understand or conceive. The complexity and the vastness of our world, as revealed by science, can be considered as the two basic principles informing the argument of epistemological skepticism. Our knowledge of the world already far surpasses our ability to conceive it. For instance, a number of the fundamental aspects of relativistic and quantum physics are simply not possible to be conceived by the human mind. A simple tenet of quantum mechanics such as an electron jumping from one orbital to the next without ever being in between is something that cannot be pictured by the human mind, and yet this is the whole foundation of the quantum science Also, though we tend to picture the electron as a tiny ball, we know that this is a gross simplification and an actual electron would look very different from it, if at all the word look can even be applicable to such a thing as electron. Similarly our minds are thoroughly embedded in Newtonian worldview and we cannot really picture most of the things in Einsteins theory of relativity, such as how time could be speeded up or slowed down or how space could be stretched or shortened. It is common knowledge that our universe is constantly expanding, meaning that the space of the universe itself is stretching out, but we cannot conceive into what this space is stretching since technically there is no space outside of the universe. The human mind seems to be a very primitive mechanism when faced the immense challenges of really making sense of many concepts of modern science. Epistemological skepticism talks about the dissociation between the picture we have of the world in our minds and the real world out there, and in modern science we already see a great gulf between the mathematically derived picture of the world and our rather simplistic conception of it.

The endeavor of science is based on the premise that we can make sense of the world, and science is a quest for knowledge and certainty. If science would be successful in its mission, then epistemological skepticism is dealt a major blow. But this same science has brought us to a position where for the past one hundred years so many great minds have been crying out that nothing really makes sense any more. The sense of solidity and certainty perhaps evokes nostalgia in most theoretical physicists of today. When Kepler talked about planets revolving around the sun in divine harmony, it formed a rather clear picture in his mind, and there was total precision to it. On the other hand, when Bohr talked about electrons moving around the central nucleus inside an atom, there was still complete mathematical precision to it, but it presented only a fuzzy, chaotic picture. It is almost hundred years since Bohr proposed the solar system model of the atom, and technology is now so advanced that we are actually able to take pictures of individual atoms from the outside today, yet as regards what goes on inside an atom, nobody has any kind of clarity that can be converted into a coherent mental picture.

7. The Realm of the small

We can easily have a functional conception of chemical interactions between atoms and molecules, with just a little simplification involved especially as regards to electrons we can conceive how individual atoms are arranged in a molecule and things like that, but that seems to be the limit of both our physical vision and mental vision. When we try to go to a level below that, peer into the void of the atom  an atom is more than 99.99999 empty space   reality is already slipping from us. It is most probably theoretically impossible to photograph the inside of an atom, but we may never be able to conceive with a good degree of fidelity what all is happening inside an atom. And an atom is an immensely huge entity when compared to most of the things present inside the atom, so how to conceive what could really be happening inside the atomic nucleus at the quark level, for example

At present the shortest length we could mathematically arrive at is the Planck length, which is on the order of 10-35 meters. It is so small that a Planck length is to an atom what a tree is to the whole universe. It would not be meaningful to talk of a length shorter than this because at this scale the fabric of space-time itself breaks down. But this does not mean that there is nothing beyond it as space itself ceases to exist just beneath this level, on the contrary everything seems to exist below the Planck scale It is a very seething and hectic world down there, full of particles coming into and going out of existence spontaneously. In fact, to understand the concept of quantum gravity  the most elusive nexus between the theory of relativity and quantum mechanics  we have to study this level of existence more closely. Many most interesting things, outside the scope of this essay, happen at this level. Quantum gravity is the holy grail of modern physics, and we would have to dive so deep in order to pursue it (Callender   Huggett, 2001). This level is in fact the key to understanding many fundamental things in modern physics, and it is so small that an atom is literally the size of a whole universe compared to it.

In his latest book, Physics of the Impossible, Michio Kaku (2009) talks about three kinds of impossibilities class 1 impossibility is something which may seem very difficult but could be achieved in the next hundred years, class 2 impossibilities are those that may take hundreds to thousands of years to achieve, and class 3 impossibilities are simply impossible as far as we can ascertain with our knowledge. For example, an invisibility cloak is a class 1 impossibility, while journey to stars is a class 2, and a seemingly simple thing such as a perpetual machine is a class 3, it can never be achieved as it violates fundamental laws of physics. Reaching certainty of knowledge in view of the complexity and vastness of the universe may either be a class 2 or class 3 impossibility, but most likely it is class 3.

8. The realm of the big

While the infinite complexity of the universe can be better illustrated by exploring the realm of the small, the infinite vastness of the universe can be clearly seen in the realm of the big. A hundred years ago, people thought our galaxy is all that there is to the universe. Edwin Hubbles discoveries of other galaxies and the expansion of the universe in the 1920s changed all that. A hundred billion galaxies are now easily fit into the known universe. And all this visible matter constitutes only 5 of the mass of the universe, while 25 is made up of some mysterious dark matter, and the remaining 70 is made up of even more mysterious dark energy (Gates 2010). But our whole universe is nothing because in the recent years physicists, astronomers and cosmologists have come to commonly accept that this universe of ours is just a part of the vast multiverse. Without positing a multiverse, a crucial concept that is needed to explain the big bang  the inflation theory  does not work. The existence of a multiverse is hinted at from some other directions as well. And if string theory, which is currently the most popular and happening fundamental theory of physics, turns out to be substantiated in the future the number of universes in the multiverse could be 1051, which is a number vastly greater than anything we can possibly conceive. And this multiverse would exist in many more dimensions than the currently known four (Gribbin, 2009).

A very curious thing here is that the space beyond our universe, if at all it could be called space, could be rather similar to the space at the Planck scale. In fact they could be in some ways connected. We must remember that our universe itself started as a very tiny dot at the time of the big bang, and most probably it was originally just a tiny bubble emerging in the quantum foam at Planck length.

One of the most mysterious things that happen below the Planck length is that the boundary between existence and non-existence blurs. And perhaps this poses the greatest challenge to our understanding how can something come into existence out of nonexistence How could our universe and the multiverse that it is part of could ever come into existence at all

9. Science comes full circle

Thousands of years ago, the endeavor science started on the premises that the world can be known and understood, that there is a regularity and pattern to things, that things always follow cause and effect. But the same science has brought us to a stage where we realize that the complexity of the universe simply escapes human comprehension. Science began by pursuing the train of cause and effect, but today when we can look past the edge of black holes where, beyond the event horizon, causation simply collapses and physics is no longer applicable. And black holes can be anywhere and everywhere in our universe from tiny virtual blacks holes at below the Planck length to the hyperspace between the universes, connecting the various universes as it were. And considering that our universe started as a singularity, very much like the one that would be present at the bottom of a normal black hole that forms after a super nova, our universe itself can be considered as the other side of a black hole. So the principle of causation could be violated very often, undermining the basis of science. And then, science began by noticing regular patterns over time, but that same science has brought us to the realization that time itself can flow back, or can go berserk in many ways.    


If certainty can ever be found, it cannot be found in the realm of space, time and causation. Perhaps we have to seek to transcend the realm of space, time and causation to arrive at the absolute truth, assuming that some such ultimate ground of existence exists. It can be only achieved, as so many mystics down through the ages have hinted, by mitigating the distinction between the observer and the observed. As long as we remain outside observers of the universe, all our knowledge may be just a dream.  

The frank realization that physical science is concerned with a world of shadows is one of the most significant of recent advances.


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