Why Don’t People Understand Philosophical Skepticism?

It seems like I stumble into a lot of these really bizarre conversations and I suppose I do, but more than weird discussions, I find weird people who honestly don’t have a clue what they’re talking about and apparently, they’re proud of it.  So here we go again with someone who doesn’t know a thing, they just pretend that they do.

Philosophical skepticism is a school of thought that, in layman’s terms, posits that knowledge requires rational justification.  Anyone who has read or listened to me at all knows this is the school of thought that I follow closely. Belief is not enough, you have to be able to justify your belief with objective evidence and logical argument.  Just wanting it to be true isn’t nearly enough.

But you get some people, particularly the religious, who want to poke fun at it because it gets in the way of their blind faith.  So someone recently popped up and asked if it was rational to question absolutely everything.  I, of course, said yes.  And then he broke into “do you question that it is impossible to have a perpetual motion machine?”  Well, yes I do. Because absolutely nothing is completely beyond the realm of possibilities, it just isn’t possible based on what we currently know.

And he proceeded to make fun of me.  Not because he had anything of substance to say, but because he thought it was endlessly hysterical to think that our knowledge is limited and possibly incorrect.  But the reality is, our knowledge of the universe is woefully incomplete and will likely always be so.  We learn new things every single day and for all I know, next week we’ll discover a new quantum particle that makes perpetual motion possible.  I have no way of knowing that we won’t, hence I can’t rule out the possibility.  That said though, we can only make judgements based upon current knowledge.  Today, based on what we know about physics, a perpetual motion machine isn’t possible, but I can’t say that will always be so and neither can you.

In fact, we can’t say anything to any real degree of absolute certainty.  We can’t even say we’re alive.  Even Descartes’ “I think, therefore I am” isn’t certain because we could be hyper-complex artificial intelligences that are coded to make us think that we’re thinking, but it’s just an elaborate program.  We just can’t say for sure.

So does that mean we should just believe whatever we want?  Of course not.  We do have evidence available to us right now, even if it isn’t complete and possibly isn’t even correct.  We have to go by that evidence because without it, we have nothing. In practice, using our brains logically simply works, as far as we can tell.  It seems, based on observation, that gravity is a real thing, if you jump off of a tall building, you come crashing down.  All the believing that this isn’t so in the world hasn’t been demonstrated to change the result.  Things work a certain way, our explanations of those workings seems consistent, testable and predictable, therefore we assume that our explanations are viable.  Tomorrow, that might not be the case, but for the moment, it is.  Not to acknowledge this reality is foolish, something my erstwhile perpetual motion machine joker above apparently doesn’t understand.   But that lack of understanding often leads to foolish, irrational positions like religion, which is really why the question was asked in the first place, by someone who is an ardent Christian and wants to make the non-religious and pro-rational people look foolish.  They failed though and only revealed another facet of their own irrational thinking.  In trying to discredit the intelligent, he just made himself look even less intelligent.  There’s symmetry in that somewhere.

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