To doubt everything

“To doubt everything or to believe everything are two equally convenient solutions; both dispense with the necessity of reflection.

Instead of a summary condemnation we should examine with the utmost care the role of hypothesis; we shall then recognize not only that it is necessary, but that in most cases is legitimate.”

• Henri Poincaré: Science and Hypothesis, 1905

A reflection upon the quote above asks for a philosophical approach to both epistemology and ontology—our theory of knowledge and how we exist. They are here inseparable subjects. The epistemological stance it is to pronounce one’s independence from any belief, as one doubts everything or believes everything has profound ontological implications, examplia gratia by the worldview we call solipsistic, making discussion between two men impossible as they cannot pin down each other’s exact doubts and beliefs. It’s a worldview that rejects reflection. And reflection, id est the use of Man’s reason is maybe our most salient feature as human beings, separating us from animals and inanimate objects. Descartes himself even put it thusl: “Cogit, ergo sum.”—‘I think, therefore I am’ then making reflection an existential and defining matter for what it is to be human.

Poincaré as quoted above points indirectly out the impossibility of not having a point of view. For, the view that one may believe everything and doubt anything is very much equal beliefs that take claim of not having a point of view as they reject everything and nothing at the same time. The problem with this, as put forth by so many before me is that values, opinions and thoughts on both the material and immaterial world are not all compatible. If one believes that x times x equals x2, one cannot at the same time doubt that the square root of x2 equals x. Per se notam: to understand one thing is also to realize it, also with its attendant necessities. And not only math, philosophy must also stand the test of logic. Therefore coherence is often viewed as a virtue for philosophers. Should we forget this will reflection be impossible as each man declares himself an independent mind beyond any point of view that can be pinned down and discussed in universal terms.

So, I do agree with Poincaré on that “To doubt everything or to believe everything are two equally convenient solutions; both dispense with the necessity of reflection” but in addition he postulates that some ‘hypothesis’ should be the answer to this philosophy of doubting. But Poincaré did not live to see the army of professors to come in the sixties and onwards who spent all their time and energy to find the right hypothesis of doubt. The form of an argument does not necessarily validate it. Therefore I must disagree on this point.

Adverbial theory—the theory that ‘I see a blue patch’ in fact means ‘I see bluely’ is one hypothesis of many, constructed to avoid true reflection upon reality as reality. The point of constructing such theories is of course very unclear, other than obscuring reality and upholding a strict phenomenological view on the world. As John Stuart Mill once stated: “Objects are only permanent possibilities of sensation.” To think in such a manner does not tell us one thing about the world we inhere in. What it does is rather to make every ‘I’ the torque of each individually perceived world. It is rightly called solipsism.

This is not to say that philosophy is an empirical study. Poincaré is right insofar as philosophical propositions never can go beyond the form of a hypothesis. But philosophy does not really make sense if one does not recognize that there is an objective real world that we may produce objective and communicative reflections from. The problem for J. S. Mill and his like, I think is that they have mistaken ‘objective’ as meaning ‘true’. That is obviously not the case. I can objectively state that I have hallucinations, but it does not make the phenomenon true. It is a phenomena bene fundata: the experience is not real/true but it is founded upon reality. People who say that we have to doubt everything make the mistake of treating reality like a hallucination.

But this is of course a tautology. The only way you can accept that there is a real world is if you also mentally endow others with the ability to observe reality objectively, thus making oneself able to reflect upon the similarities in our perceptions and conclude that there is such a thing called reality. Then you realize that some things may very well be believed in with a firm stand I objectivity—but you also realize that there is a certain type of questions that still are not answered. For, only now you will be able to discern the difference between empirical and philosophical enquiry. That is not possible if you make everything a philosophical question. Then you see that the question ‘What time do you arrive?’ is different from ‘What is time?’ For the first question we know where to look for an answer—either waiting for the answer, or simply waiting to observe the arrival itself. Doubt, it seems did not play a very big role in determining the answer.  But when we consider the second question we find that it is an ultimate question. We cannot define time by any higher category or concept, neither objectively look for it. And from hereon it is obvious that a hypothesis is the only meaningful form of reflecting upon these ultimate questions.

So maybe I do agree with Poincaré after all, on that a hypothesis is the only valid form for a philosophical proposition—but that must be on the right premises as explained above.

Doubt, as reason and every other ability God has bestowed on man has its uses. Poincaré’s point is to not use them thought- or heedlessly.



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