Answering the Skeptic
by J.P. Moreland
In spite of the shortcomings of the hit movie, The Matrix, the first film in the trilogy raised important questions about human knowledge.
If Neo could never be sure that he wasn’t in the Matrix, how can you and I be sure that we’re not in the Matrix?
For example, how did Neo know when he was in the Matrix and when he was in the real world? If his experiences before taking the red pill were produced by the Matrix, how could he be sure his experiences after taking the red pill weren’t also produced by the Matrix? In other words, how could Neo be certain he ever left the Matrix? How could he be certain that his experience of leaving the Matrix wasn’t itself produced by the Matrix?
Much more importantly, if Neo could never be sure that he wasn’t in the Matrix, how can you and I be sure that we’re not in the Matrix? And if we can’t be sure — if we can’t offer an airtight argument for the conclusion that we’re not — how can we claim to know anything?
Let’s call this line of questioning “skepticism.” In this article, I’ll critique skepticism by showing that it makes indefensible assumptions about knowledge.
The Problem of the Criterion
We can distinguish two different questions relevant to the human quest for knowledge.
(1) Which of my beliefs count as knowledge?
(2) What are the criteria for knowledge?
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Question (1) asks about the specific items of knowledge you possess; answering it gives you a picture of the extent and limits of your knowledge. Question (2) asks about the specific circumstances in which a belief would count as knowledge — it asks what all instances of knowledge have in common with each other.
Now suppose you want to appraise the intellectual respectability of your worldview and, in order to do so, decide to sort all of the beliefs that compose it into two groups: those that count as knowledge and those that do not. How should you proceed? Can you sort your beliefs with any accuracy if you don’t know what the criteria for knowledge are? If not, then it seems that you should start by answering question (2). But the only way to answer question (2) is to look at instances of knowledge and see, first, what they all have in common and, second, how they differ from beliefs that don’t count as knowledge. But you can only do this if you’ve already answered question (1).
So you can’t answer question (1) if you don’t first have an answer to question (2), and you can’t answer question (2) if you don’t first have an answer to question (1). And if you can’t answer either (1) or (2), then how can you know anything at all? This predicament is what philosophers call the problem of the criterion.
Skepticism, Methodism and Particularism
There are three main responses to the problem of the criterion. First, there is “skepticism.” The skeptic claims that no good solution to the problem exists and that we therefore can’t know anything…
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