The Cure for Epistemological Skepticism

Uh oh! I think I’ve caught the bug. Its symptoms are constant second-guessing and a pervasive sense of meaninglessness. Its treatments are Distraction and Revolution. If you’re John Lennon in the autumn of 1966 and you have the bug you write Strawberry Fields Forever. If you’re Tarek Zaher in the winter of 2019 you write a mediocre Medium article. At least that’s what I think—I can’t be certain.

The red gateway to the Strawberry Fields garden in Liverpool, England.
The red gateway to Strawberry Fields garden in Liverpool, England

What is the bug I’m talking about? At bottom, it’s an insatiable desire for certainty. Rene Descartes may have been one of the first to contract it. He decided to doubt everything that could be doubted. The outside world went, because our entire experience of it could be one big hallucination or dream put to us by an evil demon. Our conscious experience, however, could not. It is, he argued, a solid epistemological bedrock that we can be 100% certain is real.

What’s rarely mentioned here is that, for Descartes, “I think therefore I am” was only step one in a long stairway of flawed logical reasoning that led to the restoration of our certainty in the outside world. He was yearning for something deeper, but his reason could only take him so far. Not long after, God died, modernity faded away, and post-modernism took the throne of our collective intuitions. Most of us have given up on finding some objective, absolute truth or meaning. What’s the alternative?

Distraction

Living is easy with eyes closed
Misunderstanding all you see

It’s too much! Ignore that voice that questions everything. It provides no benefit. It’s annoying. Lots of prominent intellectuals propose this treatment to the bug. What do you think about them? Personally I prefer my distractions stated less explicitly. I only like to be distracted if I don’t know I’m being distracted!

Entertainment is the best non-distraction we’ve invented yet, because our attention gravitates to its colors and characters and explosions like a meteor to a black hole and we find ourselves incapable of thinking of anything else including our selves and our doubts and their children, self-doubts. But the only problem is that the black hole disappears after two hours or so (talk about Hawking Radiation!). Then we’re once again left floating along in the empty void of space with no purpose or destination, casting our meteoric tail of tears, ice, and dust behind us.

Entertainment feels like a solution to all of the uncertainty and cynicism and meaninglessness in the world because it is. But it’s only a temporary solution. I’m interested in something more long-term. Maybe we don’t need to distract ourselves at all. Maybe entertainment can become a positive joy rather than a negation of existential suffering. Perhaps for some it already is.

Revolution

Nothing is real
And nothing to get hung about

Can you imagine an 80-year-old professor who finally gives up? “I tried!”, he says. “I searched and searched for 62 years! I told myself that yes, it’s possible there isn’t any absolute, objective truth or meaning and that even if there was it’s possible we are epistemologically incapable of perceiving it, but we can’t know if either of those situations are the case until we try! I searched for it in Plato and Aristotle! I searched for it in the scientific literature about planets and stars and the big bang! I went across the world to conferences and universities and searched for it in the eyes of my colleagues! I can’t seem to find it anywhere! And here I am, 80 years old. I never thought to search for that relative truth and meaning which I now see is the most important precisely because it is relative. How should I live my life? How should she? It is relative and that’s okay! I shouldn’t have thrown my life away!” And then he died, a well-read man.

On the one hand, maybe the professor and John are right: Nothing is real (at least as far as we can tell), and it’s nothing to get hung about. Of course, we want things to be real/meaningful and it makes us sad if they aren’t. But we don’t give up. We don’t kill ourselves. We revolt against the absurdity by feeling happy when we’re sad and feeling right when we’re wrong! And we aren’t self-deluding ourselves. We know exactly what we’re doing, but we do it anyways!

On the other hand, maybe they just didn’t try hard enough to find the truth. 80 years seems like a lot, but really it’s chump change compared to the collective trans-generational search for truth modern science currently has underway. Maybe the world is extremely complicated and it therefore takes much more than one lifetime to understand. Maybe it takes 50! Or 500! Or even 5000! We can’t know for sure, but we can be patient while the professionals figure it out.

I don’t know how you feel, but I’m happy to wait and to fund them with my tax dollars and donations. After all, the incidental benefits of the scientific project are substantial and pleasing—air-conditioning, computers, awe-inspiring photos of the cosmos that make us re-evaluate the scale of our everyday worries.

Unfortunately, as it concerns the real promise of science—pure, unbiased access to the objective metaphysical truth of all things—I stand on the side of John and the professor for now. It’s not that I’m unwilling to wait 5000 generations while they figure it out—I would if I could! It’s just that I’m 21 years old already and the food is starting to get cold. I hope they’ll forgive me if I start eating without them.

Studying Political Philosophy at UT Austin | Interested in the origins, philosophy, and science of earthly happiness and morality. | www.tarekzaher.com