Review: Radical Skepticism and the Shadow Of Doubt, Eli Hirsch, Bloomsbury, 2018

(draft, for Philosophy In Review. Comments welcome. Thanks to @faustroll and commentators on r/askphilosophy for help with research on an earlier draft, and to Eli Hirsch for clearing some things up with this one.)

LEV: In one place Norman Malcolm tries to imagine doubting that there is really an inkbottle in fornt of him. But it is not of great personal significance whether there is really an inkbottle.

YITZHAK: Who knows what those Cornell guys were doing with their inkbottles through those long cold Ithica winters? (page 162)

As its title may suggest, Eli Hirsch’s Radical Skepticism and the Shadow Of Doubt is about skepticism. And it duly discusses many of the topics you would expect from such a title. It discusses Descartes and Hume and Putnam and Williamson. It discusses safety conditions on knowledge and internal realism, disjunctivisim about perception and Bayesian updating. It puts forward some new arguments and argues against old ones. It refines terms.

But it’s not a conventional work of analytic philosophy. The above quotation gives the first clue: it’s a dialogue (in Hirsch’s own words a ‘dialogue/play’), set in a Yeshiva bathroom in Manhattan, conducted by three old friends. While skepticism is the main theme, like any conversation between friends it bounces between reminiscences, jokes, digressions and asides. Another sign of its unconventionality can be found in the bibliography: the most referenced thinker is not one of the luminaries mentioned above, some of whom get short schrift indeed from Hirsch’s characters, but Samuel Beckett, the absurdist playwright. Not only that, the shadow of the title, which recurs and haunts the work, is or is intimately linked to a feeling: the feeling of unfathomable loneliness.

Unfathomable loneliness isn’t the bread and butter of analytic philosophy. It sounds more the preserve of Sartre or Kierkegaard or Nietzsche. But a central claim of the book is that we can’t understand radical skepticism without understanding unfathomable loneliness. Or, maybe better: we can’t understand radical skepticism without feeling unfathomable loneliness.

And a further claim is that this loneliness is not something we can feel; we can’t imagine, as the skeptic asks us to, that our friends and family are merely hallucinations, or the products of a simulation’s code. We can’t imagine never having connected to any human ever: our self disintegrates at the prospect, Hirsch argues.

That means that skepticism is impossible. As such, Hirsch bears a superficial similarity to a distinguished band of philosophers, including those named above, who dismiss skepticism as something not to worry about. But it is only superficial. For Hirsch, skepticism has an untenable emotional consequence, rather than, as one might expect of from an analytic philosopher, an untenable logical consequence. And the big take-home message of Hirsch’s book, for me at least, is that the standard way of doing philosophy, at least sometimes, misses out by attending only to the cognitive part of our lives and not considering these emotional consequences.

This isn’t, I take it, the relatively uncontroversial claim that analytic philosophy doesn’t exhaustively account for the topics it covers. Philosophers writing about self-defense or about theism rarely talk about what it’s like to kill or injure someone, or to love God. And nor should they, one might think. Philosophy concerns itself with ideas, and isn’t in the business of giving accounts of the emotional or behavioural consequences these ideas play in our lives.

A useful metaphor Hirsch introduces helps here. Pointing out that Williamson, one of the most influential epistemologists of the noughties, is little moved by the existential impact of skepticism — of how it would make one feel and act were skepticism taken seriously — Yitzhak writes:

“For someone like Williamson epistemology is a purely intellectual enterprise. He probably doesn’t want to bring any personal baggage into it. Imagine a surgeon who has to operate on his child. He tries to forget that personal side of it in order to do his business better” (page 23)

This surely reflects how many of us go about our work. But not Hirsch’s Lev. For him, you have to take skepticism personally, to feel it deep down, before you understand it properly. It’s not enough to imagine that your inkbottle (smartphone) is an hallucination: you need to imagine your first born is one. But trying to do that, you’ll fail, for reasons I’ll explain shortly.

There are many good things to say about Hirsch’s book. The setting is evocative, instantly transporting one away from the philosophy seminar room, with its carbon-copy MacBook Airs, paper coffee cups, and young men with well-tended facial hair. This has a sort of defamiliarising effect. The use of Hebrew and Yiddish and the hinterland of the Torah suggest the same thing too: by moving away from the standard idiom of analytic philosophy papers one is encouraged to see the problem of skepticism anew, to dwell on it afresh by seeing it embedded in the life of Hirsch’s characters. The big picture, as I’ll suggest below, is both timely and wise, and the arguments that get there are interesting.

There are some places to quibble: at certain points, when philosophical precision is called for, the dialogue format is a hindrance rather than a help, as when there’s a section early on clarifying terms that drags, and will probably drag especially for the non-specialist. At times, one gets the feeling that the interlocutors are giving too much away, and should challenge more (I felt this especially concerning the n+1 argument, although I won’t discuss it here).

Overall, though, I heartily recommend the book to everyone. It’s an entertaining new look at an old problem that in addition to adding to the debate about the old problem poses interesting questions about the form philosophy should take and the emotional role it should play in our lives. These are just the sort of questions for an era where many philosophical debates are being fought over by the public at large often ineptly, viciously, and with bad consequences.

In this review, I’ll do two things. Firstly, I’ll set out the structure and main argument of the book, about the emotional impossibility of doubting, and then I’ll consider what we should take away from it.

The Central Argument: The Impossibility Of Doubt

I assume most readers are familiar with skepticism in one form or another. Sometimes, you dream, and in the dream (at least, as far as you can recall) you don’t think you’re dreaming. That’s why you wake up scared when the plastic shark with real teeth crashes through your window and threatens to gnaw your leg off. Or consider the movie The Matrix. What you take to be reality is in fact a simulation your brain is wired up to: everything you experience is the product of computers and you are entirely mislead about the true nature of reality.

There’s some reason to take these possibilities seriously. After all, you don’t know you’re not dreaming now, right? And an influential argument by Nick Bostrom (2003) says, in essence, that at some point we’ll develop the technology to make Matrix-like simulations, and once we do we’ll make a ton of them, so that most experiences will be simulated experiences, so probability favours that this very experience of reading you’re having now is simulated.

But if there’s reason to take these possibilities seriously, it’s hard to. Even if we can manage to for a while while writing a paper or in a seminar, once we leave it, we go have lunch and surf twitter and forget about the arguments. This was what Hume said (although twitter wasn’t invented yet so he played backgammon instead).

Hirsch’s thesis is that contrary to what it might seem, we can’t take these possibilities seriously. Properly to contemplate the skeptic's reasoning, to imagine oneself an envatted brain, is impossible. There are two interesting arguments for this, but for reasons for space I will concentrate only on the second.

Hirsch is good enough to give it to us clearly as three premises (I’ve rejigged the wording slightly):

(i) If a being doesn’t believe it has meaningfully interacted with other lives, it’s impossible for it to have self-esteem
(ii) If a being has no self-esteem, it doesn’t have a self
(iii) If a being doesn’t have a self, it can’t be rational (page 179ff)

Now to entertain skepticism one has to try to believe one hasn’t meaningfully interacted with other lives. It’s not sufficient, and this is where so many have gone wrong, merely to try to believe that one has never interacted with one’s inkbottle, or one’s smartphone, or one’s table. But one can’t believe this, at least while being rational.

The rough idea behind premise (i) is that self-esteem is a comparative notion: one feels self-esteem by comparing oneself to others. One might feel self-esteem if one were particularly happy with the talk one gave at a conference, for example, but that will involve comparing one’s talk, if not with the talks at the conference, with talks at other conferences, with what one takes to be a good talk.

According to (ii), we can get a handle on what the very abstract notion of a self is by considering what Hirsch calls ‘self-hyphenated properties’ (page 189). If one has a self, then one has such properties (exactly what the relation is between these properties and the self is obscure: Lev speaks of the self as being a ‘configuration’ of such properties, but explicitly says he’s not looking for a ‘reduction’ (page 90)). Examples include self-respect, self-confidence, self-centeredness and self-discipline (page 189). And these properties, Lev holds, are also comparative: to judge one has them is to position oneself relative to other possessors of the property.

So one can really only have a self provided there are other selves around. The justification for (iii), in Daniel’s mouth, goes as so:

“A being that has no self has no self-esteem, no self-discipline, no self-criticism. Such a being cannot be a responsible agent in any respect, and, in particular, cannot be a responsible cognitive agent who is committed to standards of truth and reason” (page 193)

Accordingly, the following is impossible: someone taking seriously the possibility that they are in the skeptical scenario while also being rational. And again, the reason for this is that to believe oneself in a skeptical scenario is to believe oneself to be etiolated by an unfathomable loneliness that strips one’s self away, and with it one’s rationality.

But, almost as important, this doesn’t eradicate the skeptic’s reasoning. It remains there: you can’t rationally take it seriously, but it lingers nonetheless, and this provokes “epistemic anxiety”.

TWO COMMENTS

This is a very interesting argument. I propose to leave assessment of its merits as a piece of epistemology to others more qualified. Rather, I want to concentrate on two areas not immediately related to mainstream analytic philosophy where I think we can learn by reflecting on Hirsch’s book. Hirsch uses some premises about unfathomable loneliness to draw conclusions about skepticism. I want to consider the possibility here of going in the other direction: from skepticism to loneliness.

Hirsch is writing about extreme, unfathomable loneliness. But to the extent that it’s deserving of the name, we should see connections between the extreme version and the more mundane versions that affect our (presumably unenvatted) existences. The horrible thing for Hirsch’s Lev about skepticism is it means one has never interacted with one’s partner or kids or parents or friends. But there are such people out there, unfortunately. And there are many people in less extreme but still very painful positions: aged widows, awkward teens, isolated single mums, and so on. While their loneliness might not be as complete as a brain in a vat, I think it arguably lies on a continuum with them.

If that is so, then here’s a question: what are the cognitive consequences of loneliness? How does being lonely affect how one thinks about the world? This is the sort of question not typically considered by analytic philosophy, and normally left to art. But Hirsch has opened the way to ask such questions, important not only for philosophy but for humanity.

(He’s not the first to do attempt to broaden the range of questions analytic philosophers ask. In recent years, analytic philosophers have made attempts to reach beyond the seminar room, in writing about love (Jenkins 2017), or transformative experience (Paul 2014), or misogyny (Manne 2018) to show the world at large the importance of philosophy for the things we care or should care about. Hirsch’s book should be viewed, I think, as in that line which will hopefully burgeon.)

That’s the first thing I think worth taking from Hirsch’s book and from his way of presenting philosophy. The second thing I think important is that exploring the links between explicit beliefs and these more questionable shadows seems like a truly epochal question, and one that philosophers should pay more attention to. Does Paul Ryan, for example, really believe the trickle down economic theory that he uses to justify tax cuts? Does he alieve (Gendler 2008) it, or some variant thereof, or does he perhaps feel the opposite of Hirschian epistemic anxiety about them, an epistemic comfort that comes from not truly believing it(because if he truly believed it, then he could be wrong about the thing which defines his life). These seem like important questions to ask both as philosophers, as people who care about what’s good to believe, and as humans, and in my view it’s one of the greatest merits of Hirsch’s book that it so vividly questions the subtle interplay and fuzziness between belief and feeling.

In sum, then, this book is an entertaining and thought-provoking book both about questions which are of interest to philosophers, which also gives us a way to show the role philosophy and ideas play in people’s lives beyond the seminar room, and so I think everyone even mildly interested in any of these topics should read it.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Bostrom, Nick. 2003. ‘Are You Living In A Computer Simulation?’, The Philosophical Quarterly

Gendler, Tamar. 2008. ‘Alief’, The Journal of Philosophy

Jenkins, Carrie. 2017. What Love Is And What It Could Be, Basic Books.

Manne, Kate. 2018. Down Girl, OUP.

Paul, L.A. 2014. Transformative Experience, OUP.

Novella "Coming From Nothing" at @zer0books (bitly.com/cfnextract). Academic philosophy at: http://mipmckeever.weebly.com/