Mike Mackus Matthew Benton Philosophy 220 October 3, 2008 Nobody Wins in an Argument with a Skeptic Moore’s “Proof

of an External World” offers a common sense solution to the problem of skepticism. However, in using common sense Moore is already relying on what the skeptics have been arguing against. We are then forced with a difficult decision of whether to allow such common sense to be able to dictate truths about the world or accept the far-reaching negative implications of the skeptical argument. Neither leaves a sweet taste in the mouth but, as we shall see, there seems to be no way to escape this problematic choice. Moore outlines three check points that all proper, successful proofs must have: firstly, the premises must differ from the conclusion; secondly, the premises are known to be true; and finally, that the conclusion follows from the premises. Any logician would agree that these are the essential means of a valid and sound proof; this much cannot be argued with. Moore’s actual proof, though, seems to be so straight forward as to not even need a brief introduction:
1) There is a hand.

2) If there is a hand then there exists an external world. 3) Thus there must exist an external world. The logic appears to be valid in Moore’s proof. He uses a simple inference that we all resort to in everyday reasoning, modes ponens: if we know it to be the case that P and we also know it to be the case that P -> Q, then it is valid to conclude that it is the case that Q. Therefore, we can safely conclude that Moore’s argument is of a valid logical form. However, in light of what many skeptics have written it seems as though Moore is attempting to circumvent the central premise of skepticism.

In comparing Moore’s proof with Stroud’s work on “The Problem of the External World,” it becomes evident that Moore fails to deal with the problems raised by a skeptic. Stroud lays out in detail the case for skepticism, specifically focusing in on Descartes’ “dream” argument. It purports that if one does not whether he is dreaming or not then there is no way for one to gain any knowledge of an external world. That is not to say that what occurs within one’s own cognition is not occurring, that much is granted by both Stroud and Descartes. Rather, the problem arises in the connection between our sensory perception of the world and the actual objective world that may (or may not) exist. The relationship between perception and reality is problematic for the reason that what one is currently experiencing, has experienced in the past, or is to experience in the future, may only be dream. In that case, what we perceive has no direct relationship to an external world. Thus, for both Stroud and Descartes, if one cannot know for certain that one is not dreaming, then there is no means by which to make any claim about the world. The directly preceding statement becomes the fundamental conditional that forms the skeptical argument: 1) One does not know that it is not the case that he is dreaming. 2) If one does not know that he is not dreaming, then one cannot know any ordinary claim about the world. 3) Thus one cannot know any ordinary claim about the world. Once again we see a simple inference by means of modes ponens. And once again we see a proof that looks perfectly valid. But the proofs of Moore and Stroud are in an obvious opposition. If we are to grant that both these proofs are valid then it is not the steps of inference which we have a concern with. Therefore, we are forced to return back to what Moore has outlined for us as a good proof. Moore’s third requirement needs no further attention for we have already agreed that if it is the case that P, and if it is the case that P -> Q, then it is valid to conclude that it is the case

that Q; that is, both Moore’s and Stroud’s proofs have a conclusion that follows directly from the premises simply because of the shape of the argument. Thus, instead of looking at the step that takes us from premises to conclusion we must begin to question the premises themselves. Moore’s first requirement of a proof demands that the conclusion be different from the premises used to deduce it. On the surface level this seems to be the case for Moore’s proof of an external world, but at a closer look doubts can be raised about his first premise, There is a hand. The linguistic form, the conventional shape, that the first step and the final conclusion take are apparently different. However, one must wonder what is actually expressed in the proposition, There is a hand; specifically, one may ask what is being stated by the verb is (a form of to be) and also what is further implied by the relationship of the verb to the expletive subject and the direct object. The verb is, in conjunction with the expletive subject there, works in such a fashion to make the claim for the existence of a hand. Furthermore, such a statement, it is the case that a hand exists, presupposes the existence of an external world for that hand to exist in. Thus, a premise such as There is a hand equates to stating the proposition aimed at in the conclusion, that there exists an external world. Therefore, without even questioning the truth or falsity of Moore’s premises (which would be the most obvious grounds for critique by a skeptic) we see that his proof is circular. However, by showing Moore’s proof to be insufficient in regards to dismissing skeptical claims we still have not proved anything ourselves. Further, we cannot assume the skeptical argument to be infallible just on the basis of disproving Moore’s argument for an external world. On the contrary, Moore forces us reexamine the proof that Stroud lays out in support of skepticism. Thus, here again is the skeptical argument in a somewhat more concise logical form: 1) ~Know(~H) 2) ~Know(~H) -> ~Know(O)

3) ~Know(O) Where the predicate Know means one having knowledge of, H represents any skeptical argument such as one is dreaming or being deceived by an evil demon and O stands for any ordinary claim about the external world, such as there is a hand. We have agreed that the use of modus ponens here is a valid step of inference but in allowing such an inference we also grant the use of modus tollens. Thus, Moore, in his paper “Certainty,” shifts the skeptical argument to produce a proof against skepticism: 1) Know(O) 2) ~Know(~H) -> ~Know(O) 3) Know(~H) Moore negates the consequent of the conditional in order to conclude the negation of the antecedent, leaving him with the conclusion that one can know that a given skeptical argument is not the case. Once again we are left with two proofs in opposition with one another. The contradiction arises specifically between premise (1) in the former proof and the conclusion in step (3) in the latter. We arrive at a fundamental inconsistency of P & ~P. There is no doubt that this inconsistency displays the falsity of at least one of the proofs. Of course, the skeptics will argue you that Moore is merely beginning with a false assumption, thus leading him easily to his desired conclusion. Yet Moore can argue that he is using the material conditional already agreed upon by skeptics, not to mention claiming that the skeptical argument itself also starts with an assumption. It then seems that no one comes out of this debate a winner. I would like to propose that one possibility for this is that there seems to be something rather sketchy in the logical shape of the skeptic’s first premise, ~Know(~H). Just trying to state exactly what is intended by this can be tricky: can it be that it is not the case that one knows that H is not the case? I believe our

language and semantics might be getting the best of us. Stroud concludes his “Problem of the External World” with an almost somber note that we have not been able to escape this problem yet. Stroud writes, “But perhaps by now we have come far enough to feel that the whole idea is simply absurd, that ultimately it is not even intelligible, and that there can be no question of ‘accepting’ Descartes’s conclusion at all” (23). Stroud continues to argue that we must identify the absurdity or unintelligibility in order to learn from Descartes and the problem of skepticism in general. In order to get around this problem we must redefine conventions. Our categorical means of understanding must be reevaluated and readjusted to allow for a new approach to investigating knowledge and the way we come to it.

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