You don’t know for sure if you exist, declares the modern philosophical skeptic. Existence could just be a dream. Are we sure that what we see and define as reality is actually there and apart from us? Or is it something that is created in our minds?
This is one of the nasty philosophic fallacies that has plagued the world for the past two centuries and a prime contributor to the tyrannical drift of modern day societies. Skepticism is not new. It has been around since ancient times expressing doubt about man and his thought, but its modern, extreme form depicted above evolved from two Enlightenment thinkers — the radical idealist, George Berkeley (1685-1753), and the radical empiricist, David Hume (1711-1776).
Skeptics have, throughout history, concluded that we can never be sure about what it is that exists, and even that reality itself does not exist except in the mind. With their gospel of “eternal doubt,” advocates of skepticism have thus played the role of ideological termites eating away at the timbers of truth undergirding humanity’s achievement of morality, justice and freedom.
It should be pointed out that some skeptics throughout history, such as Montaigne (1533-1592), were merely harboring a healthy anti-dogmatism, rather than eternal doubt about knowing anything for certain. But they were a distinct minority, and not really true skeptics. True skepticism says that man can never know with certainty that which he professes to know.
For most of history, skepticism remained on the fringe of man’s philosophical endeavors. It was of no major consequence. But with the ideas of Berkeley and Hume, skepticism has become a nefarious force in modernity. Both of these thinkers made powerful impacts on the world from which we have yet to recover.
George Berkeley maintained that matter per se did not exist. Only ideas were actual realities. Matter did not exist until a mind perceived it. Absent perception, reality was meaningless. David Hume concluded that only “immediate experience” was meaningful, that causality itself (the foundation of science) was suspect, and that man can never know anything with certainty outside of himself.
As a result of Berkeley’s extreme idealism and Hume’s extreme empiricism, there was spawned a train of radically empiricist / humanist philosophers (starting with the thought of French philosopher, Auguste Comte, 1798-1857) that has, with the breakdown of belief in God, brought about a nihilistic slant to the modern intellectual world. This is the reason why there are intellectuals today who question the existence of matter and reality itself and seriously ask: “Do we exist, or are we something that our minds create?”
Actually Berkeley did not deny the existence of matter and reality. He just maintained that matter and reality don’t exist until they are perceived by a mind. If there are no humans around to perceive the candle burning in the room, it is still there and still burning because the ultimate mind, God, perceives it. The “source of all being,” as Aquinas defined God, was the power that validated the existence of reality. But what plunged skepticism into modern nihilism was the loss of man’s belief in a God centered universe. By the end of the 19th century, belief in God was no longer the pervasive certainty it had been for the previous 2,000 years. Once this took place, Berkeley’s anchoring of reality in the mind of God was lost, and numerous intellectuals took his and Hume’s ideas to their ultimate conclusion: If matter doesn’t exist in itself, but only as the result of being perceived by a mind, then reality doesn’t exist “apart from us.” Reality is not “objectively out there.” It is in our minds and tied to our thoughts. We don’t have thoughts about a reality that our senses perceive; our thoughts are reality. Truth is then formed, not found, by man. And if truth is formed, each culture and every era has its own truth. Man can even refashion truth to suit his needs whenever it presents him with what he prefers not to face.
This is the final nihilistic stage in the intellectual corruption process that has been stealing over the world since Berkeley and Hume and the 18th century. Hume was an atheist, and his radical empiricism extended beyond Berkeley to maintain that all we can know are impressions in our mind of what we see, feel, hear and absorb. These impressions are not clear proof of “external reality.” Our belief that there is a reality “out there” is a product of our imagination. Our senses do not give us the “self-evident” demonstration of existence that philosophy had always built upon.
Today’s intellectual confusion and nihilism resulting from this combine of extreme idealism / empiricism was, of course, not the intention of Berkeley and Hume, but they could not foresee the long range ramifications of their ideas. The Law of Unintended Consequences rules over imperfect humans and always takes their “big ideas” down unforeseen paths in the ensuing centuries.
To believe that man cannot know with certainty what reality is began as a cocklebur under the saddle of civilization’s cerebral horse and has now evolved into gangrene that threatens the life of the horse. It is a terrible disease; it leads to the destruction of the values that sustain freedom, and ultimately to nihilism and the breakdown of free society. In the following I will try to point out the weakness of skepticism, and why it is a fallacy that no one should ever take seriously.
To believe that existence is possibly something that our minds create, one must believe that consciousness is primary to reality. In other words, consciousness precedes existence. For if reality is a creation of our minds, then our minds obviously came first in the overall scheme of things.
The first weakness in this way of thinking is that the skeptic is using his mind to say that what the mind perceives as “existing” does not actually exist. This means he is rejecting man’s mind and the power of reason as valid instruments to perceive reality. In order to assert this, however, the skeptic has to use his mind and the power of reason. But if the mind cannot truly perceive reality, and if reason is invalid as a tool to discern objective truth, then is not the skeptic’s rejection of the mind’s efficacy and reason’s prowess also invalid? It is hardly proper to use the mind and reason to claim the impotency of the mind and reason. In fact, it is nonsensical. But this is the contradictory morass into which skepticism drags us.
This is an example of what psychologist, Nathaniel Branden, calls “The Fallacy of the Stolen Concept.” Branden tells us:
To understand this fallacy, consider an example of it in the realm of politics: Proudhon’s famous declaration that “All property is theft.”
“Theft” is a concept that logically and genetically depends on the antecedent concept of “rightfully owned property” — and refers to the act of taking that property without the owner’s consent. If no property is rightfully owned [however], that is, if nothing is property, there can be no such concept as “theft.” Thus, the statement “All property is theft” has an internal contradiction: to use the concept “theft” while denying the validity of the concept “property,” is to use “theft” as a concept to which one has no logical right — that is, as a stolen concept.
All of man’s knowledge and all his concepts have a hierarchical structure. The foundation or ultimate base of this structure is man’s sensory perceptions; these are the starting points of his thinking. From these, man forms his first concepts and (ostensive) definitions — then goes on building the edifice of his knowledge by identifying and integrating new concepts on a wider and wider scale. It is a process of building one identification upon another — of deriving wider abstractions from previously known abstractions, or of breaking down wider abstractions into narrower classifications. Man’s concepts are derived from and depend on earlier, more basic concepts which serve as their genetic roots. For example, the concept “parent” is presupposed by the concept “orphan”; if one had not grasped the former, one could not arrive at the latter, nor could the latter be meaningful.
The hierarchical nature of man’s knowledge implies an important principle that must guide man’s reasoning: When one uses concepts, one must recognize their genetic roots, one must recognize that which they logically depend on and presuppose….
When [skeptics] assert that man perceives, not objective reality, but only an illusion or mere appearance — they evade the question of how one acquires such a concept as “illusion” or “appearance” without the existence of that which is not an illusion or mere appearance. If there were no objective perceptions of reality, from which “illusions” and “appearances” are intended to be distinguished, the latter concepts would be unintelligible….
” ‘You cannot prove that you exist or that you’re conscious,’ they chatter, blanking out the fact that proof presupposes existence, consciousness and a complex chain of knowledge; the existence of something to know, of a consciousness able to know it, and of a knowledge that has learned to distinguish between such concepts as the proved and the unproved.” (Atlas Shrugged)….
It is rational to ask: “What exists?” It is not rational to ask: “Does anything exist?” — because the first thing one would have to evade is the existence of the question and of a being who is there to ask it. It is rational to ask: “How do the senses enable man to perceive reality?” It is not rational to ask: “Do the senses enable man to perceive reality?” — because if they do not, by what means did the speaker acquire his knowledge of the senses, of perception, of man and of reality? (The Objectivist Newsletter, January 1963, pp. 2 & 4).
One Cannot Have It Both Ways
What the skeptic fails to perceive is that if his views are correct, he has negated his tool of cerebration (his mind) and the validity of all conclusions it may draw. And without the validity of conclusions, all thought, intellectual inquiry, and science become pointless. In other words, one cannot have it both ways. One cannot say that one’s mind is not valid, but also say that one’s mind verifies that we cannot know reality and that reality does not exist apart from our minds. At least one cannot say such things with credibility. And that’s what scientific, philosophic and religious thought are all about. They are attempts to fathom with credibility what’s what about existence.
Thus we have two fundamental views about the structure of existence: the traditional view and the skeptical view. The intellectual traditionalist says existence exists apart from man the observer, i.e., that it is objective. Existence is here whether we as observers are here or not. The intellectual skeptic says that existence is not apart from us. What we think we perceive as “objectively out there” is really brought about by our minds. In other words, it is subjective; and thus it is here because we are here.
Reason, science, religion, and plain common sense tell us that the skeptic is not just wrong, but very dangerously wrong. We have just seen how reason sides with the traditional view of an “objective reality” because by declaring otherwise, one must utilize the fallacy of the “stolen concept.” Let’s now take a look at how science and religion weigh in on this issue.
Almost all scientists accept the fact that the Big Bang and the creation of existence came about some 15 billion years ago. Several billion years later, the planets formed, followed by vegetation, and then animals after a few more billion years. Then came man and human consciousness. Thus our conscious minds come AFTER existence. They do not create existence. Also all Western religions agree with this: God created the universe, and THEN created man, i.e., the human consciousness, afterwards.
Thus reason, science, religion (and by implication, common sense) all tell us that reality does indeed exist apart from man the observer, i.e., that it is “objective.” And these four methodologies all tell us that the skeptic’s view of “subjective reality” or “illusory reality” is a fallacy. In other words, existence precedes consciousness. It is not a creation of our minds. This, the intellectual traditionalist accepts as self-evident. He realizes our perceptions of reality might not be clearly grasped (for example, the oar in the water appears to be bent when it is really straight), but there is a reality being perceived apart from our minds.
A Pernicious Chain of Thought
Skepticism’s danger lies in its doubt and the uncertainty it spreads regarding the validity of man’s senses and his values. Once the plausibility of radical skepticism spreads among the intellectuals that guide a society, there is set in motion a pernicious chain of thought. The skeptic view launches the following ideas and social forms: subjective reality, which spawns moral relativism, which spawns arbitrary law, which spawns tyrannical government.
This is why conservatives get so upset when we hear the purveyors of skepticism rising up. They are out to destroy the concept of an “objective reality,” i.e., a reality that is apart from man and the same for all men. If reality is a creation of our minds rather than something that precedes us and is apart from us, then it is a subjective creation of us, and certainly not something that is the same for everyone — for all men will have their own vision of what reality is.
Once we begin to doubt the concept of objective “reality,” there is no longer any basis for an objective “morality,” i.e., a universal concept of right and wrong. If reality is not the same for everyone, then our concepts of good and evil will not be the same for everyone.
Once we cease to believe in objective morality, we then undercut the foundation for a free society and usher in tyranny. The precursor to all tyranny is moral relativism, i.e., non-objective morality. This is because if there is no objective concept of right and wrong, then dictators can abolish “objective law” (equal rights) in favor of “arbitrary law” (special privileges). They can take away our rights under the guise of seeking national security. They can confiscate our earnings under the guise of promoting social justice. They can enact martial law under the guise of confronting an economic crisis which their socialist policies have created. They can basically do what they wish as long as they can bamboozle 50% of the voters to go along with it, or accrue enough police control.
Benito Mussolini was a powerful example of this process: “Everything I have said and done in these last years is relativism…. If relativism signifies contempt for fixed categories and men who claim to be the bearers of an objective, immortal truth… then there is nothing more relativistic than Fascist attitudes and activity…. [T]he modern relativist infers that everybody has the right to create for himself his own ideology and to attempt to enforce it with all the energy of which he is capable.” (Diuturna, pp. 374-377. Cited in Henry B. Veatch, Rational Man, 1962, p. 41. Emphasis added.)
It is only with an objective code of morality that citizens can challenge such usurpation because only an objective morality can intellectually define evil. If we continue to relativize evil (i.e., refuse to define what it is), then evil will continue to grow because men cannot contest something that they cannot objectively define. Once they are made to see right and wrong as relative, as ever-shifting to accommodate the social needs of the moment, then dictatorship is inevitable. Government tyranny and its base of arbitrary law can be sold to them as a “modern necessity,” as a “new kind of freedom.”
The whole structure of free civilization is dependent upon belief in an objective concept of morality. But such a belief is impossible without first a belief in an objective concept of reality. And an objective reality is impossible if existence is tied into the subjective creation of our minds. This is why the skeptic’s belief about reality is such a terrible danger. The Law of Unintended Consequences will drive any society that subscribes to it straight into despotism.
Seeing the Inherent Fallacies
What then are we to conclude from all this? No traditional, rational intellectual would ever ask: “Is existence a creation of our minds?” He readily sees the inherent fallacies. He also sees the big picture and thus the dangerous chain of consequences that results from trying to enshrine such skepticism. He knows that reason, science, religion, and common sense all dictate to us that existence is primary to consciousness. The traditional intellectual sees skepticism as pseudo-philosophy. He sees the skeptic’s view as not just sophistry, but dangerous sophistry. The traditional intellectual sees the philosophical skeptic as a cerebral version of the clever IT geek who builds viruses and sends them out into the Internet.
There are a slew of irrationalities that go into laying the groundwork for dictatorship. One of the most lethal of those irrationalities is “philosophical skepticism” and the invidious doubt, moral relativism, and arbitrary law that result from it. Unfortunately skepticism is a way of thinking that will probably always be popping up every century or so because there are always going to be clever sophists among the human race wishing to dispense cerebral viruses.
Thankfully the traditional view of reality prevailed for 1600 years after Aristotle, and was continued via Aquinas for another 400 years. This is what built Western civilization. Since the 18th century, however, this traditional, rational view of existence has been under attack from skeptical, empiricist, relativist, nihilistic minds. The modern world’s philosophical chaos and plunge into despotism are the consequences. If such destruction is to be stopped and reversed, it will require a restoration of the concept of an “objective reality” as self-evident, from which we then build the ideological constructs conducive to freedom as a way of life.