Augustine on Skepticism

One of Augustine of Hippo’s writings which is under-appreciated is his Contra Academicos,  which he wrote before his Baptism, though he was preparing to receive Baptism from St. Ambrose, Bishop of Milan, when writing it. As I’m reading through it for a class in Medieval Philosophy, I thought I would just pick out sections where Augustine provides excellent points against skeptics like Carneades. He argues that the skeptic is wrong to say that there is nothing we can know for certain, and provides an interesting list of items which he (Augustine) says we can and do know with absolute certainty.

“For I am sure there is either only one world or more than one. I am also certain that if there is more than one, the number of worlds is either finite or infinite… Another point I know for certain is that the arrangement of our present world stems either from the nature of bodies or is something due to providence. I am also sure it always was and will be, or it had a beginning but will never end, or it never began but will come to an end, or it had a beginning and will eventually cease to be…

For such statements are true in disjunction.

Well your objections will never so prevail over sense experience as to convince us we see nothing at all… For only he errs who rashly accepts appearances as facts.

But note that what I call “world” is this totality, whatever it be, that surrounds and sustains us. I am talking only about what appears to my eyes and seems to contain heaven and earth, or at least what looks like heaven and earth… If you deny that it is the world that appears to me, you make an issue of words, for I have stated that this is precisely what I mean by “world.”

This passage makes Augustine sound like an idealist, but I think it is just a tactical-dialectical move on his part to illustrate the epistemic point he’s driving at.

If the number of worlds be six plus one, it is clear that there are seven worlds no matter how I am disposed. And without being brazen I affirm that I know this. Show me then how sleep or insanity or sense deception make this addition incorrect or the aforesaid disjunctions false.

It is interesting that Augustine thinks we cannot be wrong about simple addition. Descartes thought we could be, since we have experiences of calculating things incorrectly, even with practice, and thus we could be mistaken – but Augustine seems to think we cannot be mistaken about this (and I agree, as I’ve previously argued concerning mathematical propositions).

“But” someone counters, “I am deceived if I give assent.” Restrict your assent to appearances, then, and there will be no deception. I see no way the academician can refute one who says: “I know this looks white to me. I know I like what I hear and enjoy what I smell. I know this tastes sweet to me and that feels cold to me.” “Tell me instead,” says he, “whether the leaves of the wild olive that the goat likes so well are bitter as such.” You rogue! Is the goat that unreasonable? I know not how they taste to cattle, but I find them bitter. What more do you want?

But in the meantime even I, stupid and slow of mind though I be, can know this much about this good in which life’s happiness abides. Either it is to be found in the mind or the body or both or there is no such thing. Convince me, if you can, that I don’t know this.

We (1) exist and (2) know that we do, and this existing and knowing is something we (3) love.

If I am deceived, I exist!

Neither am I in error then in knowing that I know. For just as I know that I am, so too do I know that I know. And when I take delight in these two facts, I add a third and equally important item to what I know, the fact that I love.

Nor am I mistaken that I love when I am not deceived about the things that I love. And even were these false, it would still be true that I love what is false.

The insane man is still alive. The retort to the academician then is not “I know I am not insane,” but “I know that I am alive.”

Whether he be asleep or awake he is alive.

If human knowledge comprised only such things, it would be meager indeed, unless each type were to be multiplied to… [an] infinite [number]. For one who says “I know I live” knows one thing. If he were to add “I know that I know I live,” he knows two things. to recognize they are two is to know a third point. In this way he can add a fourth, a fifth, and countless other items until he has enough… The total number is truly infinite and cannot be comprehended or stated.

If the speaker were to continue: “I know I want this” and “I know I know this fact.” then to these two items he could also add a third, viz., that he knows these two, and a fourth also, viz., that he knows that he knows these two, and so on indefinitely.

There are two types of things one can know; one comprises what the mind perceives with the aid of the bodily senses, the other what it perceives on its own. While the bablings of these philosophers have some relevancy in regard to the former, they are completely powerless to cast doubt on what the mind on its own perceives to be most certainly true, such as the aforementioned “I know that I live.”


About tylerjourneaux

I am an aspiring Catholic theologian and philosopher, and I have a keen interest in apologetics. I am creating this blog both in order to practice and improve my writing and memory retention as I publish my thoughts, and in order to give evidence of my ability to understand and communicate thoughts on topics pertinent to Theology, Philosophy, philosophical theology, Catholic (Christian) Apologetics, philosophy of religion and textual criticism.
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14 Responses to Augustine on Skepticism

  1. Grundy says:

    We can know more things for certain if the supernatural doesn’t exist, would you agree?

    • No, I don’t think I do. Perhaps you could outline an argument for why that would be the case. It seems to me that even if one can believe in the supernatural, they are in no better or worse a position epistemically, since they ought still only to accept those beliefs which they have good reasons for accepting (in order that their beliefs possibly be ‘true, justified, beliefs’). Believing in the supernatural no more licenses believing in unreasonable things than does believing in anything.

      • Grundy says:

        If the supernatural exists, all bets are off. God can exist, but so can literally anything. You may be praying to Allah, but only because a telepath is forcing it upon your mind. Jesus could return, or he could be shapeshifter in disguise. God himself may be unwittingly doing the bidding of being that can conceal his influence even from the Lord.

        If you think God is, by definition, the top dog and creator of everything thus making the above scenarios nonsensical, I ask you, how could you possibly know in a supernatural universe? Maybe an otherwise unknown mystical creature possessed the authors of the Bible just to mess with humanity. Suddenly we can’t trust our senses. We can’t even trust history since everything that once was may have been rewritten last Thursday.

        An all-powerful being is capable of every deception. Just because your God wouldn’t do such things doesn’t mean a random supernatural entity wouldn’t make you think your God existed. As a theist you must not only believe the supernatural is possible, but also that your particular flavor of the supernatural is real in the face of no evidence. Even if you suddenly you had evidence, it could be contrived by malevolent magic. Evidence as a concept no longer matters. All. Bets. Are. Off.

    • As an additional thought, if you define supernatural in such a way as to include God (which most do, but I have encountered interpretations on which God qualifies as broadly natural) then I maintain, with Descartes and Husserl, that without God one cannot know anything, or else that without God one cannot know anything about the world external to oneself. I think the Theistic perspective does have an epistemic advantage over the Naturalistic perspective in that sense.

      If you’ve read the Meditations and/or Husserl, feel free to tell me what you think of those points.

  2. To respond to your last comment: notice that on Naturalism we can’t do any better. Why can’t one believe in Naturalism and psychics? Why not Aliens? Why not ghosts? Perhaps the Naturalist couldn’t believe in Angels, but the Naturalist might be able to believe in immaterial souls (panpsychism). The naturalist cannot escape the ‘brain in a vat’ challenge of the skeptic. The naturalist could even believe in invisible unicorns. The naturalist could also believe that the past is not and never was in any (correspondence) sense real. The Naturalist might be a pragmatist or instrumentalist with respect to science instead of a realist, and indeed the Naturalist is likely to be a pragmatist or coherentist with respect to truth (rather than a correspondence realist). You have said ‘if you believe in the supernatural, then all bets are off’ but I don’t see why the very same cannot be said of naturalism: ‘if you believe in the natural, then all bets are off’ too. What is the difference? On either supernaturalism or naturalism there may be beings trying to fool you or us (you could be a brain in a vat for some scientist’s experiment, and that scientist wouldn’t be a supernatural entity).

    On Naturalism, we might say: “All. Bets. Are. Off.”

    However, your problem might be worse still. I think the Theist is in a better position than the Naturalist. For instance, consider that on Naturalism it seems very difficult, or impossible, to secure the belief in reliabilism (that our beliefs are on the whole reliable, or reliably track truth). Consider the Evolutionary argument against Naturalism about which I’ve posted before (from Alvin Plantinga). On the other hand, Descartes tries to show that if one accept that God, as described by the ontological argument, exists then, because God is by definition good “he would not allow me to err without providing a way for me to correct myself.” If Descartes is right, then whether we can prove God’s existence or not, it is still the case that if we suppose God to exist, we would have a clear way of securing reliabilism, and could therefore be justified in trusting in our rational faculty. On Naturalism, it is very difficult to see how reliabilism could be a justified belief – but you need that in order to get away from even the mildest skepticism. The Naturalist, not the Theist, is in trouble when the skeptic approaches.

    • Grundy says:

      I don’t agree with most of those problems for the naturalist, but the problems that do apply (like the “brain in the vat”) are also problems for the supernaturalist…but world views don’t dictate reality anyway. Whether you are a naturalist or a supernaturalist doesn’t change the fact that nature exists and supernature either does or doesn’t exist. If the supernatural doesn’t exist, then only applicable problems for the naturalist applies and they apply to all of us. If the supernatural does exist, then the problems of the naturalist and supernaturalist both apply to all of us.

      • Yes. My point was just to highlight that the problems are overlapping, and whatever additional problems supernaturalism might have, supernaturalism is also the only way I can see to purchase reliabilism. On Naturalism, why do you suppose that your beliefs are reliable? There are perhaps ways of out this for the Naturalist. For instance, the Naturalist could just appeal to the notion that reliabilism is a properly basic belief. However, the Theist could say that too, and in addition fill out a story for why that commitment is reasonable on Theism. No solution the Naturalist has to offer the skeptic isn’t available for the Theist as well. In fact, the only difference is that the Naturalist cannot help herself to the Theistic response(s) to skepticism. But those are the best and strongest responses out there – just take a look at the literature. Read Husserl, read Descartes, read Epistemology today, read Medieval Epistemology. Don’t take my word for it, go out and look for a Naturalistic response to the skeptic which is anywhere near as strong as the Theistic one(s).

        Are there drawbacks to Theism? Well, it is supernaturalistic, but we have loads of evidence for it (at least by the Theist’s count, and by the count of many Atheists and Agnostics as well). However, Theism is a pretty modest form of supernaturalism, and not only does it not entail significant problems epistemologically, but it furnishes us with much better and more compelling solutions to skepticism than Naturalism does.

  3. Grundy says:

    “Why do you suppose that your beliefs are reliable?” While I can’t be certain, they have consistently served me well, so from a pragmatic sense, they are reliable. I once believed prayer and spiritual healing worked, those beliefs were not reliable, so I dropped them.

    “Well, it is supernaturalistic, but we have loads of evidence for it.” I don’t think you do, but you’ve clearly missed the point of all my comments. If the supernatural exists, natural evidence doesn’t matter. The supernatural is the mother of all epistemological problems.

    • “While I can’t be certain, they have consistently served me well, so from a pragmatic sense, they are reliable”
      Grundy man, you made my morning. To say that they have ‘consistently served you well’ is to voice a belief – how do you know that belief is reliable? This is just run of the mill question begging. The Theist can justify reliabilism, and I claimed that the Naturalist either cannot, or else they have more work to do to get there. Let me issue the challenge to you directly: how do you respond to the skeptic who argues that you, as a naturalist, cannot know anything with certainty?

      I don’t know why one can’t have natural evidence for the supernatural, or indeed even natural evidence for the natural if the supernatural exists. Saying the supernatural exists means that at least one being which is not natural exists. Suppose I said that I believed one, and only one, supernatural being exists, and that for that one being I have the evidence of personal religious experience, corroborated communal religious experience, the evidence of the Big Bang (for a Kalam argument), the evidence of the universe’ being contingent (which logically entails God, as per the Cosmological argument from Contingency), the Fine-Tuning of the universe for intelligent life, the properly basic nature of belief in God, the reality of objective moral values and duties, the ability to use reason and deliberate in the libertarian sense (see Victor Reppert), and so on. I think you might want to say that the evidence is good, but not good enough (that way at least you’re acknowledging that these lines of evidence are strong, all things being equal – Paul Draper admits as much and that’s part of why I think he is so intellectually honest). Notice as well that all those evidences, save maybe religious experiences depending on how you construe the terms ‘natural’ and ‘supernatural’, are natural evidences for the supernatural.

      Here’s a challenge: Give me a single epistemological puzzle arising from the postulation of at least one supernatural being for which I cannot construct a perfect parody without appealing to the supernatural. If you can do that then we’ll have something to talk about. Until you do, I find it less than compelling to suggest that the supernatural is the mother of all epistemological problems.

      • Grundy says:

        Saying I believe that the thing that looks like a duck, acts like a duck, quacks like a duck, and even tastes like a duck is a duck is begging the question? I disagree.

        “How do you respond to the skeptic who argues that you, as a naturalist, cannot know anything with certainty?” I don’t argue, I mostly agree, only it’s not exclusive to naturalism. Have you read my comments?

        Can you provide an example of natural evidence that can’t be negated by the supernatural? If not, my point holds. If so, or you think you already have, point out whichever bit you are most confident in and I’ll show you how the supernatural can overturn it. I can issue challenges too. 🙂

        “Give me a single epistemological puzzle arising from the postulation of at least one supernatural being for which I cannot construct a perfect parody without appealing to the supernatural.” That’s not the point. There may be a natural equivalent, like the “brain in the vat” problem, but that applies in addition to the supernatural epistemological problems. Naturalists have problems, I keep saying this, but supernaturalists have more because their problems are in addition to the natural problems, not in place of.

  4. My suggestion has been, and remains, that the supernaturalist who is a Theist has gained nothing by way of problems epistemologically, and moreover has gained a powerful solution to epistemological quandaries. If you want to call the Theist a supernaturalist, that’s fine by me, but the point is just that the Theist is better equipped than the Naturalist – that point remains, it seems to me, to be dealt with by you.

    You issue the following challenge: “Can you provide an example of natural evidence that can’t be negated by the supernatural? If not, my point holds. If so, or you think you already have, point out whichever bit you are most confident in and I’ll show you how the supernatural can overturn it.”

    I was inclined to say that this missed the point of what I have argued thus far, but in the interest of humoring what may lead to another interesting discussion, let’s try to think of one and see whether it works. Let’s consider the example of either rationally intuiting some self-evidently true proposition such as Pv~P, or more weakly let’s say doing a rudimentary mathematical calculation such as 2+2=4. Now, suppose you are a brain in a vat on Naturalism (let’s call this scenario BN for ‘Brain on Naturalism’), and your brain is being stimulated such that every time you compute the addition of two and two, you come out with 5, and you have the experience of being sure you are correct. I think that the Naturalist can do nothing to dispel the uncertainty this casts upon rational intuition. However, on the/a Theistic scenario (call this BT for ‘Brain on Theism’) I think that the Theist who conceives of God as being related to the mind will say something like the rationalists did about intuition. For example, consider the words of Nicholas Malebranche:
    “We must know, further, that God is very closely united to our souls through his presence, so that we can say that he is the place of minds in the same way that spaces are, in a sense, the place of bodies.[1]”

    In other words, our rational intuition is in one sense something which our minds are able to do precisely because of 1) the way our minds are constituted 2) to relate to the world, 3) the proper model of which is Theistic. In other words, if the rationalists are right about both Theism, and the way the mind relates to God and the world, then they have what we might think of as an epistemological theodicy which is successful insofar as it dispels the problem with which Naturalism is irreducibly faced: namely, that rational intuition is not incorrigible. The primary candidates for things which we rationally intuit incorrigibly, I think, are ideas we apprehend without the aid of any other idea. Theists who are rationalists (with the exception of Descartes) may find universal possibilism unintelligible (I certainly do) – and therefore, on their model (which seems to work only given typically Theistic suppositions including Theism) there is really a response which one can give the skeptic, and against which the skeptic cannot advance a further problem.

    However, even if this suggestion is difficult to understand at first blush, and even if this thinking were found to be mistaken on my part (it was just a thought experiment, but one which I thank you for leading me to), it would still not touch my principal point. My principle point was about a general epistemological theodicy, according to which we could have said the following:

    Given Theism, we have good reason to believe that our beliefs are broadly reliable. Given Naturalism, we have no good reason to believe that our beliefs are broadly reliable. We ought to believe that our beliefs are broadly reliable. We ought only to believe in things for which we have good reasons to believe. Therefore, we ought to believe in Theism.

    • Grundy says:

      So, wait, how specifically does your belief in God make you any more immune to the possibility that your brain is being artificially manipulated to think 2+2=5? It seems that there are some far fetched natural ways our brains could be made to think this. The “brain in the vat,” the simulation hypothesis, advanced drugs all come to mind, but you would be just as susceptible as I am or anyone else. For evidence that a less specific failure of the natural brain is possible, look no further than common cases of dementia and Alzheimer’s.

      Now, if the supernatural is possible, the same natural problems may apply, but also God could make you think 2+2=5. It is certainly within His power. If you think your God wouldn’t deceive you, you might not have read 2 Thessalonians 2:11, but nevertheless a more trickster God (think Loki) could be at work and your belief in Jesus may similarly be just a symptom of your manipulated brain.

      So if the natural is all there is, perhaps we can be certain of nothing, but if the supernatural is all there is, we can be certain of nothing squared. 🙂

      • As a Theologian, I can’t help but want to respond to 2 Thessalonians 2:12 – I think the correct way to interpret St. Paul there is to say that God will give the obstinate people who persistently reject him, over to their delusions, worsening their state. This is essentially what God does when he allows such people to follow their pursuit of pleasure in unrighteousness. The phrase ‘God will send’ is also used elsewhere, idiomatically, by Paul, to mean that God will permit it to happen (for example Romans 1:24). However, I’m certain that you’re not actually interested in the Theology, but rather in the point I was just trying to make. One last note on Theology though: nowhere have I said in this present context that we should identify God according to the terms of the Christian revelation. I am simply assuming that God is that than which nothing greater could be conceived – and on that definition he simply is the epistemic ‘good’. He is that to which all things ultimately aim. Et cetera, et cetera – the point being that if God exists, God could not be a deceiver, but would only allow deception. You may ask whether it is in God’s power to deceive me, but I would respond that it is no more in his power to deceive me then it is in his power to cease to be God. These things aren’t ‘things’ God could do at all, in fact, and analysis can show that such sentences as “God could cease to be God” are linguistically confused and absolutely meaningless.

        The point I was making might be subtle, and it would take a lot of fleshing out. The first thing to say is that on Theism, together with assumptions typical of Theism, the mind is not to be identified with the brain. The mind is essentially immaterial, and moreover, when it rationally intuits basic beliefs, or apprehends universals, it does so precisely by communing with, or ‘apprehending’ God. You may have heard the expression that to think correctly is just to think God’s thoughts after him – that is often taken very seriously by epistemologists who are Theists. In any case, if one models the mind, and its relationship to God, something like Malebranche did with his Exemplarist epistemology, or before him St. Bonaventure himself, then one may be bound to say that the mind does intuit some things infallibly. If you are interested in reading some such epistemic model(s) for yourself, I recommend reading Andreas Speer who writes well on Bonaventure’s Epistemology.

        Again though, this is something to be worked out in greater detail in some other treatment, and the point remains that this is irrelevant to the central claim made earlier about how Naturalism cannot account for broad reliabilism, and how Theism can.

  5. Grundy says:

    Consider that you may be biased in your interpretation of the bible and I’ll do the same.
    I’ve made my points, thanks for the discussion.

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