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Two Quotes About Doubt

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Do you agree with the following two quotes:

"If a man will begin with certainties, he shall end in doubts; but if he will be content to begin with doubts he shall end in certainties." - Francis Bacon

"As we shall see later, the most important factor in the training of good mental habits consists in acquiring the attitude of suspended conclusion, and in mastering the various methods of searching for new materials to corroborate or to refute the first suggestions that occur. To maintain the state of doubt and to carry on systematic and protracted inquiry ― these are the essentials of thinking." - John Dewey

I've always gotten the feeling that Rand was opposed to the idea that philosophy requires skepticism, but I don't know if it's been directly addressed.

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Those two quotes are sensible. The one from Bacon is perhaps a bit mysterious until one knows about his championing the experimental method in science.

Those two quotes are not supportive of the stands of epistemological skepticism in the history of philosophy from the Late Academy and Pyrrhonism to Nicholas of Autrecourt (Hume four centuries before Hume) to Montaigne and Bayle. Rand could readily join Leibniz in rejecting the hobby of doubting for the sake of doubt. And fundamentals of her theoretical philosophy are diametrically opposed to those philosophical skepticisms, moderate or radical, I listed in that first sentence of this paragraph, as well as to Cartesian skepticism, whether in his enlistment of it for arriving at secure knowing or in subsequent wallowing in the Cartesian skeptical phase for lifelong sport supporting an academic salary in our own era.

In fundamental philosophy, as distinct from her conception of proper science (most touched on in Atlas Shrugged, Rand put forth positive proposals and set out refutations of alternatives. That anyway, was her order of presentation—set forth truth first, not doubt about it nor doubts about everything—whatever may have been her personal order for discovery of philosophical truths.

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@Boydstun @necrovore I'm tempted to assert that it's harmless/advisable to systematically doubt any truth claim while it is under consideration, at least in the sense of saying, regarding something credible, "But ithat true?" However, my next temptation, personally, would be to look for instances that contradict said truth claim, and I know LP has warned against this kind of thinking in his discussions of empiricism. His reason for saying so has never been transparent for me, though (and I can't remember it now).

I guess 'doubt' needs defining. If it means 'disbelief', I see how that could go wrong. However, if it means 'agnosticism for the time being with the intention of unambiguously confirming or rejecting eventually', then I can't imagine how someone could not systematically 'doubt' even basic axioms or self-evidencies.

I'm interested in these quotes because Dewey's "attitude of suspended conclusion" is an almost perfect description of what seems to me to be what is essential for rationality despite the fact that I've never heard an Objectivist put it in those terms. I think I mentioned in a recent post how Dagny, the way she's described in the first several chapter of AS, seems to suspend certain thought processes and emotions until a more convenient time, and it appeals to me as being the bridge between volition and logic - namely the choice to second-guess one's immediate reactions to a given fact in spite of any powerful emotions.

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Somewhat in step with necrovore's comment, it has seemed to me that various areas of knowledge warrant continued trials for disproving, others not. And this does not seem to be simply a function of the level of one's certainty about one's present conviction. We know ways to continue to improve our measurement of the equivalence of inertial and gravitational mass, and we know ways to continue to test whether the speed of light in vacuum is a single value that is measured to be the same in any inertial material frame of reference regardless of the speeds those frames themselves are moving relative to each other. Those two principles are often thought of as axioms in general relativity and special relativity respectively, although not in the sense of philosophical axioms in metaphysics and epistemology. They surely are basic premisses of those physics theories GR and SR, and they have enormous experimental confirmations to date. Yet we subject them to further test. On the other hand, at this point, and indeed really after about 1908, we don't have any idea how we might experimentally challenge the atomic theory of the chemical elements.

From my 1991 paper Induction on Identity:



Well before man had such persuasive images of atoms, their existence could not be rationally doubted. By 1908 evidence for their existence was overwhelming. Evidence of their existence is fortified with every passing year in our glorious age, though our usual focus now is on exploring their properties rather than confirming their existence. We can take their existence for granted.

Inference to the existence of atoms is a case of induction in the genre of what William Whewell (1794-1866) termed the concilliant induction (Butts 1982,153-55) By 1900 atoms and molecules were evidenced by Dalton's law of multiple pro-portions, Gay-Lussac's law pertaining to the volume of gases, Avagadro's law (which made possible the determination of molecular weights), and the kinetic theory of gases (which could approximately predict molar heat capacities). After 1908, when Jean Baptiste Perrin published his results on the sedimentation distribution of (visible) particles suspended in a still liquid and his measurement of Avogadro's constant, the existence of atoms could not be reasonably doubted (Wehr and Richards 1967, 1-26; Nye 1972) These lines of induction, and many others, converged in favor of the atomic hypothesis. The evidence was and is several and joint. In conjunction the strength of the evidence magnifies.

Concilliant inductions pervade the history of science.

. . . The atoms are here to stay. Our best theory of many of their properties, the theory of quantum mechanics, might someday be superseded, but atoms will remain theoretical entities for us and our descendents.

And serious minds with some scientific education will continue to regard them not only as theoretical entities but as concretely real things (Friedman 1983, 238-50). . . . (13–14)


So within science, it seems we may have no reason to doubt the correctness, although in some cases it is sensible to keep challenging the well-established, and in other cases, we'll have better work to do. Reliance on experiment and observation and mathematics and computers, as we do in physics and chemistry, is justified, in my view and I'd say in Rand's also, by philosophical reflection informed by ordinary and scientific experience. Doubting the correctness of such reliance is not philosophically tenable. That is, the logical refutation of such doubt is feasible.

Concerning philosophical fundamentals, from my 2022 paper "Existence, We":



My pursuit of foundations—specifically a set of axioms, corollaries, postulates, and definitions—is because it looks to be feasible, indeed at work, and because it is desirable by the economy, unity, and comprehension it provides (cf. Posterior Analytics 72a15–18, Metaphysics 996b26–997a25, 1005a19–29, in Aristotle [ca. 349–322 B.C.E.] 1984, 116, 1575, 1587). Successful epistemological foundationalism is furthermore, secondarily, a barricade and corrective to the pitfalls of epistemic skepticism.13

Metaphysical axiom fundamental to knowledge: Existence exists. Without Existence, without existence of Existence: Nothing is or could or must; nothing is one or two or three; nothing is whole or part; nothing is of anything; nothing happens, follows, or precedes; nothing alters or remains the same; nothing is present, resident, or absent; nothing is living or problematic; nothing is thought, shown, or said. In place of the One of Parmenides: Existence is all. Placing Existence where Spinoza had placed God, Rand and I could join a motif of Spinoza: “Whatever is, is in Existence, and nothing can be or be conceived without Existence” (1677, 420 [1P15] ).14


To assert Existence exists is to remind oneself or another of that ultimate framing already known or to bring into full light what one or the other had known without previous articulation. Rand rightly held that it is incorrect to try to prove the existence of the external, perceived world (1961b, 28).23 The world’s existence is self-evident in perception. The existence of distinctive character and spatiality and action is self-evident in perception. To deny the existence of the world or to assert the possibility that it does not exist or that we have no way of knowing it exists is talking on empty (see too Heidegger in Braver 2012, 150–52; Jary 2010, 45–46, 86–88). Question or denial of the world’s existence or the existence of other persons attempts to reverse the embedment of meaningful assertions in world and living body. Denial or doubt of the world’s existence or of each other’s existence voids our common ground for all communicative utterance. Then too, “The world may not exist” includes the possibility that that text does not exist, that its originator does not exist (in the viewpoint of a reader, including the originator reading it). That notion of possibility is empty. It is not merely a zero probability of a specified possibility, such as the possibility that a random number from the real line will be a rational number. To hold forth existence of the world or of other minds as things not presupposed in rational, discursive proof would be vacuous.

. . .

My meaning of the self-evident is the usual one: the manifestly true requiring no proof. Truths accepted as self-evident are sometimes defeasible as to truth, such as occurred with the old view that heavier bodies fall faster. (See also Summa Contra Gentiles 1.10–11, in Aquinas [ca. 1259–68] 2014, 13–15.) An axiomatic self-evident truth in metaphysics should be fundamental and necessarily true. Its denial leads to bumping into the widest frame. Notice that susceptibility to performative self-contradiction upon denial is not the source of a proposition’s truth (the source is fact) and is not the source of its self-evidence. The self-evident in logic and mathematics can often be derived as theorems from other self-evident truths, and this does not alter or explain the fact that the conclusion was itself self-evident. Similarly, Aristotle’s reasons supporting the truth of the self-evident in logic—the self-evidence of the correctness of certain elementary deductive inferences (the four first-figure syllogisms and three simple conversions) or the principle of noncontradiction—are not in any manifest way springs of their self-evidence. 

The self-evident truth “Nothing comes from nothing” might be supported inductively. Then too, it might be demonstrated to be necessarily true.25 That does not conflict with the circumstance that the statement is self-evidently true in any sound mature discursive mind.


HRSD, Rand thought of the ability to be self-critical of one's thoughts, beliefs, and perceptual presentations as essential to the human level of mind. Other animals don't possess that ability, in her understanding, and I agree. Admittedly, that much does not give one guidelines on when it is rational to doubt and shuffle for possible alternatives. One regular occasion in which one has to detach for a while from the falsity one holds an idea to be is when trying to understand as fully as possible the idea as it is held for true in the mind of someone else.

Edited by Boydstun
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For this discussion and in order to connect the issue to Rand’s beliefs, I point to her slogan “Check your premises”. When you do that, and engage in a reduction of knowledge to the axiomatic (which therefore means that you have to know what the axioms are and why they are axioms), you will see that one cannot begin with a certainty. Axiomatic conclusions (such as “existence exists”) are advanced conclusions that derive from simple observation of existence. It is literally impossible to begin with certainties. Those certainties come from somewhere; perception is the soil in which certainty flourishes.

“Skepticism” comes in two flavors. Irrational skepticism was practiced by various Hindu and Buddhist scholars, Pyrrho, Gorgias, Hume and Berkeley. The other variety is simple the practice of good scientists: to not accept a conclusion as being certain without compelling evidence which addresses alternatives. As reflected in OPAR, there is a continuum of evidentiary support for any proposition, graded according to the degree of affirmative evidence against counter-evidence, which includes conceptual evidence. Suppose I invent a new substance (which I call “flubber”) that has the remarkable property of negating gravity and allowing cars to float. There is substantial conceptual evidence against this claim (Physics 101 to 450), and one should doubt that it is true, which means that I must shoulder the substantial burden of proving that the conclusion is true.

The Popperian refutationist ideology has gained some currency in scientific conduct over the past almost-century, which however in my opinion has resulted in a serious defect in science, the practice of redefinitionism where essential claims are modified in subtle ways so that the theory itself is not falsified, instead we have gained some knowledge of the “true” meaning of words. An example that I am painfully familiar with is the earlier claim that certain apes are capable of learning language (via signing, rather than speech). In the face of empirical debunking, the narrative changed by redefining language as “any means of communicating”.

The difference between agnosticism and skepticism is a position on the evidentiary scale. When the evidence for and against a claim are roughly in balance, agnosticism is the proper stance. When the evidence against a claim more outweighs the evidence for a claim, skepticism is a proper response. At some other point, the evidence against a claim may rise to the level of making the claim “unlikely”, in which case you should reject the claim. Rejection is not a permanent banishment, therefore a claim rejected at one point can become certain.

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