Forrest Cameranesi: Geek of all Trades

Against Cynicism


I am against something that I will call "cynicism" for lack of a better term. The word cynic is Greek for "dog-like", and was used in ancient philosophy as an insult for, and eventually just the name of, a group of Greek philosophers; but their type of philosophy is not what I'm saying I'm against here. Rather, because those ancient Cynics were skeptics, in the broad sense of methodically doubting and questioning things, "cynicism" has come over time to mean "skepticism", and then further still a particularly negative variety of skepticism.

It is in that sense of a bad kind of skepticism that I mean the term, in contrast to the good kind of skepticism I have already endorsed in my previous essay against dogmatism. More specifically, this bad kind of skepticism that I am calling "cynicism" is the kind that immediately rejects all opinions until they can be conclusively proven beyond any possibility of a doubt. That is, rather than merely saying to be willing to reject an opinion if you find a reason to reject it, cynicism in the sense that I am against says to reject every opinion unless you can find a reason to keep it.

Pragmatic Justification

I oppose cynicism, thus understood, as a direct consequence of my position against relativism. While relativism is an opinion that could in principle be reached by many different methodologies, different processes by which to accept or reject opinions, there are some methodologies that cannot help but arrive at relativism as a conclusion, so the rejection of relativism demands the rejection of such methods. Cynicism, as I mean the word, is precisely that method that cannot help but arrive at the conclusion of relativism

That is because in rejecting every opinion until a reason can be found to keep one, cynicism automatically rejects everything that could ever constitute such a reason, leaving no ground upon which to ever support any opinion. That in turn leaves us with no option but to continue rejecting everything forever, leaving us forever without any objective answers to any questions about either reality or morality, only our completely unfounded (on such an account) subjective opinions.

In the remainder of this essay I will argue that a variety of other philosophical views are effectively tantamount to cynicism of one sort or another. First, I will argue that justificationism, about either reality or morality, is the archetypical kind of cynicism, the essential core of what cynicism is. Then, I will argue that two other views, called scientism and constructivism, are each tantamount to justificationism, and thus cynicism, about either morality on the one hand, or reality on the other.

Against Justificationism

The most archetypical kind of cynicism, in this sense, is a philosophical position called justificationism, of which most theories of knowledge are a form, though usually only tacitly, without their proponents realizing it. Justificationism is just the position that rationality means only holding opinions when you have reason to hold them. But a famous trilemma, known by various names such as Agrippa's Trilemma or Munchausen's Tremma, illustrates how this principle leads directly to cynicism in the sense that I mean here, or else instead to something tantamount to dogmatism, which I have already argued against.

For any reason put forth in support of some opinion is itself another opinion, for which the justificationist must then, if consistent with this principle, demand yet another reason. But that in turn will be some other opinion, for which the same demand for justification must be made. And so forth ad infinitum. This can only lead to one of three outcomes:

The most typical one is foundationalism. This abandons the principle of justification at some point by declaring some step of the regress of demands for justification to be self-evident, beyond question, without need of further support. That is transparently tantamount to dogmatism. Nevertheless, as I will soon explain, I have sympathy for the need to hold some opinions without them being rigorously supported from the ground up. I simply reject holding them to thus be unquestionable.

Another possible outcome is coherentism. This appeals at some point to an earlier step in that regress as support for a later one, establishing a circular chain of reasons that together can then support other reasons. I am sympathetic to the coherency criterion employed here, as surely all of one's opinions must be consistent with each other, and finding inconsistencies is a good reason to rule out some opinions.

But while that is a necessary feature, I think it is not a sufficient one: mere consistency is not enough to justify opinions in the sense demanded by justificationism, without again falling to dogmatism. For as that whole circular chain of reasons is then collectively unsupported and held as needing no further support besides itself, it is then, as a whole, tantamount to one big foundational, and therefore dogmatist, opinion.

The last possible outcome, and the most honest application of justificationism (in that it never breaks from the demand for reasons, to hide instead in dogmatism), is infinitism. This accepts the infinite regress of demands for justification, leaving the initial opinion, any and every initial opinion looking to be supported, forever insufficiently supported. That leaves one unwarranted in holding any opinion, and so is transparently tantamount to relativism.

Self-avowed infinitists do at least nominally hold that knowledge is still possible, and therefore conclude that it must somehow be possible to have an infinite chain of justification, even while acknowledging that it would be impossible for anyone to ever complete one in practice. While I am again sympathetic to this unending search for deeper and deeper principles to underlie our opinions, as I will soon elaborate, this infinitist position seems to me simply incoherent when framed as a form of justificationism: if you cannot ever complete the chain of justification, and you must have justification to have knowledge, then you cannot ever have knowledge.

Most theories of knowledge are either foundationalist or coherentist, and most of those who reject both of those conclude that therefore knowledge is impossible, seeing infinitism to be as incoherent as I do. But a few philosophers, including Immanuel Kant and Karl Popper, have instead rejected the justificationist principle tacitly underlying all of those positions, and instead say, as do I, that it is not necessary to reject every opinion until you can find reasons to justify it; it is only necessary to reject an opinion if you find reasons to reject it, and it is acceptable to hold any opinion, for no reason at all, until such reasons to reject it are found.

Like with coherentism, contradictions between different opinions are good reasons to reject some or all of them; and like with infinitism, this process of whittling away incorrect opinions is unending. But because both coherentism and infinitism tacitly accept the justificationist principle, neither of them quite adequately escapes the dilemma of either following it into relativism, or else abandoning it for dogmatism.

When considering reasons to intend something rather than reasons to believe something, this anti-justificationism seems largely uncontroversial. Most people will accept that it is acceptable to do something simply because you want to do it, for no particular reason, so long as there is not a good reason not to do it. We don't demand that everybody stop doing anything at all until they can show that what they want to do is justified by the need to do something that is justified by the need to do something that is justified by the need to do something... ad infinitum. We instead just accept that they're free to do whatever there's no reason not to do.

My rejection of justificationism includes that kind of freedom of intention, and to deny such freedom of intention, as in to insist that nobody does anything until it can be shown that there is a good reason to do so, would also qualify as a form cynicism in the sense that I am against here. But my rejection of cynicism also extends equally to a freedom of belief like that put forth by philosophers such as Kant and Popper. I say that it is not irrational to hold a belief or an intention simply because you are inclined to do so, for no reason; it is only irrational to continue to hold it in the face of reasons to the contrary.

But in rejecting justificationism, I am not at all rejecting rationality, or the importance of reasons. I am still against dogmatism, as I have previously argued; against irrationally holding opinions in the face of all reasons to the contrary of them, or asserting them to others with no reasons to back them. I only hold, for the reasons I have shown, that such an anti-justificationist position is the only practicable form of rationality, the only one that leaves us with reasons from which to reason.

Justificationism, if true, would make it impossible to ever rationally hold an opinion, instead insisting either that we hold no opinions, or else hold some core opinions to be, quite irrationally, beyond question. In rejecting justificationism, we make room to hold some opinions, still open to question, that can nevertheless serve as reasons to hold or reject other opinions.

We do lose any hope of ever having absolute certainty in any of those opinions, as they all remain constantly open to question and revision. But justificationism never offered any hope of rational certainty anyway, only the irrational false certainty of dogmatism (or else none at all). And with justificationism out of the way we can at least begin to compare our tentatively held opinions against each other and progress towards sets of opinions that gradually make better models of both reality and morality.

Against Constructivism and Scientism

Aside from that general methodological rejection of justificationism, there are also two different kinds of reductionism that I consider tantamount to cynicism as well, because each of them effectively refuses to consider even the possibility of answers to a certain kind of question, by insisting that that kind of question is reducible to another, unrelated kind of question. The first of them, scientism, attempts to reduce all questions to questions of fact, which is to say, descriptive questions, questions about reality.

I will elaborate in my later essay on language precisely what I take the difference to be, but suffice it to say here that I hold questions of norms, which is to say, prescriptive questions, questions about morality, to be a fundamentally different kind of question to questions of fact, to which a descriptive statement gives no answer; something David Hume called the "is-ought problem". If someone asks whether something ought to happen, a statement to the effect that something does (or does not) happen gives no answer at all to that question.

So to insist on discussing only matters of fact, and trying to twist all discussion of norms into discussion of facts, is simply to avoid answering any normative, moral questions at all, and so implicitly to avoid stating any opinion on morality at all, leaving one in effect a moral relativist.

Scientism responds to attempts to treat normative questions as completely separate from factual questions (as they are) by demanding absolute proof from the ground up that anything at all is universally normative, or moral, and not just a factual claim in disguise or else baseless mere opinion. So it ends up falling to justificationism about normative questions, while failing to acknowledge that factual questions are equally vulnerable to that line of attack. Thus such scientism is tantamount to cynicism with regards to moral questions, inevitably leading to moral relativism.

But in my rejection of scientism, I am not at all rejecting science. I have great esteem for science and hold it to be the uniquely correct way of building true descriptions of reality. I am only against attempting to reduce all discourse to attempts at describing reality, when we clearly also do other things with our speech as well.

Ordering someone to do something, for instance, is not an attempt to describe what that person is doing, and such a command cannot be factually right or wrong (although we could instead evaluate the command as normatively right or wrong). As I will elaborate later in my essay on language, I hold moral claims to be more akin to such orders or commands than they are to descriptive claims, though they are often phrased in such as way as to project that morality as though it were a descriptive property of whatever is being evaluated; not unlike with social constructs, the focus of my next point of objection.

The other kind of reductionism that I consider tantamount to cynicism is constructivism, which claims that all assertions of supposed facts are in actuality just social constructs, ways of thinking about things put forth merely in an attempt to shape the behavior of other people to some end, in effect reducing all purportedly factual claims to normative ones. That is to say, in claiming that all of reality is merely a social construct, such constructivism reframes every apparent attempt to describe reality as actually an attempt to change how people behave, which is the function of normative claims.

On such a view, no apparent assertion of fact is value-neutral: in asserting that something or another is real or factual, you are always advancing some agenda or another, and the morality of one agenda or another can thus serve as reason to accept or reject the reality of claims that would further or hinder them. This is simply the flip side of the same conflation of "is" and "ought" committed by scientism: where scientism pretends that a prescriptive claim can be supported by a descriptive claim, constructivism pretends that all descriptive claims have prescriptive implications.

Constructivism responds to attempts to treat factual questions as completely separate from normative questions (as they are) by demanding absolute proof from the ground up that anything at all is universally factual, or real, and not just a normative claim in disguise or else baseless mere opinion. So it ends up falling to justificationism about factual questions, while failing to acknowledge that normative questions are equally vulnerable to that line of attack. Thus such constructivism is tantamount to cynicism with regards to factual questions, inevitably leading to ontological relativism.

(This is remarkably similar to the concept termed "bullshit" by Harry Frankfurt, which he defines as a kind of dishonest speech that is worse than lying, in that while a liar cares about what is or isn't true and aims to convince people that falsehoods are true or vice versa, a bullshitter doesn't care at all what is or isn't true, and instead cares only about what people can be made to do by making a superficially descriptive claim that was never really meant to describe anything).

But in rejecting constructivism, I am not at all rejecting the employment of social constructs in the description of social behavior. I am merely against the claim that all of reality is merely a social construct, and thus that there there can be no mere attempts (however fallible) at description of a universal reality that are not implicitly pushing some prescriptive agenda.

Social constructs are actually defined in a sense by their unreality: to say, for example, that money is a social construct, is to say that there is nothing intrinsic about gold, or seashells, or any other token of currency, that makes it really money, that could be found in a thorough description of the gold or shells or whatever themselves. Nothing is really money in any universal sense; things are only subjectively accepted as money by some people, and to say that something is money (to some people) is really to say something about the people (namely, that they will accept the thing in trade), not about the thing itself, but phrased in such a way as to project what the people think about the thing onto the thing itself.

That is undoubtedly an indispensable concept for describing many social behaviors, but to say that all of reality is merely socially constructed is consequently to deny that there is anything really real about reality, or at least to refuse to even attempt to talk about it, or to believe that others are genuinely doing so, insisting instead that all that can be discussed is the things that people think about it, and how that effects what they think they should do.

Not Against All Skepticism

Fideism vs Skepticism

In rejecting cynicism, I am only saying to tentatively accept some opinion or another, both as to what is real or true and as to what is moral or good, even if you cannot offer a justification of either type of opinion from the ground up, or reduce either to the other. And equivalently, I am saying to agree to disagree with others who tentatively hold different opinions on those matters, and not insist that they must discard those in favor of yours, just because they cannot offer such a defense of them from the ground up, but rather only if you have reasons to show that their opinion is positively, demonstrably wrong, and that yours is the only viable alternative.

Continue to the next essay, Against Transcendentalism.