The Wrong Conclusions on Skepticism

One of the most misunderstood things about skepticism is what to conclude after finally understanding its nature. Time and again, after someone has finally understood skepticism, they hastily conclude what I deem the wrong conclusions.

What are those wrong conclusions?


That skepticism is not reasonable and thus should be ignored

That skeptics cannot carry on with regressions and so can be ignored

That skepticism is self-defeating and thus cannot be taken seriously

That the premises of skepticism are unrealistic

That we should suspend all belief since all beliefs are unjustified


Those are some of the most common and prominent conclusions which people draw from skeptical reasoning, and they are all the wrong conclusion, in my view.

Let’s first consider the notion that skepticism is not reasonable. It has become a trope of philosophers and lay thinkers alike to view a skeptic as being unreasonable. That such prolonged and fundamental doubts have no business in a reasonable man’s life. As the classic example given in the literature, David Hume found his skepticism to be cold, distant, and unrelated to ordinary reasoning; such as the reasoning done when playing games with friends or writing a speech for a politician. Because doubting things such as “John likes Candy,” are of little utility but also incredibly odd to do in practice, we can just dismiss skepticism.

That view is not only based on a misunderstanding of skepticism, but likewise makes presuppositions. Why does something being odd warrant our dismissal? Likewise, why does someone else’s failure to find utility in skepticism warrant dismissal? Those are presuppositions I would not grant Hume or anyone who relies on that reasoning.

The other sort of wrong conclusion drawn about skepticism is that skeptics cannot carry on infinitely with their regressions. That is, when someone says, “X is justified because Y,” the skeptic responds by regressing with: “why is Y justified?”. That line of questioning could, in theory, continue on forever; however, in practice, someone will become tired and seek sleep or food and so end the conversation. Thus, skeptical doubts are not serious because they can never be continued infinitely.

Not only does that revolve around circumstantial affairs like someone’s willingness to continue, but it has nothing to do with the properties of the arguments themselves. Someone’s inability to continue does not mean you have duped their argument, it just means they became tired. It does not mean you are now justified in belief; you are not anymore justified in belief than you are better at chess when your opponent falls asleep during a match. If we truly accept that as a standard for persuasiveness, then given enough time and caffeine I am sure I could become the world’s best chess player.

Another extremely common conclusion about skepticism is that it is self-defeating. That is, the person who utters, “we cannot know anything,” is claiming to know something: namely, that they cannot know anything. In such a world, yes, the skeptic is self-defeating. Of course, it is indeed a presupposition that something being self-defeating means we should do away with it; but with that aside, most proper skeptics do not claim they cannot know anything. A proper skeptic simply asks how it is someone knows something; and so, no assertions are ever made to begin with. Which means, a proper skeptic is not self-defeating.

As a side note, I do believe the self-defeating argument is the most common and the most wrong conclusion to make about skepticism; and only those who are seeking to avoid the implications of skepticism ever make it.

Moreover, there is another appeal to skepticism being unrealistic; but this appeal applies specifically to the sort of skepticism that states the following: for every debate, there are equally persuasive and valid arguments for both sides. The rebuttal to this is that in practice no arguments are ever equally persuasive.

But as you may have guessed by now, this assumes a whole lot about the nature of persuasiveness. What constitutes persuasiveness is debatable, and so we should be careful about considering ourselves more justified in our belief that skepticism can be avoided when we have to assume conclusions about the nature of persuasiveness.

The last common rebuttal I hear about skepticism is that, since all beliefs are unjustified, we should just then stop giving beliefs. We ought to suspend all judgements. Of course, that is not at all what skepticism dictates, because skepticism itself does not suppose beliefs need be justified.

Which leads me to what I think skepticism should entail for everyone. Skepticism means we need to be tolerant, we need to focus on compromise, we need to avoid authoritarian appeals to truth, and we should embrace arbitrariness as creative freedom: all things further elucidated in my book “Knowing Nothing”. Rather than being intolerant on arbitrary grounds, we should hear different ideas and opinions since all of them are equally arbitrary; we should focus on reaching a compromise with people rather than beating them over the head with our truth sticks; and we shouldn’t be afraid of arbitrariness, we should embrace the breadth of expression and explanation it allows for, since no single explanation is the true explanation. 

And if that does not satisfy the reader, I would absolutely be willing to adopt the readers worldview, for the sake of social harmony, so long as our actions correspond to a world which I want.



Ideasinhat is a business development analyst and longtime reader of academic literature. He writes books and essays on science and philosophy, and posts them to this website. The essays, as with the books, cover topics from psychology, philosophy, and cognitive science to economics, politics, and law.

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