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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Constructive skepticism, critical thinking and the ethics of belief Rebman, John L.


One of the primary aims of education is to enable students to secure reliable standards and procedures by which they can acquire beliefs that are, if not true, at least likely to be true. The questions of belief acquisition and the manner in which those beliefs are held, although epistemic, are also distinctively ethical. Implicit within epistemological concepts such as truth, justification and objectivity are ethical concerns such as honesty, integrity and responsibility. In response to the question “What ought I to believe?”, any serious critical thinker must examine the reasons for holding (or not holding) a belief, and ascertain whether or not they are good reasons. Good reasons involve attention to rational or intellectual standards such as evidential support, objectivity, justification and truth. My discussion of the moral dimensions of epistemological questions will follow the path delineated by W.K. Clifford (1877) in his essay “The Ethics of Belief”. Within the context of the notions of intellectual virtues and vices, I will argue that intellectual integrity and epistemic responsibility entail the acceptance of the aforementioned standards and an avoidance of credulity. Recently, however, the Enlightenment project of rationality has come under serious attack from feminist philosophers, neo pragmatists, post-modernist philosophers and proponents of the “sociology of knowledge” who, in their efforts to avoid dogmatism, claim that knowledge lacks foundations, truth is relative to culture or “conceptual scheme,” and objectivity a myth. Although a thorough treatment and discussion of the views advanced by these groups far exceeds the scope of this thesis, their claims are, I shall argue, self-refuting and entail a destructive relativism and possible descent into radical skepticism. For the most part, I will focus my criticisms on Pragmatism, particularly the variety espoused by Richard Rorty, arguably the most influential contemporary philosopher. If the extremes of radical skepticism and dogmatism are to be averted, educators must adopt the premise that knowledge is possible but at the same time accept the fact that much of what we claim to know is uncertain. Hence, many of our beliefs should be regarded as transitory and, therefore, held tentatively. I shall argue that by assuming a posture of humility in the face of knowledge claims, holding to a realist and fallibilist theory of knowledge, entertaining beliefs with a healthy skepticism and abandoning the “quest for certainty” (as Dewey has asserted), we can avoid dogmatism, indoctrination and the intellectual vice of credulity. If we value autonomous critical thinkers as an important component within a liberal democratic society, then these dispositions ought to be fostered in our students. This dispositional approach to critical thinking I refer to as constructive skepticism and will argue that it is a necessary requirement for any serious critical inquirer.

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