How can skepticism and objective knowledge be reconciled under a single world view?

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Answered by: William, An Expert in the Skepticism and Cricital Thinking Category
The difficulties of reconciling human fallibility and objective knowledge are readily apparent. The fact that human judgment is prone to error and individuals commonly disagree seems to imply that there is no such thing as objective human knowledge. If objective knowledge was to exist, pure skeptics posit, then individuals should all agree on such facts and should make no mistakes.

Since this is not the case skeptics instead suggest that the denial of objective facts and true knowledge is the only practical approach to epistemology. While this argument is compelling, it only holds when individuals misunderstand the relationship between skepticism and knowledge. The mistake that pure skeptics make is that of using the concepts of objective knowledge and absolute knowledge interchangeably.

The fact is that objective knowledge and absolute knowledge are not synonymous and thus cannot be used interchangeably. Absolute knowledge refers to knowledge that is without limits. In other words, absolute knowledge refers to omnipotence, a trait that obviously cannot be applied to the human condition.

Objective knowledge, on the other hand, can be constrained within limits. Objective knowledge is the epistemic grasp of facts that are objectively true regardless of the observer. This means that individuals can have objective knowledge of certain facts while still being fallible and lacking knowledge of other facts. For example, it constitutes objective knowledge that if I have one apple and I am given another I now have two. Such a fact is always true regardless of whom it pertains to.

Similarly, no individual knows everything there is to know about gravity (or it would have been unified with quantum mechanics already) and yet it is still possible to objectively know that acceleration due to gravity near the earth's surface is 9.8 meters per second squared. This is an objective fact that holds true regardless of whether or not the observer knows this fact or chooses to acknowledge it. Moreover, once an individual learns that the gravity near the surface of the earth is 9.8 meters per second squared, they have learned an objective fact.

Still the skeptical position is not to be ignored. While humans can grasp objective facts, the scope of these facts is always limited. Individuals can know some objective facts; they cannot know all objective facts. Accordingly, there will necessarily be objective knowledge that is outside the knowledge that an individual already has and the addition of such information will require the restructuring of an individual's epistemic concepts. Such a dynamic is exemplified by the replacement of Newtonian mechanics with Einstein's relativity.

After the paradigm shift, the acceleration due to gravity was still the same and objectively known, however, the theory explaining it was expanded in scope and Newton's theory discarded. To give an even more extreme example, it is entirely possible that a never before seen galactic alignment might give rise to a fifth force that causes objects to be repelled away from the Earth's surface at a certain rate. Such a force would alter the acceleration experienced by an object falling towards the earth's surface. Still, it would not change the objective knowledge that the acceleration due to gravity is 9.8 meters per second squared; it would only change the overall theory that explains the behavior of forces and matter.

Thus skepticism and objective knowledge are actually compatible. The existence of both is the necessary result of the epistemic limitations of individuals who can only mentally integrate the scope of one's subjective experience and not the entirety of existence. Therefore, it is entirely possible to reconcile skepticism and objective knowledge by admitting that we can have objective knowledge within limits but we can never have complete knowledge of everything.

Accordingly, the pursuit of knowledge is a justified and worthwhile venture as Individuals can and do ascertain objective knowledge. Still, individuals should also be skeptical of any "final" theories as there is always more that can be learned and such additional information will change the scope of theory and knowledge.

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