Should we doubt our instincts?

All testing, all confirmation and disconfirmation of a hypothesis takes place already within a system.

When should we doubt something?

According to Wittgenstein in “On Certainty”, at some point doubt has to stop. To doubt a claim, we need a background context in which to ground it. This context must provide an understanding of the claim being doubted, a clear fallback position if the doubt succeeds and some way of making the decision.

An example: You believe that Saturn has 62 moons, but your friend says 61. The alternatives are clear. The nature of the dilemma is understood. You can make the decision on whether to doubt.

But what if your friend says Saturn has no moons because moons don’t exist? You need more information. What is the context? Why would anyone claim that moons don’t exist? Unless some shared background can be provided, the claim cannot be a reasonable basis of doubt.

With this in mind I will ask: should we doubt the instincts that evolution has given us? These instincts are like factory settings; we believe them by default solely because we are human, unless something convinces us otherwise. What would it mean to doubt these instincts?

The following is a short, non-exhaustive list:

The world is real. You hold an apple in your hand and eat it. Both your hand and the apple are real. Could you doubt this? Some have argued that the world is a simulation. Others hold that the material world is an illusion. But how do you cash that cheque? Those who believe it walk and run and eat their lunch just like everyone else. Since this is not grounded in anything else and there is no alternative, we have no basis to doubt this.

The human mind is adequate. On this is built all mathematics, philosophy, science. But can we know the human mind is adequate? If goldfish did science it would be limited and wrong, but they would never know it. Why? Because they are goldfish. What would squirrel science be like? Horrible. Dog science? Just no. Would you consult a Chimp Socrates? Of course not. But we are animals too. With this dim view of all other animals, why do we trust ourselves? We pay lip service to the idea that we are animals, but we act as though we are gods. Meat gods. Our level of self-confidence is absurd.

We could even make this argument:

  1. Of the 5 million animal species that exist, every one that has been observed is stupid.
  2. But we are animals!
  3. Almost certainly, we too are stupid.

But what is the fallback position? If we doubted that the human mind can think properly – what then? We cannot imagine an alternative, therefore we have no basis to doubt this.

Free will. Do my choices matter? Hmm. Is it not hubris to assume that animals like us can make choices and that these choices matter? Do you think chickens and sea snakes have free will? If “no”, extrapolate to yourself; you’re an animal too. Yet those who deny free will agonise over their choices just like the rest of us. Therefore free will should not be doubted, assuming we have a choice in the matter.

God. This is an interesting one. Do you understand what it would mean for there to be an everlasting, all-powerful, all-knowing being that controls everything and yet is not visible to our senses? That is so near, and yet so far beyond anything we have ever seen or could see? Of course you don’t. How could you? But how can you doubt something you don’t understand in the first place? Do you also doubt the finer points of constitutional law? This instinct is so extravagant it is not possible to get any grounding for it, whether to doubt, to confirm or to deny.

Objective morality. If something is wrong it’s wrong, right? (Wrong?)  The curious thing: even a murderer will not deny that murder is wrong while murdering. Rather, he will say that what he is doing is not really murder, or that it is self-defense, etc. If you found out that in New Zealand they have “murder parties” where people kill babies and play Scrabble, on what basis is that wrong? On a Golden Right And Wrong Book? On your instinct, that isn’t grounded in anything else and therefore is not doubtable.

What to say about these instincts? A few things.

They are all base-level. The reason they cannot be doubted is that they are not grounded in anything else.

Our instincts are vague. Being instinctual, they do not come with precise definitions. There is a lot of room to move within them. “God” in the above list could be rephrased as “God and/or gods and/or a spirit world”, for example. Free will, morality, a world outside the mind, the adequacy of the mind – all of these can be understood in a variety of ways.

Our instincts are extravagant. Arguably, only the first one – the reality of the physical world – makes a minimal claim. The other four discussed make very large claims.

The vagueness, the inability to find a ground on which to stand in order to doubt or confirm or deny – this makes arguments for or against our instincts futile; it is why debates on these topics are so unsatisfying, why they feel like trying to nail jelly to the wall.

Refuting extreme scepticism

None of our instincts can be verified. All human knowledge is thus based on unverifiable instinct.

But isn’t “based on unverifiable instinct” like saying “based on nothing”? Is all human knowledge just fantasy? 

Indeed, “based on unverifiable instinct” if anything understates the case. Under normal circumstances, a claim that is ungrounded, vague, and unable to be confirmed or denied is considered terrible and tossed out without a second thought. Consider this claim: In a faraway galaxy, parts of a blue cube are happy. That is what a vague, ungrounded, unverifiable claim looks like.

Yet, to say that all human knowledge is based on instinct is to say it’s based on claims like that. It’s hard to imagine a worse basis on which to ground knowledge.

Everyone should gaze into this abyss at least once. Everyone should stare into the void with horror.

Is there a way out? A bridge with which to span the abyss? A way to extract something from the rubble?

Our instincts evolved because they are useful, not because they are true. The exact pathways of how and why are unknown to us.

Since our instincts are all unverifiable, unfalsifiable and ungrounded in anything else, and since they all evolved and thus have the same origin, we have no basis for privileging one over another.

It makes no sense to use one unverifiable instinct to reject another as being unverifiable. If you do, you call all the instincts into question. The abyss beckons.

If you pick and choose, you must place the instincts within a context first; a context from which to make that decision. If the above is correct this cannot be done.

There are only two consistent options available to us: reject all our instincts and all human knowledge, or assume all of them.

Assuming all of them is thus the only option we have for grounding human knowledge. To avoid extreme scepticism, we must do this – despite the absurdities it creates, despite the riddles within riddles.

The advantage? Even though we can only guess as to the truth of our instincts, we know that they are useful – that’s why we have them. Therefore, a system of thought that embraces all of them embraces human flourishing. 

Further reading

Moore’s Proof at the Electric Agora. Discusses Wittgenstein’s “On Certainty”.


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