SCEPTICISM IN INFORMATION SOCIETY/SKEPTICIZMAS INFORMACINEJE VISUOMENEJE.
The issues related to the phenomenon of virtual reality are becoming more and more significant in the information society. A modern person lives not only in the basic reality identical for everyone, but also in various virtual spaces generated by means of information-communications technologies (ICT). In this situation the epistemological issue of the principles of differences between real and virtual objects is becoming more and more acute; and a member of the information society finds it more and more difficult to answer the question about differences between real and virtual objects due to the increasing opportunities offered by ICT. On the one hand, computer technologies are already imitating the real world so well that one can wonder whether material proposed by the media is a reflection of the reality or a skillfully staged screen version. On the other hand, events of reality are sometimes so unexpected and discouraging that it may be difficult for a person's consciousness to assign them the status of objectively true ones. One of the distinctive features of the information society is exactly that the question of differentiation criteria between real and virtual objects, which in earlier centuries was wondered about only by the intellectual elite represented by philosophers, is currently becoming critically important for millions of people. It is an additional burden for the consciousness of a modern person, which is overloaded by information; it leads to the emergence of various psychological problems, including depression, and to social troubles (Kornetov 2003).
Epistemological scepticism in the history of philosophy
The above-described problem is not really new for philosophy. On the contrary, it is one of the classical problems, discussed in traditions of Western philosophy since ancient times. What are the criteria of validity of our thoughts and opinions about reality? Can people have knowledge about an objective world as it is or do they always deal only with their own subjective ideas? How do people distinguish between reality and illusion? These questions were examined by Protagoras, Pyrrho and Sextus Empiricus in ancient times, and by Rene Descartes, David Hume and Immanuel Kant in the modern age; in contemporary philosophy it is various answers to such questions that give rise to the confrontation of stances of realism and anti-realism in ontology and epistemology (Dummett 1996).
A stance that expresses some doubt about the possibility of reaching objective cognition is called scepticism. In the history of philosophy positive features of scepticism were considered to be that it can stimulate a knower to further research, to systematically improve a critical attitude toward one's own and others' views, to develop reflexive abilities, and to eliminate unfounded assumptions. Those who evaluate scepticism positively do not dismiss the possibility of acquiring objective knowledge about reality; rather they consider the sceptical stance a method for attaining a maximally critical way of thinking.
A negative evaluation of scepticism usually implies a stance according to which a philosopher-sceptic leaves no possibility of an optimistic attitude to human cognitive activity. Such a sceptic completely dismisses the idea of objective cognition and insists that a truth criterion of ideas cannot be reality itself, since the way to this reality is always closed. Cognition is conditioned by particularities of the sensual apparatus of a subject, the content of his thinking, and the diversity of the culture to which he belongs as well as the language that he speaks. It is this viewpoint which was often criticized for being evil and destructive for human thinking, as it makes cognitive activity meaningless, lowers the status of the human as a sensible being, and leads to intellectual degradation.
The concept of informational scepticism
Processes occurring in the information society make a philosopher reconsider opinions expressed by thinkers of the past on many classical philosophical issues, including the sceptical stance in epistemology. Thus, Floridi, one of the most active working thinkers in the field of philosophical recognition of information technology development and a theoretician in philosophy of information, states that the attitude to scepticism nowadays should be changed. The stance that I have conditionally characterized as positive scepticism is renamed moderate scepticism by Floridi (2010: 80), and negative scepticism is called radical scepticism (Floridi 2010: 76). With respect to moderate scepticism, Floridi retains a positive evaluation, admitting its most important role in the cognitive process (2010: 80); radical scepticism, in his opinion, should be given another characteristic, different from critical stances.
In clarifying the nature of information, Floridi (2010: 63) states that in the conditions of the information society radical scepticism is becoming harmless. This evaluation is accepted as appropriate by Floridi, because information is existentially unloaded. We can convey, exchange, and store information without taking on ourselves, to quote Willard Van Orman Quine (1953), any ontological commitments. Information appears as a certain complex of data on some object, and the amount of this data does not increase or decrease depending on whether we are dealing with an actually existing object or with an artificially generated fiction.
The harmlessness of radical epistemological scepticism, which Floridi calls informational scepticism with regard to modern conditions, is demonstrated using the notions of the theory of information. In particular, Floridi uses the notion "Hamming distance" (2010: 74) to justify his viewpoint.
In the theory of information, Hamming distance between two sequences of equal length refers to a number of positions where the corresponding symbols are different. In other words, Hamming distance denotes the maximum number of replacements required to change one sequence to another, or the number of errors transiting one sequence into another (Hamming 1950).
Using the notion of "Hamming distance", Floridi (2010) puts forward reasoning that I will try to reproduce as follows.
1. Let us assume that some model M is an information file about the system S (real world). The quality of this model is such that Hamming distance in this case equals zero ([hd.sub.(MS)] = 0), i.e., the model M reproduces data on the objects of the system S adequately and fully;
2. Let us assume further that there is some model D containing an information file about some system V (virtual world). The model D also fully and adequately presents all data about the objects of this special virtual world V, that is why Hamming distance between D and V is minimal again ([hd.sub.(DV)] = 0);
3. According to the logic of a radical sceptic, we should conclude that Hamming distance between models M and D is also zero ([hd.sub.(MD)] = 0), since each of these models describes its system of objects and, what is more, in the sceptic's words, we cannot distinguish between reality and fiction (virtual world V is identical to real world S);
4. From 1), 2), and 3) we can conclude that we do not have a chance to find out whether M is an information file about the system S, and not about the system V, since both systems S and V turn out to be indistinguishable. Thus, we should conclude that Hamming distance in terms of M and S in fact is unknown ([hd.sub.(MS)] = ?).
Provision 4) is a thesis of informational
scepticism, which, according to Floridi, does not harm our cognition in any way. Absence of knowledge about Hamming distance between the model M and the system S does not make our epistemological undertaking distorted, providing we are really sure that [hd.sub.(DV)] = 0 and [hd.sub.(MD)] = 0. That is, if the information file contained in the model in general fully and properly conveys all data on the objects of the system, then this model is fully informative. The amount of information in the model describing the system does not change, no matter whether this system really exists or it is only an artificially created virtual world.
If we follow the theorist of epistemological harmlessness of informational scepticism, using an image from the well-known movie The Matrix, we do not need to swallow the "red pill" that would help us see how the world really looks. In terms of informative content, the model of the man in The Matrix is as self-sufficient and complete as the epistemological model of the man living in the real world, if it fully presents all properties of the objects of some system, regardless of whether this system really exists.
Floridi summarizes his reasoning thus: "There is nothing to be epistemologically worried about calling the real virtual, or the virtual real, if the two are identical. It is only a matter of poetic taste" (2010: 85).
The matter of truth criteria
Quoting the statement by Cicero Dubitando ad veritatem pervenimus as an example, Floridi (2010: 80) claims that moderate scepticism is useful, because it is some kind of an impetus for our cognition on the way to reaching the truth. It is hardly possible to argue with this statement, however, a question about criteria of the truth remains. The correspondence theory of truth in its classical wording admits that a certain statement is true if it names as existent something that really exists. Let us assume that in some statement the object O is attributed the property P, however, it is known that the object O is virtual, i.e., it does not actually exist. But in this case there is a consequent conclusion that, if an object does not exist in reality as it is, then in fact it does not bear any properties. The property attributed to the object in the statement is also virtual, it does not exist in the real world. Thus, the statement in which some object O is attributed the property P, given the object O is virtual, names existent something that does not exist in reality, i.e., the statement is false. Statements about virtual objects cannot be true in the correspondence sense.
Now we should pose the question whether the notion of truth is formulated in the concept of moderate scepticism in the correspondence sense. When it is said that moderate scepticism helps us reach the truth, does the truth here imply a statement about really existing facts? If the answer to this question is positive, we can point at inconsistency in simultaneously accepting the idea of moderate scepticism, on the one hand, and treating radical scepticism as harmless, on the other. Radical scepticism completely rejects the possibility of formulating true statements in the correspondence sense, i.e., it rejects the possibility of reaching knowledge about objective reality as it is. It means only that radical scepticism fully devalues the entire establishment of moderate scepticism. If reaching the truth is impossible in general, what is the sense of longing for it?
In the information society, where an information file about an object becomes the main value, and issues concerning the difference between the real and the virtual are put aside, radical scepticism is converted into an informational one. This informational scepticism, if one orients only to the amount of information, is harmless, according to Floridi. It does not suppose that some information about an object will be unavailable for us, if the status of the real/virtual is interpreted as non-informative in general. But in this case the concept of informational scepticism makes the concept of moderate scepticism meaningless, given that the notion of truth in moderate scepticism is interpreted in the sense of the correspondence theory of truth.
Here we see some inconsistency in Floridi's viewpoint. However, this criticism, of course, has its own limits. It is appropriate only in a case when the notion of truth is used in the sense of the correspondence theory of truth. It is quite possible, though, that the work under discussion does not say anything about it clearly, that the author of the concept of informational scepticism relies on a certain version of the coherence theory of truth.
For example, to distinguish between an apple and an orange, we may find it informative that the apple is green and the orange is orange. Statements about the apple and the orange should mutually accord with one another in such a way that if one object is attributed a property of being green, the other object should be attributed a property of being orange, but not the other way around. In this way these two statements will be true in terms of coherence, i.e., internal concordance of the system, within which we will be able to tell the difference between the apple and the orange. In addition, we completely set aside questions that could have been put in terms of the correspondence theory of truth, for example, is it really common for an apple to be green? Does the object having this property really exist? For the The Matrix character (or according to Floridi a man of the information society), as we may guess, these questions do not seem necessary.
If now we assume that moderate scepticism implies the truth understood within the coherence concept (i.e., if we think that the aim of our cognition is to build the utmost extensive and internally consistent system of knowledge [information] about objects), then moderate scepticism really turns out to be quite compatible with the idea that informational scepticism is harmless.
An argument from self-reference
This concession to Floridi's viewpoint is temporary. At a deeper level of discussion radical scepticism cannot be harmless for cognition even in its specific modern form of informational scepticism.
Is a philosopher of information able to manage only with information transfer? Is he able to carry out informative reduction, to use the terminology of Edmund Husserl (1913)? Or do statements about the existence of some fact turn out to be significant for the stance of a philosopher of information himself? For instance, when a philosopher of information produces a statement, "We can transfer information, without taking upon ourselves any ontological commitments", does he in this way transfer just some information file, without any ontological commitments, or it is still important for him to declare this state of affairs as a fact of existence? Can this question be formulated metaphorically, again using images and characters from The Matrix: When a philosopher of information produces a statement, "We do not need to swallow the red pill", does he say that after he himself has already swallowed this pill?
The viewpoint expressed by Floridi does not comply with the methods by means of which it becomes expressed. Any theoretical construction presented in assertoric discourse, besides information, contains a claim for the truth in the correspondence sense, i.e., for adequate description of the objective state of affairs. It is in this claim that the value of the theoretical construction consists. When some or another researcher constructs his study on some or another area of the matter, his task lies not in just presenting a certain amount of information, but in justifying the truthfulness of theses containing information with the help of some set of arguments, i.e., justifying that the state of affairs in the area in question is objectively like this.
All of this fits into the semantics of Gottlob Frege (1918-1919) typical of analytic philosophy. A sentence contains a thought. But other than thought, it also contains an affirmation. The affirmation is assertion of the fact being expressed in the thought. The sentence "It is raining outside" contains the idea that it is raining, but other than that, it also asserts the existence of this very fact in objective reality. It is this assertion that is the difference between the sentence "It is raining outside" and the interrogative version of it.
The discourse regarding objects of the virtual world cannot be identical to the discourse about objects of the real world, even if the real and virtual worlds are identical. If the sentence "It is raining outside" refers to objects of the virtual world, if it is uttered by the character in The Matrix, for example, then it is false, as it attempts to say about the non-existent that it exists. If the sentence relates to objects of the real world, it is true, as it refers to the existent, to say that it exists.
The author of the idea of harmlessness of informational scepticism will insist that assertion of the existence of some fact is uninformative. The sentence "It is raining outside" provides a complete information file about some of the facts without regard to the fact of whether it is in real or virtual worlds. And if these worlds are indistinguishable, the information file expressed in the sentences about the real and virtual worlds will be the same. But as shown by the above reasoning, this thesis is not legitimate. If the discourse of the virtual world is not identical to the discourse of the real world objects, and if the difference of these discourses is in assertion of existence (in the first case the statement is false, and in the second one it is true), then we must admit that the quality of assertion is yet informative. Simply put, we still are not indifferent whether or not our sentences are true in the correspondence sense.
At least, this indifference entirely covers the theoretical assertoric discourse. The claim to assertion of existence of some fact is the most important information in assertoric discourse. When a philosopher of information produces a saying "The systems S and V are informatively indistinguishable", he tells us about the real existence of such a fact. He claims that he correctly describes some objective state of affairs. In this case, the philosopher tries to give an account in his conception of the actual situation of the system informativeness, the relation between the real and virtual worlds, and the significance of the sceptical position in epistemology.
If a thinker simply expressed his views without claiming correctness for his position, philosophy, to use the comparison of Bertrand Russell (1959), would become idle chatter over a cup of tea, where any saying of communicative partners is pronounced not to state anything, but simply to keep the conversation going. But in fact, the task of philosophy is not imagined like this even by those modern anti-realists and sceptics who claim that the truth is not the goal of study, and all we can do in philosophy is to carry out an infinite redescription of the world pictures, which by themselves cannot qualify as an adequate reflection of reality. Saying this, they personally position some opinion as true in the correspondence sense. For example, Richard Rorty wrote:
"These philosophers [realists--V L.] share the image of human beings as machines built (by God or evolution), among others, to see things the right way. Pragmatists want to liberate our culture from such self-perception ..." (1995: 292).
However, Hilary Putnam notes quite fairly that, despite the external appearance, Rorty's arguments retain an attempt to say that from the point of view of Divine Vision that it (Divine Vision) does not exist (Putnam 1990). Pragmatists want to liberate our culture from an incorrect conception of the nature of the human being. They want to show us how to understand the human being, how to see the human being as that which it really is.
The above-stated critical argument in relation to the position of Floridi is similar to Putnam's argument in relation to Rorty. Putnam indicated that this positioning of Rorty's theoretical concept is not consistent with the content presented therein. Rorty insists on the content of his theoretical construction, that the concept of correspondence truth should be excluded from philosophy, but he bases this statement on the fact that he knows how in fact (i.e., on the basis of the correspondence understanding of truth) the theoretical work, which is called philosophy, should be carried out.
With the help of the same argument it is possible to criticize Floridi's concept of informational scepticism. Positing the thesis of harmlessness of informational scepticism is not consistent with the content of this thesis. This thesis consists in the fact that the difference of the real world (system S) and the virtual world (system V), under the condition that all their events are identical (Hamming distance between S and V is 0), is uninformative and therefore radical doubt about the possibility of knowledge of objective reality is epistemologically harmless. This thesis, however, is presented as a theoretical concept, which is claimed to be an objective evaluation of the results of knowledge. That is, the thesis claims to describe the real state of affairs, and this fact is the most important and most informative element of the concept. The content of the thesis refers to the non-informativeness of differences of the real and the virtual, but the claiming of this thesis is based on the importance and informativeness of this difference.
If the argument of self-reference acts against Floridi exactly as Putnam's argument does against Rorty, and if the distinction between the real and the virtual is still fundamentally meaningful and informative, then the thesis about epistemological harmlessness of radical scepticism, which appears as informational scepticism in the current situation, is incorrect. A radical sceptic claims that a person performing his cognitive activity will never be able to determine whether he has to deal with objective reality, or only some of appearances that can be generated on the basis of special organization of his sense organs, cognitive apparatus, language, culture, or on the basis of information and communication technologies in modern society. If the difference between the real and the virtual is recognized by us as essential for theoretical rational activity, and if a radical sceptic claims that this distinction cannot be described, then this position is obviously negative and detrimental to theoretical thinking, destroying its opportunities and making it meaningless.
Attempts to get around the argument from self-reference
Is the argument from self-reference itself, which was the basis for the above criticism, essential? Is it possible to overcome it by pointing to the failure of that type of reasoning?
In the 20th century, when the problem of overcoming the set-theoretical and semantic paradoxes in philosophy of mathematics and logic was addressed, two well-known concepts criticizing the idea of self-reference were developed, as it was declared to be the basis of paradoxes. These were the theory of types of Russell (1908) and the semantic theory of Alfred Tarski (1935).
Moreover, Russell clearly stated that his theory of types, by establishing a ban on production of self-referential statements, would resolve the difficulties not only in the area of philosophy of mathematics related to emergence of set-theoretic paradoxes, but also would be able to appear to be a logical and epistemological justification for scepticism, because the classical argument accusing the sceptical stance of inconsistency is also based on the idea of self-reference (Whitehead, Russell 1910). Tarski did not set such epistemological goals for his semantic conception, but it also can serve as an appropriate logical defense for the stance of scepticism.
The classical argument against scepticism comes down to the fact that the thesis of a radical sceptic, "All statements are relative", is self-contradictory. This thesis also constitutes a statement and therefore its production as an epistemologically trustworthy one refutes its own content, according to which construction of epistemologically trustworthy statements is impossible.
From the point of view of distinguishing between a language and a meta-language, as done by Tarski in his semantic conception, it is not that the position of scepticism, which states that the truth of any kind of judgments is relativized according to subjective/-inter-subjective factors of knowledge (cultural, linguistic, psychological, biological), is wrong, but philosophers who consider scepticism a contradictory position are wrong. It is possible to regard the statement "All statements are relative" as self-contradictory only on the basis of incorrect mixing of different language levels. In fact, this very statement refers not to the language, which in this case appears as an object about which something is said, but to the meta-language, and, therefore, there is no contradiction in the statement of the sceptic. His saying "All statements are relative" may well be absolute, and it does not lead us to a certain collapse of thought, if only we do not forget to distinguish between the levels of the language each time.
The theory of types can also be used to defend scepticism. One can say that the wording of logical difficulties of these sceptical views is based on a mixture of different types of statements. The saying "All statements are relative" falls into a higher logical type of statements than the type of those statements that it refers to. An appearance of contradiction arises because of unjustified mixing of these types.
The failure of the concepts discussed
The above-described concepts, in which construction of self-referential statements is prohibited, and, therefore, argument from self-reference, critical with respect to a sceptic, is annulled, do not seem consistent. They fall into the same traps of the logical paradoxes that they have tried to overcome.
Thus, Russell's theory of types, in fact, prohibits universalist discourse in general. One cannot talk about everything at once, one should always keep in mind that any judgment may only apply to a limited topical area. Consequently, the assessment of the truth of this statement cannot be universal as well, it must always be relativized regarding that particular range of subject matter that is covered in the judgment. But what about the very formulation of the theory of types? Does it refer only to certain kinds of statements covering a certain limited subject area, or does it present an example of that very statement of the universal nature that it tries to prohibit? Is the principle of distinguishing between a language and a meta-language formulated in just another particular language, in relation to which meta-position is also possible, or is a universal language, which covers all possible linguistic events, used here? When Russell (1998) says that totality of classes in the world cannot be a class in the same sense in which the latter are classes, does not he formulate a feature by which it is possible to collect all possible totalities of classes in some universal totality of all classes? If so, the very formulation of the theory of types is the use of the concept of a class of all classes that it opposes. If it is not so, then the wording of the theory of types does not apply to all possible totalities of classes, but only to some of them, admitting the possibility of existence of other totalities that occupy the meta-position with respect to it and guided by a principle of relations between classes, other than the theory of types. As a result, the theory of types itself is in a logical impasse. The difficulties in substantiating this theory were mentioned soon after its occurrence by Paul Weiss (1928), who presented criticisms of it.
Putnam's critical reasoning with respect to the semantic concepts of Tarski, which uses the metaphor of the so-called language of red ink (Putnam 1990), is well known. If the rules of all possible languages were written in red ink, and statements in the languages were written with ink of all other known colors, what color would be used for the rules of the language of red ink? If red, then the language is closed on itself, i.e., self-referential. If, however, we assume existence of a different ink of unknown color, the rules of the language of red ink will not apply to this new meta-language, and statements written with the new color may be regulated by different rules, different from the developed semantic concepts.
The fact that logical-semantic projects presented in the 20th century could not annul the significance of argumentation, which is based on the idea of self-reference, is extremely important. The idea of self-reference is one of the main ideas in philosophy. It defines the essence of philosophy as a specific kind of rational activity. In contrast to certain sciences, which limit their research to a particular area of existence, philosophy has always claimed to be universal knowledge of things in existence in general. To present knowledge of the things existent in general, at the highest possible level of generality is, actually, a goal of building an ontological system in philosophy. Expression of such knowledge is possible in a semantically closed self-referential language, because only such a language can talk about everything that exists, including itself, as of a certain kind of existing things. Fitch emphasized this specificity of philosophical thinking: "It is characteristic of philosophy to reach this maximum level and to be able to use the self-referential sorts of reasoning which are possible on this level" (Fitch 1946: 69).
Radical scepticism is contradictory and, therefore, untenable. Demonstration of this thesis is carried out using the argument from self-reference, which is one of the most important for philosophical thinking. The statement that the truth cannot be reached in the process of knowing in the correspondence sense, i.e., knowledge of objective reality, is expressed in the assertoric theoretical discourse, which itself is based on the correspondence theory of truth.
Contradiction is also hidden in the concept of informational scepticism by Floridi, in which the thesis of harmlessness of informational scepticism is put forward. This is no coincidence, because the concept is, in fact, sceptical as well. To claim innocence of informational scepticism it is necessary to recognize a sceptical stance as rightful, i.e., to accept the thesis of a radical sceptic that we are not able to distinguish reality from simulacrum or a statement about the objective reality from the statements about the virtual world. But the very recognition of rightfulness of the sceptical thesis is carried out in the assertoric discourse, based on correspondence understanding of truth. To recognize a sceptical thesis as rightful means to acknowledge it as truthful in the correspondence sense, i.e., adequately describing the situation with the cognitive process and its capabilities.
Floridi's concept of informational scepticism is even twice paradoxical. First, it is stated in the framework of the correspondence understanding of truth (i.e., in assertoric theoretical discourse) that we are not able to formulate true statements about the objective world. Then, in the thesis of informational scepticism harmlessness, again as part of correspondence understanding of the truth, it is claimed that we should not worry about our inability to formulate statements of the objective reality, i.e., to regard them as true in the correspondence sense.
The position of radical scepticism, appearing as informational scepticism in the current situation, is not harmless. It is a dead end for rational theoretical activity as a whole and needs to be overcome.
In turn, research in the field of philosophy of information and the information society, and in particular, the epistemological aspects of building a consistent theory of the information society, must take into account the above-mentioned logical and epistemological difficulties. It seems to me that the proper epistemological basis for the construction of a consistent theory of the information society can only be a realistically-oriented, anti-sceptical philosophy that treats being, cognition, and relationship of real and virtual objects on the basis of the correspondence theory of truth.
However, despite the generally critical assessment of the informational scepticism concept expressed in this article, it is impossible not to accept the relevance of the work of Floridi in this area. Discussion of these, at first sight, abstract issues, such as the possibility and conditions of use of the sceptical position in epistemology to describe events in the modern world of information and communication technologies, first, is important for building the foundation of the theory of information society, and second, demonstrates new heuristic possibilities of philosophical reflection in the 21st century.
This study was supported by The Tomsk State University competitiveness improvement programme.
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Department of Ontology, Cognitive Theory and Social Philosophy, Faculty of Philosophy, Tomsk State University, pr. Lenina 36, 634050 Tomsk, Russia
Received 28 January 2017; accepted 6 March 2017
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|Publication:||COACTIVITY: Philosophy, Communication|
|Date:||Mar 1, 2017|
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