Oh, triple post and it's a long one...
I came to this general question after thinking a bit about the obvious implications surrounding Descartes' First Meditation. Given the sceptical aspect to that I was reading around a fair bit and came across an undergraduate
paper describing some interpretations of W's "On Certainty". Thanks for the pointer to Wittgenstein by the way fresco!
I can't speak to the er..veracity (!) of the interpretations in this paper but it kept my attention anyway. I thought I'd feed some of what I read back in to this thread in case anyone else is interested as it provided a novel(to me!) way of understanding certainty as a backdrop to my initial post. I guess it has a particular slant with regards to science as it is applied directly against sceptics.
So it seems W has this notion of "hinge propositions" which have a special role in framing the practice of inquiry. So called because they form the hinges about which are inquiries turn. Nice! They're not evaluable propositions within the practice but in some sense consitute the practice itself. Examples the author gives are things like 12x12=144, "My name is..." and "I have two hands" etc. They're context dependent, so the proposition of having two hands is
potentially factual if the speaker has just had an operation or something etc. He then states that they're indubitable and groundless, meaning there are no justifications for them that are stronger than simply stating the hinge proposition itself. What also caught my eye is how both knowledge and doubt are perhaps illegitimate with regards to them.
The two interpretations the author comments on he calls the "non-factual" account and the "epistemic" account. The first describes hinge propositions as akin to rules rather than fact stating propositions. In this way they're incapable of being wrong in the same way a rule in chess cannot be wrong. So one reply to the sceptic is to claim that it has never been the business of scientific inquiry to accurately represent reality therefore the sceptic's doubt is misplaced. What's interesting to me with this, is the objection the author has which is that rules are non-evaluable as long as the practice they consitute has no purpose. But the author claims that scientific inquiry clearly has a purpose, that of "accurately representing reality". If it were not the case, a sceptic would be akin to someone who doubts whether we can represent reality in a discussion of humour or taste. In other words, laughable. Rather than disturbing.
I wonder if the issue here is that we are
interested in representing reality, just not the
reality. There is representing but it need not be thought of as objective, maybe more inter-subjective for lack of a better way of putting it. (?)
The epistemic account is focused on the notion that we do know
hinge propositions but they're ungrounded. This is illustrated with the idea of some potential inquirer in isolation from any practice. He states they have two alternatives. One is to be a sceptic and refrain from any practices or assumptions and the other is to adopt a groundless practice within the frames of the inquiry. The former is guaranteed not to form "true beliefs about the world", the latter at least allows for the possibility. It seems the pure sceptic in this scenario is a real phantom, as I don't see how "I" cannot be engaged in one way or another. Such is my nature. I get the sense the author wants to imagine us as justifiably going for the latter but then later admits "we are forced into some line of inquiry".
Thanks for the responses everyone.