Reason as the Leading Motive

Conversing with a Skeptic

Posted by Jerry on January 20, 2007

What do you do when a young doctoral student looks you in the eye and says–with all sincerity–that he does not exist?


Well, I had to react with incredulity! Indeed, even the word “incredulous” does not quite capture entirely my reaction to such an absurdity.


I was heading home from work with my friend and one of her friends, who is a doctoral student pursuing his PhD in Mathematics. Along the way, the doctoral student and I get into a dialogue on all interrelated topics from Russell’s “set of all sets” paradox, to the Liar’s paradox, to the Theory of Symbolisms, to Godel’s incompleteness theorems, to the nature of language and concepts, and finally–and fundamentally–to the very question of existence itself.


Through much of what we discussed during our brief rickshaw ride home, I got the sense that this young (and decently attractive) doctoral student was unfortunately mired in the skeptical mumbo-jumbo being fed by his university professors and textbooks.


This nagging sense about his apparent confused state of mind solidified into a confirmed judgment when he said that there can be no certainties–even existence itself is uncertain. Shocked by such a statement, I asked him whether that was his opinion from his experience in non-existence. He replied, “I don’t know.” Well, who is it that does not know? Is it you, the person sitting next to me who does not exist, that does not know?!


Apparently, the young student was not aware that he was treading on such flimsy philosophical grounds long deserted by practically every decent and rational philosopher and intellectual today. Denying knowledge of one’s own existence–which is identical to denying one’s own existence–is (unfortunately for the denier) preconditioned upon implicitly acknowledging that the denier does indeed exist in order to put forth the denial!


Indeed I am surprised that I am at this moment expending the effort of stating the obvious–that existence simply exists! Any denial of existence is self-defeating, i.e., it is impossible to deny the existence of existence. It is a self-evident axiom presupposed even in every denial of itself.


Therein lies the problem with skepticism. In order to be properly consistent, the skeptic has to doubt everything–on principle. What results is an epistemic short-circuit of the mind arising from the demand of having to accept that the only certainty is that everything is uncertain, which is itself uncertain, and that uncertainty is a certainty.


Need I point out how absurd that sounds? But that is essentially the philosophical principle underlying the “open-minded education” of unsuspecting doctoral students like the man I was conversing with.


Somebody (I’d be delighted to credit this remark if I knew who said it) once aptly remarked that there’s no one more dogmatically certain of uncertainty than a skeptic! Indeed, a skeptic, in my view, defines what “close-mindedness” means.


And as if we hadn’t reached the peak of absurdity yet, the young man made another remark (and, shall I add, with complete certainty): that concepts are all meaningless and arbitrary. Specifically, we were discussing the meaning of concepts like “Western” and “Oriental.” He argued that those were meaningless and arbitrary concepts. Of course, I had to disagree–and I used concepts that evidently had some meaning, because he understood that I disagreed with him.


The idea that concepts are meaningless and arbitrary implies that all language and communication is fundamentally futile, illusory, and even nonsensical. Further, and more importantly, because we think with the use of language and symbols, arguing that language is meaningless and arbitrary implies that every single thought is also meaningless because the thought arbitrarily refers to anything, which simply means, it refers to nothing.


Ayn Rand pointed out the objective nature of language–which is a human invention–by correctly stating that language is not primarily a means of communication but a tool of cognition. By rendering language (concepts, definitions, words) meaningless, one not only attempts to destroy an effective medium of communication but fundamentally seeks to invalidate the functioning of the human mind.


It baffles me to encounter resistance to self-evident and irrefutable truths like existence exists, and by no less than a doctoral student! Such is the sad state of education today–it cripples the minds of so many young people, people who perhaps have immense potentials to achieve so much greatness in life. I sincerely hope this young man finds his way out of non-existence.



One Response to “Conversing with a Skeptic”

  1. […] really, I shouldn’t be surprised. Some time ago, I spoke to a PhD student—I blogged about our conversation here—who was adamant in denying his own existence, or more precisely, denying the certain knowledge of […]

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