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Skepticism & The principle of Charity

There are two important principles within Epistemology (The nature of Knowledge) that apply to all aspects of knowing things, be that in Philosophy or Martial Arts.

The first: First you must assume that you do not know anything. This is the major tenet that underpins Skepticism and indeed knowing anything at all. If we are to learn at all, we first have to adopt a mindset of ignorance so that we can begin to build on things that we can know for certain.

The second: Assume that any argument is the strongest possible interpretation. This is the Principle of Charity. The idea behind this is that we should look upon any argument or information on its merits first before attempting to critique it.

From what I’ve come to understand about these two principles, I’ve been able to accelerate my own teaching & learning by changing the way I look at knowledge and the entire learning process.

A junior student in my Philosophy class the other day said to me This makes me feel so dumb.”

I told her the following: “In learning anything new we feel dumb. Once we are aware of our ignorance, we feel shame for having been so naive to that knowledge. It’s part of the learning process and the first step towards mastery.”

We all start out ‘dumb’; ignorant to many things. But it’s how we finish that matters; still ‘dumb’ & ignorant, or having built a better understanding by engaging with learning.

This relates because we are discussing the nature of knowledge. In Philosophy this is called ‘Epistemology’, this broad topic is concerned with how we can know things and, in the case of Skepticism, whether we can know anything at all.

Let’s explore our two principles in relation to this.

Skepticism: First, assume that you don’t know anything.

In the case of Skeptical thinking- assuming first that we know nothing- we can learn plenty assuming a mindset of ignorance. If I immediately assume that I know the best way to do something, or that the knowledge being shown to me is not relevant, then I am likely to undervalue that knowledge. By undervaluing knowledge and assuming I know better I am choosing not to extend my learning or act upon that knowledge.

Let’s say my coach is showing a fundamental technique that I’m already familiar with. I have two options:

1. I can either go in with the assumption that there’s still more for me to learn (that I don’t know as much as I think).

2. I can dismiss this because I assume that I already know the technique.

When written as such it seems pretty obvious which we should choose to improve our learning (option 1), but yet in moments where we aren’t conscious of our thinking we may default to option 2 rather than 1.

Holding a Skeptical mindset is actually harder than it seems. Our brain, on all levels, has developed to retain knowledge and draw from that knowledge. We draw comfort and confidence from what we know & learn and use that information to inform our view of the world. It’s hard to test constantly question that narrative we form because essentially that means questioning our identity, our ideas & beliefs and indeed everything we think we know about the world. We have to put our ego to the side and adopt a “white belt mindset” as so many practitioners of the martial arts would describe it. 

Everything is a learning opportunity if we believe that we’re not above learning from situations or opportunities we have already experienced. Instead of defaulting to the familiar, consciously make an effort to revisit what you know and try and do it differently to reach a better outcome. 

The Principle of Charity: Assume that any argument is the strongest possible interpretation

When it comes to the Principle of Charity, I can learn much more in discourse by (what is essentially) giving someone the benefit of the doubt, than if I immediately dismiss their perspective or argument. I may be dismissive for a number of reasons, like before where I feel that I already know what they are telling me, or if I feel that what they have to say is not valuable or credible and even if I feel like what they are saying is incorrect.

Let’s say I’m discussing a technique with a training partner. I might be saying how I prefer to a certain technique one way and they offer an alternative. Once again, I have two options:

1. I can apply the Principle of Charity and entertain their alternative perspective.

2. I can dismiss their perspective because it is different to mine.

Once again, when written as such it’s pretty clear which one we should do but we still will unconsciously defer to option 2 if we do not make the effort to apply option 1.

Giving someone the benefit of the doubt in any exchange of ideas will help you to see the merit in their ideas before putting it to the test and seeing if it remains valid. It seems like common sense when we think about it, but that’s not how the brain works. We are creatures of habit, and learning habits are very real pathways established in our brains that affect the way we process every instance of information that we encounter. I guess it needs to be said: Habits take constant work to develop. We have to consciously apply these principles if we wish for them to become habits.

Understanding how we gain knowledge and how we learn is a huge step in the right direction when it comes to anything new we are exposed to and things we are familiar with. For those looking to pursue their particular passions in life, it’s often a daily challenge to up skill and learn enough to aide them on the path to mastery.

Personally I’ve found that by consciously applying both of these principles, I’ve been able to build better learning habits for myself. As a high school and university student, I had never built strong study habits, and never applied myself thoroughly to any of my studies in a meaningful way until my third and fourth years of University. I had to make a conscious effort to chip away at all the inertia I had created around studying and learning after years of laziness and simply not knowing how to learn properly.

In my opinion, Epistemology and Skepticism are key areas to understand for anyone involved in learning and education. They can teach us more about the underpinnings of how to know anything, and indeed learn anything, at all.

Thanks for reading.