Why we can’t, ultimately, prove anything

by Massimo Pigliucci

Back in 1968, the German philosopher Hans Albert proposed an argument aimed at showing that certain knowledge is, ultimately, impossible.

The idea was that whenever someone wants to prove a proposition—of any kind—we can always ask for proof of how the proof itself works. It turns out that there are only three possibilities:

A circular argument: the proof is based on a proposition or set of propositions that is, in turn, ultimately based on the first proof;

A regressive argument: the proof is based on another proof, which is based on another proof, and so on ad infinitum;

A dogmatic argument: the proof is based on an axiom or assumption which is simply taken for granted for the purpose of the discussion.

Albert called this Münchausen’s trilemma, after a fictional character—the Baron Münchausen—created by the German writer Rudolf Erich Raspe and protagonist of his book, Baron Münchausen’s Narrative of his Marvelous Travels and Campaigns in Russia, published in 1785. … (continue at Substack)

Published by Massimo

Massimo is the K.D. Irani Professor of Philosophy at the City College of New York. He blogs at platofootnote.org and howtobeastoic.org. He is the author of How to Be a Stoic: Using Ancient Philosophy to Live a Modern Life.

One thought on “Why we can’t, ultimately, prove anything

  1. When I read such arguments I immediately think of jurisprudence. Judges must make far reaching and consequential judgements, quickly and in the presence of incomplete knowledge. The way they do it really, really matters, much than some abstract philosopher’s argument. The result, in my opinion, is that the finest body of reasoning, anywhere, is to be found in the justices’ legal summations of their cases. They are practical, readable, understandable and cogent. They have to be because there is a hungry horde of litigant’s aggressive attorneys, ready to pounce on the smallest error of fact or reasoning so that they may appeal them.

    The process is not perfect or error free but it has produced the finest body of reasoning to be found anywhere. This is practical philosophy at its best.

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