Book Review: Skepticism and the Veil of Perception

By David Pallmann


July 20, 2021

Michael Huemer has established himself as one of today’s leading philosophers on a variety of topics ranging from ethics, to political philosophy, to logical paradoxes, to epistemology. Skepticism and the Veil of Perception (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2001) is concerned with this last topic. Huemer is concerned with rebutting skepticism in general and skepticism about the external world in particular. His solution is a version of direct realist foundationalism.

The book is remarkably well written. It is both clear and accessible. Those with little or no prior knowledge of philosophy shouldn’t have any trouble following most of Huemer’s arguments. Even where the discussion becomes more technical, he is careful to explain the basic ideas to the non-specialist. Huemer keeps his discussions succinct but not overly so. He addresses major alternatives to his proposals when necessary but he doesn’t dwell upon them. This gives the book the dual benefits of being reasonably short but also reasonably thorough.

Chapters 1 and 2 introduce the book, and then lay out the case for skepticism. Huemer concerns himself with four skeptical arguments: 2 arguments for global skepticism and 2 arguments for external world skepticism. These are the regress problem, the problem of the criterion, the problem of being unable to get outside of one’s own head, and the brain in a vat thought experiment. Huemer concludes this section by making it clear that he is concerned with rebutting skepticism by vindicating knowledge by means of an internalist theory of epistemic justification.

Chapter 3 examines easy answers to skepticism. Huemer begins by examining the charge that skepticism is self-refuting. He apparently thinks that global skepticism is self-refuting since one cannot know that they do not know anything without thereby knowing something. However, he points out that a more localized skepticism about the external world doesn’t fall prey to self-refutation.

I am less optimistic than Huemer that global skepticism is self-refuting. True, the claim to know that global skepticism is true is self contradictory. But it doesn’t follow from this that global skepticism is false. It only follows that no one could know that global skepticism was true if it were. But that is exactly what we would expect if global skepticism were true. Hence, our inability to know that global skepticism is true hardly entails that it is not, in fact, true. The thesis of global skepticism along with its truth value are distinct from anyone’s ability to know that skepticism is true.

Huemer anticipates this move on the skeptic’s part. But he doesn’t think that it aids the skeptic in avoiding the charge. He writes,

“The skeptic, to the extent that he presents an argument for his view, is apparently trying to justify it. If he admits that he cannot justify it, then what is the point of the whole exercise?” (Pg. 29)

But again I feel that Huemer is confusing the arguments of the skeptic with skepticism as such. While it is true that global skepticism is unjustifiable, skepticism could nonetheless be true even in the absence of any justification for it. Thus, I must disagree with Huemer here. Even if global skeptics refute themselves, global skepticism does not self-destruct.

Huemer closes out the chapter by discussing GE Moore’s famous commonsense response to skepticism observing that it won’t be convincing to the skeptics.

In chapters 4-5 Huemer begins developing a positive account of epistemic justification. He begins by offering an account of direct realism, roughly the idea that perception or awareness is of physical objects directly without mediation through representations. He gives a helpful overview of different types or modes of awareness. He then moves to analyze perceptions. An interesting feature of Huemer’s account of direct realism is his insertion of a content-satisfaction requirement. He requires an approximate match between objects and perceptions. I found this nuance of his view quite intriguing.

Near the end of chapter 4, Huemer expresses a concern that his view might not quite fulfill the conditions of a direct realist theory of perception. But he thinks it is sufficiently distinct from representational theories to qualify as being a version of direct realism. I agree with him here since his account insists that perceptions are propositional whereas most representational theories strongly resist this.

After laying out his case for direct realism, Huemer proceeds to develop his version of foundationalism called phenomenal conservatism. Huemer has become known as “the father of phenomenal conservatism.” He explains the theory quite well. Basically it is the idea that you are prima facie justified in accepting a proposition as true if it seems to be true to you and there is no defeater. Huemer wisely qualifies his principle of phenomenal conservatism to say that a seeming without a defeater “at least” gives prima facie justification. This enables him to allow for some incorrigible and defeasible beliefs in his noninferential knowledge. I am pleased that Huemer allows for this thereby apparently not committing himself to fallibilism. But it does raise questions as to how he distinguishes between incorrigible beliefs and corrigible beliefs if both are just based in seemings.

In the latter half of chapter 5, Huemer answers some objections to phenomenal conservatism. I think he answered the objections he discussed rather well. However, I feel that he left weighty issues such as phenomenal conservatism’s circularity problem unaddressed. Still, one cannot address every potential objection in a single book. Overall I believe Huemer made a good case.

The one serious gripe that I have with this chapter is Huemer’s treatment of metajustification. When offering arguments for thinking that phenomenal conservatism is a good theory of epistemic justification, he relies almost exclusively upon this idea that denying or arguing against phenomenal conservatism is self-refuting. His reasoning is that any argument which concludes that phenomenal conservatism is false will have to rest upon premises which *seem* to be true to the dissenters. However I think this reasoning is fallacious and probably circular. Something can seem to be true to me without that seeming thereby providing the justification for my believing it to be true. For example, it seems to me that phenomenal conservatism is an inadequate theory of epistemic justification. But it seems this way to me because of the arguments against phenomenal conservatism. The seeming is a corollary of those arguments. It is not the basis for them. For Huemer to insist that it is automatically begs the question in favor of phenomenal conservatism.

Chapters 6 and 7 are dedicated to answering objections to direct realism and developing an objection to indirect realism. While I currently lean towards indirect realism, I think that these chapters were well done. Huemer provides the best defense of direct realism that I have yet come across.

Chapter 8 concludes the book by returning to the original skeptical arguments presented in chapter 2 and responding to them. Huemer does a fine job of explaining how his theory deals with each of the four arguments.

Overall Skepticism and the Veil of Perception is well worth reading. While my own views on the subject are more in line with classical foundationalism, there is much in Huemer’s approach that I agree with. And there is much to learn for everyone. Anyone with an interest in skepticism and epistemology will enjoy the book. Even those who don’t study the topic much may want to begin here since Huemer writes with such clarity. On top of that, he’s just a really enjoyable author.

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About the Author

By David Pallmann

David Pallmann is a student at Trinity College of the Bible and Theological Seminary. He is also a member of the Society of Evangelical Arminians and directs the YouTube Apologetics ministry Faith Because of Reason.