Scepticism as a way of life | Aeon

Photo by Enrique Diaz/7cero/Getty


Scepticism as a way of life

The desire for certainty is often foolish and sometimes dangerous. Scepticism undermines it, both in oneself and in others

by Nicholas Tampio + BIO

Photo by Enrique Diaz/7cero/Getty

Think about a time when you changed your mind. Maybe you heard about a crime, and rushed to judgment about the guilt or innocence of the accused. Perhaps you wanted your country to go to war, and realise now that maybe that was a bad idea. Or possibly you grew up in a religious or partisan household, and switched allegiances when you got older. Part of maturing is developing intellectual humility. You’ve been wrong before; you could be wrong now.

We all are familiar, I take it, with people who refuse to admit mistakes. What do you think about such people? Do you admire their tenacity? Or do you wish that they would acknowledge that they jumped to conclusions, misread the evidence, or saw what they wanted to see? Stubborn people are not just wrong about facts. They can also be mean. Living in society means making compromises and tolerating people with whom you disagree.

Fortunately, we have a work of philosophy from antiquity filled with strategies to counter dogmatic tendencies, whether in ourselves or in other people. The book makes one laugh out loud with questions about whether we know that grass is green, that scorpion stings are deadly, or if it is wrong for parents to tattoo their babies. The French writer Michel de Montaigne read the book in the 16th century and used the strategies in his essay ‘An Apology for Raymond Sebond’. Through Montaigne, many European Enlightenment philosophers came to see a link between scepticism and toleration. Plato’s Republic is more renowned, but the book from antiquity that people ought to read right now is Sextus Empiricus’ Outlines of Pyrrhonism.

Sextus was a physician who wrote in Greek and lived in the 2nd or 3rd century CE. He worked in a tradition that originated with the Greek philosopher Pyrrho, a contemporary of Aristotle. Outlines of Pyrrhonism, according to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, is ‘the best and fullest account we have of Pyrrhonian scepticism’. In The History of Scepticism (1960), Richard Popkin identifies the beginning of modern scepticism with the Dominican friar Girolamo Savonarola’s decision to have Sextus translated from Greek to Latin. Sceptics could dethrone pagan philosophers who extolled the powers of reason; sceptics could also, it became clear, raise doubts about religious claims.

The sceptical way of life, on Sextus’ presentation, follows a certain rhythm. You feel puzzlement about something. You search for knowledge about it. You arrive at two equally weighty considerations about what is happening. You let go trying to find an answer. And once you recognise that you might not find a solution, it brings some mental tranquility.

An early biographer said that Pyrrho needed his friends to help him avoid wagons, dogs and cliffs because he would not commit to the knowledge of his senses. Diogenes Laertius also said Pyrrho would not help a friend who had fallen into a pond, suggesting that sceptics doubt our moral commitments. A perennial objection to scepticism is that one cannot live a recognisably human life and doubt the existence of physical objects or moral criteria. In his book Sextus, Montaigne, Hume: Pyrrhonizers (2021), the philosopher Brian C Ribeiro reveals how sceptics throughout history have responded to this charge. Sceptics acknowledge that human beings perceive things with their senses, feel bodily impulses, learn useful skills, and follow laws and customs. Sceptical philosophers make different ‘sceptical cartographies’ – that is, maps of the boundary between sceptical doubts and the bedrock of human life that repels doubt. Sceptics work for a living, participate in family and community life, and can be as kind and generous as anyone else. What sceptics strive to avoid is making claims about the nature of reality beyond how things appear to them.

Here are a few of Sextus’ modes to undermine certainty in yourself and others.

Say that you identify yourself in the school of thought associated with a preeminent person, for example Sir Isaac Newton or Albert Einstein. If you were alive before they were born, then you would not have known that your thinking would have changed upon reading, say, Newton’s Principia (1687) or Einstein’s articles of 1905. ‘In like manner,’ Sextus writes, ‘it is possible, as far as nature is concerned, that an argument antithetical to the one now set forth by you is in existence, though as yet unknown to us.’ Another scientific revolution may be around the corner. Somebody in the past or alive right now might have an argument that would weaken a belief that you take for granted.

Are you smarter than a dog? It seems obvious that humans have capabilities that dogs lack. However, Sextus notes, dogs can reason which path to pursue their prey by eliminating the paths that do not have a scent. Dogs can be brave and loyal friends, have the power to choose whether and what to eat, and can convey subtle emotions and messages through sounds. Not only do dogs resemble humans in intelligence, virtue, freedom and communication, they perceive things that humans cannot. After all, it was Odysseus’ dog, Argus, who recognised his disguised master when he returned to the household. Upon reflection, we appreciate that octopi, whales, bats, spiders and so forth sense all sorts of things in the world that we apparently cannot.

Honey tastes sweet but appears unpleasant to the eyes. Perfume smells nice but tastes disgusting. Olive oil soothes the skin but irritates the windpipe. Paintings can be of mountains, but to the touch they are flat. What is the true quality of honey, perfume, olive oil, paintings? One cannot say for sure; the senses conflict with one another. We see an apple using our five senses. But, says Sextus, ‘it is possible that there exist other qualities that fall within the province of other organs of sense.’ The intellect works with material provided by the senses, and the senses conflict and may be incomplete. Our intellect might not be able to know the true story.

We cannot say that other people are wrong. We are a party to the dispute

When we sleep, we have dreams that give us a distorted portrait of reality. But maybe dreams can give us a heightened sense of reality? Perhaps we have access to truths that are accessible only when we are sleeping, drunk or sick. René Descartes used a similar thought experiment but identified an escape route in our knowledge that we are, at the minimum, a thinking subject. Descartes brought in God to assure us that most of our perceptions correspond to something out there in the world. Sextus does not resort to theology. He does not want us to look for a foundation for certain knowledge or, at least, to claim that we possess it before we do. Rather, Sextus invites us to exercise humility that human beings can transcend their circumstances and discover reality.

Sceptics hesitate to make categorical pronouncements about whether, say, a medical procedure is safe. Its safety depends on such things as the age, gender, body mass index and circumstances of each individual. It is also possible that the side-effects of a procedure will take years, or generations, to manifest. In short, writes Sextus: ‘We shall not be able to say what each object is in its own nature and absolutely, but what it appears to be under the aspect of relativity.’

Some people around the world think it is appropriate to copulate in public, for men to wear one-piece tunics, for parents to tattoo their babies, and for men to marry their sisters. We, Sextus explains, do not think that these things are appropriate, but we cannot say that other people are wrong. We are a party to the dispute.

Outlines of Pyrrhonism provides readers with a list of argumentative strategies to use whenever anybody claims to know how things really are. Maybe you, the subject, are influencing your judgment, like when you comment on a meal at the end of a frustrating day. Maybe the object changes appearance depending on whether it is isolated or compounded, like when a grain of sand feels sharp, but a sand dune feels soft. Maybe both subjective and objective factors are at work, as when you notice a small comet because it is rare but do not notice the Sun because it rises every day.

After reading Outlines of Pyrrhonism, you might fold modesty into your speech and say things such as ‘This is how things appear to me’ and ‘Nothing more’ (ouden mallon).

But scepticism is not simply about knowledge or language. It is a way of life. Sextus invites you to become an open-minded, calm person who seeks out knowledge but does not become angry when certainty eludes your grasp or when others don’t see things the same way.

In a blog on ‘Epistemic Relativism’ (2021), Francis Fukuyama writes: ‘We who live in modern liberal societies have necessarily accepted a certain degree of moral relativism.’ Fukuyama does not comment on whether this is a good or bad thing but chastises postmodernist writers who espouse relativism regarding ‘assertions of fact concerning the outside world’. Fukuyama identifies the rise of epistemic relativism with writers who followed Friedrich Nietzsche, but these themes are present in Outlines of Pyrrhonism. Bracketing from the question of chronology, is Fukuyama right that relativism is a problem?

A quick reply is that sceptics eschew the term relativism. Sceptics do not maintain that truth changes depending on time or place. In 1933, the German philosopher Martin Heidegger believed in the inner truth and greatness of the National Socialist cause. Heidegger is a relativist but not a sceptic.

To the larger point that epistemic relativism is a problem, sceptics maintain that they do have criteria to make decisions about facts in the world or how to treat other people. These are, according to Sextus, ‘the guidance of nature, the compulsion of the feelings, the tradition of laws and customs, and the instruction of the arts’. For Sextus, nature and culture are the soil from which our ethical dispositions grow. Sceptics may be kind to children, help their neighbours, and build institutions that reflect the values of their culture. And there are many examples of cruel dogmatists.

Grass is green. Except at night, when it appears black. Sceptics can make arguments like that for a long time

In one of Sextus’ surviving manuscripts titled Against the Ethicists, he addresses the question of what a sceptic will do if a tyrant commands a forbidden act. The sceptic ‘will choose one thing, perhaps, and avoid the other by the preconception which accords with his ancestral laws and customs’ and will ‘bear the harsh situation more easily compared with the dogmatist’. Aha! For critics of scepticism such as Martha Nussbaum, this seems like evidence that sceptics are passive in the face of injustice. They don’t even know whether they will fight tyrants!

Rising to Sextus’ defence, the political scientist John Christian Laursen argues that sceptics can grow up in cultures that believe in watering the tree of liberty with the blood of tyrants, and sceptics can have a burning hatred for tyrants. Sceptics can possess energy, commitments and concern about the political order. ‘One can be committed without a chain of truths to support one’s actions.’ And, of course, dogmatists can also support tyrants who murder people who disagree with them.

Fukuyama wants people to agree on facts about the outside world. But intelligent people can look at those supposed facts in a variety of ways. Grass is green. Except at night, when it appears black. Sceptics can make arguments like that for a long time. Sceptics encourage us to live our lives in less frustrating ways than demanding something that humans do not and may not ever possess: truth.

One reason that it is important to read Sextus now is because people are considering proposals to tamper free speech in the name of combating post-truth politics. One such proposal is made by Sophia Rosenfeld in her book Democracy and Truth: A Short History (2018).

According to Rosenfeld, contemporary democracies have inherited a regime of truth from the European and American Enlightenment. Figures such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Thomas Jefferson envisioned a mutually supportive relationship between democracy, or republicanism, and truth. From one side, the entire reading public, and not just monarchs and bureaucrats, would have access to knowledge and would be able to debate issues of common concern. From the other side, educating the public through schools, universities and newspapers would accelerate the creation and dissemination of knowledge. ‘A moral and epistemic commitment to truth would undergird the establishment of the new political order,’ writes Rosenfeld.

This new social order committed to truth would depend, historically and conceptually, on a balance of power between experts and ordinary people. Experts would be responsible for using their training and institutional power to make discoveries that amateurs could not. You need specialists to design railroad systems and to measure climate change. Ordinary people play a part in this system by engaging in a running dialogue with experts about whether their plans are helping or hurting the common good. People can march and complain on social media when they think that experts have forgotten about them.

Populist leaders share stories that they and just about everybody else know are false

Democracy, Rosenfeld explains, requires a fine-tuned relationship between expertise and scepticism. Experts use methods, jargon, journals, conferences and so forth to acquire knowledge. But researchers express scepticism about each other’s work in peer review, and the public raises doubts about what experts are up to. ‘Pluralism,’ she argues, ‘along with a dose of scepticism inherited from the ancients, has, in theory, been a key characteristic of modern experiments with popular rule from the start.’

The problem today, according to Rosenfeld, is that expertise and scepticism are out of balance. Postmodernists writing arcane books do not help matters, though they are not the main culprit. Populist leaders share stories that they and just about everybody else know are false. People live in social media bubbles, and outlets cater to this development by publishing sensationalist stories. Like Jonathan Rauch in The Constitution of Knowledge (2021), Rosenfeld does not want experts to impose their dogmas on the public. Rauch and Rosenfeld envision a contentious public sphere in which experts and laypeople debate ideas and proposals. That said, they worry about the rise of ‘post-truth’ politics dominated by tribalism rather than a commitment to seek the truth. They both share a Platonic sense that the wise should have the final say about what stories may circulate in society.

If democrats are to combat post-truth politics, Rosenfeld suggests, we may need to rethink free-speech absolutism. The First Amendment may have meant one thing in the 18th century, but the American Founders could not have imagined how people would use electronic social media to coordinate neo-Nazi rallies or claims that mass shootings are fake news. ‘It may well be time,’ according to Rosenfeld, ‘to consider modifying free speech laws to limit the damage that free speech can do.’

Rosenfeld is a historian and does not give specifics about how to limit the damage of free speech. But she does say that democracy requires ‘shared convictions’ and ‘useful facts’ to craft government policy and bind us ‘all together in some minimal way’. As I write, politicians and academics are pressuring social media companies to censor posts about fake news and conspiracy theories and to revise, in the United States context, the First Amendment to make individuals subject to responsibility for the abuses of free speech. What is the problem with requiring social media companies to permit posts only based on facts or to reign in the abuses of free speech?

Here is where Sextus helps us pose objections to anybody who wants to censor fake news. What if the fake news is right? There are plenty of instances when people scoffed at an idea that was later widely adopted. Perhaps the piece of evidence to support the conspiracy theory has not yet come to light. Maybe people have seen things but have not yet been able to find their voice, or an outlet, to provide the missing piece of the puzzle. If you visit a seminar at a research university, you will find highly credentialed people raising their voices with one another over theories, methods, relevant evidence and so forth. Anybody who claims to shut down somebody by appealing to facts will be likely ignored. You will also find philosophers entertaining ideas that many people would think are simply wrong, such as that one can ‘discern a life in metal’, as Jane Bennett puts it in Vibrant Matter (2010). Anybody who speaks about facts should add qualifiers such as ‘these look like the germane facts to me’, or ‘this is how the situation appears to me, and no more’.

Pyrrhonian sceptics might have no problem with social media companies censoring, say, images of violence. They tend to go along with the laws and customs of the community, and they likely feel, as most of us do, revulsion at images of people hurting one another. But the sceptical tradition poses a recurrent challenge to anybody who claims to censor in the name of the reality-based community or objective truth. The sceptical tradition gives us reason to have doubts about anybody who speaks for the truth.

Part of being intellectually honest is admitting the limits and flaws of one’s knowledge

But what about Rosenfeld’s point that democracy and truth support one another? Won’t questioning the drive to truth make democracy vulnerable to populist leaders who share fake news? Sextus’ sceptical predecessor Carneades responded to this kind of objection by developing a doctrine of the pithanon, or the probable. Sextus said that this notion was too much of a compromise with dogmatism. You use the word probable if you have a sense of what is closer to the truth, which assumes that we know what the truth is. Sextus wants to get away from truth talk.

Sceptics still want to learn about things. The word ‘sceptic’ comes from the Greek word skepsis, meaning ‘enquiry’. Sceptics run experiments, test hypotheses, submit and do peer review, and the like. Sceptics follow the rules and methods of science and scholarship, and they laugh with their scholarly friends at the unfounded pronouncements of populists. But sceptics think that part of being intellectually honest is admitting the limits and flaws of one’s knowledge.

Looking back in time, we see that people should have been more sceptical about, say, the risks and rewards of using certain chemicals. In the 1960s, doctors prescribed thalidomide to treat morning sickness, and subsequently discovered that the drug caused birth defects. Americans sprayed more than a billion tons of the insecticide DDT on crops and lawns before the US government banned it in 1972; a recent study has shown that DDT’s health effects can persist for generations. In 2009, the US pharmaceutical company Pfizer had to pay a $2.3 billion fine for illegally promoting drugs such as Geodon, an anti-psychotic, and Zyvox, an antibiotic. Scientific consensus and common sense have been mistaken in the past. Sceptics press us to consider the possibility that experts and the majority of the public might be wrong today.

We cannot say that sceptics always favour democracy over other political regimes, yet scepticism has an egalitarian impulse insofar as it withholds from anybody the status of sage or philosopher-king. Democratic societies cultivate a healthy scepticism of political, scientific or cultural verities. Reading Sextus Empiricus today gives us argumentative strategies, and confidence, to resist anybody who claims to speak on behalf of truth or reality.

Thinkers and theoriesKnowledgePolitical philosophy

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