Seldom Seen Slim comments and I respond in blue:
Enjoyed your Sunday post on Pyrrhonism. It’s been a while since I worked on Sextus, but it strikes me that your essay on the Skeptics’ route to adoxia passes by an important premise: the attainment of equipoise and proper role of philosophy.
The skeptics don’t depend upon a normative principle like (o), but in fact a (stronger) claim that it is impossible to believe or assent to a proposition for which the evidence is strongly divided. Just as assent to what is evident in experience is involuntary, so lack of assent is an involuntary response, not merely a good policy, in the face of divided evidence. It is psychologically impossible to assent in those circumstances.
BV: I argued that without the normative principle
0) One ought to withhold assent from any proposition for which the evidence is not demonstrative/compelling
one would not be able to move validly from
1) There is no compelling reason to accept either T or its negation ~T
2) One ought to suspend judgment by withholding assent from both T and ~T.
Suppose one is in a state of doxastic equipoise as between T and its negation ~T: one has no evidential grounds for preferring the thesis to its negation. What ought one do? Some say one ought to suspend judgment. My point was that one cannot validily infer the obligation to suspend judgment from the fact that one is in a state of doxastic equipose without assuming the principle of intellectual integrity, (0). I then went on to argue that this principle is a doxastic commitment of the Pyrrhonian skeptic and that therefore the skeptic cannot be said to be free of all beliefs.
Slim's point, I take it, is that the question of either rationally or morally justifying suspension of judgment does not arise for the skeptic since it is psychologically impossible to be in the state of evidential equipoise and not suspend judgment. Just as no one is a doxastic voluntarist with respect to the sensed sweetness of honey, no one is a doxastic voluntarist with respect to suspension of judgment in a state of evidential equipoise.
There are two questions here. One concerns the interpretation of Sextus. The other concerns how things stand in reality. The second is my main interest. I say it is quite possible to be in a state of equipose with respect to a pair of contradictory propositions and to assent to one rather than the other. What is actual is possible, and I actually affirm theism (the proposition that God exists) despite my belief that the arguments for and against balance and cancel. Therefore, it is possible for a person to be in a state of evidential equipose with respect to a pair of contradictory propositions and to assent to one rather than the other. This also shows that equipoise is not the same state as suspension. I suspect that S. S. Slim is conflating the two.
Let us think about this more carefully. What I am concerned to understand is the transition from the state of equipoise to the state of suspension. They are obviously not the same state. Why does the skeptic, when he is in equipoise, suspend belief? I can think of three answers.
a) Because it is psychologically impossible for him to believe once the state of evidential equipoise has been reached. Suspension follows involuntarily upon equipoise.
b) Because conflicting beliefs are disturbing; mental disturbance is incompatible with ataraxia; the latter is required for happiness (eudaimonia); the skeptic wants to be happy. Our skeptic voluntarily chooses to suspend belief for the sake of happiness.
c) Because of a commitment to a principle of intellectual integrity that requires one not to believe beyond the evidence. Our skeptic voluntarily suspends belief in situations in which contradictory claims balance and cancel to satisfy a precept of the ethics of belief.
Ad (a). This is Slim's view. It strikes me as obviously false. Suppose Old Man Clanton has never run a marathon and that the evidence for and against his completing the 26.2 mile course in the allotted time is evenly balanced. What's to stop Clanton from choosing to believe he can do it? Nothing. He voluntarily believes beyond the evidence. There is nothing psychologically impossible about this. What's more, believing beyond the evidence in a situation like this is both rationally and morally justifiable. We all know that effort follows belief: If I believe I can do something, I will make a greater effort, and will be more likely to pull it off.
I am unsure about what Sextus would say, but what I have read of him and his commentators suggests that he too would reject (a)., and that his reasons for suspension are (b) and (c). But I am open to refutation on this point if Slim or anybody can send me some text references.
The skeptics, recall, are zetetics, resolute inquirers into contentious philo questions like the existence of God. A thorough philosophical inquiry, the Skeptics believe, will take us to the point where strong arguments on both sides robustly oppose each other. This is a point of evidential equipoise, and the mind’s innate response to equipoise is to believe in or assent to neither. Equipose is spontaneously both a stable and a tranquil state of mind, free of contentious loyalties and anxious self-doubt.
Would that this were so! And obviously the skeptic is also not free of a whole set of dogmatic beliefs about how the mind must and cannot assent. And desire also follows automatically on assent, so if we believe in God, for example, we must desire a God-pleasing life. But philosophy enables us to escape doubtful, turbulent beliefs and commitments and to control what we believe and desire by taking us to a state of equipoise and so non-assent and tranquility.
A question I would give to you is whether philo inquiry ever takes us to something like equipoise, and if does, is this a stable and tranquil state.
BV: Slim may be conflating the state of equipoise with the state of suspension. But if he isn't, I would grant only that some people suspend belief in evidential equipoise, not all. After all, there are pragmatic and prudential reasons for belief in addition to evidential ones. Does being in equipoise lead to mental tranquillity? Not invariably.