Is it possible to be a religiously pious Pyrrhonian? The Pyrrhonian skeptic, aspiring to tranquillity of mind, tries to live without beliefs. These of course include religious beliefs which are a prime cause of bitter and sometimes bloody contention. So one might think that a skeptic of the stripe of Sextus would have nothing to do with religion. But this is not the case. Skepticism does not require abstention from religion. What Pyrrhonian skepticism implies is the project of beliefless piety or beliefless religiosity. Let me explain.
The Pyrrhonian skeptic is in quest of the human good. But he is convinced that theoretical inquiry will not lead us to it. His is a medicinal or therapeutic conception of philosophy. We are ill, and we need a cure, an empirical cure. ('Empiricus' is not Sextus' last name!) Therapy, not theory! would make a good Pyrrhonian motto. There may be truth, but certain knowledge of it is unavailable to us. We are thrown back upon beliefs. But beliefs are many, they conflict, cancel each other, and inflame ugly passions. Belief conflict militates against that freedom from disturbance or ataraxia which Pyrrhonian skeptics deem essential to human well-being (eudaimonia). On their view the cacophany of competing belief claims is a prime source of kakadaimonia. Beliefs are part of the problem.
The skeptical cure for our doxastic ills is suspension of belief and a tranquil re-insertion into the quotidian. We emerged from the everyday to seek the truth that we thought would bring felicity, but the truth rebuffed us, proving unknowable. We were cast back upon beliefs and the strife of systems. We ought then to return to everyday living and everyday discourse. Hence my talk of re-insertion into the quotidian. It is in the service of tranquillity. Tranquillity, not truth! might serve as a good second Pyrrhonian motto.The tranquil re-insertion into the quotidian involves acquiescence in the customs and traditions of one's time and place.
Among the most widespread and deeply embedded customs and traditions are those of a religious nature. Making his peace with the everyday and the ordinary, the Pyrrhonian makes his peace with the observances, rites, rituals, and verbal formulations of the religion practiced around him. He participates in the observances and assents verbally to the formulae of worship and belief. But he abstains from inner commitment.
A Pyrrhonian Catholic
A Pyrrhonian Catholic might attend mass and in that context recite and give verbal assent to the Apostles' Creed: "I believe in God the Father, almighty creator of heaven and earth, and in Jesus Christ, his only Son . . . . But while uttering sentences, our Pyrrhonian would not affirm or deny any propositions. Withholding assent from theological propositions, he would suspend judgment on such questions as whether or not God exists; whether or not the cosmos is ontologically derivative from a causa prima; whether and in what sense this First Cause is omnipotent; whether and in what sense this God has a Son, and so on. Thus he would presumably not get into a fight with an atheist over the existence of God, or with a Muslim over the tripersonality of God. Our Pyrrhonian would simply go along with the prevailing religious customs and usages of his time, place, and social group while (silently) withholding intellectual assent from propositions which purport to record the structure of reality apart from language games and forms of life, to employ, anachronistically, some Wittgensteinian turns of phrase. (The post-Tractarian Wittgenstein was also an exponent of philosophy as therapy.) Time to quote an authority.
Terence Penelhum: "The skeptic continues with the rituals and the formulae of his tradition, self-consciously seeing it as a tradition and not believing it, yet not denying it." (God and Skepticism, D. Reidel 1983, p. 14, emphasis in original.)
A radical Pyrrhonian Catholic might take it a step further. It is one thing to suspend judgment with respect to a proposition; a more radical thing to doubt whether there is any proposition to suspend judgment about. The radical Pyrrhonian Catholic grants only the verbal formula; he does not grant that it expresses a proposition. For example, he might doubt, with respect to the formula "There is one God in three divine persons" whether there is any coherent proposition that this sentence expresses. The sentence is a grammatically admissible concatenation of individually meaningful words, but this leaves open the question whether there is a unitary sense, or Fregean Gedanke/proposition, that these words, taken collectively as forming a sentence, express. Our radical will not assert that there is no such proposition; he will express his being at a loss over the question. He will give vent to the mental state of aporia, the state of being at a loss, being perplexed, flummoxed, uncomprehending.
With respect to the Trinitarian formulation, the moderate Pyrrhonian Catholic grants that the formula expresses a proposition, but suspends judgment as to the truth or falsity of the proposition. The radical Pyrrhonian Catholic, by contrast, suspends judgment as to whether or not the formula expresses a proposition.
Let us now put the radical 'on the back burner' to stew in his juices. We may revisit him later.
Is the Moderate Position on Pyrrhonian Piety Plausible?
It is widely agreed that it is impossible for a Pyrrhonian to have no beliefs at all. But this is not our question. Our question is whether it is possible, and if possible plausible, for a person to live religiously, talking the talk and walking the walk, playing the language game and participating in the form of life, without specifically religious or theological dogmatic commitments or adherences. Is beliefless religiosity possible? Is it possible to give merely verbal but nonetheless sincere assent to religious formulae while suspending belief as to the truth value of the propositions these formulae express or imply?
I say it is not possible and so not plausible. What would it be to give merely verbal sincere assent to "I believe in God the Father, almighty creator of heaven and earth . . . ." while suspending judgment with respect to such propositions as: God exists, God is omnipotent, God is a creator, The cosmos and its contents are creatures, and so on? This is impossible if the mental state of suspension is one in which one is settled on suspension and ceases all further inquiry convinced that the truth values of the propositions in question are unknowable. For then suspension is in the service of tranquillity, not truth. One ceases caring about truth. But then one cannot sincerely utter the formulae. One cannot sincerely say the sentence 'God created the world' in the context of a religious service without accepting the proposition the sentence expresses. Of course, not every utterance of a sentence is an assertive utterance; but a sincere utterance of a religious sentence in the context of divine worship cannot be other than assertive. Or so say I.
But suppose suspension of judgment is not in the service of tranquillity, but in the service of cognition. I suspend judgment pro tempore in the interests of inquiry the better to get at the truth. But then one forsakes the Pyrrhonian stance as I understand it. Suppose I sincerely say "Christ was born of a virgin" in the context of a worship service. This seems compatible with suspending judgment on the proposition expressed so long as my suspension is in the service of ongoing inquiry and I allow the possibility of a future acceptance of the proposition in question.
We need to think further and harder about the distinction between suspension in the service of tranquillity and suspension in the service of cognition. I detect a tension between the two in the skeptic camp. The skeptic qua inquirer cannot rest in tranquillity and quietism renouncing all concern for truth; but as a therapist out to cure us of ataraxia-busting belief, he must rest in tranquillity and renounce the quest for truth.
Is it not essential to the skeptical stance that attainment of the human good does not require participation in the truth?