Will to Power #437 contains a marvellous discussion of Pyrrho of Elis. A taste:
A Buddhist for Greece, grown up amid the tumult of the schools; a latecomer; weary; the protest of weariness against the zeal of the dialecticians; the unbelief of weariness in the importance of all things. (tr. Kaufmann)
Years ago I noted the strange similarity of some arguments found in Nagarjuna and the late Pyrrhonist, Sextus Empiricus. (Memo to self: blog it!)
What is so bad about the strife of systems, controversy, conflict of beliefs? Are they always bad, never productive? Is it not by abrasion (of beliefs) that the pearl (of wisdom) is formed? At least sometimes?
Doxastic conflict can be mentally stimulating, a goad to intellectual activity. We like being active. It makes us happy. Happiness itself is an activity, a work, an ergon, taught Aristotle. It is not a passive state. There is the joy of movement: running, hiking, climbing, dancing. The joy extends to mental movement. We like problem-solving in our homes, in our jobs, in the aethereal precincts of mathematics and philosophy and science. We like puzzles of all sorts. We like to test our wits as much as we like to test our muscles. The rest after the test is the keener, the keener the test. Mental disturbance, the aporetic predicament, can be enlivening and exhilirating. Damn me, but there must be a way out, a way forward, a work around, a solution! Engineers and chess players and route finders know what I am talking about.
It is equally true that conflicts of belief can be troubling, painful, depressing, unmooring. Cognitive dissonance can induce extreme mental suffering. ('Doxastic dissonance' is a better name for it.) We want certain knowledge, but the indications are many that it is out of reach in this life. We are thrown back on that miserable substitute, belief. Belief butts up against counter-belief. The joys of dialectic transmogrify into acrimonious division.
So Sextus and the boys are on to something. They see the problem, not that their their diagnosis, let alone their cure, can be reasonably endorsed. Unfortunately, they see the problem onesidedly. They see what is bad about belief and the conflicts of belief. But they ignore the good. Insofar forth they could be called epistemic wimps.
This fits well with the decadence of the late Hellenic schools of Greek philosophy. Things went south after the passing of the titans, Plato and Aristotle. Social and cultural decline brought with it a turn away from pure theory and a concern with the practical and therapeutic. The desire for knowledge gave way to a desire for freedom from disturbance.
That is a peace not worth wanting as I argued the other day.
I now hand off to the Franz Brentano, Vier Phasen der Philosophie.
Our beliefs, political and religious beliefs in particular, divide us and ignite sometimes murderous passions. A radical cure would be to find a way to abstain from belief, to live without beliefs, adoxastōs. Is this possible, and if possible, desirable?
No on both counts. Such is the interim conclusion of my ongoing series on Pyrrhonian skepticism, the infirmity of reason, and cognate topics. But I continue to inquire . . . . That's what a philosopher does. That's how he lives.
I brought Cioran into my latest Pyrrhonian post to lay bare the contrast between the Christian's pursuit of a "peace that surpasses all understanding" (Philippians 4:7) and the Pyrrhonian's peace which is beneath understanding inasmuch as it is predicated upon not understanding -- and not caring any more about understanding. I then asked whether this could be a peace worth wanting.
I ended my Pyrrhonian post with the quip: "To Emil Cioran I would say: safety is overrated." My point, in contemporary jargon, is that really fruitful living requires frequent and extended forays from one's 'comfort zone' into regions of stress and challenge and doxastic risk.
Kai Frederik Lorentzen comments:
I think you do Cioran wrong insofar as he seems to be ambivalent about Skepticism. In Histoire et Utopie (1960), he writes: "Skepticism is the sadism of embittered souls."
Cioran's spiritual yearning appears real to me.
I have read quite a bit of Cioran but not enough to venture a definitive judgment. So I don't know whether his spiritual yearning is genuine or just a literary posture. My impression is that he is a mere litterateur. But even if he is sincere, his scepticism seems distinct from Pyrrhonian Skepticism. Acolytes of the latter try not to dogmatize whereas it is not clear to me that Cioran avoids or tries to avoid a dogmatic scepticism/nihilism. A bit of (inconclusive) evidence:
X, who instead of looking at things directly has spent his life juggling with concepts and abusing abstract terms, now that he must envisage his own death, is in desperate straits. Fortunately for him, he flings himself, as is his custom, into abstractions, into commonplaces illustrated by jargon. A glamorous hocus-pocus, such is philosophy. But ultimately, everything is hocus-pocus, except for this very assertion that participates in an order of propositions one dares not question because they emanate from an unverifiable certitude, one somehow anterior to the brain’s career. (E. M. Cioran, Drawn and Quartered (New York: Seaver Books, 1983), translated from the French by Richard Howard, p.153)
A statement of Cioran’s scepticism. But his scepticism is half-hearted and dognatic since he insulates his central claim from sceptical corrosion. To asseverate that his central claim issues from “an unverifiable certitude” is sheer dogmatism since there is no way that this certitude can become a self-certitude luminous to itself. Compare the Cartesian cogito. In the cogito situation, a self’s indubitability is revealed to itself, and thus grounds itself. But Cioran invokes something anterior to the mind, something which, precisely because of it anteriority, cannot be known by any mind. Why then should we not consider his central claim – according to which everything is a vain and empty posturing – to be itself a vain and empty posturing?
Indeed, is this not the way we must interpret it given Cioran’s two statements of nihilism cited above? If everything is nothing, then surely there cannot be “an unverifiable certitude” anterior to the mind that is impervious to sceptical assault.
Again, one may protest that I am applying logic in that I am comparing different aphorisms with an eye towards evaluating their mutual consistency. It might be suggested that our man is simply not trying to be consistent. But then I say that he is an unserious literary scribbler with no claim on our attention. But the truth of the matter lies a bit deeper: he is trying have it both ways at once. He is trying to say something true but without satisfying the canons satisfaction of which is a necessary (though not sufficient) condition of anything’s being true.
My interim judgment, then, is this. What we have before us is a form of cognitive malfunction brought about by hypertrophy of the sceptical faculty. Doubt is the engine of inquiry. Thus there is a healthy form of scepticism. But Cioran’s extreme scepticism is a disease of cognition rather than a means to it. The writing, though, is brilliant.
The Pyrrhonians see clearly that part of our misery in this life is due to our inability to attain certain knowledge. Wanting certainty, but unable to secure it, we are thrown back upon conflicting beliefs that inflame passions. The heat of the passions seems to vary inversely with the rational unprovability of the beliefs that stoke them. The Pyrrhonians try to find happiness in the midst of this misery. We are to suspend judgment (belief) and thereby attain peace of mind. Theirs is not a theoretical but a therapeutic conception of philosophy. The Skeptic therapy diagnoses our illness as belief and prescribes the purgation of belief as the cure. Martha C. Nussbaum (The Therapy of Desire, Princeton UP, 1994, 284-285) puts it well:
In short, says the Skeptic, Epicurus is correct that the central human disease is a disease of belief. But he is wrong to feel that the solution lies in doing away with some beliefs and clinging all the more firmly to others. The disease is not one of false belief; belief itself is the illness -- belief as a commitment, a source of concern, care, and vulnerability.
. . . Greek Skepticism, attaching itself to the medical analogy, commends this diagnosis and proposes a radical cure: the purgation of all cognitive commitment, all belief, from human life.The Skeptic, "being a lover of his fellow human beings, wishes to heal by argument, insofar as he can, the conceit and the rashness of dogmatic people" (PH 3.280).
We note the radicality of both the diagnosis and the cure. Since belief as such makes us ill, the cure must lie in the purgation of all beliefs including, I assume, any beliefs instrumental in effecting the cure. Just as a good laxative flushes itself out along with everything else, doxastic purgation supposedly relieves us of all doxastic impactation, including the beliefs underpinning the therapeutic procedures. You might say that the aperient effect of epoche is to restore us to mundane regularity.
I reject the Skeptic Way, its destination, and its 'laxatives.' I agree that we are ill, all of us, and that that part of our misery in this life is due to our inability to attain what we desire and feel is our birthright, namely, certain knowledge, in particular, certain knowledge of ultimates. But I reject both the diagnosis and the cure. The problem is not belief as such, and the solution is not purgation of belief.
Pyrrhonism is rife with problems. Here is one about the value of ataraxia. It is a value, but how high a value?
The Passivity of Ataraxia
The notion that ataraxia (mental tranquillity, peace of soul, freedom from disturbance) is either essential to happiness or the whole of happiness is a paltry and passive conception of happiness. The peace of the Pyrrhonian is not the "peace that surpasses all understanding" (Phillipians 4:7), but a peace predicated upon not understanding -- and not caring any more about understanding. Could that be a peace worth wanting?
The Skeptic who, true to his name, begins with inquiry abandons inquiry when he finds that nothing can be known with certainty. But rather than have recourse to uncertain belief, the Skeptic concludes that the problem is belief itself. Rather than go forward on uncertain beliefs, he essays to go forward belieflessly. Inquiry, he maintains, issues in the psychological state of aporia (being at a loss) when it is seen that competing beliefs cancel each other out. The resulting evidential equipoise issues in epoche (withdrawal of assent) and then supposedly in ataraxia.
Now mental tranquillity is a high value, and no one who takes philosophy seriously can not want to possess more of it. But the Skeptic's brand of tranquillity cannot be the highest value, and perhaps not much of a value at all. The happy life cannot be anything so passive as the life of ataraxia. We need a more virile conception of happiness, and we find it in Aristotle. For the Stagirite, happiness (eudaimonia) is an activity (ergon) of the soul (psyche) in accordance with virtue (arete) over an entire life. (Cf. Nicomachean Ethics.) His is an active conception of the good life even though the highest virtues are the intellectual and contemplative virtues. The highest life is the bios theoretikos, the vita contemplativa. Though contemplative, it necessarily involves the activity of inquiry into the truth, an activity that skepticism, whether Pyrrhonian or Academic, denigrates.
The Porcinity of Ataraxia
Disillusioned with the search for truth, our Skeptic advocates re-entry into the everyday. Unfortunately, there is something not only passive, but also porcine about the Skeptic's resting in ataraxia. Nussbaum again:
Animal examples play an important part in Skepticism, illustrating the natural creature's freedom from disturbance,and the ease with which this is attained if we only can, in Pyrrho's words, "altogether divest ourselves of the human being" (DL 9.66). The instinctive behavior of a pig, calmly removing its hunger during a storm that fills humans with anxiety, exemplifies for the Skeptic the natural orientation we all have to free ourselves from immediate pain. It also shows that this is easily done, if we divest ourselves of the beliefs and commitments that generate other complex pains and anxieties. Pointing to that pig, Pyrrho said "that the wise man should live in just such and undisturbed condition" (DL 9.66).
How is that for a porcine view of the summum bonum? I am put in mind of this well-known passage from John Stuart Mill's Utilitarianism, Chapter II:
It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. And if the fool, or the pig, are of a different opinion, it is because they know only their own side of the question. The other party to the comparison knows both sides.
Is the Skeptic Committed to Ataraxia's being a Value?
The Skeptic aspires to live belieflessly, adoxastos. He aims to live beyond all commitments, or at least beyond all commitments that transcend present impressions. (It is a nice question, one best left for later, whether our Skeptic can, consistently with his entire approach, cop to a commitment to something as Chisholmianly noncommital as his here and now being-appeared-to-sweetly when, for example, he eats honey. Does he not here and and now accept, affirm, believe that he is being-appeared-to-sweetly when he consumes honey? Sticking to impressions, he does not accept, affirm, believe that the honey IS sweet, but 'surely' he must accept, affirm, believe that he IS (in reality) presently being appeared-to-sweetly. No?)
Setting aside for now our parenthetical worry, what about the commitment to the pursuit of ataraxia? He who treads the Skeptic Path is committed to the value of ataraxia, and this value-commitment obviously transcends his present impressions. It is the organizing principle behind his therapeutic procedures and his entire way of life. It is what his quasi-medicinal treatments are for. Ataraxia is the goal, the 'final cause' of the therapy. So here we have yet another doxastic-axiological commitment that is part and parcel of the Skeptic Way. We see once a again that a life without commitment is impossible.
Nussbaum considers how a Skeptic might respond:
I think he would now answer that yes, after all, an orientation to ataraxia is very fundamental in his procedures. But the orientation to ataraxia is not a belief, or a value-commitment. It has the status of a natural inclination. Naturally, without belief or teaching, we move to free ourselves from burdens and disturbances. Ataraxia does not need to become a dogmatic commitment, because it is already a natural animal impulse . . . Just as the dog moves to take a thorn out of its paw, so we naturally move to get rid of our pains and impediments: not intensely or with any committed attachment but because that's just the way we go. (305)
This quotation is right before the pig passage quoted above. Nussbaum does not endorse the response she puts in the mouth of the Skeptic, and she very skillfully presents the difficulty. The Skeptic, whether he aims to be consistent or not, must adopt a Skeptical attitude toward ataraxia "if he is to avoid disturbance and attain ataraxia." (Nussbaum, 301) He cannot be committed to ataraxia or any of the procedures that supposedly lead to it without running the risk of disturbance.
I would add that our Skeptic cannot even be committed to the possibility of ataraxia. The pursuit of ataraxia enjoins a suspension of judgment as to its possibility or impossibility. For any claim that humans are capable of ataraxia is a claim that goes beyond the impressions of the present moment, a claim that can give rise to dispute and disturbance. But it is even worse that this. It occurs to me that our Skeptic cannot even grant that he or anyone has ever experienced ataraxia in the past since this claim too would go beyond the impressions of the present moment.
Suppose you went to this doctor for treatment. You ask him how successful his procedures are. "How many, doc, have experienced relief after a course of your purgatives and aperients?" The good doctor will not commit himself. He has no 'track record' he will stand by. No point, then, is asking about the prognosis.
How then can the Skeptic save himself from incoherence? It seems he must reduce the human being to an animal that simply follows its natural instincts and inclinations. Divesting himself of his humanity, he must sink to the level of the animal as Pyrrho recommends. Indeed, he must stop acting and merely respond to stimuli. Human action has beliefs as inputs, and human action is for reasons. But all of this is out if we are to avoid all doxastic and axiological commitments.
We now clearly see that the Skeptic Way is a dead end. We want the human good, happiness. But we are given a load of rhetoric that implies that there is no specifically human good and that we must regress to the level of animals.
But even this recommendation bristles with paradox. For it too is a commitment to a course of action that transcends the moment when action is impossible for a critter that merely responds instinctually to environmental stimuli.
What is exercising me at the moment is the question of how suspending judgment as to the truth or falsity of a proposition p is related to presuming that p. I will propose that there are two forms of suspension of judgment. There is suspension in the service of cognition and suspension in the service of ataraxia (mental tranquillity). I will float the suggestion that presumption necessarily involves suspension in the service of cognition but excludes suspension in the service of ataraxia.
Firearms instructors sometimes say that every gun is loaded. That is plainly false as a statement of fact, but a wise saying nonetheless if interpreted to mean: every gun is to be presumed loaded until proven unloaded. Note that it makes no sense to say that a gun is loaded until proven unloaded. For it it is loaded, then it cannot be proven to be unloaded. Likewise, it makes no sense to say a man is innocent until proven guilty; for if he is innocent, then he cannot be proven guilty. A man charged with a crime is presumed to be innocent; a gun is presumed to be unloaded.
Presumptions are procedural rules. To presume every gun to be loaded is to adopt a procedural rule to treat every gun as if it is loaded regardless of how likely it is that it is loaded. Suppose the likelihood is near zero: the gun is 'right out of the box' or is placed on the counter by a responsible gun dealer. Nevertheless, the presumption that it is loaded remains in force.
Suppose the likelihood is not near zero but is zero: I remove the magazine of a semi-auto pistol and do both a visual and tactile check of the chamber. The chamber is empty. I now know -- hyperbolic doubt aside -- that the gun is unloaded. The presumption that the gun is loaded has now been defeated. I will assume that all presumptions are defeasible.
Presumption is not belief. If I presume a gun to be loaded, I do not thereby believe that it is loaded, or affirm or accept or assert that it is loaded.
To presume that p is not to affirm that p is true, nor to affirm that p is probably true, nor to assume that p is true, but to decide to act as if p is true. When I presume that a gun is loaded I do not affirm that it is loaded, deny that it is loaded, take a position on the probability of its being loaded, or even assume that it is loaded. Assumption is a theoretical attitude toward a proposition. My mental attitude of presumption is not theoretical but practical: I decide to comport myself as if the gun is loaded.
A presumption is not like a belief in the following important respect. To presume that a gun is loaded or that a man is innocent of a crime is not to believe that it is or that he is. To believe that p is to believe that p is true. But to presume that p is not to presume that p is true; it is to act as if p is true without either accepting or rejecting p. To presume that Jones is innocent until proven guilty is not to believe that he is innocent until proven guilty; it is to suspend judgment as to guilt or innocence until sufficient evidence is presented by the prosecution to warrant a verdict one way or the other. When I presume that p, I take no stand as to the truth-value of p, or even the probability of p -- I neither accept nor reject p -- what I do is decide to act as if p is true.
Two Forms of Suspension of Judgment
To presume that a gun is loaded until proven unloaded is not to believe that the gun is loaded until proven unloaded; it is to suspend judgment as to whether it is loaded or unloaded until a decision can be made on the basis of empirical evidence. The suspension in this example is pro tempore and is in the service of getting at the truth. This form of presumption necessarily involves suspension of judgment at least for a time.
But suppose I suspend judgment from a state of evidential equipoise. I am in a state of evidential equipoise when it appears to me that the evidence for a thesis T and the evidence for its negation ~T are equal: the considerations on either side of the question balance and cancel out. Suppose I now move from a state of evidential equipoise to a state of suspension of judgment. Before suspension I was in a state of inquiry and mental turmoil trying to resolve a seemingly important question. But then, seeing that there is no rational resolution of the question -- say, whether or not justice demands capital punishment in some cases -- I enter upon the state of suspension. There follows ataraxia and the removal of mental turmoil, both within my own mind, and with intellectual opponents. This peace of mind is not the "peace that surpasses all understanding," (Phillipians 4:7) but an arguably paltry peace that comes from acquiescing in a failure of understanding. I give up up the search for the truth of the matter. Inquiry having led me to an impasse, I abandon inquiry and cease troubling my head over an apparently insoluble problem.
So we have two forms of suspension of judgment. The first form is for the time being and is oriented toward uncovering the truth of the matter. Is the gun loaded or not? Is the defendant guilty as charged? The suspension ends when a verdict has been reached. The second form remains in place once evidential equipoise is reached. The suspension is not for the sake of inquiry into the truth, but for the sake of mental calm. Inquiry issues in the abandonment of inquiry. Suspension in its second form has nothing to do with presumption.
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 assentfrom 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?
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.
"Pyrrhonism is not a doctrine, but a way of intellectual life, a way of thinking, talking, and acting." (Benson Mates, The Skeptic Way, Oxford UP 1996, p. 66) Mates is a careful writer and his meaning is clear: Pyrrhonism is not a doctrine at all. It involves no beliefs or teachings or doctrines or dogmas. There is no Skeptic credo. The whole point of it is to live without beliefs, belieflessly, adoxastos.
Nice work if you can get it. In these days of bitter controversy and unremitting acrimony, would it not be great to be able to float through life belieflessly?
Before asking whether it is possible to live without beliefs, we should consider why a life without beliefs might be thought to be desirable. But before that we need to understand what the Pyrrhonian skeptic means by 'belief.'
What is belief?
According to Mates, and I follow him on this, belief is "a firmly maintained affirmative attitude toward a proposition purporting to describe some feature of the external world . . . ." (SW, 60) To illustrate, suppose our skeptic tastes some honey. Speaking with the vulgar, he may say 'This honey is sweet.' But he will think with the learned and intend 'This honey is sweet' as elliptical for 'It seems to me at present that this honey is sweet.' Thus he does not go beyond the sensory appearances, nor does he allow himself to fall into dispute with a cantankerous table mate who, tasting honey from the same jar, claims that the honey is not sweet. There is nothing to dispute because there is no one proposition that the skeptic affirms and his table mate denies.
Sticking to the sensory seeming, our skeptic refuses to accept or affirm the proposition that the honey is sweet, a proposition that purports to describe a feature of the external world. Of course, he does not reject or deny this proposition ether. He takes no stand on its truth or falsity. He suspends judgment. He may even take a further step and doubt whether there is any proposition to take a stand on. He may question whether the sentence 'This honey is sweet,' taken at face value and not as elliptical for the modalized sentence above, expresses any proposition. He would then not be suspending judgment as to the truth-value of a proposition, but suspending judgment on the question whether a declarative sentence the constituent words of which possess meaning also possesses a unitary propositional sense or meaning capable of attracting a truth-value. More on this later, perhaps, in a subsequent entry.
As for 'external world,' I take it to refer not only to sense objects as they are in themselves, if there are any, but to any and all objects and state of affairs whose nature and existence are independent of us, whether physical or not. On this use of 'external world,' God and Fregean propositions are in the external world.
Given this understanding of 'belief,' why should living without beliefs be thought to be a good thing?
The beliefless life as the happy life
To put it briefly, the ancient skeptic thinks that belieflessness is the way to happiness. But what is required for happiness? According to the luminaries of late antiquity, ataraxia is at the core of happiness or well-being as a necessary component thereof.
Ataraxia is a concept central to the Skeptics, Stoics, and Epicureans. My concern at the moment is solely with the skeptics, and their main man, Sextus Empiricus. Ataraxia (from Gr. a (not) and taraktos (disturbed)) refers to unperturbedness, freedom from emotional and intellectual disturbance, tranquillitas animi, tranquillity of soul. Thus Sextus (circa 200 anno domini) tells us in his Outlines of Pyrrhonism, Book One, Chapter Six, that "Scepticism has its arche, its inception and cause, in the hope of attaining ataraxia, mental tranquillity." (Hallie, p. 35)
The skeptic's goal is not truth, but eudaimonia (happiness or well-being) by way of ataraxia (tranquillity of mind). The central means to ataraxia and happiness is the withholding of assent from all contents of assertion or belief, including such mundane contents as that honey is sweet, but especially those that transcend the mundane and give rise to contention and bitter strife. To use some contemporary examples, beliefs about abortion, gun control, capital punishment, wealth redistribution, illegal immigration, foreign policy, the nature and existence of God etc. lead to strife and in extreme cases bloodshed. Given the difficulty and seeming irresolvability of the issues, the skeptic enjoins the withholding of assent for the sake of ataraxia. The latter is supposed to supervene upon the practice of epoché, the practice of withholding assent.
A quick illustration. Suppose a political conservative maintains the thesis T that capital punishment is morally justified in some cases, while his liberal opponent maintains the opposite (the contradictory proposition, ~T): in no case is capital punishment morally justified. The propositions maintained cannot both be true given the Law of Non-Contradiction (LNC). Each side is passionately convinced of the truth of his thesis and each side marshals arguments in support of it. But the best arguments on either side 'cancel out.' Or so the skeptic claims. Upon careful examination of the arguments for and against T, he finds no compelling reason to take one side over the other. This puts him in a state of doubt with respect to T and its negation. He then takes a further step: he suspends judgment about T. This further step is not logically required because one who has no compelling reason to accept one or the other of a pair of contradictory propositions might decide to accept one or the other for no reason at all, or for prudential reasons. Let's think about this.
Is suspension of judgment rationally motivated by lack of demonstrative evidence?
The following is a non sequitur:
1) There is no compelling reason to accept either T or its negation ~T. Therefore:
2) One ought to suspend judgment by withholding assent from both T and ~T.
The inference is invalid, moving as it does from 'is' to 'ought.' Why must I suspend judgment when I can plump for one or the other of the contradictories? An auxiliary premise, however, will validate the inference:
0) One must withhold assent from any proposition for which the evidence is not demonstrative/compelling.
In the presence of (0), the inference from (1) to (2) goes through.
Is the principle of intellectual integrity a belief?
Call (0) the principle of intellectual integrity. It seems that this principle is a doxastic commitment of the skeptic. In plain English, it seems that this is a belief of his. But then he has beliefs after all, which gives the lie to his claim to live adoxastos, belieflessly. Our skeptic obviously needs the principle of intellectual integrity, and I don't think I am dogmatizing if I call it a belief.
We agreed with Mates that, for a skeptic, a belief is " "a firmly maintained affirmative attitude toward a proposition purporting to describe some feature of the external world . . . ." (SW, 60) It seems obvious that (0) is a proposition and that the skeptic has an affirmative attitude toward it. That is, he accepts or affirms it. He believes it. You might object that this proposition does not describe anything. But I think it does. It describes an ideal of human behavior. It describes what a person of intellectual integrity is like. Such a person withholds assent to the non-evident. He doesn't dogmatize in the manner of the Platonist or the Stoic or the Christian.
Our Pyrrhonian skeptic, then, firmly maintains, over time, an affirmative attitude toward a proposition that describes something transcendent of his fleeting sensory states, namely, the person of intellectual integrity, the man who apportions his assent to the evidence and does not irresponsibly affirm beyond the evidence. With respect to (0), the Pyrrhonian is not merely saying how things seem to him at present. He is holding before us an ideal of the sage or wise man that is external to our fleeting mental states.
After all, a way of life cannot be founded upon a subjective seeming that might be overturned tomorrow by a contrary seeming. The skeptic's commitment to his way of life transcends the moment and what seems to him to be the case in the moment.
Pyrrhonism, while obviously not merely a doctrine, rests on doctrines. Others of these I will discuss later. So it is false to say that Pyrrhonism is not a doctrine. It is also false that we can live without beliefs. If anyone can, it is the Pyrrhonist. But we have just seen that he needs beliefs too.
Since it is not possible to live without beliefs, it cannot be desirable to live without beliefs. One cannot rationally desire the impossible.
I'm very happy to see you writing (so well) about the summum bonum.
I don't have the text of Sextus at hand to cite you chapter & verse, but I think I recall this correctly.
It would be pretty ironic for a skeptic to denigrate inquiry since skeptikos means precisely one who inquires. The skeptic arrives at adoxia (if he does) not by deciding or choosing to walk away from an issue like AGW [anthropogenic global warming], but by inquiring into it assiduously. If he does so, then something begins to happen in his mind as he accumulates many many arguments pro and con. He eventually finds himself in a state of equipoise, as inclined to believe as to disbelieve. Adoxia is the spontaneous product of assiduous inquiry.
Slim is alluding to, and taking issue with, the last sentence of Ataraxia and the Impossibility of Living Without Beliefs. What I said there implies that the Pyrrhonian denigrates inquiry. Slim rightly points out that the skeptic is by his very nature an inquirer. And as I myself have said more than once in these pages, doubt is the engine of inquiry. So my formulation was sloppy. It is not that the skeptic denigrates inquiry; it is is rather that he denigrates the notion that inquiry will lead to a truth that transcends appearances.
The Pyrrhonian skeptic inquires, not to arrive at the truth, but to achieve doxastic equipoise and adoxia, belieflessness. This in turn is supposed to engender ataraxia.
It's a bold conjecture, and, alas, a completely false one, in my experience at least. The more I inquire into an issue, the more likely I am to settle on one side or another, and not find myself floating in tranquil equipoise betwixt them. Maybe your experience is different? In any case, the skeptical remedy for partisan belief is study, study, study. They believe studying something to death will take you to equipoise and ataraxia. Willfully choosing to ignore an issue like AGW, they believe, will not buy you ataraxia at all. You remain disposed to believe or disbelieve according to your prejudices, and only the therapy of inquiry can work these doxastic prejudices out of you.
Slim here offers an excellent and accurate summary of The Skeptic Way, which is also the title of a fine book by Benson Mates.
One can doubt whether ataraxia is the summum bonum and whether it is achievable in the skeptic manner. But one thing to me is clear: insight into just how inconclusive are the arguments on both sides of many if not all issues leads to a salutary decrease in dogmatism.
John Lennon bade us "imagine no religion." But why single out religious beliefs as causes of conflict and bloodshed when nonreligious beliefs are equally to blame? Maybe the problem is belief as such. Can we imagine no beliefs? Perhaps we need to examine the possibility of living belieflessly. In exploration and exfoliation of this possibility we turn to the luminaries of late antiquity.
A concept central to the Greek Skeptics, Stoics, and Epicureans, ataraxia (from Gr. a (not) and taraktos (disturbed)) refers to unperturbedness, freedom from emotional and intellectual disturbance, tranquillity of soul. Thus Sextus Empiricus (circa 200 Anno Domini) tells us in his Outlines of Pyrrhonism, Book One, Chapter Six, that "Scepticism has its arche, its inception and cause, in the hope of attaining ataraxia, mental tranquillity." (Hallie, p. 35) The goal is not truth, but eudaimonia (happiness) by way of ataraxia (tranquillity of mind). The central means to ataraxia and happiness is the suspension (epoche) of beliefs, not all beliefs, but those that transcend the mundane and give rise to contention and strife. To use some contemporary examples, beliefs about abortion, gun control, capital punishment, wealth redistribution, illegal immigration, foreign policy, the nature and existence of God etc. lead to strife and in extreme cases bloodshed. Given the difficulty and seeming irresolvability of the issues, the skeptic enjoins suspension of belief for the sake of ataraxia.
Now freedom from disturbance is clearly good, but is it the highest good? Is the highest life the beliefless life, the life that strives after the highest attainable degree of suspension of belief in respect of contentious matters?
One question is whether it is even possible to live without contention-inspiring beliefs. If it is not possible, then the beliefless life cannot be an ideal for us. 'Ought' implies 'can.' If we ought to do something, then it must be possible for us to so it. The same holds for ideals. Nothing can count as a genuine ideal for us unless its realization is at least possible by us. Now I have argued elsewhere that not even the skeptic can avoid some contention-inspiring doxastic commitments. So I maintain the view that the beliefless life is not possible for us and hence not an ideal for us either.
But even if the beliefless life were possible for us, it would still not be choice-worthy. For our very survival depends on our knowing the truth about matters difficult to discern. For example, is global warming real, and if it is does it pose a threat to human survival? What about the threat to civilization of militant Islam? How much of a threat is it?
These two issues are extremely contentious. Acrimonious and ataraxia-busting debate rages on both sides of both of these issues. But obviously it does matter to the quality of our lives and the lives of our children and other world-mates what the truth is about these questions. It certainly made a difference to the quality of the lives of the workers in the Trade Towers on 9/11 that militant Islamofanatics targeted them. Their quality of life went to zero. Just one bomb can ruin your entire day.
So how could it possibly be right to say that the highest life is the life of belieflessness? If I suspend belief with respect to every contentious matter, every matter likely to induce mental perturbation, not to mention bloodshed, then I suspend belief with respect to the Islamofascist threat. But then I show indifference to my own well-being. It doesn't matter whether you agree with me about the threat of militant Islam. Perhaps you are a leftie who thinks that global warming is more of a threat. Then run my argument using that example.
Mental tranquillity is a high value, and no one who takes philosophy seriously can want not to possess more of it. But it cannot be the highest value. The happy life cannot be anything so passive as the life of ataraxia. We need a more virile conception of happiness, and we find it in Aristotle. For the Stagirite, happiness (eudaimonia) is an activity (ergon) of the soul (psyche) in accordance with virtue (arete) over an entire life. His is an active conception of the good life even though the highest virtues are the intellectual virtues. The highest life is the bios theoretikos, the vita contemplativa. Though contemplative, it necessarily involves the activity of inquiry into the truth, an activity that skepticism, whether Pyrrhonian or Academic, denigrates.
Benson Mates, The Skeptic Way, Oxford UP, 1996, p. 5: ". . . the characteristic attitude of the Pyrrhonists is one of aporia, of being at a a loss, puzzled, stumped, stymied." Aporia is not doubt. Doubt implies understanding, but aporia is a lack of understanding. The modern skeptic may doubt, but not the ancient skeptic.
Connected with this is a distinction between epoché as the withholding of assent and suspension of judgment. One can withhold assent from an assertion without granting that it makes sense; but if one suspends judgment then one has a clear propositional sense before one's mind which one neither affirms nor denies. See Mates, p. 32. A good distinction! Add it to the list.
So, strictly speaking, aporia is not doubt and epoché is not suspension of judgment. Close but not the same.