Originally posted at Three Quarks Daily.
Today “skepticism” has two related meanings. In ordinary language it is a behavioral disposition to withhold assent to a claim until sufficient evidence is available to judge the claim true or false. This skeptical disposition is central to scientific inquiry, although financial incentives and the attractions of prestige render it inconsistently realized. In a world increasingly afflicted with misinformation, disinformation, and outright lies we could use more skepticism of this sort.
In philosophy, “skepticism” refers to the theoretical position that no claim satisfies the requirements for genuine knowledge. It is a move in the long-standing debate about the nature of knowledge and justification. However, this modern, theoretical use of the term harkens back to an ancient philosophical tradition that viewed skepticism, not solely as a theoretical position, but as a way of life. As the debate about philosophy as a way of life has emerged in the past several decades, this ancient view of skepticism has received some discussion. It’s worth considering what it can contribute to that debate.
Is skepticism a coherent way of life?
Most of the discussion makes use of the argument provided by Sextus Empiricus, who lived in the second or third century CE somewhere in the Mediterranean region and whose works have survived largely intact. The basic argument is this:
A good life should be as free from psychological disturbance as possible. Thus, a good life is a life of tranquility. Philosophical argument is the means through which we can achieve tranquility.
If you have attended seminars in philosophy, you might question this claim but bear with me.
Ordinary, everyday experience leaves us with a variety of contradictory experiences. Sextus often used examples from perceptual experience—a building in the distance might look round but up close it is flat-sided. What is it really?
This is not a good start. In ordinary life we deal with such perceptual conflicts routinely without much trouble. However, conflicts over how to interpret human behavior can be genuinely disconcerting and the case is made even more persuasively when the issue is conflicts among values. A stacked bacon sandwich for breakfast might taste good but be unhealthy. What is it really? Good or bad? It’s usually wrong to tell a lie but it might be the right thing to do in some circumstances. So is a lie right or wrong? How does one know?
Skeptics insist that without clear, definitive answers to these questions we suffer from anxiety and lack confidence in our decisions. After all, how something appears can differ considerably from how it really is. We need to know what is real to make good judgments. Most people use vague intuitions to answer questions about what is true. But philosophy undertakes the task of discovering which of the conflicting claims is in fact true by employing a rigorous methodology. Thus, if philosophy is successful in this task, it can relieve the anxiety of not knowing, restore confidence in our beliefs and decisions, and achieve the sought-after tranquility. Such is the hope that gets skepticism off the ground.
However, the skeptic argues, it takes only a cursory survey of philosophical discussion to discover the hope is in vain. Notoriously, philosophers disagree about every topic under discussion with good arguments on all sides of a debate. This was as true in antiquity as it is today. Thus, the hoped-for tranquility via philosophical investigation appears stymied.
Skeptics take advantage of this situation. Through their philosophical studies they have become expert at developing arguments against every claim put forward by anyone. This is a distinctly philosophical skill. Thus, philosophers who are honest about the situation need not take any claim to be true. All claims are equally questionable despite having good reasons offered for them, and the only responsible attitude to take toward any claim is thus to suspend belief.
This is where the skeptic turns the tables. At the beginning of inquiry, it was uncertainty regarding the truth that creates anxiety. But the skeptic discovers through their inquiry that the real source of anxiety was thinking we needed the truth in the first place. By renouncing the ambition to live based on what one discovers to be true or false, Sextus argues, skeptics achieve the tranquility they have been seeking. We need not worry about lacking the truth or basing our actions on falsehoods because neither truth nor falsity can be determined. Thus, we can act with blissful indifference to the fact that our actions have no foundation in reality.
Now of course, being skeptics, they cannot dogmatically assert that the truth can never be found. They need to remain open to the possibility that some inquiry might yield a positive conclusion. Thus, they must continue their inquiries. But as long as their vaunted ability to find reasonable arguments against any proposition remains intact, their tranquility continues unabated.
The obvious problem with this is that it seems necessary to accept some beliefs as true in order to live. How does the skeptic know to eat bread rather than stones? How do they decide what action to take when faced with conflicting value judgements? The skeptical answer to these practical questions is that the basis on which one acts must never be reasons. We never have conclusive reasons to do one thing rather than another. However, we can decide what to do based on appearances, on how things seem rather than on how they really are. Rather than assuming that behind the conflicting appearances there must be some truth, skeptics simply follow what appears to be the thing to do in the circumstances.
They learn from experience that buildings appear differently when we are close to them rather than viewed from afar. They suspend judgment about the real shape of a building but since it appears flat-sided as they approach it, they act on that appearance. They know that telling lies often doesn’t work out but if it appears to be the thing to do in the circumstances they act on that appearance. They know to eat bread rather than stones because that is what one does. But they accept appearances not because they have reasons to think they are true. They just feel inclined to accept them without reason as just what one does.
Thus, skeptics who follow this line of thought tend to be conventionalists since what appears to be the thing to do is often what one has done in the past or what others are doing. But this is not because they think they have a reason to conform. They don’t have reasons for accepting conventional answers to questions. They just find themselves doing so. They never question conventional wisdom because, being skeptics, they cannot claim there is a reason why conventional wisdom is wrong. If conventional wisdom changes, they may change along with it since how things appear will also be changing. Skeptics evolve but not because they have reasons to change.
However, skeptics differ from ordinary people who follow conventions and habit in one important respect. They remain devoted to philosophical inquiry. They are self-consciously suspending belief and self-consciously following appearances. They don’t think they have reasons for why their way of life is justified but they are intimately aware of philosophical theories that make such claims and are constantly on guard against them. Their experience has taught them that philosophy never produces definitive truths. However, they cannot believe that philosophy is hopeless—that would be to settle on a conclusion and thus undermine their tranquility. So at all costs they must continue to investigate, supplying reasons to doubt any thesis put forward by anyone including themselves.
Thus, they are devoted to philosophy as a way of life. They are using their philosophy to direct the course of their daily lives and are doing so self-consciously. If there were true claims, philosophy would be the discipline to discover them. At least that appears to be the case in the absence of some other inquiry addressing questions of how to live. So they continue to investigate because it seems like reason can be the only genuine authority. But philosophy continually fails except when providing reasons to disbelieve any thesis. Thus, they must lead a life devoted to suspending belief and following what appears to be the case with no authoritative reasons supporting their judgment.
Have skeptics discovered the route to tranquility in one’s life? In evaluating any version of skepticism, one must look to the assumptions that get their arguments off the ground because they are usually less than sound. Is tranquility really the goal of a good life? Aren’t some psychological disturbances worth the cost in loss of tranquility? Why should we prefer a tranquil life to an interesting or meaningful life? These questions are not adequately addressed.
But even if we grant this correspondence between tranquility and happiness, it isn’t obvious that skepticism will lead to tranquility. For one thing, it seems like the skeptic has conflicting hopes. Given their commitment to reason, they must hope that philosophy succeeds and that reason is vindicated but at the same time hope that philosophy fails to discover the truth thus maintaining their tranquility. Because they take philosophy seriously as a discipline this is not a trivial psychological conflict.
Furthermore, they must worry about maintaining their methodology and logical acuity. Like any pursuit of excellence, the ability to muster equally good arguments on all sides of a debate is hard to achieve and difficult to sustain. But if they fail, tranquility disappears. The stakes are high and thus the conditions for anxiety are persistent.
But the main problem with this form of skepticism is shared with other theoretical skepticisms—an overweening respect for certainty. If we seek reasons for how we should live yet cannot assert with certainty that our way of life is the right one, why should that make us angry or disturbed? No doubt, for any argument that justifies a way of life or a course of action there will be counter arguments. But so what? If one has valid arguments supporting one’s way of life, why does it matter that others disagree as long as they leave you alone? Universal assent for one’s way of life is no condition for personal satisfaction with that way of life. And if one must defend one’s actions by sound probabilistic reasoning rather than appeals to certainty why should that threaten one’s confidence if certainty is unavailable. If probabilistic reasoning is the best we can do, then anxiety in the face of that fact is unwarranted.
Skepticism is scratching a place that doesn’t itch and launching arguments with fatally flawed initial assumptions about the importance of certainty.