In this essay my effort is to clarify some of the main forms of skepticism and consider their implications.
Phyrronian: This ancient form of skepticism takes some pretty radical forms in denying our certainty of opinions formed from either the senses or from reason – or from both together. This is a type of skepticism that many people reject as “extreme” or “inconsequential.” Perhaps it is extreme, but even so it is difficult to explain the contradictions raised by Phyrronian skeptics. In effect some people seem to be saying; “I don’t have reasons to show why the skeptics are wrong, but their view seems extreme to me, and I prefer moderate views, so I’ll reject it.” To this the Phyrronian skeptic will answer; “Quite so. Selecting opinions based on feelings or preferences or guesses is all we can really do. Let’s just not call this ‘Knowledge.’ It is not.”
Look, though, to what Sextus Empiricus does with skepticism. He finds in it a way to calm the troubled mind, which he says is always created by dogmatism (holding firm to opinions that are not really knowledge.” In Outlines of Pyrrhonism, Sextus provides many techniques which can be used to defuse the strength of our judgements. By adopting a skeptical attitude towards matters of our own judgement we can relieve the tensions that judgements creates in our own minds and cultivate an inner tranquility, and personal happiness.
This method is also effective in relationships between people. Think of situations in which you experience tensions with others. Chances are that the conflict is based upon strong and opposing judgements. You believe that you are aright, they believe that they are right, neither of you is willing to give way. But what if both achieve a sense of inner skepticism at the same time? Then both will relinquish some judgement and the conflict will ease.
Consider larger conflicts in the world, between factions and nations. Is not self-certainty a constant companion of conflict? When a nation builds towards war, one of the major efforts of war promoters is stamp out doubt. They say that to question and raise doubts is to side with the enemy and to betray our own soldiers. They say that the time for argument and deliberation is over, and now is the time for unity in judgement and action. Those who continue to question are branded as extremists, cowards, and unpatriotic. This is always part of the creation of war. Resolve in judgement is necessary to conflict. Sextus councils the opposite: the dissolution of conflict through the cultivation of doubt and the suspension of judgement.
Thus, I do not agree that skeptism is inconsequential (i.e. does not make any difference), as some hold. The ancient form of skepticism is much more than an idle pastime of intellect, it is a component of an interesting and viable life philosophy, a way of living.
Cartesean: The works of Sextus Empiricus (and many other ancients) were unknown to the
European world until they were translated into European languages in the 16th century. Once rediscovered, Sextus’ arguments led to major intellectual conflicts. The re-introduction of these ideas came at the same time that religious authority being challenged (e.g. Luther and the reformation) and the limits of human understanding were being transformed (e.g. the voyages revealing unknown parts of the world; Copernicus’ revelation that the earth moved around the sun; and much more). The combined effects of these events and ideas led to what was known as “the skeptical crisis.” In short, the crisis was the realization that without a firm foundation for our claims to knowledge, we lack the means to truth religion, science, society, and philosophy.
Rene Descartes took on the skeptical crisis in a brilliant way. He followed the reasoning of the skeptic to its deepest conclusions (Book I of the Meditations is this process). When he had reached the point of total skepticism – complete absence of certainty – he turned skepticism back on itself by using doubt as a basis for knowledge. At the point where skepticism led to nothing whatever but doubt, he found a basis for certitude; “the proposition, ‘I am, I exist,’ is necessarily true whenever it is put forward by me or conceived in my mind.” Descartes builds upon this insight (the essence of necessity in doubt) to create a method of seeking knowledge by strategically applied doubt. This method is one of the logical foundations of the modern scientific method. You can see this is so when noting that scientific method operates by the testing and elimination of competing hypotheses. While we may never be able to provide sufficient evidence to remove all possible doubt (i.e. alternative explanations) for events in the world, we can with certainty rule out those explanations which conflict with the evidence and justify significant doubts. Note that our legal system seeks to follow a similar pattern and criterion (reasonable doubt).
Descartes was not a skeptic. His aim was to defeat skepticism and provide a method for the systematic pursuit of truth. Still, the skeptical arguments that he employed are so strong that one main effect of them remains. Descartes’ method for overcoming skepticism involved the employment of pure reason. He was out to undermine the commonly accepted view of his time Empiricism – the theory that all knowledge comes from our senses. We may say that when it comes to the senses, Descartes is a very strong skeptic.
It is this Cartesean skepticism of the senses that gives rise to the problem of the relation of the internal and external world. We may assume that there is universe full of real objects which correspond in some way to our senses. Descartes, however, argues effectively that our senses cannot be certain guides to that external world. A young child may take for granted that the world exactly is however it seem to her/him, but a mature thinker will recognize that the senses are full of error and distortion and specialization, such that the objective world is not at all perfectly reflected by our senses.
Perspectival: Now I will level with you concerning the role of skepticism in my own thought.
[Not, of course, because I want you to agree with me or pretend that you do!] The core of this idea is
presented in the first section of Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu;
“The tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao
The name that can be named is not the eternal Name.
The unnamable is the eternally real. Naming is the origin of all particular things.
Free from desire, you realize the mystery.
Caught in desire, you see only the manifestations.
Yet mystery and manifestations arise from the same source.
This source is called darkness.
Darkness within darkness.
The gateway to all understanding.”
I don’t choose this verse because it is mysterious sounding. I choose it because it is one of the oldest known philosophical texts (circa 6th century BCE). The direct statement of the necessary limitation on human understanding from one of the first philosophical works, demonstrates the centrality and power of this idea.
Human beings possess an ability to interact with the world with a consciousness of that activity. Not only are we affected by reality and have an impact on it, but we are able to interact with our own thoughts and perceptions. We are self-aware. Self-awareness allows us to question our own perceptions and to change our own judgements (beliefs). The strength of this ability is not given without effort and many people seem satisfied with a basis role of passive reception and habitual belief. Indeed, it is not infrequent that people tell me that they were taught to “not think too much” or to “over-analyze.” I do not dismiss this position out of hand. Sextus Empiricus concludes something similar in promoting the suspension of judgment. However, I think a main difference is that people whose goal is to not think too much never go thorough a process of recognizing and defusing judgments. Rather than a position of tranquil suspension, such folks seem content to adopt their beliefs by convention and the rejection of questioning.
Lao Tzu recognized that language is the framework of the human condition. It is through language (“naming”) that thought, judgement, awareness, and desire take place. To think of a thing, perceive it, make a judgement about it, and have an attitude towards it (desire), we have to separate that thing from the rest of reality. We make this separation happen through the application of concepts and categories (the thing is x and not y).
The ancient Hebrew book of Genesis provides a similar account;
“Out of the ground the Lord God formed every beast of the field and every bird of the air, and brought them to Adam to see what he would call them. And whatever Adam called each living creature, that was its name.” (Genesis 2:19).
The “naming” in this account is not a trivial act. Just earlier in the narrative, Yahweh created the universe by separating light from darkness, the ferment from the waters, and the waters from each other. Yahweh does so by means of language; “God said, Let there be light: and there was light” (Genesis 1:3); “God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night.” (Genesis 1:5).
In both Tao Te Ching and Genesis there is a beginning by separation (dividing; creating difference) and that separation is effected by naming (category and concept). Once the basis of human consciousness is in place, it is the human which completes the creation (separation). Adam names the living things which assigns them their place in the order of nature. As Lao Tzu says; “Naming is the origin of all particular things.” These primal and sophisticated accounts put thought (naming) in the essential role of defining the objects of perception. The world that we know (perceive and interact with) is a world formed by the structure and process of our own minds. That’s not to say that the world exists only in our mind (i.e. that there is not external world), but rather that the reality which is independent of our minds does not consist of the facts and objects that we perceive and conceive (i.e. name). [please note that I am working to be concise here, not complete, in my analysis.]
But hold on a second. How can reality be that different from the world that we experience and interact with. Does it not have to be real in order for us to take part in it?
Yes. Quite right. Therein lies once of the key concepts in this issue: “take part.” Human beings have a role in reality by interacting with some parts of it. Our perception and awareness proceed from a particular point-of-view; a perspective. Our perspective encompasses a part of reality, not the whole. Our perceptions and concepts inform us that reality is fragmented into parts that we can sort and count and classify and organize and manipulate and make judgements about and have preferences for and make evaluations of. That all comes with the logic of the human reality of named (thinkable) things. These things are separated in space and time, they are perceivable by different modes of sensation or deduction, they have different attributes with combine or resist in various ways. It is from this perspectival reality that we form our descriptions of the world, our beliefs about the world, our beliefs about ourselves, and our beliefs about others.
One point is clear about any perspectival reality in which we may take part: it is not the whole. That is, there is more to reality that our perspective is able to contain. It is axiomatic that the part cannot contain the whole. Moreover, the separated cannot encompass the unity; the complex cannot express the unity; the partial awareness cannot know the whole of reality. As Lao Tzu puts it from the beginning;
“The tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao
The name that can be named is not the eternal Name.”
The word words “tao” and “Tao” here are used in a deliberate way to indicate the impossibility of the part containing the whole. People reading Lao Tzu often ask “what does he mean by ‘Tao’?” A good answer is – if we could tell that, then it would not be the Tao. That is, if naming is separation into parts, then to name the whole would be to treat it as a part. But the whole is not a part and so must transcend separation and naming.
I don’t think this is some weird mystical idea; I think it is common sense for those who think it through. Human experience and consciousness is always of parts. If there is a unified whole from which the parts are separated out, it follows that human consciousness cannot possibly perceive or conceive the whole. What ever source makes our partial reality possible cannot be named or even thought. That is what Lao Tzu speaks of these matters in terms of negation. By better understanding what the Tao is not (“darkness within darkness”) we can better aware of what we are (“The gateway to all understanding”).
I think that the wisdom to be found in skepticism is the recognition of the limits of the human mind. It is also the recognition that the structure of the mind, as determined by its limits, is primary in the structure of the reality that humans can be aware of.
I am not convinced that modern skeptics have described the human situation very well. The denial that knowledge is possible depends upon the concept of “knowledge” is use. That is not a settled matter and skeptics have not done a credible job of explaining what genuine knowledge would be like. [It is a basic principle of mine that if anyone sets out to deny the existence, much less possibility, of something, they must at least give a clear explanation of what that thing would be like it did exist].
I am even less convinced that anyone has accurately measured the limits of human awareness. It is clear that our awareness has degrees and that we can purposely strengthen and increase it (or just as purposely divert and contain it). It is also true that human history holds a constant thread of resistance to expanding the limits of awareness. Since the beginning of written thought, and perhaps before, it is the task of the philosopher to question, explore, and seek to move our limits outward.
Now, please mentally review (or even reread) parts of the above essay that stand out for you. Then watch the Youtube video linked below:
Ultra Deep Field Universe (4:17 minutes) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oAVjF_7ensg
Then consider the following observations on that video:
*What seems to be darkness turns out to be filled with light (see Lao Tzu and Genesis above).
*The narrator says that this is “the most important image ever taken.” Why is that?
*Note how the story of the video moves from technology ºscience º philosophy.
*The narrator closes: “There are over 100 billion galaxies in the universe. Simply saying that number doesn’t really mean much to use because it does not provide any context. Our brains have no way to put that into an meaningful perspective. When we look at this image, however, and think about the context in which it was made, and really understand what it means, we instantly gain the perspective and cannot help but to be forever changed by it.”
Compare the following points from the video narrative with points from the essay and sources above (shown in parenthesis) related to skepticism.
…simply saying – (naming)…
…meaningful perspective – (partial reality)…
…think about the context in which it was made – (created)…
…we instantly gain the perspective – (“you realize the mystery”)…
…forever changed – (our limits move outward)…
Thanks for your patience and attention! I’m eager for all feedback that you can give on these ideas.
In good spirit,
Lao Tzu. Tao Te Ching. Translation by S. Mitchell. Tao Te Ching, HarperCollins. 1988.
Genesis. King James Version.