Writing Like Hume is bad for your health, or, the Skeptic Dialogues

(Note:  This was originally published at Skepoet at the Crossroads of Critical thinking in 2009. I was trying to deal with the Skeptic’s “movement” before various things caused it to largely fall apart in the next few years)

Skepticism, as a term in common usage, is a huge mess. Sometimes you’ll see people use skeptic, rationalist, empiricist, scientific, and humanistic as if these terms are all interchangeable. Sometimes Skeptic means Michael Shermer will be on television with six other paranormal event proponents. Sometimes skeptic is someone who is denying a specific area of the “ knowledge” consensus. Sometimes it is a person who doubts that knowledge can be meaningful in any epistemologically consistent way. Sometimes skeptic is a code word for “asshole.” When asking someone if they are a skeptic, they may reply “yes” and you still don’t know whether they are a philosophical skeptic, a methodological/empirical skeptic, a denialist, or a using the term as code for naturalist or humanist.

Now, I am involved with this, because I am a part, albeit not a very active part, of the “skeptic’s movement” who considers himself a humanist and who loves science. Still the convolution of the term bothers me because the term Skeptic doesn’t really clarify much in and of itself. Most of the time, I know that people who are skeptics are either methodological/empirical skeptics or denialists. Philosophical skepticism is generally the province of humanities grad students and people who read Nietzsche in the mid-teens. Still there is overlap.

Why the hang up on semantics? I don’t think this is a semantic issue, but a semiotic issue. As an issue about language, not having clear ideas about what the word means that most attempts at “branding” the skeptics movement or even clearly communicating its key ideas this very difficult. That, however, means I will be going several sources, tiptoeing into the history of philosophy, and generally bogging myself and my argument down. So here’s an imagery dialogue to my problem here:

Grasshopper: Is philosophical skepticism really related to methodological skepticism?
Master Pretense: Yes, but I’ll get to how in a minute. Or, more accurately, I’ll let skeptic dictionary get to how.

Grasshopper: Why do some people call what you call what you calling methodological skepticism things like empirical skepticism, rational skepticism, affirmation skepticism, or ordinary skepticism?
Master Pretense: There are several reasons for this–mostly because the overlap of terms has to do with both ideas being related in the history of philosophy. Personally I like methodological skepticism, although there is nothing particularly “wrong” with ordinary skepticism as a term. I just find that later vague.

Grasshopper: Is Methodological skepticism the same as rational skepticism as the UK Skeptics say or empirical?
Master Pretense: I would say that this use of rational is a misnomer or at least incomplete. Philosophical skepticism IS rational–we’ll go into why in a minute. Philosophical Skepticism is just not really scientific. Methodological Skepticism is scientific, rational, and empirical. Note the difference. At least, the Brits get to use the American spelling for the methodology and the British spelling for common and philosophical usage.

Grasshopper: Is methodological skepticism the same as empirical skepticism?
Master Pretense: Empiricism trusts what you see and experience as a demarcation for truth. I find this term problematic because while empiricism is definitely part of skeptical inquiry, you can’t trust you experiences as a sole demarcation for truth. Experimental controls must be added empirical observation to control for bias and logical methodology must be added to control for, well, bat-shit crazy interpretations.

In a way empiricism and rationalism as they are historically understood in Western philosophy as types of localized skepticism of another groups knowledge claim. As Skeptic’s Dictionary says, Empiricists tend to emphasize the tentative and probabilistic nature of knowledge, while rationalists tend to be dogmatic and assert they have found a method to discover absolutely certain knowledge.

Grasshopper: So what is philosophical skepticism?
Master Pretense:  So different strains in philosophy that really developed in early Greek philosophy and manifested in different forms throughout the history of Western Thought. Philosophical skepticism has several major strains: ancient skepticism (both Academic and Platonic), early modern skepticism, and post-modernism.

Standford Encyclopedia of philosophy explains the basic forms of philosophical skepticism as such:

Consider some proposition, p. There are just three possible propositional attitudes one can have with regard to p‘s truth when considering whether p is true. One can either assent to p, or assent to ~p or withhold assenting both to p and to ~p. Of course, there are other attitudes one could have toward p. One could just be uninterested that p or be excited or depressed that p. But those attitudes are either ones we have when we are not considering whether p is true or they are attitudes that result from our believing, denying or withholding p. For example, I might be happy or sorry that p is true when I come to believe that it is.

I just spoke of “assent” and I mean to be using it to depict the pro-attitude, whatever it is, toward a proposition that is required for knowing that proposition. Philosophers have differed about what that attitude is. Some take it to be something akin to being certain that p or guaranteeing that p (Malcolm 1963, 58-72). Others have taken it not to be a form of belief at all because, for example, one can know that p without believing it as in cases in which I might in fact remember that Queen Victoria died in 1901 but not believe that I remember it and hence might be said not to believe it (Radford 1966). For the purposes of this essay we need not attempt to pin down precisely the nature of the pro-attitude toward p that is necessary for knowing that p. It is sufficient for our purposes to stipulate that assent is the pro-attitude toward p required to know that p.

Let us use “EI-type” propositions to refer to epistemically interesting types of propositions. Such types of propositions contain tokens some of which are generally thought to be known given what we ordinarily take knowledge to be. Thus, it would not be epistemically interesting if we did not know exactly what the rainfall will be on March 3 ten years from now. That kind of thing (a fine grained distant future state) is not generally thought to be known given what we ordinarily take knowledge to be. But it would be epistemically interesting if we cannot know anything about the future, or anything about the contents of someone else’s mind, or anything about the past, or anything at all about the “external world.” We think we know many propositions about those types of things.

Now, consider the (meta) proposition concerning the scope of our knowledge, namely: We can have knowledge of EI-type propositions. Given that there are just three stances we can have toward any proposition when considering whether to assent to it, we can:

  • Assent that we can have knowledge of EI-type propositions.
  • Assent that we cannot have knowledge of EI-type propositions.
  • Withhold assent to both that we can and that we cannot have knowledge of EI-type propositions.


Let us call someone with the attitude depicted in (i) an “Epistemist.”[4] Such a person assents to the claim that we can have knowledge of EI-type propositions.

The attitude portrayed in (ii) has gone under many names. I will follow the terminology suggested by Sextus Empiricus. He used the term “Academics” to refer to the leaders of the Academy (founded by Plato) during the 3rd to 1st century B.C. According to Sextus, they assented to the claim that we cannot have knowledge of what I have called EI-type propositions — although it is far from clear that this was an accurate description of their views. (See the entry on ancient skepticism.) Perhaps the prime example was Carneades (214-129 B.C.). Other philosophers will refer to this view as “Cartesian skepticism” because of the skeptical arguments investigated by Descartes and his critics in the mid-17th century. And still others will refer to it as “switched world skepticism” or “possible world skepticism” because the arguments for it typically involve imagining oneself to be in some possible world that is both vastly different from the actual world and at the same time absolutely indistinguishable (at least by us) from the actual world. What underlies this form of skepticism is assent to the proposition that we cannot know EI-type propositions because our evidence is inadequate.

Those assenting neither to the proposition that knowledge of EI-type propositions is possible nor to the proposition that such knowledge is not possible can be called “Pyrrhonian Skeptics” after Pyrrho who lived between ca 365 – ca 275 B.C. The primary source of Pyrrhonian Skepticism is the writing of Sextus Empiricus who lived at the end of the second century AD. The Pyrrhonians withheld assent to every non-evident proposition. That is, they withheld assent to all propositions about which genuine dispute was possible, and they took that class of propositions to include the (meta) proposition that we can have knowledge of EI-type propositions. Indeed, they sometimes classified the Epistemists and the Academic Skeptics together as dogmatists because the Epistemists assented to the proposition that we can have knowledge, while the Academic Skeptics assented to the denial of that claim.

Another difference between Academic and Pyrrhonian Skepticism is closely related to the charge by the latter that the former is really a disguised type of dogmatism. The Academic Skeptic thinks that her view can be shown to be the correct one by an argument (or by arguments). The Pyrrhonian would point out that the Academic Skeptic maintains confidence in the ability of reason to settle matters — at least with regard to the extent of our knowledge of propositions in the EI-class. One way of understanding the so-called problem of the “Cartesian circle” illustrates the Pyrrhonian point: Descartes is relying throughout the Meditations on his power of reasoning to remove the skeptical doubts that he raises, but to do so means that he has exempted the faculty of reasoning from the doubts that he raised in the “First Meditation” about the epistemic reliability of our faculties. A Cartesian reply could be as simple as paraphrasing Luther: Here I stand, as a philosopher with confidence in reason, and as such I can do no other.[6] Regardless of the adequacy of that kind of response, the point here is that the Pyrrhonians did not think that they had a convincing argument whose conclusion was that withholding assent to non-evident propositions was the appropriate epistemic attitude to have.

So confused yet?

Grasshopper:  Does a skeptical cow have buddha nature?
Master Pretense:  Mu.

Grasshopper:  You would answer in koans.
Master Pretense:  Correct, Grasshopper.

Grasshopper:  So what’s with the classical skeptics rejection of sense data?

Master Pretense: Pyrrho of Elias held that acatalepsia led to ataraxia.   You may recognize ataraxia as the primary goal of the Epicureans as well.  It means freedom from worry.   Pyrrho is said to have thought that is you admitted that you couldn’t really know things, you would be free from worry. At least, that’s was what Diogenes Laertius had him say.

Grasshopper:  So these ancient skeptics thought you should be agnostic about everything?

Master Pretense: Basically.

Grasshopper: Doesn’t that make science as we understand it impossible?

Master Pretense:  It makes drawing any conclusions from science impossible. The Pyrrhian skeptic would still engage in such things like science and religion. Ultimately, Pyrrhian thought that convention should guide one’s life, but we should avoid assigning truth value to those conventions.

Grasshopper: How is that different from nihilism?

Master Pretense:   How should I know. Nihilism is a vague word. Meaning either nothingism or “anything the user of the said word doesn’t really like.” Anyway, Peter Suber may put it in more understandable ways and also get to the ironic relation to methodological skepticism:


Historically, we know it was for a reason like this, with an ironic twist, that made the inquiry for truth a decisive part of skepticism. The Greeks sometimes called skepticism, Pyrrhonism, after Pyrrho, an austere teacher of serene non-commitment. He was not a pure skeptic himself, in the epistemological sense, but his teachings led directly to what we now call skepticism.

Pyrrho was born a little over a century after Socrates. Plato was about 60, and Aristotle about 20, when Pyrrho was born, and Pyrrho lived to see both of them die. Pyrrho lived to see the rise and fall of Alexander the Great, the civil wars in his empire, and the opening of the Eastern world to the West. This meant that Pyrrho witnessed the splintering of Platonism and Aristotelianism into many bickering schools. He travelled to India with Alexander’s army and witnessed the spectacle of novel Eastern customs, at once utterly different from the Greek but equally civilized and supported by a reflective philosophical tradition. He witnessed the social and political chaos, war, and strife that followed the death and succession of Alexander.

(Socrates 470-400 BCE, Plato 428-348 BCE, Aristotle 384-322 BCE, Pyrrho 360-270 BCE, Alexander 356-323 BCE.)

Some scholars find a political origin to Pyrrho’s skepticism in this, on the theory that traumatic periods produce disillusionment and resignation, the souring and obsolescence of traditional beliefs, a tenacious relativism of beliefs, virtues, and habits that will not assign absolute superiority to any, and a need for new methods of coping in a hectic world.[Note 3]

There is probably some truth in this, and it does seem that skepticism recurs through history in the periods of greatest upheaval and dissolution. But it is unfair to skepticism to reduce it to the play of historical forces and forget that it has its immanent ‘reasons’ that have a claim on all of us, regardless of our circumstances. That is, philosophies have grounds, not just causes. Pyrrho’s own biography, scanty as it is, gives a good idea of how these reasons operated in his life.

Pyrrho began his intellectual life as a student and disciple of the Stoics, who taught that peace of mind was the highest end of life and that a knowledge of truth was required to attain and maintain it. Pyrrho accordingly sought truth. But he heard the Stoics say one thing was true, the Pythagoreans say another, the atomists another; he heard many versions of Plato’s truth and of Aristotle’s. He heard disagreements among the disciples of Anaxagoras, Heraclitus, Parmenides, Empedocles, and Protagoras. For every question of interest to philosophy he heard the Stoic doctrine contradicted by dozens of other doctrines, all of which also differed among themselves. What was worse, each position had reasons and evidence to support itself and to subvert and refute its opponents. To Pyrrho it was a standoff. He gave up in despair and admitted to himself that he could not decide among them and did not know what was true.

Voila! He discovered that his confession of ignorance had given him peace of mind. He had ironically attained the goal of all Stoicism by giving up and reversing its means. He had found a tranquillity in honestly confessing his ignorance. Moreover, his tranquillity seemed as durable and serene as the Stoical peace of mind that presumed to depend on true knowledge —and that embroiled the Stoics in endless disputes and other perturbations.

Grasshopper: What is the sound of one-hand clapping?

Master Pretense smacks him on the forehead and laughs.


rasshopper: So why engage in philosophy at all and thus how do we know about a “school” of Greek thought called skepticism?

Master Pretense: Well, we have Sextus Empiricus and the Diogenes I mentioned earlier to thank for our knowing about Pyrrho. As Suber mentioned, skepticism has a formal relationship to Stoicism and has a similar vocabulary to Epicurean philosophy. Still let’s go to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy for the context:

Skeptical doubts are said to characterize times of social upheaval (a connection said to characterize, not only the ancient world, but the fourteenth century and our own era). It is difficult to judge such general claims, but it would be surprising if the foundational doubts that characterize skepticism were not more evident in times when social and intellectual turmoil invite deep questions about what is right and wrong and true and false.

Ancient skepticism’s ties to other trends in ancient philosophy are more easily observed. They are particularly evident in the considerations that motivate the skeptics’ decision to suspend judgment on the truth of any claim. The skeptics’ conclusion that truth is uncertain is at odds with the “dogmatic” philosophies they reject, but this conclusion may still be founded on a similar focus on opposing arguments, antithesis, and conflicting points of view. One might, for example, easily compare the Pyrrhonian conviction that there are equally convincing arguments for and against any claim to the Protagorean view that one can argue equally convincingly on both sides of any question. In both cases, one finds a general commitment to the possibility of convincing arguments for opposing points of view. Despite this mutual commitment, Protagoras defended a perspective which is in some ways diametrically opposed to skepticism (at least if we judge by Plato’s account of Protagoras in his Theaetetus), for it accepts rather than rejects opposing claims to truth.

Ancient skepticism has many affinities to other ancient philosophies. Greek atomism shares, for example, skepticism’s interest in opposing perceptions and points of view, and can be seen as an attempt to explain this opposition by hypothesizing atoms which impact on different kinds of bodies (the bodies of different individuals, and of different species) in different kinds of ways. Opposites which include opposing points of view also played a central role in Heracleitean and Platonic epistemology. Even Aristotelean philosophy has affinities to skepticism, affinities which are in this case manifest in an Aristotelean rhetorical tradition which incorporates the rhetorical works of Theophrastus, Demetrius of Phalerum and others, and which emphasizes the power of persuasive speech rather than argument’s ability to establish what is true.

In a number of cases, philosophers who have no direct ties to the skeptical schools anticipate skepticism by stressing the difficulties inherent in inquiry. Xenophanes was known for his claim that no one knows clear truth; Democritus maintained that “bastard” knowledge gained through the senses exists only by convention; Plato’s dialogues contained arguments pro and contra, and cast doubt on everyday opinions; Diogenes of Sinope and other Cynics dismiss philosophical speculation; Epictetus insists that philosophers spend too much time on theory (En., 51); and so on. The philosophies that such philosophers endorsed do not incorporate a full fledged skepticism, but their influence added impetus to the skeptics’ moves in this direction.

More generally, ancient skepticism flourished in an intellectual milieu which incorporated many general themes and trends conducive to skeptical conclusions. In marked contrast with modern science, ancient science could not boast the practical and theoretical successes of its modern counterpart. In part because of this, mysticism and irrationalism were powerful cultural forces in the ancient world. The possibility of conflicting views of things was reinforced by an interest in foreign cultures which drew attention to opposing customs and traditions. Opposing interests and perspectives were also manifest in debate, war, political rivalries and a religion and mythology which pitted god against god, man against man and even god against man.

Within this broader context, ancient philosophical inquiry is characterized both by a remarkable array of conflicting philosophical perspectives and by famous philosophers known for dazzling arguments for paradoxical conclusions (that motion is impossible, that nothing exists, that time is an illusion, etc.). In the midst of the conflicting views and conclusions that this implies, it is not surprising that some philosophers propound the conclusion that reason cannot establish truth, and gives us no way to choose between opposing arguments and opposing points of view.

Grasshopper: That’s one hell of a quote block.

Master Pretense: Don’t go meta-dialogue on me. We’re breaking the fourth wall.

Grasshopper: There is no wall. The readers are looking at screen.

Master Pretense: Metaphors, young grasshopper, are a dish best served mixed.

Grasshopper: You didn’t answer my question about why engage in philosophy if you believed like Pyrrho

Master Pretense: How would I know? I am just your teacher, not a dead Greek philosopher. Ask Pyrrho.

Grasshopper: You can’t pull another one of those quote thingies to explain?

Master Pretense: Fine. I’ll go to Wikipedia:

The goal of this critique, which Pyrrho’s followers realized would ultimately subvert even their own method, was to cultivate a distrust of all grand talk. They expected philosophy to collapse into itself. How far in this direction the Pyrrhonean commitment extended is a matter of debate. The Pyrrhonists confessed a belief in appearances, e.g. in hot and cold, grief and joy. It is impossible to deny, they admitted, that one seems to be in pain or seems to touch a piece of wood. Their world, thus, was completely phenomenological. An accomplished Pyrrhonist could, ideally, live as well as a dogmatist but with the added benefit of not worrying about truth and falsity, right and wrong, God’s will, and so forth.

So yes, the original Pyrrho knew that this could be caustic to philosophy.

Grasshopper: So what did Pyrrho believe again?

Master Pretense: The only real good evidence we have for Pyrrho’s beliefs can be found in a fragment from the philosophy Aristocles

He [Pyrrho] himself has left nothing in writing, but this pupil Timon says that whoever wants to be happy must consider these three questions: first, how are things by nature? Secondly, what attitude should we adopt towards them? Thirdly, what will be the outcome for those who have such an attitude? According to Timon, Pyrrho declared that things are equally indifferent, unmeasurable and inarbitrable. For this reason neither our sensations nor our opinions tell us truths or falsehoods. Therefore for this reason we should not put our trust in them one bit, but should be unopinionated, uncommitted and unwavering, saying concerning each individual thing that it no more is than is not, or both is and is not, or neither is nor is not. The outcome for those who actually adopt this attitude, says Timon, will be first speechlessness [aphasia], and then freedom from disturbance; and Aenesidemus says pleasure. (Eusebius, Prep. Ev. 14.18.2–5, Long & Sedley)

The Stanford Encyclopedia explains,

The interpretation of this passage is the subject of debate (see Bett, Pyrrho). According to the interpretation most in keeping with later skepticism, Pyrrho holds that things appear with equal force to be and not to be (and to both be and not to be; and to neither be nor not to be). According to an alternative (“metaphysical”) interpretation, Pyrrho holds that this is how things actually are — i.e. that things in the world actually are and are not (and both are and are not, and neither are nor are not). If the latter interpretation is correct, it is a historical irony that Pyrrho became the most famous spokesperson for a later skepticism which rejects all claims about the true nature of the world.

If the second view is true, Pyrrho would have agreed with the Buddhist thinker Nagarjuna. Suber, however, thinks that even if the first view is true, Pyrrho would have concerned with something other than “doubt” in the strict sense:

The dogmatist asserts that something is true. He makes judgments he is willing to stand by. The skeptic suspends her judgment; she waits until she is sure, which may be never. Suspension of judgment (in Greek, epoche), not doubt and not denial, is the skeptic’s characteristic activity. This is the next important technical term. The Greek word epoche means to check, cease, suspend, stop, or pause in some activity that otherwise or normally occurs. The skeptics applied the word to judgment, while in other contexts Greek speakers applied it to sunlight (in eclipses), menstruation (in pregnancy), payments on a debt (in default), musical vibrations of a string (at the nodes), and the passage of time (at turning points or “epochs”). The English phrase “suspension of judgment” captures the gist of the skeptical usage well, but loses the flavor of a versatile common word doing philosophical work. If we had to coin a word to capture more of its sense, “ajudice” (meaning non-judgment, on the model of “prejudice”, meaning pre-judgment) might work well.

Grasshopper: Wait. You need to back track and explain to me how this relevant to say Carl Sagan or James Randi or Bob the Village Atheist or Eric the Objectivist who doesn’t believe in global warming.

Master Pretense: All in good time, Grasshopper.

Master Pretense: Perhaps we should take a brief diversionary stroll into confusing context?

Grasshopper: Does this get us back to the village atheist?

Master Pretense: According to the Zen text, The Gateless Gate, “Shogen asked: `Why does the enlightened man not stand on his feet and explain himself?’ And he also said: `It is not necessary for speech to come from the tongue.’ “

Grasshopper: What does that have to do with anything?

Master Pretense shrugs.

Grasshopper: Ugh

Master Pretense: We often get frustrated studying people like Pyrrho because they seem to confirm to our stereotypes of French post-existentialist intellectuals talking about the how “otherness of fluid motion proves the sexism of science” or the pot head talking about “how do I know anything is real?”

In Simon Blackburn’s book Truth: A Guide (Oxford, 2005, p xiii), he gets to sort of pulling tensions in philosophy:

There are real standards. We must fight soggy nihilism, scepticism and cynicism. We must not believe that anything goes. We must not believe that all opinion is ideology, that reason is only power, that there is no truth to prevail. Without defenses against postmodern irony and cynicism, multiculturalism and relativism, we will all to go hell in a handbasket.

So thunders the conservative half of us–of each of us. But perhaps the thunder and conviction betray an anxiety. We may fear that there is another side to it, that our confidence is dogma, that our bluff may be called. There are people who are not impressed by our conviction, or by our pride or our stately deportment. They hear only attempts to impose just one opinion. They hear nothing but the machinations of power and attempts at suppression of alternatives. They hear bluster, the usual disguise for insecurity . . . .

The sides in this conflict have various names: absolutists versus relativists, traditionalists versus postmodernists, realists versus idealists, objectivists versus subjectivists, rationalists versus contextualists, Platonists versus pragmatists. These do not all mean the same, and some people who stand on one side or the other would be choosy about allowing them to apply to themselves. So for the moment they simply act as pointers.

Pyrrho and the methodological skeptic would appear to be on different sides of that hypothetical divide set-up by Blackburn. But is this fair? For one thing, methodological skeptics often don’t actually share a common philosophical framework. Some of probablists and pragmatists who love science and believe that gives us the most probable answer.

But the love of science, and the methods of science, were an attempt to bridge the divide between empiricists and rationalists, Platonism and pragmatism. The controls, the experiments, the falsifiable hypotheses, the distrust of social hierarchy. All of this was an answer to the gap here.

We can see that there is something to both of those impulses–the want to say all ideas are ideology, or that if there isn’t that is true in an opinion, then there is no criteria for judgment. Science doesn’t answer all those questions either. The methodology is about how and what, not so much about meaning and why.

Blackburn makes the further point:

For first, the conflict is not only between different people, but grumbles within the breast of each individual, as we find ourselves pulling us to one side or the other. And second, the conflict is about the our conceptions of ourselves and the our world . . . Today, the stakes in this war are enormous. Relativism in the ancient world typically issues in scepticism, whose main result was the suspension in judgment. . . Today’s relativists, persuading themselves that all opinions enjoy the same standing in the light of reason, take it as green light to believe what they like with as much force and much conviction as they like.(xiv)

Grasshopper: So the ancient philosophical skeptic and the relativists may make the same arguments, but they doing so for VERY different reasons.

Master Pretense: Yes.

Grasshopper: And the methodological skeptics still see themselves as fighting the dogmatists, who ironically are using arguments that ancient skeptics used against the dogmatists in the past.

Master Pretense: Yes.

Grasshopper: And most people, including most methodological skeptics, are not philosophically consistent. So we have people fighting skepticism with skepticism and dogma with dogma.

Master Pretense: It appears so.

Grasshopper: But the absolutists, the believers in objective truth, are they right?

Master Pretense: Only an absolutist can answer that.

Grasshopper: Cop-out.

Master Pretense: I’ll let Blackburn talk again.

[Willaim] James describes the absolutists as having a religious temperament, whether the object of his religion is some traditional text or deity, or a new one, such as The Market, or Democracy, or Science. This may also seem surprising, since religious lives can be full of doubts and worry and dark nights of the soul, and as we have already seen, in the modern world, it is the relativists as much as the absolutists who belong to cults. But James may be right to see absolutists as suffering from something very like a religious ambition . . . He [the absolutist] wants communion with higher authority, a provider of guarantees that, acting and thinking as he does, he is at the same time acting and thinking rightly. (xvii)

So the absolutist can end up just confirming his own biases. And the problems with modern skepticism is that both methodological skeptics and the people they oppose to flip and flop between relativism and absolutism depending on the context and the question.

Grasshopper: I have a question?

Master Pretense: Yes?

Grasshopper: Why do you spell “skeptic” with a k and Blackburn spell it with a “c”? And why does English have a “c” at all since its sounds are already covered by K and S.

Master Pretense: One the first question, Blackburn is English and they like C. On the second question, I’ll resort to historical reasoning for this: blame the French.

Grasshopper: Really? Are they why that “I” before “e” rule applies less than it does.

Master Pretense: Probably. I don’t really have any idea.

Grasshopper: So back to the Greeks then.

Master Pretense: Back to the Greeks. 

Grasshopper: So return to skepticism of the ancient variety.

Master Pretense: That’s awkward sentence structure.

Grasshopper: Irrelevant.

Master Pretense: Is it now? Many people say that language reflects thinking patterns?

Grasshopper: I am skeptical of that.

Master Pretense: You would be. Anyway, back to Pyrrho of Elias. We don’t know much about him as I already indicated. We have that one quote. We know that his major disciple, Timon, probably wrote about him, but we don’t have that. We have some fragments that are probably from Timon in Aristocles. Diogenes gives up highly anecdotal stories which are quite funny, but also quit improbable. Pyrrho seems to be superhumanly calm in Diogenes, but also so doubtful he almost gets himself killed on a regular basis.

Grasshopper: Nutty professor style.

Master Pretense: Greeks seemed to like these stories. Diogenes also has major Stoic and Cynic philosophers holding their breathes until they die even though we know that to be practically physically impossible.

Anyway, so Pyrrho’s skepticism seems to have died or been reintegrated into Stoicism or eaten by Academic skepticism or just not written about until Aenesidemus in the first century BCE. According to the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy , Aenesidemus may have been a member of the Academy of Plato, linking him to the other major ancient school of Greek Skepticism. Cicero, however, does not mention this, which is odd. (We’re get to the importance of that when we talk about the Academic Skeptics).

So Sextus Empiricus is where we get most of ideas about Pyrrho, but Aenesidemus is who really revived the school in Greece.

Grasshopper: So what did Aenesidemus believe or not believe, as the case may or may not be?

Master Pretense: Let’s take a look at the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy shall we:

Aenesidemus’ Pyrrhonian Discourses (Pyrrhoneia), like the rest of his works, have not survived, but they are summarized by a ninth century Byzantine patriarch, Photius, who is remarkable in his own right. In his Bibliothêkê (= Bib. ), he summarized 280 books, including the Pyrrhoneia, apparently from memory. It is clear from his summary that he thinks very little of Aenesidemus’ work. This is due to his view that Aenesidemus’ skepticism makes no contribution to Christian dogma and drives from our minds the instinctive tenets of faith (Bib. 170b39-40). Nevertheless, a comparison of his summaries with the original texts that have survived reveal that Photius is a generally reliable source (Wilson [1994]). So despite his assessment of Aenesidemus’ skepticism, the consensus is that he provides an accurate summary of the Pyrrhoneia. The proper interpretation of that summary, however, is disputed.

So we don’t really know what Aenesidemus thought. but we think he ten modes:

The kinds of conclusion that Aenesidemus countenanced as a Pyrrhonist can more clearly be seen by considering the kinds of arguments he advanced to reach them. He apparently produced a set of skeptical argument forms, or modes, for the purpose of refuting dogmatic claims regarding the natures of things. Sextus Empiricus discusses one such group, the Ten Modes, in some detail (PH 1.35-163, M 7.345, see also Diogenes Laertius’ account of the Ten Modes at 9.79-88, and the partial account in Philo of Alexandria, On Drunkenness 169-205, and see Annas and Barnes [1985] for detailed and critical discussion of all ten modes).

The first mode is designed to show that it is not reasonable to suppose that the way the world appears to us humans is more accurate than the incompatible ways it appears to other animals. This will force us to suspend judgment on the question of how these things are by nature, in and of themselves, insofar as we have no rational grounds on which to prefer our appearances and insofar as we are not willing to accept that something can have incompatible properties by nature. If, for example, manure appears repulsive to humans and delightful to dogs, weare unable to say that it really is, in its nature, either repulsive or delightful, or both repulsive and delightful. It is no more delightful than not-delightful, and no more repulsive than not-repulsive, (again, in its nature).

Just as the world appears in incompatible ways to members of different species, so too does it appear incompatibly to members of the same species. Thus, the second mode targets the endless disagreements among dogmatists. But once again, we will find no rational ground to prefer our own view of things, for if an interested party makes himself judge, we should be suspicious of the judgment he reaches, and not accept it.

The third mode continues the line of reasoning developed in the first two. Just as the world appears in incompatible ways to different people, it also appears incompatibly to the different senses of one and the same person. So, for example, painted objects seem to have spatial dimensions that are not revealed to our sense of touch. Similarly, perfume is pleasant to the nose but disgusting to the tongue. Thus, perfume is no more pleasant than not-pleasant.

The fourth mode shows that differences in the emotional or physical state of the perceiver affects his perception of the world. Being in love, calm and warm, one will experience the cold wind that comes in with his beloved quite differently than if he is angry and cold. We are unable to adjudicate between these incompatible experiences of the cold wind because we have no rational grounds on which to prefer our experience in one set of circumstances to our experience in another. One might say that we should give preference to the experiences of those who are healthy, sane and calm as that is our natural state. But in response, we may employ the second mode to challenge the notion of a single, healthy condition that is universally applicable.

The fifth mode shows that differences in location and position of an observed object relative to the observer will greatly affect the way the object appears. Here we find the oar that appears bent in water, the round tower that appears square from a distance, and the pigeon’s neck that changes color as the pigeon moves. These features are independent of the observer in a way that the first four modes are not. But similar to the first four, in each case we are left without any rational grounds on which to prefer some particular location or position over another. Why should we suppose, for example, that the pigeon’s neck is really green rather than blue? And if we should propose some proof, or theory, in support of it being really blue, we will have to face the skeptic’s demand for further justification of that theory, which will set off an infinite regress.

The sixth mode claims that nothing can be experienced in its simple purity but is always experienced as mixed together with other things, either internally in its composition or externally in the medium in which it is perceived. This being the case, we are unable to ever experience the nature of things, and thus are unable to ever say what that nature is.

The seventh mode appeals to the way different effects are produced by altering the quantity and proportions of things. For example, too much wine is debilitating but the right amount is fortifying. Similarly, a pile of sand appears smooth, but individual grains appear rough. Thus, we are led to conclude that wine is no more debilitating than fortifying and sand is no more smooth than rough, in their natures.

The eighth mode, from relativity, is a paradigm for the whole set of modes. It seeks to show, in general, that something appears to have the property F only relative to certain features of the perceiving subject or relative to certain features of the object. And, once again, insofar as we are unable to prefer one set of circumstances to another with respect to the nature of the object, we must suspend judgment about those natures.

The ninth modes points out that the frequency of encountering a thing affects the way that thing appears to us. If we see something that we believe to be rare it will appear more valuable. And when we encounter some beautiful thing for the first time it will seem more beautiful or striking than it appears after we become familiar with it. Thus, we must conclude, for example, that a diamond is no more valuable than worthless.

Finally, the tenth mode, which bears on ethics, appeals to differences in customs and law, and in general, to differences in the ways we evaluate the world. For some, homosexuality is acceptable and good, and to others it is unacceptable and bad. In and of itself, homosexuality is neither good nor bad, but only relative to some way of evaluating the world. And again, since we are unable to prefer one set of values to another, we are led to the conclusion that we must suspend judgment, this time with respect to the intrinsic value of things.

Grasshopper: You know you CAN paraphrase.

Master Pretense: Let me now: So it appears that Aenesidemus thought that Pyrrho was sort of relativist. We, however, can’t figure out if Anesidemus thought there was no truth (which would make his argument ontological) or that we just couldn’t know it (which would make his argument epistemic).

Grasshopper: I suppose you’re going to push this forward, or tell me someone else viewed Pyrrho differently.

Master Pretense: There is a koan from the Shaseki-shu:

Hogen, a Chinese Zen teacher, lived alone in a small temple in the country. One day four traveling monks appeared and asked if they might make a fire in his yard to warm themselves.

While they were building the fire, Hogen heard them arguing about subjectivity and objectivity. He joined them and said: “There is a big stone. Do you consider it to be inside or outside your mind?”

One of the monks replied: “From the Buddhist viewpoint everything is an objectification of mind, so I would say that the stone is inside my mind.”

“Your head must feel very heavy,” observed Hogen, “if you are carrying around a stone like that in your mind.”


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