Monday 16 May 2011

So You Think You're a Skeptic?

Pyrrho of Elis (360-262)
By Francis O'Regan

Back in January 2011 we had a very lively meeting when Steve Fuller came to talk to us and covered the topic "If You're Pro-Science, What are you Pro?" He is best known for his defence of the creationist stance and it was an interesting night and lead to lots of discussion. I thought our guest made some good points, but his opening move caused a whole lot of muttering under our breaths and whispered accusations that our guest was setting up straw men in an attempt to make it easier to defend his point of view.

His opening remarks did temporally confuse the audience, you see he made the heretical claim that we weren’t real Sceptics and if I was living in ancient Ionia he would have been right, but it got me thinking which is always the point of a Skeptics meeting. He said, and I paraphrase from my biased memory, that a Sceptic was Sceptical about everything and therefore could make no definite decisions about the nature of anything. A true Sceptic by definition can have no opinion on anything.

Ancient Sceptics a Potted and Incomplete History

The history of Ancient Scepticism is an interesting one and includes amongst other things a man scared of dogs, a one eyed dancer, a happy pig and some very worried theistic philosophers and, like everything of any worth in Western Civilisation, it was invented by
the Ancient Greeks.

Now a bit like us, some of them got together (sorry no women, you're locked in the house, your job is to knock out male sprogs and keep your mouth shut). They began to question the nature of everything from social customs to the purpose of religion, the organization of the state and the very make up of the universe and amongst these revolutionary thinkers were the first Sceptics.

The first official Sceptic in the history books was Pyrrho of Elis 360-262. He taught that we can never know the reality of something, only how it appears to us, and that each person will perceive the world in their own way. Pyrrho never wrote anything down but we know what he taught from his pupil, the one eyed dancer, called Timon, (“Cyclops” to his mates).

Bitter or Sweet?

The Sceptics were concerned about the problems of perception – how do you know what you perceive is actually true. If everybody’s perception of the same object is different, which is true, are any perceptions true? An ancient example asks why honey tastes sweet to the healthy but bitter to the sick? The ancient Sceptic would argue that we don’t know if it is sweet or bitter, are never certain of its nature and the wise person must therefore withhold judgement. We can never be sure if something is sweet or bitter, beautiful or ugly, moral or immoral or if it even exists. We can never be sure about the nature of anything so it is best to keep a calm demeanour and react as little as possible to what may or may not be happening to us.

Happy Pigs and Angry Dogs

Cyclops as you may expect was a true believer and said of Pyrrho, “Truly no other mortal can rival Pyrrho”. Pyrrho tried to live his philosophy and maintain a tranquil manner at all times, although not always with success. This is where the animals come in. Cyclops tells us a story that Pyrrho was on a ship during a very bad storm; the passengers were getting panicky, Pyrrho rebuked them and told them to learn from a pig that was on board. The pig was tranquilly eating its meal and totally ignoring the storm. On another occasion he was bitten by a dog and for a moment as you would expect he was scared and upset. He turned to his companions and apologised saying “it was difficult to stop oneself of being human”.

The aim of the ancient Sceptic was tranquillity of mind. This was not just clever intellectual debate but a way of life and his philosophy was taken up by many as the answer and the only honest way to face up to our existence. The Sceptic can know nothing about death, the soul, heaven or hell, he is open to all arguments but cannot choose and so must practice silence.

The Sandwich Problem

This all sounds very noble and philosophical but what happened when Pyrrho was hungry and fancied a cheese sandwich. Did he sit there and ask himself if he was hungry, then not make a decision and starve to death? Well obviously not. It seems there were exceptions. For practical purposes the Sceptic could use custom, state law, and tradition as a guide for day to day living but the Sceptic is always aware that his sandwich may not be a sandwich and may not be cheese. “Cop out”, I hear you cry.

The Modern Sceptic

The Sceptic in modern times is a much more opinionated and noisy figure. That most humane and human philosopher Montaigne (1533-92) was influenced by many of the classical thinkers but declared that the Sceptics like Pyrrho “were the wisest party of Philosophy” and it was from his study of Sceptical philosophy that he acquired the question that underlies the basis of his thoughts - What do I know?

Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) the Greek scholar and radical philosopher was  mightily unimpressed by the classical Sceptics way of thinking. In his classic work Beyond good and Evil he mocks these ancient Sceptics and paints a picture of them arguing over whether a door is open or closed or even there at all. As you would expect he rejects their philosophy with rigour. To philosophers such as Kant (1724-1804) and Descartes 1596-1650 Scepticism is a dangerous fundamental threat. If nothing is knowable, if no decision can be made, how can we know god or the soul or salvation?

So what is a modern Skeptic? I could pop over to Wikipedia and tell you, but I'll give you my definition. A Skeptic starts out like Pyrrho and hears all the arguments, evaluates evidence, is aware that our senses are unreliable, our memories, our vision can trick us but unlike Pyrrho we make a decision on the probability that the evidence we have seen is true. A true Skeptic must always be open to questioning every fundamental belief he or she has. Nothing is sacred and there are no special exceptions.

Skeptical thinking has the power to transform not just the individual but the entire world, it is the most powerful and dangerous of philosophies. A Skeptic must always ask that most dangerous of questions – why?

Carl Sagan 1934-1996 wrote “If Skeptical habits of thought are widely distributed and prized, then who is the Skepticism going to be mainly applied to? To those in power. Those in power, therefore, do not have a vested interest in everybody being able to ask searching questions"

It is our duty to ask those questions, I would say it’s a moral obligation to question, to examine, to probe. So what do you know? Is the honey sweet or bitter and if so Why? 


The Book of Dead Philosophers: By Simon Critchley
This is  a wonderful book full of fascinating stories and ideas, great for anybody looking for an easy way into the history of philosophy. The stories about the dog and pig come from here. This was the source for many of the modern philosophers' reaction to ancient Sceptics.

Beyond Good and  Evil By Friedrich Nietzsche

History of Philosophy: Greece and Rome Vol 1 By Fredrick Copleston
This goes into a lot more details about the ancient school of Scepticism. 

From the Beginning to Plato: Vol. 1 (Routledge History of Philosophy By CCW Taylor The honey as bitter or sweet comes from this source.

WONDER AND SKEPTICISM by Carl Sagan from Skeptical Enquirer Volume 19, 1995 Issue 1, January February
Carl Sagan's quote is from this issue of Skeptical Enquirer.
Francis O’Regan is a regular at Birmingham Skeptics in the Pub and likes to Philosophise with an Axe.

1 comment:

John Stabler said...

I wanted to comment on this yesterday, but had to go to the Cardiff Skeptics meetup and so wasn't near a PC.

The article is interesting, and any discussion of the historical aspects of skepticism are welcome. However, I feel the comparison of philosophical skepticism (what you call "classical" skepticism) with the modern meaning of skepticism is like comparing apples and oranges.

Philosophical skepticism is an interesting epistemological critique which is just as relevant now as it was back in the times of the Ancient Greeks. It may actually be even more relevant now when we consider its implications on inductive reasoning and therefore the scientific method. Modern skepticism accepts certain axioms which place its roots in empiricism and naturalism more so than philosophical skepticism. They are both skepticism of some "sort" but, in a way, are actually in conflict because a modern skeptic would argue that science or methodological naturalism can lead to knowledge, whereas a philosophical skeptic would doubt the very assumptions that those methods are founded upon. That's not to say that a modern skeptic does not ponder questions of epistemology, just that when defending our skeptical position we argue using science.

I hope I didn't ramble too much! Keep up the good work.