What is Skepticism? Skeptics and Philosophy

Are You Skeptical?

Are you a skeptic? When we call someone a skeptic today, it may mean they doubt things or are reticent to believe in anything without first conducting research of their own. Basically, they have reservations and require further proof before being convinced.

However, to ancient Greeks, skepticism was a school of philosophy known for doubting everything, including, in some cases, even logic, observations, or empirical deductions. While a modern skeptic refuses to believe until they see the evidence, an ancient skeptic refused to believe, period.

The ancient skeptics believed that real knowledge about this world is impossible. The world is too complex to understand, and our minds are too feeble to comprehend.

The philosophy of skepticism can be divided into two schools, the Academic school and the Pyrrhonian school. To summarize the difference, the Academics believed nothing could be known while the Pyrrhonians then argued, isn’t that knowledge?

True or False?

At its core, skepticism is a school of thought that all beliefs can, and probably will, be proved false.

Not only are all beliefs false, they are merely comforts that we hold on to so as to fulfill a human need for reassurance in the form of understanding. Anyone who claims sure knowledge is invariably wrong.

Skeptics believed that to avoid the frustration of being proved wrong, because that’s inevitable, it is best to believe in nothing and to suspend the desire to believe in anything that comes.

This school is obviously very critical of other schools of philosophy, and it has taken a fair share of criticism as well through the centuries. However, it’s important to note that Skeptics do not deny the existence of truth; they say only that we do not have the means to identify or comprehend it.

The Wisest Man Knows Nothing

The ancient Greek word for skeptic is skeptikos, which translates literally to ‘inquirer’ or ‘asking questions.’ This unquenchable inquiry is at the heart of skepticism, both ancient and modern.

This philosophy seeks to know and understand while also proposing that there is no system to verify that knowledge.

Since knowledge cannot be verified, it cannot truly be known; therefore, one should be skeptical or removed from the temptation to state belief with any certainty.

According to Pyrrho of Elis, credited as the founder of Pyrrhonism, the wise man is the one who suspends judgment and takes no certainty in any knowledge.

An Introduction to Academic Skepticism

After Plato’s reign as the founder and teacher of The Academy, Arcesilaus became the leader of The Academy and turned it skeptical.

This change came after Arcesilaus became refocused on the teachings of Socrates and his commitment to investigation and methods of determining knowledge and weeding out falsities, which he established as the basis for academic skepticism.

Along with other philosophers of the time, Arcesilaus attempted to make philosophy practical by living out his beliefs, or, as he came to conclude, his lack of belief. Arcesilaus’ philosophy involved three major components: a dialectical method, an attempt to find a way to verify the truth, and the defense of a skeptic’s actions without belief.

When Logic and Reason Fail

Arcesilaus was the founder of academic skepticism and created the dialectical method. Based heavily on the argumentative forms given by Socrates, this method involved a series of inquiries with an imaginary interlocutor who attempts to prove and disprove various propositions.

Arcesilaus was also concerned with identifying a system of criteria or ways to verify what is true. Since our senses and emotions are at fault, often leading us to perceive only a sliver of information that can cloud our judgment, we must rely on logic and reasoning alone for knowledge.

This option is not practical either, according to Arcesilaus. He saw logic and reasoning as easily disproved over the course of a dialogue and, therefore, he also found knowledge obtained from logic or reasoning to be false. Belief itself, he proposed, was wrong.

Critiques of the Skeptics

A criticism that arises against the skeptics through the centuries is that, without belief, how does one know how to act in this world? Without making judgments of right or wrong or believing in reason and rationality to guide one’s actions, how does one even decide to act?

Arcesilaus addressed the criticism after receiving it from his own contemporaries such as Zeno of Citium and Epicurus, both of whom asked how one can live if one doubts everything and believes in nothing. To answer, Arcesilaus proposed that all action begins with assent, and most assent comes in the form of belief that informs actions.

However, Arcesilaus proposed that assent could come in the form of perception, a perception that does not lead to belief. For example, a skeptic chooses to enter and exit through a door, not because he believes he is one with it or because he is predetermined to do so, but because he can perceive there is a door.

A Defense of Skepticism

Carneades was a student of Arcesilaus who continued to expand on the fundamental question of how to act without the presence of belief. His argument revolved around the irrational. People in states of madness, Carneades said, act just as easily as people without madness.

What this reveals, Carneades added, is that it is not rational thought or belief that necessarily initiates action. If those are not necessary for action, then one can train oneself to act for action’s sake alone.

This assent to perceptions that lead the skeptic to enter and exit through the door or to choose selflessness instead of selfishness does not indicate a belief system or a claim of knowledge. Instead, Carneades believed the stoic could approve of values or the consequences of actions without accepting a belief.

Move Over, Academic Skeptics; Hello, Pyrrhonism

While academic skepticism flourished in the legacy of Plato and Socrates and their unquenchable thirst for true knowledge, Pyrrhonian skepticism aims at tranquility.

According to Pyrrhonian skeptics, one hopes to achieve tranquility and a peaceful state of mind from the acceptance that no knowledge can be obtained.

This tranquility is not a part of the academic skeptics’ values. While the academics focused on determining criteria for verifying the truth and believed that if something could undoubtedly be proved true, that would provide happiness, the Pyrrhonian skeptics saw reality in a dourer light. Since true knowledge was impossible, tranquility comes in the acceptance of that fact.

The Pyrrhonian Problem

Pyrrho of Elis was a Greek philosopher credited with founding the Pyrrhonian school of skepticism. With the exception of a stray poem or two, Pyrrho wrote nothing, but works and ideas have been preserved by his student, Timon. 

According to Timon, Pyrrho was concerned with three major questions to help find happiness: What is the nature of things? What attitude do we have toward things? What is the outcome of this attitude? 

Pyrrho’s legacy endures in his answer to the first question. He believed that things were ultimately undifferentiated and unstable and, therefore, our sensations and observations cannot tell us what is true or false. The undifferentiated state of reality is a metaphysical claim that rebukes any notion of understanding the nature of the world or cosmos.

Pyrrhonian Perceptions

Because of the undifferentiated state of reality, Pyrrho proposed that our perceptions and observations cannot be proved true or false. He even went so far as to say that there is no truth to verify within these observations because our perceptions and observations do not capture any facts, only impressions.

The true nature of the impression is unknowable and, therefore, our senses are unverifiable and cannot be used to justify belief.

Pyrrho was known as an odd character, so indifferent to his own senses that he often had to be pulled out of a cart’s path by his friends because he was unable to determine whether the cart coming toward him was true or not.

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