This week, I'm wrapping up my tour of the philosophies of Ancient Greece with a look at the type of unfortunate reaction that often arises against quests for knowledge. In this section of my Evolutionary Philosophy, I started my examination of the Survival of the Fittest Philosophers by looking at the Pre-Socratics, before continuing through the triumvirate of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, and then taking a tour of the schools of Epicureanism and Stoicism. Finally now, we turn to the school of thought that arose to cast doubt on all of these important foundations of philosophy--Skepticism.
And no man knows distinctly anything, And no man ever will.
Who knows but that this life is really death, and whether death is not what men call life?
The mountains, too, at a distance appear airy masses and smooth, but seen near at hand, they are rough. If appearances are deceitful, then they do not deserve any confidence when they assert what appears to them to be true.
These are quotes from the founder of skepticism, Pyrrho of Elis, who badly mistook the ideas of doubt, uncertainty, and probability, and used them to deny "any confidence" in what appears to be true. As described in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, philosophical skepticism:
"attempts to render doubtful every member of a class of propositions that we think (we can evaluate). The grounds for either withholding assent to the claim that we can have (a particular piece of) knowledge or denying that we can have (that particular piece of) knowledge are such that there is no possible way to either answer them...because the same doubt applies to each and every member of the (argument). Thus, philosophic doubt or philosophical skepticism, as opposed to ordinary incredulity, does not, in principle, come to an end. Or so the philosophic skeptic will claim!"
In plain language, the philosophical skeptic will claim that neither can we say, "this is an apple," nor "we cannot know if this is an apple" because we cannot know if we know anything or do not know anything. Clearly, this is a nonsense stance that gets us nowhere, and it has been suitably skewered through the ages by more clear-headed thinkers.
I do not think it possible to get anywhere if we start from skepticism. We must start from a broad acceptance of whatever seems to be knowledge and is not rejected for some specific reason. --Bertrand Russell
A doubt without an end is not even a doubt. --Ludwig Wittgenstein
This reminds me of a quote from E.O. Wilson's Consilience about postmodernists. Those schools may be 2,300 years apart, but to me the sentiment applies here since the Ancient Greeks invented modern philosophy and it therefore makes some sense to consider the skeptics the first postmodernists. Here is Wilson's quote:
"There have always been two kinds of original thinkers, those who upon viewing disorder try to create order, and those who upon encountering order try to protest it by creating disorder. The tension between the two is what drives learning forward. It lifts us upward through a zigzagging trajectory of progress. And in the Darwinian contest of ideas, order always wins, because - simply - that is the way the real world works. Nevertheless, here is a salute to the postmodernists. They say to the rest of us: Maybe, just maybe, you are wrong. Their ideas are like sparks from fireworks explosions that travel away in all directions, devoid of any following energy, soon to wink out in the dimensionless dark. Yet a few will endure long enough to cast light on unexpected subjects. That is one reason to think well of postmodernism, even as it menaces rational thought. Another is the relief it affords those who have chosen not to encumber themselves with a scientific education. Another is the small industry it has created within philosophy and literary studies. Still another, the one that counts the most, is the unyielding critique of traditional scholarship it provides. We will always need postmodernists or their rebellious equivalents. For what better way to strengthen organized knowledge than continually to defend it from hostile forces?"
Indeed. Let's strengthen our knowledge by quickly examining this ancient school of philosophy in light of what we know today.
Skepticism (3rd Century BCE) originated in ancient Greek philosophy with Pyrrho of Elis who traveled and studied as far as India and propounded the adoption of practical skepticism. The idea of this school of philosophy was to produce in the student a state of aversion to arbitrary arguments filled with inconsequential babble. Its search for happiness also continued the practicality of Stoicism and Epicureanism.
Needs to Adapt
Stoicism and Epicureanism made the search for pure truth subordinate to the attainment of practical virtue and happiness. Skepticism denied that pure truth was even possible to discover. It disputed the possibility of attaining truth by sensory apprehension, reason, or the two combined. In a large and changing universe, pure truths may indeed be impossible to know, however practical virtues and happiness will come from the search for them. Sense and reason are adequate for this search because the universe is natural and rational. We are a product of this universe so we can surely know it.
Skeptics inferred the necessity of total suspension of judgment on things and were proponents that we can attain release from all bondage to theories and achieve an imperturbable state of mind, which is the foundation of true happiness. True happiness comes from living, which requires a lot of theories and the best use of current knowledge for good judgment. A total suspension of judgment and an imperturbable state of mind leads to ignorance and eventual extinction in the long run. It also leaves us bored and stressed in the short term.
Nothing really survives, although today skepticism has evolved past this starting point to embrace caution and reason. From the most prominent carrier of this banner, Skeptic magazine, comes this re-definition:
"Skepticism has a long historical tradition dating back to ancient Greece, when Socrates observed: 'All I know is that I know nothing.' But this pure position is sterile and unproductive and held by virtually no one. If you were skeptical about everything, you would have to be skeptical of your own skepticism. Skepticism is a provisional approach to claims. It is the application of reason to any and all ideas. In other words, skepticism is a method, not a position. When we say we are 'skeptical,' we mean that we must see compelling evidence before we believe."
The problem with this rebranding of skepticism is that it is now merely restating tenets that are already enshrined in the scientific method. The issue may have become confused because of the slow drift of definitions of the word skeptic to now mean in ordinary language someone who demands proof, but that's no reason to adopt such a confusing term as the masthead of a movement. And the head of the magazine, science writer Michael Shermer, appears to ignore this fact so he can carve out a brand for himself that sounds more specific than being a mere science writer would entail. In the end, however, this just ends up being a clue to a general disrespect for the field of philosophy. While I loudly applaud Shermer's and Skeptic's scientific rigour in debunking pseudoscience over the years, Shermer has recently strayed into the science vs. philosophy debate with an unfortunate take on a science of morality where he makes the following statements:
"First, morality is derived from the Latin moralitas, or “manner, character, and proper behavior.” Morality has to do with how you act toward others. So I begin with a Principle of Moral Good: Always act with someone else’s moral good in mind, and never act in a way that it leads to someone else’s moral loss (through force or fraud). Given this moral principle, the central question is this: On what foundation should we ground our moral decisions? How do we know that rape and adultery are wrong? We don’t need to ask God. We need to ask the affected moral agent—the rape victim in question, or our spouse or romantic partner who is being cuckolded. They will let you know instantly and forcefully precisely how they feel morally about that behavior. Here we see that the Golden Rule (“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”) has a severe limitation to it: What if the moral receiver thinks differently from the moral doer? What if you would not mind having action X done unto you, but someone else would mind it? Most men, for example, are much more receptive toward unsolicited offers of sex than are women. Most men, then, in considering whether to approach a woman with an offer of unsolicited sex, should not ask themselves how they would feel as a test. This is why in my book The Science of Good and Evil I introduced the Ask-First Principle: To find out whether an action is right or wrong, ask first."
This is very weak. Morals are rules that tell us how we ought to act. Period. They are not only concerned with actions towards another person. Is it moral to kick a puppy, overfish an ocean, or dump waste in a forest? Could you ask any of these life forms for their consent? What about an infant? Or an insane person? Or a terrorist? Shermer's principles do not hold up to any scrutiny. Perhaps he should stick to the business of just being a nay-saying skeptic after all, and we should remain skeptical of anyone who would adopt that term to describe their thinking. Knowing the history of the word now, we surely should.