19 January, 2006

On sceptical method

The pen is mightier than the sword you claim. Very well, get out your pens essay writers and prepare to have your logic tested by steel.
— Simon Munnery

A more serious post this morning, despite the epigraph.

The sceptic today is often armed with little more than a raised eyebrow and a "you don't believe everything you read, do you?" He approaches certain topics (alternative medicine, right-wing rhetoric) with extreme distrust, and others (the products of 'scholarly' or 'scientific' enquiry, left-wing rhetoric) with rather more naïveté. He refuses steadfastly to be sucked into the threatening and seductive vortex of 'nihilism', for fear of being thought intellectually irresponsible. Most of all, his sceptical eye (and indeed, eyebrow) is set firmly on the results of reasoning, rather than on its process.

I want to outline two milestones in the history of scepticism which had a great impact on my intellectual development. These two ideas clarify scepticism not as a series of beliefs (which, I think, many unconsciously feel it to be) but as an attitude—and not a political attitude, but an epistemological and an emotional one. The first describes a method of responding to problems, and the second captures the paradox underlying all radical scepticism. The first is the young man's decisive, derisive attack, that of Pyrrho and Abelard; the second is its ironic converse, the reflection of an old man, even a Hume already old at 37. And so taken together, these two ideas constitute the Gevurah and Chesed of the sceptic's being, the complement of rejection and acceptance, of hard dialectic and receptive humanity. It is this tension of thesis and antithesis which forms the core of a true sceptical outlook.

1. Equipollence.
Scepticism is an ability, or mental attitude, which opposes appearances to judgements in any way whatsoever, with the result that, owing to the equipollence of the objects and reasons thus opposed, we are brought firstly to a state of mental suspense and next to a state of "unperturbedness" or quietude.
Thus writes Sextus Empiricus, our single best source on ancient scepticism, in his Outlines of Pyrrhonism (ca. 200 AD). For the Pyrrhonian sceptic, philosophy is not a process of acquiring belief about the world. All judgement is to be suspended: he does not argue that knowledge is unattainable, merely that it unattained. The dialectical aporia which concludes many of Plato's early works is developed by the sceptic into a welcome assault upon equipoise. Thus, for every argument on a proposition, he responds with a counter-argument; all statements are to be refuted. This process demands a feverish rate of invention, and a permanent state of mental readiness. The continuous discovery of arguments for either side ideally maintains a perfect balance, referred to as an 'equipollence', an equal power of pro and contra. This in turn gives the philosopher an ataraxia, or peace of mind: a rather Zen-like state.

The value of equipollence to today's sceptical makebate is immense. Too many raised eyebrows are content to rest on their destructive laurels, content with the defeat of an implausible proposition. How many of us are prepared to challenge our own principles: to subject our firmest beliefs to the condition of supreme doubt? With the principle of equipollence we desert the common man, the unthinking. With this principle we refuse, we deny, and in doing so we prize the sabre of dialectic above the dogma of levied opinion. We come to speak always with certain uncertainty, always with two meanings, in an aphoristic style, proud and haughty. And in this we achieve a curative transcendence; in our youth we remain anxious, as we must remain still to be young, our mind evergreen.

2. The whimsical condition.
And though a PYRRHONIAN may throw himself or others into a momentary amazement and confusion by his profound reasonings; the first and most trivial event in life will put to flight all his doubts and scruples, and leave him the same, in every point of action and speculation, with the philosophers of every other sect, or with those who never concerned themselves in any philosophical researches. When he awakes from his dream, he will be the first to join in the laugh against himself, and to confess, that all his objections are mere amusement, and can have no other tendency than to show the whimsical condition of mankind, who must act and reason and believe; though they are not able, by their most diligent enquiry, to satisfy themselves concerning the foundation of these operations, or to remove the objections, which may be raised against them.
So (almost) concludes David Hume's 1748 Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding. These are melancholy words. Hume, one of history's great sceptics, admits that despite being unable to support many of our deepest beliefs by deductive reasoning, we are nonetheless compelled to hold them by our own Nature (the latter a concept which characterises the Enlightenment). As he puts it, 'Nature is always too strong for principle'. We witness here a fundamental and irrevocable schism between our reasoning and our actions; logic has given way, as it must, to human feeling. If equipollence, the condition of doubt, is the first and most powerful principle of scepticism, then the 'whimsical condition' is its wisest conclusion.

Every devout Pyrrhonian perceives the nihil at the end of his sabre, the eternal No, the perfect loneliness of cold truth. But this nihilism, which satisfies our head but not our heart, can triumph only intermittently as the flash of moonlight upon our blade: we catch sight of it, and it vanishes. Hume's words chill the marrow, but also they provide comfort, for in them we recognise a philosopher, a fellow sufferer even, who understands the value of our predicament. . . one which we can never solve, but which, at least, we have discovered.

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